Greens Triage

Greens! What to do with them

Julia Harrington Reddy, CSA@ Ansche Chesed Core Group

Greens are plentiful at the beginning of the CSA season, because they like cooler wet weather and grow fast, so they’re available in early summer before other vegetables are mature.  But when you get several different types of greens at once, it can be overwhelming.  Most people whose pre-CSA greens experience has been chiefly with spinach try to sautée all greens, but disappointment follows when the greens are too tough, or too bitter, to eat. 

Leafy greens take up a lot of space because they aren’t very dense, and furthermore they’re quite perishable—the opposite of root vegetables, which you can toss in the crisper drawer and leave for weeks.  While you’re trying to figure out how to use your greens, they are taking up half the fridge and going yellow.   And unlike root vegetables, which you can accumulate for several weeks until you’ve got enough for a big pot, even a big bunch of greens can cook down to nothing, quite unsatisfactory for a family dinner.  Too much, too little, too perishable, too tough…but so healthy and potentially delicious.

How to get the most from your greens? Here are some ideas. 

#1. Strategize in advance.  Decide what your objective is.  Are you going to eat the greens for dinner the evening you get them, or prep and store them for future use? 

If you want to eat some of your greens for dinner, you usually can pick a recipe in advance and use whatever greens you get, since most recipes that involve cooked greens work well with substitutions.  Also, in many recipes, greens can be combined—more than one kind in the same recipe.  So if you don’t get what you expected, or as much as you need, forge ahead! 

Sometimes one has the energy for prepping, but not for cooking.  Often, when I get back from the CSA (in the evening, after working hard all day), I don’t have the energy to cook a full meal.   Indeed, with vegetables that take prep beyond washing, I may never feel as if I have the time—when I cook, it has to be relatively fast.   (Even washing can be a chore, although a salad spinner hugely simplifies things).  Cooking with CSA produce can require creativity, since share lists and quantity forecasts are not always accurate.  The mental energy involved in cooking may be greater than the physical energy, and in short supply!  So I may cook the dinner for CSA night the day before and re-heat it to eat when I get home, then prep and stow the CSA vegetables (namely, those greens!) after dinner. 

#2. Assess what you’ve got. 

Your basic objective on CSA night could be to canvass what you’ve gotten and get it into the fridge under some kind of control.   If you know what you have, your brain can go to work on it, coming up with wonderful ideas of what to cook.  If you (or possibly a significant other who has collected the share as a favor to you) stuff everything into carry bags and into the fridge, you may not know - or might forget - what you have.  Then the tasks of removing and sorting become both mental and time-obstacles to cooking.

Lettuce, or arugula that you’re not going to cook, can be washed and bagged for future use.   Sometimes this isn’t necessary if they are washed by the farm.  If you put these greens in a plastic bag them after washing them, put a paper towel in with them—high humidity keeps the lettuce from wilting, but too much water encourages growth of slime. 

Arugula (rocket) and baby spinach can be used raw in salads, stirred into hot pasta or beans (which wilts it) or made into pesto (yes, just like basil—see below).  Incidentally, arugula keeps much longer than lettuce or spinach, perhaps because it’s more acidic (? a less hospitable environment for bacteria growth--your bitter tasting greens are likely to have a longer shelf-life but I need to further research why).   So if you have to choose, eat the lettuce and spinach first!

Chard/Kale/Collards/Mustard greens:  It’s hard to characterize bigger and tougher greens by type, since the same variety can be quite a different thing when it’s small and young vs. when it’s huge and mature.  Sometimes chard, or tiny beet leaves, can be as tender as spinach, and sautéing alone yields a simple and fabulous dish.  Large chard benefits from blanching, as do kale and collards.  Get to know your greens and use your own judgment. 

Beet tops, radish tops, turnip tops, cauliflower and broccoli leaves and stems:  The greens (and this applies to stems too) that you thought were waste are mostly entirely edible, if treated properly.  The only inedible leaves I’ve encountered in my CSA share are rhubarb (the leaves are mildly poisonous and taste awful) and carrot tops (too tough…but I’m open to suggestions from anyone who has a magic recipe). 

#3 Be your own prep cook: Cut them down to size.   Great chefs always have peons, aka prep cooks, to do the washing and chopping for them, since this doesn’t take cooking genius, or indeed much brains at all.  At home, you can take advantage of your different states of mind by doing the prep when you’re mentally or physically less energetic.   Later, when your creative juices are flowing, knowing that things are already washed and chopped makes cooking much more appealing. 

A key place to start with many greens with big, stiff stems–e.g. kale, collards, big chard—is to separate stems and leaves.   Stems are usually much tougher than the leaves, and therefore need to be treated as a separate vegetable, with different properties. 

Stripping the leaves off the stems  not only reduces the size of the greens but is a first step to conceptualizing what you’re going to cook, since it often makes sense to think about the leaves and stems as separate vegetables.   My rule of thumb is that if the leaves don’t strip off easily by hand, i.e. if the stem comes with them, then the stem is leaf-like enough to be treated as a leaf.

For kale, collards, and most chard: you can strip the leaves off the stems by hand.  This is much faster than using a knife.   For braising greens and broccoli rabe, cut off the lowest part of the stem that’s really tough.  Distinguish between stems that are just hard, like broccoli, and those that are fibrous.  Hard stems can be cooked soft and used all kinds of ways.  Fibrous stems should be composted.   The best way to tell is just by chewing a small piece of stem.  The difference between crunchy and fibrous is can be chewing on a piece of fiber for a long, long time. 

#4 Blanching/parboiling

Let's face it: if all greens were as tender as spinach, life would be easy.  In his book on Mario Batali (Heat), Bill Buford quotes Batali as saying, in reference to some greens, "You've got to boil the hell out of them so that you can actually chew the f**ers” (please keep this handout out of reach of children, and see the Batali recipe involving cauliflower greens at the end of this handout). 

Notwithstanding the salty language, it's good to be reassured that celebrity chefs use tough greens.  The solution is, as Batali says, boiling the greens prior to using them.  Briefly pre-cooking vegetables in boiling water is called blanching, and in addition to tenderizing the greens is recommended prior to freezing because it improves the qualities/looks of frozen vegetables by killing the milky film of microorganisms (lacotbacilius) that live on the surface of all vegetables.   This is why green become brighter after a minute in boiling water or in the frying pan—the lactobacilius have cooked away.   We like lactobacilius when pickling, but that event is later in the season.

Once you've separated the stems from the leaves, they should be cooked separately (or discarded, but that’s a waste—see below), unless you’re following a recipe that specifies otherwise.   As noted above, just about every green attached to an edible vegetable is edible (don’t forget, the exception is rhubarb, which has delicious stems but bitter, indigestion-inducing greens.  Not the subject of this handout).  If you get a bunch of beets, radishes, or turnips, twist off the stems and leaves and cook them;  the leaves go bad much sooner than the root vegetables themselves.  This is an extension of the principle of treating different parts of a vegetable like different vegetables. 

Even the toughest leaves don't require boiling for more than a few minutes (i.e. five to 10).  If you're going to freeze the greens, two or three minutes in boiling water is enough—it’s ok for them to be not quite tender enough to eat after this initial blanching, because they will get cooked further at a later time.  Do yourself a favor and chop the leaves *after* they've been boiled and cooled -- they'll be easier to chop after parboiling, when they are limp, and easier to fish out of the pot if they are whole.   The simplest method I’ve found is to use a pair of tongs to haul the blanched greens out of the water; shake them a couple of times over the pot, then spread them on a dishtowel on the counter if you are not cooking them using them right away.

Officially, blanching includes plunging into icy water after removing from the hot, but in my experience there are no grave consequences if one skips this step, so long as you cool the greens entirely before freezing. 

Yes, you do lose some water-soluble vitamins when you boil in water.  The main loss is of vitamin C (see the table at  If you’re really concerned about conserving vitamins, you can steam the greens instead, or cook them in a very small amount of water in a pressure cooker (essentially, steaming).   Or, use as little water as possible for the blanching, blanch multiple greens in the same water (I do this just to save time and water); use the same water for boiling stems.  When you’re done, you can either drink the cooled blanching water (seriously—to me, tastier than wheatgrass juice if you add salt), or use it for cooking rice, couscous, or another grain that will absorb all of it, for ‘dirty’ rice or couscous.   (You can get a lovely effect if you’ve cooked beet greens in the water: red or pink rice!)   However:  you can’t keep the blanching water for long; even in the fridge, it starts to go bad in a couple of days, since it is so full of organic matter.

#5 Freezing

If you’re going to freeze the greens, wait until they cool on the dishtowel and squeeze as much water out of them as possible before freezing.   Use (and re-use) real freezer bags; they protect the vegetables much better.  Freezing doesn’t have to be for months, it can just be for a week or two, until another bunch of the same green turns up at the CSA, or until inspiration comes.  Of course, we love fresh vegetables, but freezers are a great resource for CSA members because often you don’t get everything you need for a meal from the CSA, or you get elements you can’t easily integrate in a single meal.  Freezing gives you time to think and plan and your product is far healthier and more nutritious than anything from a factory.  Just be sure to label freezer bags clearly. 

#6  Boiling or Pressure Cooking Stems 

Those who are really hard core (pun intended) can cook with the stems.  The toughest stems - all but the really fibrous - will succumb if you simmer them long enough.  See above for the chew-test.

Once the stems and leaves are separated, chop the stems into short lengths or chunks.  Then you can store them neatly in a bowl or plastic container until you’re ready to cook them.

With tough stems, you may need a boiling-before-using step that’s longer than blanching.  This is also good for stems before freezing.  If you’re not freezing, blanching will make them last longer in the fridge.

A pressure cooker is very handy here—in less than ten minutes, you can transform a hard stem into something tender enough to be delicious with a little salt, pepper, and butter or olive oil.  Fish them out with a strainer with a handle.   Chopped, cooked stems can also be incorporated into soups, casseroles, or curries. 



In deference to the inherent unpredictability of life, it’s good to have a few ‘paradigms’ that you can apply to your greens, rather than following a specific recipe.  Here are some examples that work with most greens. 

CHIPS/CRISPS:  This even works (surprisingly) with lettuce.   Lightly coat washed and dried greens with oil and sprinkle with salt and/or pepper.  Ten minutes in the oven at 350 turns them into a snack of ethereal delicacy.   As with many greens recipes, though, it’s important to separate tough stems from the leaves.  Limitations of this technique:

-the chips are very delicate and they lose crispness if stored

-too fragile for dipping

- bitter greens are still bitter after crisping, although they are so thin that they aren’t unpleasant

PESTO:  You can make pesto out of more than basil—arugula (rocket), for instance.  Or you can use a combination of greens.   Strong-tasting greens are preferable, although you can ramp up the taste with garlic (not too much, because the pesto doesn’t get cooked, just mixed with warm pasta).   Also I wouldn’t recommend this with really fibrous greens.  Once can compensate for fibrousness with extra time in the food processor, but the texture won’t be as smooth.  Also, one may need to add water while processing, because a fibrous green has less moisture in it, in contrast to basil which buzzes down to green liquid quickly since it’s mostly water.   Use as a pasta sauce.  (An example using radish leaves is below.)

SAAG dishes:  Most people know saag dishes from Indian restaurants, two of most common being saag paneer (spinach with cubes of cheese) and sarsoon ka saag (spinach and mustard greens cooked together).   There are dozens of recipes on the internet.  When these dishes are made with spinach or tender mustard greens, they don't even need to be pureed.  However, when using tougher greens, different greens in combination, or when incorporating stems, use of a food processor is essential to get the right effect.  Saag dishes can be quite spicy, and some incorporate yogurt or cream, so it doesn't so much matter what greens you use because you can control the taste and texture. Experiment!  Eat with rice or flatbread. 

 Five ideas for leftover greens (from Deborah Madison, Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone)

The greens don’t have to be for ‘leftovers’, of course, just any greens that are tender, for example, after boiling. 

1.     Toss them with chickpeas, pasta, diced tomatoes, and freshly grated Parmesan

2.     Toss with boiled diced potatoes and mix in a little grated Gruyere. Or stir them into mashed potatoes

3.     Mix finely chopped cooked greens with cooked rice, barley, quinoa, or pasta

4.     Add greens to potatoes, lentil, and bean soups at the  end of cooking

5.     Chop and combine greens with feta, ricotta salata, or Gruyere, black olives and capers and use them to fill empanadas or spread over toast

I might add (Julia, not Deborah)…mix them into a quiche (see Bruce’s frittata recipe recipe below).  Most of these ideas are embodied in specific recipes, below, but you can make up your own!

Note: When I started cooking as an adult, I started a notebook.  I would re-copy or paste in my favorite recipes, but with lots of notes on what I’d done differently each time and how it turned out.  This is a lot of fun and I recommend it to help one remember and learn what’s worked and what was especially liked.  Notes in the margins of cookbooks are also good, but sometimes there is just not enough space!



Barley and Kale Gratin (From Deborah Madison, Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone)

  • 2/3 cup pearl barley, rinsed
  • Salt and freshly milled pepper
  • 1 large bunch kale, about 1 ¼ pound, stems entirely removed
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 3 tablespoons flour
  • 1 ½ cups milk or stock
  • ¼ teaspoon allspice
  • 1/8 teaspoon grated nutmeg
  • ½ cup grated Gruyere or provolone

In a saucepan, add the barely to 1 quart boiling water and ½ teaspoon salt and simmer uncovered until tender, about 30 minutes.  Drain. While it’s cooking, cook the kale in a skillet of boiling salted water until tender, about 10 minutes.  Drain, then puree with ¼ cup of the cooking water until smooth.

Preheat the oven to 375 F.  Melt the butter in a small saucepan, whisk in the flour, then add the milk.  Cook, stirring constantly over medium heat, until thick. Season with allspice, nutmeg, salt, and pepper. Combine all the ingredients, check the seasonings, then transfer to a lightly buttered baking dish or ramekins.

Bake until lightly browned on top, about 30 minutes.  If you’ve used ramekins, run a knife around the edges, then unmold them by giving them a sharp rap on the counter.  Present them browned side up. 

Swiss Chard and Their Stalks with Chili and Parsley  (From Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers, River Café Pocket Books:  Salads and Vegetables)

  • 1 pound Swiss chard leaves with their stalks
  • 1 dried red chilli, crushed
  • 3 tbsp chopped flat leaf parsley
  • 3 garlic cloves, peeled, 2 finely sliced, 1 whole

Extra virgin olive oil.

Cut the stalks from the chard leaves, trim the edges and cut each stalk across the grain into 1 in pieces.

Cook the leaves in boiling salted water until tender, remove from the pan and chop roughly.  Add the whole garlic clove to the pan and bring the water back to the boil. Test for saltiness, then add the stalks.  Cook for 6 minutes, then drain.

Heat 3 tablespoons olive oil in a thick-bottomed pan, add the sliced garlic and fry until golden.  Add the chard stalks, chili and season. Stir the stalks around the pan to absorb the flavours.  Add the parsley and continue to fry for 1 minute.  Remove from the heat and add the chard leaves.  Toss together and serve warm. 

Fresh Borlotti Beans and Rocket (From Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers, River Café Pocket Books:  Salads and Vegetables)

  • 3 pounds fresh borlotti beans
  • (if you use dried, use only 1.5 pounds)
  • 2 garlic cloves peeled
  • 4 sage leaves
  • 4 tbs red vinegar
  • 2 tbsp Dijon mustard
  • 150 g Rocket leaves, washed and spun drive
  • Olive oil

Cover the beans with cold water in a medium thick-bottomed pan.  Add the garlic and sage.  Bring to the boil, reduce to a simmer and cook until soft.  Drain, adding 2 tablspoons vinegar and 3 tablespoons of olive oil.  Mix with rocket and season with mustard and oil.

Any Stems Curry (Originally ‘Banana Stems Curry’, from Andhra Gumagumalu, by Vijayalakshmi Reddy)

  • 2 pounds of stems (broccoli, chard, arugula, collard stems, kale stems—virtually anything—cut into small pieces).  Pressure cook with water, salt and turmeric.
  • Fry in oil:  3 curry leaves
  • 1 tsp mustard seeds
  • Pinch of asafoetida
  • 1 tsp cumin seeds
  • 2 tsp urad dal
  • 2 tsp channa (yellow split peas)
  • Add: 12 green chilies, diced
  • 4 tablespoons tamarind juice
  • 2 tablespoons chili powder
  • 2 tsp jaggery

At the end, add the cooked stems to the fried seasonings.  May add ½ cup grated coconut. 

Beet and Beet Green Risotto with Horseradish, from Gourmet, Sept 1998

  • 1 small onion
  • 1 pound red beets with greens (about 3 medium)
  • 4 cups water
  • 1/2 stick (1/4 cup) unsalted butter
  • 1 cup Arborio or long-grain rice
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan (about 1 1/2 ounces)
  • 1 tablespoon bottled horseradish

Finely chop onion and trim stems close to tops of beets. Cut greens into 1/4-inch-wide slices and chop stems. Peel beets and cut into fine dice. In a small saucepan bring water to a simmer and keep at a bare simmer.

In a 3-quart heavy saucepan cook onion in butter over moderate heat until softened. Add beets and stems and cook, stirring occasionally, 5 minutes. Stir in rice and cook, stirring constantly, 1 minute. Stir in 1 cup simmering water and cook, stirring constantly and keeping at a strong simmer, until absorbed. Continue cooking at a strong simmer and adding water, about 1/2 cup at a time, stirring constantly and letting each addition be absorbed before adding next. After 10 minutes, stir in greens and continue cooking and adding water, about 1/2 cup at a time, in same manner until rice is tender and creamy-looking but still al dente, about 8 minutes more. (There may be water left over.) Remove pan from heat and stir in Parmesan.

Serve risotto topped with horseradish. Serves 4.

Frittata (from Bruce Soffer, Ansche Chesed’s resident caterer)

  • 1 medium onion diced and Sautéed in 2 tbl butter
  • 1 pound of wilted spinach or other green
  • 1 cup heavy  cream
  • 1 cup shredded cheese
  • 4 eggs


Bake in sprayed pan 40 minutes


Radish Leaf Pesto from

  • 2 large handfuls of good-looking radish leaves, stems removed
  • 30 grams (1 ounce) hard cheese, such as pecorino or parmesan, grated or shaved using a vegetable peeler
  • 30 grams (1 ounce) nuts, such as pistachios, almonds, or pinenuts (avoid walnuts, which make the end result too bitter in my opinion)
  • 1 clove garlic, germ removed, cut in four
  • a short ribbon of lemon zest cut thinly from an organic lemon with a vegetable peeler (optional)
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more to get the consistency you like
  • salt, pepper, ground chili pepper

All the ingredients in a food processor or blender and process in short pulses until smooth. This produces a thick pesto; add more oil and pulse again to get the consistency you prefer.