I’ve long suffered from a fear of greens, which is not unlike a past phobia of mine, fear of pie dough: both were irrational, and both were debilitating until they weren’t.
I got over my fear of pie dough a dozen years ago when I got a summer job baking pies at what may be the most expensive food store on the planet, Loaves and Fishes in the Hamptons. Greens took me longer. I got over my fear of greens only recently, in part because I was put on a restricted diet by a doctor, and in part because I was handed a huge bag of greens and told to cook them.
I don’t want to go into my limited diet at this time because I hate that I am a person with a limited diet. I made a point years ago to give up giving up anything when it came to food. That was my diet: no rules around food. And now this. My mom is a chronic dieter who labels herself a “health nut” (neurotically weight obsessed) with a “sweet tooth” (read: binger). I went on my first diet in ninth grade even though i was 5’6″ and weighed 100 pounds, because having grown up with the mom I did, it seemed like a rite of passage. “I’m on a diet,” had the same ring to it as, “I’m on my period,” or “I’m not wearing a bra.” Neither of which I’d gotten to yet. In the years since I have done whatever i could to achieve the kind of casual, indifferent enjoyment of food that is owned only by those privileged few who have never once been on a diet, and most cats.
So back to the greens. I am on this restricted diet, my compromise to which is to think about what I can eat instead of what I can’t. And one of the things I can eat, is vegetables.
I stopped by Chino Ranch, in Rancho Santa Fe on my way from San Diego back to Los Angeles, where I live. I told the Chinos about my diet and then Kay Chino, the sister in the family who is in some sense the heart and soul of the farm, started handing me greens: three kinds of kale (dinosaur, black, and what I will call here “regular”). Two kinds of chard (red and white), and spinach.
When I asked her how to cook them, she gave me the same response she does when I ask her how to cook anything. “Oh, what do you mean?” She asks, as if I’d asked her how to make toast. “It’s easy, all you do is….”
To cook greens Kay Chino style, first get your hands on some really nice greens—preferably from the farmers market. (If you subscribe to a CSA these are the large bunches of plants with green leaves on long stems that you have been throwing out because you didn’t know how to cook them.)
Rip the leaves off the stems. (I know you can use chard stems at least but I don’t know how. I will ask Kay and get back to you. In the meantime, discard the stems; you’ve got enough to do.) Wash the greens. Especially if you are using old fashioned spinach—the kind that comes by the bunch, not in the bag—washing is the most important step to this recipe. Wash the greens by plunging them in a sinkfull of cool water. Splish them around gently then let them sit for about five minutes for the dirt grains to sink in the sink. Drain the sink, refill it, and repeat until there are no more grains of dirt. When the greens are clean, place them in a colander to drain; shake the colander gently to get the water off.
Meanwhile, saute some yellow onion in olive oil until they are soft but not brown. If you find they are browning, add a splash of chicken stock. I use the stuff in the box. It works fine, and I find that if I get real Food Nazi on myself and insist on everything homemade, I end up ordering take-out instead of cooking. Look for chicken stock that does not have MSG in it, and don’t buy Wolfgang Puck’s brand because he uses maltodextrin for which I have one irritated word: WHY?
When the onions are nice and tender, add a few cloves of minced garlic and cook, stirring constantly, to make them fragrant–just about one minute. Do not let the garlic brown even a little bit. Those little chips of browned garlic that you first proudly achieved cooking somewhere around college age are <em>not</em> what you are going for–unless maybe you are cooking Chinese food, about which I know nothing, but I feel that the Chinese might aspire to burned garlic chips. But in the paradigm of Cali-Mediterranean-inspired cuisine, they should be thrown out.
Add the greens; they won’t be completely dry but you don’t want them to be carrying too much water either. I often rip the leaves up as I add them to the pot; this makes them easier to eat. Add a splash of chicken stock and cook the greens over medium heat, gently folding them from time to time so the uncooked greens get a chance at the heat, until they are really wilted, tender, and sweet but still an appealing color of green—not dull green like shag carpet in the 1970’s or “green” vegetables in the South.
Season with sea salt to taste. If there is too much liquid, lift the greens out with a slotted spoon.
I have lots of ideas for how to serve greens, including topping them with French lentils and an olive oil fried egg, as in this photo. Or just the egg. I’ll get to those later. In the meantime, start washing those greens!