Step One: Get Your Greens, An Easy Change towards a Healthy, Plant-Based Life

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My first, 5-minute “Get Healthy” Simple Step:

Get Your Greens

Green vegetables are a no-brainer when it comes to healthy eating.  They are low in calories but high in nutrition.  They are packed with cancer-fighting antioxidants, satisfying fiber, healthy Omega-3 fats, calcium, and even plant-based protein.  They also offer a wider variety of flavor, texture, and tons of cooking options.  Eat them raw in a salad, wilt some spinach in your soup, steam some broccoli for your stir-fry, drink a green smoothie as an on-the-go breakfast.  Stew some collards, saute some spinach, braise some chard…you get the idea.   Bottom line: Keep it simple.

Here’s my Ultimate Chef’s guide to Greens – how they taste, what to do with them, and why you need more.

The Taste

Greens run the gamut of flavor and texture.  Chefs often need to distinguish between the tender sweetness of “leafy” greens vs. the crunchy bite of “stalky” cruciferous greens.  In the raw lettuce world, you have salad greens like Romaine, Red Leaf, Boston Bibb, baby Spinach, and Arugula.  In the cooked world, you’ll taste the stalky greens like Broccoli and Brussels Sprouts.  Watercress, turnip greens, and mustard greens all pack a peppery, spicy bite.  While cabbage, collards, and chard get meltingly sweet after hours of stewing.

Almost as important as the type of green you like is how you choose to cook it.  Raw lettuce is the easiest way to enjoy greens, while roasting requires a little more TLC.  Below, I’ve laid out a guide to help you choose the best cooking technique for your preferred greens, cooking skill level, and food-adventurous experience.  Not all of us are ready to dive into a bowl of raw kale.  That’s why bags of pre-washed baby spinach exist.

How to Cook the Ultimate Greens:

There are no hard-and-fast rules on cooking greens.  Some people love a raw kale salad while others can only tolerate steamed sweet baby spinach.  My experience as a chef has taught me a few key lessons on basic cooking techniques for greens:

Roasting

Skill Level: Intermediate – Advanced                       Taste Level: Nervous Seedling

I have long-embraced this minimalist approach, often eating the same things for months.

It grew out of my work as a chef.

As I cook, I taste everything I make at least once. A typical day in the kitchen might mean tasting 50 different foods. At the end of that, my mind and taste buds need a rest.

I have a steady rotation of about five dishes – a hearty soup, a salad, an Asian stir-fry, something Mexican, and a potato bowl. I can eat the same Instapot Hearty Winter Vegetable Bean Soup and 7 Minute Southwestern Stuffed Sweet Potato for months. Going grocery shopping is quick and easy – I might get three or four fun new things to try, like a salsa, golden kiwis, fingerling potatoes, or a loaf of sprouted bread – but the bulk of my shopping is the routine list I get each week.

Use on: Brussels Sprouts, Broccoli, and other “stalky” cruciferous greens.  The roasting brings out natural sweetness and maintains crunchy texture.  Perfect for kids, picky eaters, and those newer to a plant-based diet

How to do it: Trim veggies and cut into bite-sized pieces.  Place in a roasting dish, add enough water just to cover the bottom of the dish, and roast at 425.  Roast for 20-25 minutes, stirring every 7-8 minutes to ensure even browning.  Season with salt and pepper and serve.

Chef’s Tips for Ultimate Flavor: Rather than just salt and pepper, season with chili powder for some smoky heat, nutritional yeast for cheesy flavor, or toasted sesame seeds for a nutty crunch

Steaming

Skill Level: Beginner – Intermediate                          Taste Level: Curious Seedling – Confident Brussel Sprout

Use on: Brussels Sprouts, Broccoli, Kale, Spinach, Cabbage

How to do it: Trim veggies and cut into bite-sized pieces. Place a steamer basket in a large pot and add about 1-2 inches of water to the bottom of the pot.  You don’t want the water to come to the level of the steamer basket.  Place the greens in the steamer basket.  Cover the pot and heat on High, until the water is at a rolling boil.  Cook until the vegetables are tender, but still have a little crunch.  Remove from the pot, season with salt and pepper, and serve immediately.

Chef’s Tips for Ultimate Flavor:  As with roasting, season with chili powder for some smoky heat, nutritional yeast for cheesy flavor, or toasted sesame seeds for a nutty crunch.  You can also squeeze on fresh lemon for a bright citrus flavor.  Steaming isn’t my preferred cooking technique for bringing out big, bold flavors.  However, when steamed greens are then immediately “shocked” in an ice-water bath, their bright green color and crisp texture gets locked in.  This makes this my preferred technique for greens used in cold salads or weekend prep for future stir-fry and pasta dishes.

Use in stri-fry, pasta, or Buddha bowls

Steam-Sauté

Also Called: Oil-Free Sauté or Fat-Free Sauté

Skill Level: Beginner – Intermediate                          Taste Level: Curious Seedling – Confident Brussel Sprout

Use on: Leafy greens, like Spinach, Arugula, Kale, Swiss Chard, and Collards

How to do it: Thoroughly wash greens and remove any tough, fibrous stems.  You’ll want to completely strip and ditch tough kale stems, which baby spinach takes no work as the stems are tender enough to eat.  Add 2-4 tablespoons of water to a large, wide pan.  You’ll want enough to cover the bottom of the pan.  Heat the pan over high, until the water starts simmering.  Add the washed greens and use tongs to continuously move the greens around.  Sauté literally means “to jump” so you’ll want to keep your greens constantly “jumping” around the pan.  Cook just 2-3 minutes, until the greens are wilted.  Use the tongs to remove the greens from the pan, leaving any excess liquid in the pan.  Season with salt and pepper and serve

Chef’s Tips for Ultimate Flavor:  You can infuse the sauté water with many flavors.  Try adding a couple of cloves of garlic, a teaspoon of grated ginger, a dash of red chili flake, or a spoonful of miso paste.  Simmer for about 1-2 minutes, until the liquid is aromatic, before adding the greens to the pan.  If your pan gets dry, simply add a little more water and pick up where you left off.

Stewing or Braising

Skill Level: Intermediate – Advanced                        Taste Level: Adventurous Kale Aficionado

Use on: Hearty leafy greens like Cabbage, Chard, and Collards

How to do it: Remove any inedible parts of the greens (like the core of cabbage).  Separate the tender leaves from the tougher, fibrous stalk.  You can simply strip the leaves off chard and collards.  Roughly chop the stalk and leaves into bite-sized pieces.  Heat a wide pan over medium heat and add the chopped pieces of stalk.  Saute (stirring constantly), 3-5 minutes, until slightly browned and soft.  Add about ½ cup of water, the chopped leaves, and turn the heat up to high.  Bring to a boil, partially cover the pan, and reduce to a simmer.  Simmer at least until the leaves are tender (at least 5 minutes), but for up to 30 minutes.  If you’ve got big chunks of cabbage, you can braise for an hour or more.  Stewed collards can go for hours, low and slow, on the back burner.  Season with salt and pepper to serve.

To make the Ultimate: Just as with a steam-sauté, you can infuse the braising liquid with all sorts of flavor.  I love adding a smoked chipotle pepper to stewed collards for a smoky-spicy heat, similar to the ham hock that is traditionally used.  Again, whole garlic cloves add deep flavor, as do bay leaves, diced carrot and chopped onion.  In technical cooking terms, braising involves both the browning and the stewing.  Stewing is the “throw it all in the pot” version, skipping the browning.  Stewing is great for Slow Cookers.

Chef’s Tip: Cabbage cooks for hours in a Slow Cooker, until it gets meltingly tender, bringing out its natural sweetness in my Slow Cooker Cabbage Bean Soup

Thinly Chop, Raw

Also Called: Chiffonade, Shredded, or Sliced

Skill Level: Beginner                                        Taste Level: Adventurous Kale Aficionado

Use on: Salad Lettuces (Spinach, Arugula, Romaine, Green Leaf, Boston Bibb) as well as Brussels Sprouts, Broccoli, and Kale

How to do it: Trim vegetables, removing any inedible pieces like the woody end of broccoli stalks and the bottom tips of Brussels Sprouts.  You can either use a sharp knife to thinly chop leafy greens (like kale and Romaine), or you can use the slicer on a Food Processor to thinly shave Brussels and Broccoli.  Mash with avocado, top with your favorite veggies, splash on some Balsamic vinegar, and you’re ready to go.

To make the Ultimate: A little bit of acid helps break down the tough cells of dark greens for a more tender texture.  A little bit of fattiness (like from avocado or tahini) can help balance the bitter flavor of raw greens.   For a simple raw kale salad, simply add a splash of lemon juice and some diced avocado.  Massage thoroughly with the greens and let sit for a few minutes before enjoying.

Walnuts and Apples work double-duty in the salad and dressing for this healthy, plant-based, oil-free, vegan Kale Waldorf recipe

 

Low-Calorie, High-Nutrient Density, Loaded with Antioxidants, Calcium, Fiber, and Protein

Some truths about greens:

Low-Calorie Truth:

An entire bag of spinach is usually only about 45 calories.  It would take 2 bags of spinach to equal the 90 calories in just one egg.  The spinach has fiber, protein, healthy Omega-3 fats, water, and antioxidants, all with minimal calories.  This is a good reason to start the day with a spinach smoothie rather than an egg sandwich.

Nutrient-Density and Antioxidant Truths:

Green vegetables are a great source of micronutrients.  The contain folate for healthy skin, carotenoids (lutein and zeaxanthin) for healthy vision, calcium for healthy bones, and Omega-3 healthy fats.  They have repeatedly been linked to stopping the mutation and growth of cancer cells.

Protein Truth:

I love when someone from a blog like “Breaking Muscle” touts the benefits of broccoli.  Older assumptions suggested that the key to muscle-building was pounds of raw meat and a dozen eggs for breakfast, but, in truth, modern nutrition science has found incredible power in these greens.  If you got all 1600 of your daily calories from Romaine lettuce, you’d get about 113g of protein for the day.  That’s almost 3 times the recommended amount (40g/day) for women and more than double (50g/day) for men.

Fiber Truth:

1 cup of cooked broccoli has about 20% of your daily fiber needs (6 g) while 1 cup of Brussels has about 16% (4g).  Fiber helps keep you satisfied and lets your body naturally detox itself, making every tummy a little happier.

Calcium Truth:

Dark Greens are loaded with calcium that your body is ready to absorb.  The one exception to this is spinach, which likes to hold on to its calcium, making it harder for your body to absorb.

1 cup of cooked collards has about 250 mg of Calcium.  1 cup of raw Arugula has about 125g.  The World Health Organization recommends 500 mg/day, and the UK recommends 700 mg/day.  US recommendations are often higher (somewhere in the 700 – 1200 mg/day), but this is based on a very short, outdated study of post-menopausal women.

Bottom line: If you eat a big green salad at lunch (with 2 cups of arugula) and cook a cup of chard into stew at dinner, you’re good to go.  Bonus points for steamed broccoli on the salad, a green smoothie for breakfast, or a side of roasted Brussels Sprouts at dinner.

Get Your Greens Recipes:

Hungry Yet?

Here are some healthy, plant-based recipes to inspire you to Get Your Greens:

Kale, Spinach, Collards, Chard, and More: 14 Delicious Oil-Free Vegan Greens Recipes

References and More Reading:

Jeff Tarady in Breaking Muscle Magazine: 7 Simple Ways To Get More Greens In Your Diet: https://breakingmuscle.com/fuel/7-simple-ways-to-get-more-greens-in-your-diet

Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine: Calcium and Strong Bones: http://www.pcrm.org/health/health-topics/calcium-and-strong-bones

Harvard Healthy Publications: How Much Calcium Do You Really Need?  http://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/how-much-calcium-do-you-really-nee

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