Global Greens

Move over spinach and collards, and welcome the exotic leafy greens like amaranth, calloloo, and purslane.


Orach, which is pictured on this issue's cover, is also known as 'Mountain Spinach.' Instead of being related to spinach it is a relative of lamb's quarters. Orach is a versatile plant that can be grown throughout the summer and into winter for salads and cooked greens. The flavor is not bitter and slightly similar to fennel. It is very slow to bolt and quite ornamental in the garden. In fact, it is also used in floral arrangements as a filler.

Photo by Brian Dunna

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http:///Kale and callaloo, purslane and pea vines. These are among the greens found growing in a community garden in a diverse neighborhood in southwest Boston. With garden members hailing from more than 10 different countries, including Nigeria, Mexico and Ireland, the crops we grow reflect the cultural diversity of our members. Leafy greens are an important nutritional component of every traditional cuisine. Our garden plots are full of them. High in antioxidants, rich in fiber, and packed with minerals, leafy greens are protective against cancer and heart disease.

Greens are not only healthy, but they are one of the easiest crops to grow. A wide variety of greens can be harvested from early spring through the first chilly days of winter. Some, such as purslane, nettles, and lamb’s quarters even grow as weeds, with tender young leaves as tasty and nutritious as their cultivated cousins.

Back when some of us were growing up, “eat your greens” meant suffering through an unappetizing mass of soggy spinach. It took Popeye to inspire children to eat these greens, and often the family pet benefited instead. When you didn't grow your own, the choice of greens was limited, often coming from a can or the freezer. These days, grocery stores and farmer’s markets’ tables are stacked with a wide array of fresh, crisp leafy greens, from Rainbow Swiss chard to Baby Bok Choy. However, vegetable gardeners have an even wider choice of leafy greens, including ones such as amaranth which are too perishable to be transported, and purslane, which grows commonly as a weed.

In the United States, amaranth is mostly thought of as a high-protein grain found in some breakfast cereals. However, in many other parts of the world, including tropical Africa, India, and China, amaranth is grown as a leafy green. The plant varies considerably in its appearance. Leaves can be light green, dark green or variegated with red. Flower heads can appear as decorative red tassels, huge upright spikes, or tiny clusters of white seeds. Plants are typically 3 to 5 feet in height, but some plants can grow as tall as 6 feet. A single amaranth plant can be a beautiful focal point in an edible garden.

Amaranth is very easy to grow, but like most leafy greens, it benefits from a nitrogen-rich loamy soil. Richer soil will produce taller, more robust plants. Amaranth can be grown in the heat of the summer, when other greens such as spinach bolt quickly. The plants are almost always pest free. Amaranth leaves can be harvested when young and tender, but continue to be delicious up until the time the plant begins to flower. Young leaves can be enjoyed raw in salads, the older ones are best cooked. Leaves can be used in any recipe that calls for cooked spinach, resulting in a more nutritious dish, with three times the calcium as the same dish prepared with spinach.

In Jamaica and other countries of the Caribbean, the most popular leafy green is known as callaloo. This green is also an amaranth, Amaranthus viridis or Amaranthus spinosus. Like the other varieties of amaranth, callaloo thrives in hot summer weather. It grows quickly and can be harvested in 30 to 40 days. Since it is so fast growing, callaloo is perfect for succession planting. Several plantings can be ready for harvest in just one season. Callaloo doesn’t need a rich soil, and is tolerant of different moisture conditions. Interestingly, this plant can be grown from cuttings as well as seeds. To root from a cutting, snip a 4-inch segment with several sets of leaves and put in the ground. Keep it watered well and roots will appear soon. Callaloo is best harvested before it flowers. Stems are edible as well as the leaves.

One of the most popular ways to prepare callaloo in Jamaica is with salted codfish. It can also be prepared as a simple sauté in olive oil with a little onion or garlic. It can be used in any recipe that calls for spinach. Callaloo cooks quickly, and tastes best when the color turns a deep-rich green. Like the other leafy greens, callaloo has a great nutritional profile, high in iron, calcium and vitamin C. With its quick, easy growing habits and high nutrition content, a patch of callaloo is a worthy addition to your summer garden.

Purslane, or Portulaca oleracea, is a common weed that can be found in gardens with loose, sandy soils and in sidewalk cracks. It has become so popular lately that cultivated varieties can be found on farmer’s market tables and in gourmet groceries.The recent popularity of purslane is due to its nutritional profile. Purslane is one of the best vegetable sources of omega-3 fatty acids, helpful in reducing inflammation and protecting against cardiovascular disease and arthritis. Purslane has more beta carotene than carrots, as well as ample vitamin E, magnesium, calcium, and potassium. With its plump, succulent leaves, similar to a jade plant, it’s no wonder that its Malawi name means “buttocks of the chief’s wife.”

Purslane is a green for early summer, after the spring greens have bolted and before the summer greens are ready. My community garden neighbor recalls how purslane, known as verdolagas in Mexico, was harvested and eaten in his country of origin. Farm workers would return from the fields in early summer with this prolific weed, providing greens for meals before the cultivated crops were ready. A traditional way of preparing verdolagas is to sauté with onions and oil, and serve on a corn tortilla with a bit of queso, or Mexican cheese.

Purslane is enjoyed in countries all over the world, including Greece as early as 7th century B.C. In the United States, Martha Washington’s cookbook had a recipe for pickled “pursland.” Henry David Thoreau enjoyed purslane growing by Walden Pond. He writes: “I have made a satisfactory dinner…simply off a dish of purslane … which I gathered in my cornfield, boiled and salted.” The flavor of purslane is slightly sour, its texture slightly mucilaginous. Both the stems and leaves can be used. It can be enjoyed raw, chopped into a potato salad, as a garnish for a cold soup, or tossed into an omelet. With a little effort and imagination, purslane can be turned into a tasty and nutritious side dish.

Once you become familiar with this common weed, you will notice purslane growing everywhere. When foraging in places other than your own garden, be certain that you are harvesting from an area not contaminated with pesticides or pet feces (like the side of a road or ditch).

Kale is the nutritional superstar of the century. It appears on every top-10 nutritious vegetables list, and even on bumper stickers proclaiming “Eat More Kale.” This “Queen of Greens” boasts high levels of beta carotene and other antioxidants that help protect the body from cancer and heart disease. In addition, kale is rich in vitamins A, K and C. It is an excellent non-dairy source of calcium. It’s also high in magnesium, which together with vitamin D helps our bones absorb calcium.

Kale is as easy to grow as it is nutritious to eat. There is much diversity among varieties — with leaf colors ranging from blue-green to shades of magenta, and textures ranging from frilly to flat. Some cultivars, such as ‘Redbor,’ are pretty enough to be used as an ornamental in the garden. Kale can be grown in a wide range of temperatures, from 20 degrees Fahrenheit  to 80 degrees, so it is a suitable crop for many climates. ‘Siberian’ kale is particularly suited to the colder climates. Kale tends to be sweeter after the first frost, and turn slightly bitter in the hotter days of summer. The plants are relatively disease resistant, but weaker plants may show damage from cabbage loopers and other pests that affect the crucifers.

Kale is a popular green in Ireland, the U.K. and many countries of northern Europe. In Portugal, kale is the main ingredient in Caldo Verde. In both Holland and Ireland, kale is combined with mashed potatoes, butter and cream to make a dish called Colcannon in Ireland and Stamppot in Holland. During Halloween in Ireland, a bowl of Colcannon might have hidden within a ring, coin, or other charms. Finding the ring foretells a wedding in the next year, and the coin predicts wealth.

Pea Shoots
In early spring when kale is not yet abundant, and the purslane hasn’t started sprouting, a green that can be enjoyed is the young shoots of pea vines. Pea shoots are traditionally grown in Asia as a popular green. They can be found in Asian supermarkets and Chinese restaurants. They are also very easy to grow in the garden and even indoors. Pea shoots are the growing tips, tendrils, and young leaves of pea vines.

Pea shoots can be grown from sugar snap peas, shelling peas, or edible pod peas. When planting for the shoots, seeds can be sown very closely, even touching. When the vines reach 6 to 8 inches in height, they are ready to be harvested. Snip off the top few inches of the vine, including a set of leaves. You will find that the shoots continue to grow, and can be harvested at least once more before they turn tough and stringy.

When fresh greens are scarce in the middle of winter, pea shoots can even be grown indoors. To help them germinate quickly, soak in lukewarm water for 12 hours. Rinse and repeat. Plant in a container that has at least 5 inches of well-draining soil or compost. Cover lightly with about ½ inch of soil and keep well watered. After the shoots start to appear, keep the plants in a sunny window, and within a few weeks you’ll have pea shoots ready to harvest.

Pea shoots can be prepared just like any other green — simply saute in olive oil with a bit of garlic or shallots, and brighten with a squeeze of lemon juice. They can also be used instead of lettuce in a sandwich, or as an interesting garnish for a soup. In the early spring, before other greens are ready to harvest, pea shoots are a great choice of vegetable for a meal.

Leafy greens are a valuable crop for every kitchen garden. They are highly nutritious, providing minerals that help maintain strong bones; phytonutrients that protect against inflammatory diseases; and fiber that helps prevent many maladies. Greens picked fresh from your own garden, grown in healthy soil are even more nutritious than ones that have traveled from the farm to the grocery store. Leafy greens are easy to grow, often allowing continual harvesting of leaves while the plant continues to produce more.

With a globally inspired variety of greens, from quick-growing pea shoots, mustards and arugula in early spring, to purslane and Swiss chard in early summer, to amaranth and callaloo in summer, and kale into late fall, there is no reason not to grow fresh nutritious greens in almost every season of the year.