Sometimes I wonder if this human experiment has strayed a bit far from its origins. Maybe it’s the fact of how many hours I spend sitting indoors, pixelated input beaming into my brain’s visual cortex while the brightness of the outside world unfolds in real time. Or how, when we adopted a dog recently and didn’t post it on social media, I missed a certain echo of acknowledgment that I can mistake for actual life.
Right now, marketing experts are gathered in conference rooms brainstorming this summer’s new, taste bud-exhilarating flavor of potato chip, cookie and sparkling water. Meanwhile, in Southwest Colorado, rows of leafy greens are unceremoniously unspooling another tender leaf, demonstrating the ultimate staying power.
Way back before things got weird, people ate what was in season in their region. Plant leaves were a staple of the human diet. Sustenance, nutrition and medicine came directly from the earth. Garden lettuce is the offspring of the wild, yellow-flowered prickly lettuce; spinach of the plant amaranth, native to the Americas. Kale and arugula were domesticated from wild mustards. It’s no wonder that lurking beneath the decidedly un-exhilarating surface of leafy greens is a secret storehouse of nutrition.
Leafy greens, including spicy arugula, ruffled kale, red-tinged beet greens, sharp mustard greens, salty chard, sweet lettuces and spinach that melts in your mouth, are in season from now until snowfall. Through scorching days and chilly nights, these leafy greens just go on serenely performing the tai chi of unfurling shiny new leaves. If you choose to grow them yourself, they won’t monopolize your time, unlike certain tomatoes I know, which spend the summer singing tributes to themselves, then after the first whisper of frost, collapse in a dramatic heap.
And yet, we’re still talking about, well, leaves, which don’t exactly light up anyone’s brain pleasure centers in the way of, say, bacon. But no one’s expecting you to be the salad monk, nibbling through bowls of austere and unadulterated leaves, becoming boringly healthier by the day. Drench sautéed spinach in spicy peanut sauce; finely chop Swiss chard and add to cooking rice; lose bunches of kale in a pot of soup or spaghetti sauce. Tuck enough tasty and colorful nuggets of fat and protein (meat, cheese, nuts, avocado, beans) between raw salad leaves and it becomes a filling and festive meal.
Oh, and would you like to prevent cancer as you chew? Arugula, bok choi, Swiss chard, spinach, and kale are all listed in the book, “The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth” by Dr. Jonny Bowden because of tongue-bending cancer-fighters like sulforaphane (kale), isothiocyanates (arugula), and indoles (bok choi). Also, each leafy green is its own complex multivitamin, walloped with Vitamins A, C, K, calcium, antioxidants, folate and iron.
It’s worth noting that in the nutritional parade of leafy greens, lettuces limp along at the end. The buzzword here is “nutrient density,” and according to Durango naturopath and midwife Joy Frazer, you’d have to eat more than twice as much lettuce to get the same nutrition as from darker leafy greens (and forget about the anti-cancer compounds). However, lettuce can be a “gateway green,” leading gently to the toothier options of kale and chard.
Did you need one more reason to eat a daily pile of greens? One word: microbiome. Our microbiome are the several hundred microbial species that inhabit our bodies, assisting with digestion, immunity, and metabolic and hormonal equilibrium. Research indicates that the diversity and specific make-up of our microbiome correlate with specific diseases. That is, people who have auto-immune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, type 1 diabetes and fibromyalgia, share similarities in their gut flora that unaffected people don’t. Microbiologists believe that our microbiome profile can both protect us from and predispose us to disease.
We develop most of our microbiome by age 3, but factors like diet and anti-biotic use can alter populations. According to Stanford microbiologist, Justin Sonnenburg, “The safest way to increase your microbial diversity is to eat a diversity of complex carbohydrates and plant fibers.” Or as food writer and researcher, Michael Pollan said, “The less a food is processed, the more of it gets safely through the gastrointestinal tract and into the eager clutches of the microbiota.”
It seems prudent to invest, gastronomically-speaking, in the abundance of leafy greens while they are locally available. The USDA recommends eating 2½ cups of vegetables a day. One kale salad, side of sautéed spinach or meal of Swiss chard baked with cheese and artichoke hearts could cross “vegetable intake” off your daily to-do list. And you can rest in participating in the soothing symbiosis of one of the oldest and simplest relationships – between humans and plant leaves.
Rachel Turiel is the former managing editor of Edible Southwest Colorado. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or check out her blog 6512andgrowing.
Creamy Greens Dip
Ingredients:½ pound of fresh spinach/chard/kale leaves OR 8 cups fresh spinach/kale/chard OR 2 bags frozen spinach (this is all approximate)1 can olives, chopped1 can artichoke hearts, chopped1 red pepper, chopped 1½ cups cheese, shredded 2 cloves garlic, choppedjuice of 1 limesalt and pepper to tasteMethod:Wash, steam, and cut greens into small pieces.
Place leafy greens (wrung of water) in large cast iron pan, or whatever oven-safe vessel you’ll be baking dip in. Add all other ingredients. Stir.
Bake at 350 F for 20-30 minutes.
Serve hot and eat on chips, crackers, pita or baguette.
Raw Kale Salad
Ingredients:1 bunch fresh kale (lacinato or dinosaur kale is best)2 tablespoon olive oil (high quality tastes best)1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar (or substitute apple cider vinegar, or lemon)salt to tasteMethod:Remove ribs from washed kale and chop into bite sized pieces.
Add half the olive oil and massage with clean hands for a couple minutes or until kale turns dark green to soften the greens and break down the fibers.
Toss with balsamic vinegar, rest of olive oil and salt to taste. (Can substitute balsamic for apple cider vinegar, or fresh lemon juice, with dash of honey if needed). Let sit for about 5-10 minutes to marinate before serving.
Options: add grated parmesan, fresh sliced fruit, nuts or cranberries.