why we’re all going crazy over bitter greens—and have been since forever

This past winter, I was in a bonafide cooking rut—which I have to believe happens to the best of us. Looking back, the cold and dreary, mid-Feb-in-NYC weather may have had something to do with it, because I couldn’t muster up the creative energy to do anything besides roast vegetables with abandon.

Potatoes of every kind, butternut squash, Brussels sprouts, string beans—you name it, I spread it on a baking sheet, drizzled it with olive oil, sprinkled on some salt, and roasted it at 375 until it toed the line between well-done and charred. And then I served said vegetable medley on a bed of sad, wilty greens doused in olive oil and a generous squeeze of lemon juice. More salt, maybe a piece of sourdough for good measure. Finito. On repeat.

And while I have nothing against the ease and versatility of roasting, I was getting bored. And the sun was refusing to come out. And my hands were in a perpetual state of needing hand lotion. And I desperately needed something, anything, to lift my dead-of-winter spirits.

But because absolutely zero inspiration was going to come out of my shoebox of a NYC apartment, I bundled up and ventured to the Union Square farmers market without a list of ingredients to buy—or any idea what I was going to make at all, for that matter. Instead, I actively willed myself to let the market inspire me—a luxury I regularly indulged in while living in France that hasn’t quite fit into my life here in the states. And although I had an ominous feeling that I was going to be greeted exclusively by rugged root vegetables, I stubbornly trudged along anyway. Because hey—even celeriac would have been a welcome diversion.

And I was right, there were root vegetables. Lots of ‘em. But just as I was rounding the corner to make a beeline for the sauerkraut, I spotted something green out of the corner of my eye. Had someone not pushed aside one of the opaque plastic sheets hanging from the stall’s top—designed, I imagine, to encase the precious produce in a greenroom-esque cocoon and protect it from the blustering winds—I likely would have completely missed the unassuming stall.

Once I made my way “inside” the makeshift room, I was greeted by rows upon rows of plastic bins containing greens—some speckled with purple veins, others a deep and uninterrupted hue of forest green; some thin and wispy, others awkwardly bulky; some wrapped in thin rubber bands, others enjoying free reign. And I stood there, marveling at the fact that despite my inner veg-head, I could probably only name one, maybe two of the vegetables in front of me.

Sensing my apprehension, the farmer, who had to be nearing 80, approached me. “They’re bitter,” he said. “Bitter greens.”

I nodded, registering this mysterious family of greens, waiting for him to continue explaining. But he just smiled, nodded back, and promptly returned to the register. Lesson over.

So I did what any curious home cook desperately in need of inspiration would do. I filled up four plastic bags with a mix of greens, realized I didn’t have any cash on me, told him I’d be right back, ran to the bank, and promptly returned to claim my prize.

greens2.jpg

My natural walking pace, I have been told, is that in-between speed on the treadmill where you can’t comfortably walk, but you also haven’t yet hit your stride in a full-fledged run. It’s the awkwardly unnatural power walk. Like you always have to pee. That’s me.

And it’s exactly the pace I took on my way home—convinced that I held in my hand a one-way ticket out of deep, dark hole of my cooking rut. This was no time for casual strolling.

Although I was familiar with the more common bitter greens—arugula (courtesy of my assiduous salad lunch routine), broccoli rabe (which made frequent appearances in my Italian household growing up), escarole (the eponymous soup is one of my favorites) and frisée (I had a casual obsession with Niçoise salads when I lived in France)—the world of more exotic dandelion greens, watercress, and mustard greens was unchartered territory.

Over the next week, I boiled and sautéed the sturdy greens, tossing them with sardine-studded pasta that carried pops of salty capers and an embarrassing amount of garlic. I folded them into soups, sunk them into mounds of creamy fava beans with puddles of olive oil pooled on top, and ate them raw—vacillating between cringing, pungent bitterness and a pleasant, peppery bite.

And I Googled, voraciously reading everything I could find about these nutritional powerhouses as the list of skin, and digestion, and nervous system, and blood clotting, and eye health, and hormone-balancing benefits went on and on.

Convinced I had stumbled upon the next gem in the food world, I triumphantly called my mom, ranting and raving about these new greens I had discovered, waxing poetic about how good they are for you, and how delicious, and how versatile, and how [insert redeeming culinary quality here]. And when I finally paused to catch my breath, she proceeded to tell me that my grandmother, who spent the formative years of her youth in Italy, used to collect (forage? pick?) wild dandelion greens growing rampant along the sides of roads. 

… which made me think about the circuitous nature of trends and how, like most foods that enter the millennial-healthyish-zeitgeist, bitter greens aren’t actually new at all. They’ve been here all along, hiding behind the kale and avocados of the world, fighting an uphill battle for attention amongst the dizzying array of grocery store greens.

They’re rustic by nature yet elevated by millennial nurture, humble in origin yet bold in flavor—often warranting the addition of salt or fat to punctuate the bitterness.

An identity crisis rendered palatable… and Instagrammable.

So I’m eagerly making up for lost time, and I implore you to do the same with the help of these cooking tips and flavor pairing suggestions. The Standard American Diet (known, ironically enough, by its acronym: SAD) prioritizes sweet and salty as primary taste profiles, but there’s a world of potential with bitter, too. And unlike some of their quote-unquote superfood siblings, these greens are uniquely worthy of that status—and affordable, too.

Plus, for what it’s worth, they pulled me out of my cooking rut. So they have that going for them, too.

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ARUGULA

Peak season: spring – summer

How to eat: Raw (in salads), braise, sautée, soups

Pairs well with: almonds, cannellini beans, herbs (basil, cilantro, mint, parsley), hard-boiled eggs, fennel, fish (salmon, tuna), lemon, mushrooms, blood oranges, pine nuts, prosciutto, radishes, balsamic

Recipe suggestions: arugula + fennel + pears // arugula + prosciutto + Parmesan // arugula + lemon + olive oil + Parmesan

Broccoli Rabe

Peak season: late fall – spring

How to eat: boil, sauté, steam, stir-fry

Pairs well with: garlic, olive oil, herbs (oregano, basil, flat-leaf parsley), sausage, anchovies, tomatoes, balsamic vinegar

Recipe suggestions: broccoli rabe + anchovies + red pepper flakes + garlic + olive oil

Escarole

Peak season: year-round

How to eat: braise, grill, roast

Pairs well with: anchovies, beef, cheese (Fontina, Gruyère, mozzarella, Parmesan, Roquefort), cumin, garlic, hazelnuts, lemon, olive oil, poultry, white beans

Recipe suggestions: escarole + olive oil + shallots // escarole + cannellini beans, garlic, olive oil, broth

Frisée

Peak season: year-round

How to eat: raw

Pairs well with: anchovies, avocado, bacon, beets, cheese (blue, goat, Parmesan, Roquefort), cucumbers, eggs, endives, garlic, mushrooms, Dijon mustard, olives, tomatoes, white wine vinaigrette, walnuts

Recipe suggestions: frisée + anchovies + garlic + Parmesan cheese // frisée + bacon + poached egg // frisée + bacon + Roquefort cheese + garlic + shallots + white wine vinaigrette

Dandelion Greens

Peak season: late spring – early autumn

How to eat: raw, sauté, steam

Pairs well with: anchovies, bacon, eggs, garlic, Dijon mustard, fava beans, onions, vinegar

Recipe suggestions: dandelion greens + pasta + garlic + sardines + pine nuts + extra-virgin olive oil // dandelion greens + egg scramble  

Watercress

Peak season: spring / autumn

How to eat: raw

Pairs well with: apples, asparagus, bacon, beets, cheese (blue, goat, pecorino), herbs (chives, cilantro, parsley), endive, fennel, mushrooms, oil (grapeseed, sesame, vegetable, walnut, olive), onions (red, white, yellow), pears, potatoes, radicchio, salmon, walnuts

Recipe suggestions: watercress + walnuts + green apple + pecorino cheese

Mustard Greens

Peak season: winter-spring

How to eat: boil, braise, grill, stew, wilt

Pairs well with: bacon/prosciutto, black-eyed peas, ham hocks, oil (sesame, olive), onions, soy sauce

Recipe suggestions: mustard greens + garlic + olive oil + prosciutto // mustard greens + bacon + onions

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