Your Guide to Hearty, Healthy Winter Greens
Everything you need to know about kale, collards, chard, and other leafy greens, plus 16 ways to use them
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Featured greens photos by Sher Castellano
Once the holidays are over, I feel a sense of relief. Another hectic season successfully completed! But now what? I’ve eaten all the turkey, all the latkes, all the Christmas cookies (allll the Christmas cookies). My body is screaming for something lighter, something that will put a little pep in my step. That’s when I turn to winter greens. More refreshing than root vegetables and every bit as versatile, they help me make it through to Spring.
What are winter greens?
It’s simple: Winter greens are leafy vegetables that do well in cold temperatures. That includes:
Crucifers like kale, collard greens, arugula, mustard greens, broccoli rabe, turnip greens, tatsoi, bok choy, and cabbage
Members of the amaranth family like Swiss chard, beet greens, and spinach
Members of the chicory family like escarole, radicchio, frisée, and endive
Other greens like sorrel and dandelion greens
They’re packed with antioxidants and healthy fiber, and many offer impressive amounts of calcium and vitamins A, C, and K. This time of year, I think they’re the best way to eat something fresh that hasn’t traveled halfway around the world — farmers’ markets where I live in New York offer them all winter long.
How to store winter greens
They may be sturdy, but they’re not invincible. Store your winter greens in plastic bags, in the crisper. How long winter greens will last in storage depends on how sturdy they are outside the fridge. Cabbage, for example, will stay fresh for a month or more if refrigerated in a plastic bag. But more delicate spinach leaves start to get slimy after about a week. I find I’m more likely to use leafy greens like kale and chard if I separate the leaves (discarding any damaged outer leaves), rinse them, and dry them in a salad spinner. Then I roll them up inside kitchen towels, pop the roll into a bag, and refrigerate. This way, they’re ready to go when I need them.
How to cook winter greens
Winter greens can have sweeter to more assertive, sometimes bitter flavors, and how you prepare them will enhance or mute that effect.
Mild greens (spinach, escarole, cabbage, bok choy, and frisée, plus baby leaves of medium greens, below). Greens like these fall on the mild side of the spectrum — I love using them in salads almost as much as I like to saute them with olive oil, garlic, and maybe a sprinkle of crushed red pepper flakes.
Medium greens (Tuscan kale, mustard, Swiss chard, collard greens). With more oomph than mild greens but not too much, medium greens are my kitchen workhorses. These are the versatile stars I reach for to make everything from sautes to lasagnas, rice dishes, and slow-cooked Southern-style greens.
Bitter greens (radicchio, curly kale, curly endive, dandelion). While many folks love to dig into a salad packed with bitter radicchio or other assertive greens, I’m not a huge fan of eating them raw. Roasting and braising these greens, though, mellows the flavor and brings out a hint of sweetness I really enjoy.
Any greens (spinach to dandelion). I’ll toss a few generous handfuls of almost any green into a simmering pot of soup.
Tips for preparing winter greens
How you prepare your greens depends on what type you’re starting with and what you’re making.
For salad. Choose smaller, younger greens for salads, since they’ll be milder in flavor and more tender in texture.
General prep (separate leaves and stems). Many, but not all, winter greens have a sturdy stalk that can be unpleasant to eat raw — and it takes longer to cook than the leaves. Before you go to cook your greens or throw them into a salad, you’ll want to separate those stalks from the leaves. I find it easiest to fold the leaf in half along the stalk and gently tear off the greens. If you’re cooking your greens, chop the stalks.
For basic wilting or sauteeing. Most of the time when you’re cooking greens, you’ll want to leave some water clinging to the leaves after washing. That helps them wilt and cook down more evenly. Expect softer greens like spinach to cook quickly in a skillet, while sturdy leaves like kale and collards need more time over the flame. If you’re including chopped, sturdy stalks, get them into the pan a few minutes before you add the leaves.
Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s get to some recipes!
Jump ahead to:
Winter greens salad recipes
Hearty greens make for hearty winter salads — but they’re salads, so they’re still pretty light.
Kale stands up beautifully to deeply flavorful dressings, and this one — with garlic, soy sauce, vinegar, honey, sesame oil, lemongrass, and lime juice — is deeply flavorful. I love how julienning the greens, carrots, bell peppers, and scallions makes everything look so pretty and bright. Just what we need in deepest, darkest winter.
Bacon and winter greens go perfectly together. The smoky, luscious chunks of meat play so nicely against gorgeous rainbow chard. Add in the crunch of homemade bacon-fat croutons, the zing of fresh grapefruit, and the piquant surprise of lightly pickled chard stems, and I’m sold.
Let me clue you in on a secret: I like kale salads just fine, but I adore escarole salads. There’s something about the contrast between the dark, sturdy outer leaves and the pale, tender inner ones — it’s so vivid and varied. Especially when the salad combines nuts (hazelnuts), fruit (pear), cheese (Parmesan), herbs (a surprisingly large amount of basil), tossed with an assertive vinaigrette.
Winter greens soup recipes
A handful of leafy greens, added for the last few minutes, boosts the flavor as well as the nutrient content of almost any soup.
Smoked turkey sausage in a soup pretty much guarantees it’ll be filling enough for dinner. With chunks of sweet potato, red kidney beans, chopped kale, and spices like cumin and chipotle chili powder, this’ll definitely keep you warm.
Can I just say: This is my all-time favorite soup. Nicely seasoned mini-meatballs simmer in chicken broth along with aromatic vegetables and small-cut pasta, and at the last minute an entire bunch of chopped escarole goes in, just until it wilts. Top each bowl with grated Parmesan, and I could eat this all day. Bonus: This recipe gives you instructions for both the Instant Pot and the stovetop.
If you want healthy and hearty at the same time, you can’t beat a vegetarian soup that combines lentils, winter greens, herbs, and whatever other vegetables you have on hand. Make a pot of this on Sunday, and you’ve got lunch for the week.
Braised winter greens recipes
Braising — first browning your food, then simmering in a covered pan with a small amount of liquid — not only maximizes the flavor of winter greens. It also helps tenderize the toughest leaves.
The beauty of a recipe like this is its flexibility. You can use any combo of sturdy greens you’ve got — think kale, mustard greens, collards — and behold! The magic of a nice, long braise with andouille sausage and caramelized onions. You’ll definitely want a good hunk of bread to sop up the pot liquor.
These greens (again, any kind) get braised in a quick, garlicky tomato sauce. When they’re tender, you crack in some eggs, cook until they’re just set, and sprinkle with grated Parmesan. An easy, satisfying weeknight dinner.
Pine nuts and raisins (yes, raisins) are a traditional Sicilian combination. Here, they add a crunchy-sweet punch to mixed greens braised with garlic, white wine, and crushed red pepper flakes. Serve with simply cooked chicken or fish for a perfect light dinner.
Winter greens juice and smoothie recipes
If you’d asked me ten years ago if I’d be throwing handfuls of spinach or kale into my smoothies, I would’ve laughed. Now, I know better.
That has to be the most beautiful beverage I’ve ever seen. Look at that ruby red color! It comes from a whole beet as well as a cup of chopped beet greens. Sweetness comes from frozen mango and strawberries, and the “zinger” part of the equation comes from a pinch of cayenne. Good morning!
I’m not a fan of coconut water. It has just enough flavor for me to wish it had more, so I never drink it solo. Add kale, apples, and lime, though, and I’ll happily sip a glass.
Green and creamy from chard and avocado, this eye-opener also calls for fresh jalapeño, frozen pineapple, and coconut water. If you like your smoothies not too sweet, this one’s for you.
More main dishes starring winter greens
I find if I start thinking about greens not just sauteed as a side dish, but as the main event, it’s easy to include lots of servings in my meal plans every week.
You know about slow-cooking collard greens Southern-style with a ham hock. Cooks with Soul takes a lighter approach and reimagines the classic dish with the greens as wrappers, loaded up with rice, ground pork, and plenty of flavor.
Don’t be intimidated by the ingredients list — this vegan curry tastes complex but takes less than half an hour to cook. Thai red curry paste and a squeeze of lime juice with kale: So much bang for your buck.
I love, love, love greens on pizza. They get nicely charred around the edges, which is such a good contrast to the creamy cheese. And you can put crisp, smoky bacon on my pizza any time.
Think of this as a warm salad. To make it, roast balsamic-kissed radicchio and shrimp to coax out the sweetness while you heat a vinaigrette using bacon, shallots, balsamic vinegar, and mustard.
Healthy eating for the new year
With colder weather and the flip of the calendar, we’re craving healthy foods like a tonic. Here are plenty more ideas for healthy recipes featuring veggies that the whole family will enjoy.
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