On Christmas Eve, a cousin sidled up to me, "Hey, I wanna ask you something." Usually Denny's face carries a big, open smile but in spite of the champagne and frivolity surrounding us that afternoon, he seemed serious. I braced myself for some thorny personal matter. Instead, he queried, "What are bitter greens?"
I laughed out loud, half in relief, half in sudden understanding. Earlier in the day, he and his wife Jan had seen a recipe that called for bitter greens and wanted to know what they were and where to buy them. "We'll ask Alanna," they agreed. "She'll know." And no doubt, the term "bitter greens" is one tossed off by food writers and passionate food people who presume we all speak the same language. (Remember the time when someone was searching grocery shelves for "tepid water"? It's another good story, see my recipe for Acorn Squash with Quinoa & Cherries on Kitchen Parade. But I digress.)
First, let's remind ourselves that bitter is one our our five basic taste sensations: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and the elusive savory / umami. That taste of bitterness appears in many favorite foods: think chocolate, coffee, marmalade, citrus zest and olives, even the quinine in the tonic water for gin and tonics.
But let's get to the point. What are bitter greens?
Bitter greens belong to that big family we loosely call "leafy greens," the edible leaves of certain plants, mostly though not always dark green in color. Leafy greens are packed with nutrients and every list of healthy foods kicks off with the superfood of leafy greens. All of us, myself included, should eat more leafy greens than we do.
The big family of leafy greens, though, includes the lettuces, most of which would be considered "sweet greens" not "bitter greens".
Think back, though. Do you remember eating spinach and feeling a rough, pasty film attach to your teeth? Bitter greens do that. The technical term is "astringency".
The bitterness in bitter greens can be mild or strong. Early-season greens can be less bitter than late-season greens of the same variety. Test this by growing arugula: it tastes almost sweet (if a slightly sharp-sweet) early in the season and then evolves to sharply bitter by the end of the season.
Not everyone appreciates (ha!) the bitterness in leafy, bitter greens. This is why recipes for a bitter green like collards, say, attempt to tame the bitterness by long cooking and/or the additions of sugar or fat.
Bitter greens might also be considered "winter greens". That's because most greens are "cool-weather vegetables" - that means their growing season ends when the weather gets warm.
But let's get more specific, yes? Which greens are bitter greens? I've built a quick list, with links to recipes for the specific greens. Handy, yes?
Belgian Endive Beet Greens Broccoli Raab / Broccoli Rabe
Chard Chicory Cress Collard Greens Curly Endive
Dandelion Greens Dinosaur Kale Endive Escarole Frisée
Kale Lacinto Kale Mizuna Mustard Greens Nettles
Puntarelle Radicchio Rapini Rocket / Rucola
Spinach Tatsoi Turnip Greens Watercress
BITTER GREENS & YOU Do you like bitter greens? Did you know what they were before now? (Now you do, yes?!) Do you try to remove the bitterness from greens or do you revel in that taste sensation? Do you have a favorite recipe? You know I'd love to have you share one! C'mon, tell me all about you and bitter greens!
MORE VEGETABLES 101 Is there a vegetable that's a mystery to you? Let me know, I'll feature it in another post.
famous asparagus-to-zucchini Alphabet of Vegetables.
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