I stood a little way back from the cooking greens section in my grocery store last Saturday and watched what people chose and what they ignored. Spinach was the No. 1 choice, even though it was especially sandy from the rains. Cabbage and chard were not unpopular either. And a few Italophiles went for pricey broccoli rabe.
But what was most interesting to me were the wallflowers, the greens no one chose: bouncy piles of vibrant mustard greens, prickly-looking bunches of Redbor kale and some big ragged leaves that I thought were turnip greens but discovered, when I took a bite, to be overgrown arugula.
There were beautiful, round-leafed bunches of gray-green collards. Unlike the chard, whose leaves were a bit tattered and tired-looking, these were perfect. But not a single shopper even paused in front of them, let alone chose them for their basket.
As far as I could tell, the best of the lot were being overlooked. These, apparently, are the scary greens, the ones shoppers think are going to be too strong, too aggressive and, most likely, bitter.
But I know otherwise. Kale is mild. Collards are mild. And although they start out hot and feisty, by the time you’ve cooked mustard greens until they’re tender, they’re pretty tame as well. Overgrown arugula, even with all its heat and spice, has a perfect role to play in a pasta that won’t obscure its nutty flavor.
Personally, I hunger for these big, bold greens, especially this time of year, when winter’s cold weather seems to sweeten them. Add a few wild dandelions or maybe some nettles, and I feel great. I also feel a bit like a rabbit nibbling in a spring field of weeds, but having observed such behavior in rabbits, I have concluded that it’s what keeps them healthy and hopping. I hope it will do the same for me.
One thing you should know about these greens is that you can mix them. I assure you they will be sweet-tempered by the time they’re cooked, but if you’re nervous, cut your mustard greens with a bunch of chard or spinach. They can also be used interchangeably: If the mustards don’t look particularly good one day, substitute the arugula or the dandelions or kale. Some farmers sell bags of mixed mustard, kale and collard greens for quickly sauteing (they’ve got to be small and tender to be cooked this way). But mature leaves of various greens can also be used together in a soup or saute, they just need to be cooked longer. Another thing to know is that all greens, from the sweetest to the most aggressive, are great with potatoes, beans, rice and other farinaceous foods, such as pasta. They enjoy a symbiotic relationship. The bland starchy foods provide a moderating influence on the greens, and the greens return the favor by perking up what might be dull.
So I filled my basket with mustard, arugula, collards and kale and stood in line. The check-out person raised her eyebrows. She didn’t ask what I was going to do with all these greens, but she did have to ask the name of each one.