Spring greens are something of a delicious oddity. Actually a type of cabbage – the first of the year to come through– they don’t have a firm central heart, just a bundle of loose dark verdant leaves with beautiful lime green veins and stalks, connected at the base. The soft silky texture of the leaves delivers flavour rather than cabbage crunch. And as their name suggests, spring greens are at their best right now.
As well as being just tasty and versatile, this star member of the brassica family has prodigious health benefits too, so the more you eat, the better. Replete with vitamin C, to support the immune system, and vitamin K, to build bone strength, spring greens also contain plant compounds believed to have anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory properties. Fibre and other vitamins and minerals complete the nutritional tick-box.
When shopping for spring greens, opt for whole heads for maximum freshness and health benefits. Nutrients are lost as soon as the leaves are cut, so avoid the ready-sliced stuff in packets where possible; whole heads are considerably cheaper, too. Go for ones with firm vibrant green leaves, avoiding those that are yellowy and wilted. If you find yourself with a surplus – or want spring greens to enjoy out of season – slice and blanch briefly in hot salted water, then drain well and freeze in an airtight container or zip-lock bag.
Where to start with ways to cook them? The simplest method – and also a super-easy strategy to boost your veg intake – is to very finely shred and add to whatever else you have in the cooking pot. Spring greens work beautifully tossed into stews, sautéed along with other greens (like broccoli and kale), or stirred into fried rice, stewed lentils, all manner of soups and mashed potato. Or simply steam and finish with a shower of grated Parmesan – or a sprinkling of nutritional yeast for a vegan option. Avoid overcooking: the leaves can begin to smell unpleasantly ‘cabbage-y’ and sulphurous if you do.
Alternatively, shred and expose to a hot frying pan or wok with splash of oil (try sesame oil if you have some, if you’re going for a south-east Asian vibe) and perhaps some garlic, sliced chilli and ginger. Add meat, chicken, prawns or other vegetables to make it a full meal. Or, simply sweat down sliced spring greens in lots of butter and a spritz of lemon juice, for an excellent accompaniment to fish or chicken. Either way, move around over a medium high heat for five minutes or so, or until tender.
Spring greens and speck or bacon are most excellent bedfellows, as the salty savoury flavours get on famously with the slightly bitter notes of the leaves. Fry off chopped speck or bacon until crisp and golden, then remove from the pan with a slotted spoon to kitchen paper. Add shredded spring greens and fry in the hot fat until wilted. This makes an excellent side dish.
For something slightly more elaborate, turn spring greens into a crisp and golden spanakopita-style filo pastry pie. Steam the greens until tender, squeeze out excess liquid and combine with ricotta, Parmesan cheese, eggs, lemon zest and garlic and wrap in filo pastry. Glaze with beaten egg and cook in a medium oven until golden on the outside and hot within.
If you’re partial to the addictive crispy ‘seaweed’ served in many Chinese restaurants – make your own with spring greens (in fact, they’re probably what you’ve been served anyway). Very finely slice spring greens and fry in lots of hot vegetable oil until crisp and shrivelled – do this in batches so they don’t steam. Remove to kitchen paper and then toss with a little soy sauce, salt and sugar to taste.
Chefs tip: to shred, roll up individual leaves and finely slice.
Pairs well: lemon juice and zest; bacon; melted butter; Parmesan cheese; poached eggs
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