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Rooted In Foods | Go for the green

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From slightly bitter collards to the more peppery mustard and turnip, dark leafy greens have long been a staple of Southern cuisine. Many additional varieties round out what we call "greens” including beet tops, chard, dandelion, kale, nettles, sorrel and spinach. These are just a smattering of what has been cooked in home kitchens for many generations.

Greens have a rich and varied heritage across many cultures. According to late food historian Karen Hess, collard greens were once food of the poor in England. The greens were cooked with other scrap vegetables into a sort of potage thickened with barley. These same collards traveled with the English as they made their way to what would become Colonial America.

Eventually, these collards and other greens found their way into the hands of African slaves, who cooked them in a similar manner. As a result, braised collard greens became synonymous with African-American heritage and is a common dish in Southern cuisine. Collards and other greens are often braised with salt pork or ham hocks, and eaten with cornbread on the side or cornbread dumplings cooked in the pot with the greens. The liquid, called pot likker, can be reserved and used in other recipes — or simply drunk by itself.

Even our early Scottish settlers ate greens with their oatcakes. Potherbs like stinging nettles and dandelion greens were picked from yards and incorporated into meals. In my own family, dandelion greens often made their way into salads and there are still stories about the "old folks" — long since departed — who drank dandelion wine.

If greens were not served during meals when you were growing up, you might need to acquire a taste for them. They are savory and delicious when braised, and they are crisp and pungent served raw with dressing.

Use large tender leaves as wraps for cold cuts, chicken or tuna salad. Blanch rougher leaves to use as wraps for ground meat, and bake in sauce or gravy. Add chopped greens to soups, omelets and scrambled eggs, quesadillas or stir-fry dishes for a boost of nutrition. Layer them into lasagna and vegetable casseroles or mix them chopped into cheese sauces.

If you want to hide more greens in foods for kiddos, add them to smoothies and smoothie bowls, pasta sauce, pesto, and dips for chips and veggies. You can also puree greens with a little water and add them to dumpling and pasta doughs. Finely chopped greens can be tucked into meatloaf, meatballs and hamburgers.

Apart from abundant ways to eat them, greens provide many health benefits. They are low in calories — a whopping 62 calories per cup of cooked collard greens. They are also packed with vitamins A and C, calcium and iron.

According to the USDA, darker varieties contain significant amounts of folate and vitamin K; both have important roles to play in our health, such as helping prevent inflammation. Greens are low on the glycemic index, too, which means they have a low impact on glucose levels.

Given their healthy attributes and varied uses in recipes, it is time to add a few greens to your grocery list and weekly menu. If you are wary, start small by incorporating a new green into salad for dinner then work your way into more ample recipes.

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