Vegetables 101: What Are Bitter Greens?

What Are Bitter Greens
So many vegetables, so many that are unfamiliar! This is one of an occasional series of posts, quick, easy and practical information about out-of-the-ordinary vegetables. Links to recipes!

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?


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.



A Veggie Venture is home of greens-crazy and 'veggie evangelist' Alanna Kellogg and the
famous asparagus-to-zucchini Alphabet of Vegetables.
© Copyright Kitchen Parade 2012

20 comments:

Alanna, I absolutely LOVE bitter greens! I grew up on turnips & mustard greens since I'm from the South. Don't much care for collards or turnip greens, but I love turnip roots with mustard greens. I usually tame the bitterness by adding a pinch of sugar to the cooking liquid. I also put hot pepper vinegar on them before I eat. I have a hubby who likes to eat raw turnips (I'll pass on them raw).

I have a question. What is arrowroot? I have a recipe that calls for it but no one seems to know what it is or where to buy it.

Hi Anonymous, Good question! I found this good explanation from my friend Nic, What is arrowroot?. One additional benefit I'll add is that arrowroot supposedly has a lower glycemic index and so is often used by diabetics for thickening.

I some times see arrowroot in small jars in the spice section but it's OH so expensive there. The last time I bought it, I found a big box for cheap in of all places, Whole Foods. By happenstance, I used some last Friday and even thought it's two to three years old, seems perfectly fresh.

Thanks for asking, do so any time!

We have winter crops in our garden plot. We bought bedding plants in Delaware in September, labelled as “collards” and “kale”. I have no idea what they are, but one is broccoli and one is forming heads. I planted Dwarf Curly Kale and it grew great, but either a two-legged or four-legged b***** is stealing it, so we cut all we had.

I cook greens — cut in strips — with a fat [ham fat from ham bone or fatback piece rinsed] for a couple hours, and save broth for soups. I use the stems of the kale in my creamy broccoli soup, chopped in the food processor.

The leaves of the broccoli are very feathery — stems as above — and I cook the leaves as greens.

So we are eating these greens, and using stems in soup.

I have never heard of them. I have eaten collards and kale.

I love bitter greens! I put them in soup all the time, particularly soups made with dried beans or lentils. Great flavor, great texture - just love them.

My only experience with bitter greens was the time I bought a very large container of arugula at the 99 Cent Store and discovered that I didn't like it raw. So I cooked it like spinach with a little olive oil and garlic and it was yummy.

C.B.

Hey Anonymous, I just found that I already had a good source for buying arrowroot online in my Amazon store, it's a one-pound bag but at least in my experience, it really lasts. Hope this helps!

I love some bitter greens such as chard and spinach and just the week have started experimenting with kale and collard greens. I'm finding I like them better than I thought I would, and know that as I learn to cook them properly I will learn to love them. I have made a commitment to try to eat some every day.

Greens are just about to start growing. A couple of months and we will be enjoying till the weather gets hot.

Hi Alanna,
It turns out that my husband is allergic to garlic & onions (including shallots, leeks & scallions). Of course, all my favorite recipes start with "take one large onion." Any ideas on how to adapt my recipes or any great onion-free suggestions? I find just leaving out the onion just doesn't cut it.
Many thanks!

Dear No Onions - Nothing like a good challenge! Celery comes to mind, also fennel. And I wonder if there is an Asian something that would work. That whole idea of starting everything with an onion is a French culinary convention (I think and am not in a place to confirm) so rather than think of a substitute, you might look for inspiration in a whole new culinary tradition. Spend a little time in a bookstore, checking home-style cookbooks for recipes that both appeal and you have ready access to. You might also begin to think of onion as a garnish, pickled, caramelized, etc, for individual plates. Good luck!

Alanna,

I just found your blog the other day and it has come in handy a half dozen times already :)

I signed up for a CSA and last week got my first box... full of Kale, Collard greens, Mustard Greens, and beets (and also with romaine and red leaf lettuces, but I knew what to do with those!) I never ate greens growing up (except lettuces in salads).

I tore off a piece of every single thing and tried them raw. Not too bad... I put some raw mustard greens into my salad. Yum.

But, even though I am not a fan of cooked spinach, I decided to give cooked greens a try, starting with the greens from my beets. I made the gratin of greens, and I think I needed more cheese and less greens for my taste, lol. I'm gonna keep trying greens in different ways because I know I'll like them somehow...

(Side note: I roasted my beets with a little direction from your site, and they turned out fabulous. Even my previously beet-hating husband tried them and called them "acceptable" and put a few on his salad.)

A splash of umeboshi vinegar is so delicious on cooked greens as well as on fresh summer produce like tomatoes, cucumbers and corn.
In case you aren't familiar with umeboshi vinegar, it is made of Japanese pickled plums, shiso leaves and sea salt: a beautiful deep red color and full of health benefits.

I love mustard greens. My mom makes them in a Vietnamese soup called canh cai that consists of chicken broth, pieces of chicken, diced onions, and garlic served over white rice. It's delicious, and I also love it when she pickles them, too.

I am taking a course in nutrition and wanted to create a handout on the benefits of bitter, sour, and green foods that support liver detoxification and health and came across your site which contains a healthy list of bitter greens that are delicious,easy to prepare and most of all recognizable! Thanks! I'll be back!

As stated, "Bitterness" is a flavor. Most people think that bitterness (on its own) is not a pleasant flavor just as salty, sweet, or sour are not usually pleasant by themselves either. The whole idea in preparing a tasty dish is to include, and complement flavors, not cover them up. For example, I love dandelion greens. Simply blanch until just tender, add a little balsamic vinegar, salt, pepper and olive oil. Go easy on the seasonings, the idea is to complement the bitterness of the greens not overpower it. Try it.

I love bitter greens. Most of them I can just eat as is (raw or cooked) except watercress. I need to add a little sweetness, sour or spicyness to it. Same applies to any of the others towards the end of the season. I love bitter greens oh so much though. Swiss chard and make are probably my favorites.

I'm particularly fond of bitter greens -- probably because of growing up in the SE USA with a grandmother who came "from the hills". I don't attempt to tame the bitter flavor. You didn't list Kohlrabi greens, which I enjoy very much. And, I've often cooked romaine when I had too much and salads weren't appealing.

depending on what's in season but i combine raw dark leafy greens (celery, spinach, radicchio, broccoli, kale, cabbages of all varieties and colours, red and orange carrots, capsicums, burdock, dandelion, nettle greens) in a masticating juicer with lemons/limes, chillies (hot), turmeric and ginger root as my daily anti inflammatory and works

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Thank you for taking a moment to write! I read each and every comment, for each and every recipe, whether a current recipe or a long-ago favorite. If you have a specific question, it's nearly always answered quick-quick. ~ Alanna