Greens, But Make Them Tasty
You know leafy vegetables are good for you. Turn them into something you want to eat with these chef-y tips.
If being told to eat your greens takes you back to temper tantrums at your childhood dining table…fair enough. But there’s a reason your parents — and their parents, and their parents’ parents — have been pushing them for years.
A verdant mountain of research shows that greens can boost your cardiovascular, immune and bone health, says Gary Soffer, MD, an integrative-medicine specialist at Yale Medicine. These leafy vegetables are also stacked with antioxidants, which may offer a ton of wellness benefits, according to Jonathan Hennessee, DO, a family-medicine physician at the Greater Baltimore Medical Center.
But health isn’t just about disease prevention, because, let’s be real: When you’re feeling well, that’s probably the last thing on your mind. What you might be more interested in learning is that the watery spinach you secretly fed to your dog growing up (it’s fine, admit it) could help unlock some of your biggest training goals.
Whether or not you eat leafy greens may make a difference in your muscle strength — regardless of how much protein you eat.
The Journal of Nutrition
The New Science on Salad
If we say “muscle food,” you probably think “protein,” right? Smart answer. But get this: Whether or not you eat leafy greens may make a difference in your muscle strength — regardless of how much protein you eat, according to a recent study in The Journal of Nutrition.
How, exactly? Leafy greens like kale, arugula, spinach, cabbage, Swiss chard, lettuce and beet greens contain compounds called nitrates. Your body converts those into nitric oxide, which helps improve the way your blood vessels work, says Ryan Andrews, a registered dietitian and the principal nutritionist and adviser at Precision Nutrition. More specifically, it may improve circulation, allow for better delivery of nutrients and oxygen, and enhance the removal of waste products. Because of this souped-up vascular function, eating your greens could enhance your strength and recovery even if you’re not a top athlete, says study author Marc Sim, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at the Edith Cowan University School of Medical and Health Sciences.
Regularly chowing down on these veggies might win you a healthier gut too. Your gastrointestinal system (aka your gut) is made up of millions of bacterial microbes, both good and bad. These can influence your weight, blood sugar, brain health and more, says Shiv Desai, MD, a gastroenterologist at Austin Gastroenterology. Green leafies contain a sugar called sulfoquinovose that can promote the growth of good microbes, helping put the bacterial odds in your favor, found a study published in The ISME Journal.
Of course, all those benefits don’t mean squat if you’re not getting anywhere near your five-veggies-a-day — generally the recommended amount — which is the case for most people, says Andrews. (Though Sim notes that if one of your daily servings of vegetables is in the form of something green and leafy, you could at least unlock the nitrate perk.) FYI, one serving is about two cups raw (one cup cooked). For extra credit, go over five servings, but maybe cap it around 10 or so on back-to-back days to spare your body from having to break down all that roughage, says Andrews.
Green Your Routine
Got all that? Now use these tasty tips to make greens your new go-to.
1. Up your prep game.
Submerge your greens in a large bowl of water and gently swish them around with your hands to remove dirt, says Andrews. (Yep, even the prewashed kind, as greens can easily get contaminated during processing, he says.) Then grab a salad spinner, a worthy investment if you want to be a regular greenie, to get rid of all that extra water, says Andrews. Spin, then stash your greens in the fridge (in the spinner if it fits, or a container if it doesn’t) so they’re ready to go when it’s time to cook or eat raw.
2. Think small.
The bitter taste of some varieties of greens can be a no-go factor for a lot of people, says Andrews. One way to get around that is by choosing tinier and more delicate microgreens, which are picked when they’re young and thus more subtle in taste, he explains. They’re best used raw in salads or wraps, or thrown on top of cooked dishes. (If you’ve been wondering how to make pizza healthier, you’re welcome.)
If texture is an issue for you, chop up your greens really finely, suggests Andrews. Add them to your favorite soup, stew, curry or chili. As you develop a “tolerance,” you can work your way up to bigger chunks. Or not. Do you.
Still not a fan? Grab your blender. Smoothies make greens practically undetectable. Try different types (collards, chard, kale, spinach) and forms (fresh, frozen, powdered) in your favorite concoction until you find one you hardly notice.
3. Work your massage skills.
You’ve probably heard it’s a good idea to massage first if you’re going to get your kale salad on. This helps soften tough leaves so they’re easier to eat (called maceration), explains James Devonshire, chef and head tutor at the Cookery School at Daylesford, an organic farm in Gloucestershire, England. “If you mix some salt, acidity — like lemon juice — and oil and leave it on the kale, the maceration process will happen naturally,” he adds. “But massaging really speeds it up.” This process works for any rough green you want to eat raw. Just add salt, acid and oil, then work the leaves with your hands for a minute or so.
4. Get your blanch on.
Blanching is basically quickie boiling, and it’s key to removing bitterness and making room for the flavors you actually want, says Andrews.
To do it, throw your clean greens into a pot of boiling water, but let them cook for only a minute or two. By removing them quickly — and draining them ASAP — you avoid losing most of the nutrients that can leach into the hot water, says Andrews, as well as the blah taste you might associate with boiled vegetables.
5. Braise ’em right.
Blanching or not, braising is your move for developing a richer bite. Grab a wide, shallow pan, add your greens and a liquid (think broth, coconut milk or low-sodium soy sauce) and some seasonings, and cover with a lid. As for how much liquid, you’ll want more for rougher greens like mustard or collard, and less for thinner greens with a higher water content, like spinach. You’ll be cooking them low and slow for about 15 to 30 minutes, so start with a little liquid and add as needed, recommends Andrews.
6. Build a flavor profile.
Now that you’ve been to prep school, you just need a little assist with the seasoning part. For both cooked and raw greens, Devonshire likes this formula: sweet + sour + salty + umami (a supersavory, almost meaty flavor). For sweet, you might go for a balsamic glaze. For sour, you could use lemon juice. Salty is, well, salt, but you could also try anchovies or a bit of bacon, says Devonshire. And parmesan is an umami king for greens, he says.
If you’re not game for making up your own recipe, try this: “Toast some fresh chili pepper, garlic and anchovies in a pan,” says Devonshire. (You probably won’t need to add extra oil to do this, since the anchovies have their own.) From there, you can mix the punchy combo with raw, massaged leaves, or add your greens to the pan to wilt. Either way, you’re basically a pro now — chef’s kiss.
Words: Julia Malacoff
Illustration: Gracia Lam