As children, most of us were told to eat our greens, and with good reason. Leafy green vegetables are packed with vitamins and minerals and low in calories, making them among the healthiest foods you can eat. Find out more about some of the most popular leafy greens with our at-a-glance guide to 6 leafy greens.
What are bitter greens?
Bitter greens are a particular type of leafy green, with a distinctly bitter, astringent flavour. The name sets them apart from leafy greens with a sweeter, fresher flavour. Lettuce, for example, is a leafy green but not a bitter green. Bitter greens are often, but not always, dark green in colour, and their flavour can vary from a hint of bitterness to an overwhelming astringency. Most bitter greens are milder if they are picked when young, but become more bitter as they grow.
Benefits of bitter greens
Bitter greens are particularly nutrient-dense, with many providing an excellent source of vitamins A, C, and K, as well as potassium, calcium, iron and magnesium. They are also high in antioxidants, which help protect your cells from damage, thus lowering the risk of cognitive decline, signs of ageing and some chronic diseases. They are a great source of fibre, too, which helps maintain a healthy digestive system.
A popular ingredient in Southern cooking, the sturdy collard green is a member of the cabbage, or brassica family, and its flavour has been compared to cabbage, kale and swiss chard. It is dark green in colour, with tough, inedible stems that need to be removed prior to cooking. It is able to endure longer cooking times, and is often added to southern stews or braised with pork knuckle or bacon. Like most bitter greens, collards are rich in vitamins A, C, and K, potassium, iron, fibre and antioxidants. They are also one of the best plant sources of calcium available, which is great news for vegans.
Chard, also known as Swiss chard, is another dark green leaf, this time from the beet family. It is popularly used in salads and stir fries, and is usually boiled or sautéed to remove a little of the bitter flavour. In addition to the health benefits offered by most bitter greens, chard may also be able to prevent damage caused to the body by diabetes.
Chicory is very closely related to endive, and these two names are often used interchangeably. True chicory comes from the plant Cichorium intybus, which can be divided into two main varieties, known as Belgian Endive and Radicchio.
Belgian Endive is the variety most commonly referred to as chicory. It is a forced crop, grown in complete darkness to give it its characteristic creamy white leaves. It is harvested when still young, and has a small, bud-shaped head of leaves with a delicate flavour. It can be stuffed, baked or served as part of a salad.
Chicory is less nutritious than some other bitter greens, but still provides an excellent source of vitamins A, C and K, as well as some B vitamins and manganese. It also provides moderate amounts of both vitamin E and calcium.
Radicchio is another type of chicory, often known as Italian chicory due to its popularity in Italian cooking. Despite being a leafy green, it is actually purple-red in colour, with white veins. It has a bitter, spicy flavour, and its nutritional values are similar to those listed for chicory.
As we have already mentioned, endive and chicory are very similar, and are often confused with one another. True endives come from the Cichorium endivia plant and include the curly endive, or frisée, which has thin, curly green leaves, and escarole, or broad leaf endive, which has broader, light green leaves and a milder flavour. Endives have similar nutritional benefits to those listed for chicory.
Arugula is another member of the brassica family, known for its bitter, peppery leaves. There are many different types of arugula, and it’s leaves can come in many different shapes, with differing strengths of flavour. It can be eaten raw or cooked, with cooking producing a milder flavour.
Like many bitter greens, arugula is a good source of vitamins, A, K, C, potassium and fibre. It is also a good source of calcium, which helps maintain healthy teeth and bones, and folate, which helps the body to produce genetic material, and is particularly important if you’re pregnant.
Turnip greens are the leaves of the turnip plant. Often discarded in favour of the root, these hearty, dark green leaves are not only edible, but highly nutritious. They are particularly rich in antioxidants, including 35 different types of flavonoids and a high concentration of beta-carotene, which is thought to support healthy vision, cognitive function and cardiovascular health. Turnip greens can be tough if eaten raw, but if braised or sautéed they have a pleasant, peppery flavour that works particularly well in soups.
Often hailed as a superfood, kale is one of the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet. A single cup (approximately 67g) contains more than your entire daily requirement for vitamins A, K and C. It is also a good source of many other nutrients, including manganese, several B vitamins, potassium, magnesium, calcium and copper.
Kale is packed with potent antioxidants, including quercetin and kaempferol, which are thought to have several health benefits, such as lowering blood pressure, as well as anti-inflammatory, anti-viral and anti-depressant effects. It also contains substances called bile acid sequestrants, which may help to significantly lower cholesterol.
Watercress has small, round leaves, and a pungent, spicy flavour. It is often eaten in salads, creamy soups, tarts and sandwiches. It is a rich source of vitamins A, K and C, and also contains some manganese and calcium. It is particularly high in antioxidants, including 40 different flavonoids, and has been linked to a lower risk of diabetes and heart disease.
Recipes with bitter greens
If you want to add more healthy greens to your diet, these tasty recipes mean that eating your veggies is never a chore
Chard tart: this deep-filled savoury pie is filled with big flavours like gruyere cheese and peppery chard for a slice of vegetarian heaven.
Chicory salad: this quick and easy salad packs a real punch flavour-wise, with salty, creamy Roquefort cheese, sweet apple, and bitter, crunchy chicory. Who said salads were boring?
Endive salad with plums and apples: another flavourful salad dish, with the bitterness of the endive leaves adding a pleasant edginess to the mellow sweetness of apples and plums.
Arugula pesto: a pungent, peppery twist on the Italian classic. Serve with pasta, as a dip, or drizzled over salads and pizzas.
Radicchio risotto: creamy, buttery risotto pairs beautifully with spicy radicchio in this simple but satisfying classic
Turnip greens quiche: this deliciously savoury quiche is perfect for sharing, and is sure to be a hit at buffets or casual brunches with friends.
Spicy garlic prawns with kale: this 25-minute wonder pairs punchy Asian flavours with nutrient-rich kale and juicy prawns for a dish that's as healthy as it is delicious.
Watercress scones: these soft, fluffy scones are flavoured with sharp cheddar cheese and peppery watercress for the perfect savoury snack.
How to get the bitterness out of greens
Strong bitter flavours are decidedly not for everyone, but don’t worry - there are a few simple tricks you can use to make eating your greens more palatable.
Blanching greens before cooking them boils out some of the bitterness, leaving it behind in the water. This works better for tougher veggies like collard greens, which can stand up to a lot of cooking.
Add strong flavours
Balance the bitterness of your greens by adding other, stronger flavours. Spices, garlic, sweet veggies like squash or salty, smoky meats like bacon or ham hock are all popular partners for bitter greens.
Add acidic ingredients
Using a splash of vinegar or lemon juice after cooking is another great way to balance bitter flavours, adding a brighter, lighter note to the dish.
Saltiness can also be used to cut through bitterness. This can be achieved by simply adding salt, or by using salty ingredients like anchovies, capers or bacon.
Tougher leaves like collards and kale are perfect for braising. Cook on a low temperature for 1 or 2 hours to cook out excessive bitterness and make the leaves soft and tender.
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