Here’s the most basic, best way to cook leafy greens — a simple garlicky sauté. While there are lots of delicious ways to prepare leafy greens, this one might just become your go-to.
And there are so many delicious ways to vary it. This method is good for preparing most any variety, from tender baby greens to resilient collard greens. In all cases, the idea is cooking the greens as little as possible, to retain their color, flavor, and texture.
We know by now that leafy greens are among the most nutrient-dense foods of common vegetables, so hopefully this easy technique, plus the embellishments that follow, will inspire you to used them more often.
Do leafy greens always need to be cooked? Not in all cases. Spinach, arugula, and baby power green mixes are equally good uncooked. Massaged kale (see a how-to) is excellent raw in salads. The rest benefit from this kind of light cooking, which brings out their best flavors, tempers bitterness, and makes certain vitamins more available.
Fresh collard greens
Basic Garlicky Greens
Here are the basic steps. Make sure to see the tasty variations that follow!This amount will serve 4 to 6 as a modest size but intense side dish, depending on the quantity of greens.
Preparing the greens
For this sauté, you’ll use a good-sized bunch of greens, or about 12 to 16 ounces — kale; collard greens; and variety of chard; turnip greens; mustard greens; escarole; broccoli rabe; spinach (full size or baby); arugula, or baby “power greens” mix.
Clean the greens: No matter what kind of greens you’re using, it goes without saying that they should be very well rinsed; no need to dry. Rinsing greens that come packaged as “triple-washed” is optional, but I like to give them a rinse just the same.
For kale, chard, or turnip greens: Cut leaves away from stems, then cut the leaves into bite-sized pieces or slices. If using collards, cut leaves away from stems; stack a few leaves at a time, roll snugly from one of the narrow ends, then slice thinly. Chop in a few places to shorten the ribbons.
For mustard greens or escarole: Simply slice the leaves, and include the tender midribs.
For broccoli rabe: Trim a half inch or so off the base of the stems, slice them into 1/2-to 1-inch sections, using all of it — stems, florets, and leaves.
For regular spinach: Remove most long stems.
For baby spinach, arugula, and baby power greens: Leave whole.
The ingredients for the basic garlicky sauté
- 12 to 16 ounces leafy greens, prepared as described above
- 1 to 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 3 to 4 cloves garlic, crushed or minced
- Juice of 1/2 to 1 lemon or 1 to 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar, to taste
- Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Cooking the greens — the garlicky sauté
1 Heat the oil in a large steep-sided skillet or stir-fry pan. Add the garlic and sauté over low heat for 2 to 3 minutes, until golden.
2 Add the prepared greens and cook over medium heat, stirring frequently until just tender yet still nice and green. Add small amounts of water if needed, just enough to keep the bottom of the pan moist. Remove from the heat once the greens are done.
3 Once the greens are off the heat, stir in lemon juice or vinegar, season with salt and pepper. Serve as soon as possible!
Approximate cooking times
These are all approximate, since there are lots of variables — the toughness of the greens, the exact amount of heat, and how they’ve been cut. Honestly, you need to use your senses, and keep your eyes on the greens as they cook. No matter what, undercooked greens are preferable to overcooked!
Spinach, arugula, and other baby greens take the least amount of time; basically you just want to wilt it, which can take only a minute or two.
Kale, chard, escarole, and mustard greens take about 5 to 7 minutes to wilt down.
Broccoli rabe and collard greens take about 5 to 8 minutes or slightly longer. The variables are how high your heat is, and how thinly you’ve cut your greens.
Varieties of chard
Variations on the basic recipe
For added (or different) flavor
- With darker greens, use balsamic vinegar in place of lemon juice or apple cider vinegar.
- Keep the skillet moist with white wine or vegetable broth in place water.
Once the greens are cooked, stir in 1/4 to 1/2 cup raisins, dried cranberries, currants, or sliced dried apricots or figs. Figs are especially good with chard.
Sprinkle 1/4 to 1/2 cup toasted nuts over the top of the greens in the pan prior to serving. Try any of the following:
- Pine nuts
- Almonds (slivered or sliced)
- Pecans (chopped)
- Walnuts (chopped)
Once the greens are cooked, stir in any of these:
- 1/2 cup or so sliced brine-cured olives (kalamata are particularly good)
- 1/2 cup or so of sliced sun-dried tomatoes (oil-cured or not, as you prefer)
- 2 to 3 tablespoons capers
- Dried hot red pepper flakes to taste
- Fresh seeded and minced hot chili pepper
- Chili oil, Thai red chili paste, or any favorite hot sauce or condiment to taste
Toss 1 to 1 1/2 cups of cooked or canned (drained and rinsed) beans or chickpeas in with the finished greens.
Onions or shallots
Add the extra step of caramelizing a large onion (any kind, but red is particularly good), or several shallots.
Puree a 12.3-ounce box of silken tofu in the container of a food processor. Add the finished greens and pulse and on and off until they’re finely chopped (don’t puree) and completely integrated with the tofu. Or, even easier, simply stir about 1/4 cup vegan mayonnaise into your cooked greens.
Transfer the finished greens to a food processor. Process until pureed. You can use this puree over grains, mashed potatoes, or dollop on pureed soups. It’s particularly good on soups based on orange vegetables—butternut squash, pumpkin, sweet potato, or carrot.
Collards combined with cabbage (and some carrots tossed in)
Try combining two different greens when you want to cook a bigger batch, or just as a change of pace.
Try combining a more intense green with a milder one, such as mustard greens and spinach, or chard with arugula. Take care to add the green that cooks more quickly a bit later in the cooking process.
Or, combine greens with cabbage. Kale and collards are particularly good with napa or savoy cabbage, for instance.
Adapted from Wild About Greens by Nava Atlas
See lots more vegan kitchen tips & trends.