I bloody love leafy greens. Mainly because they are never in short supply, even in winter. And secondly because they’re impossible to waste; so willing they are to adapt to whatever’s on the stove. Chard, kale and beet tops have pretty much formed the mainstay of my meals over the last few months of winter; torn into soups, stews, curries and broths, finely shredded into salads, tossed through pasta, steamed and eaten with fish. I could go on. Slowly slowly, spring greens, purple sprouting broccoli, spinach, lettuce and salad varieties are making their way onto market stalls and cornershop shelves, and I for one am happy.
I never knew what eating seasonally meant or why it mattered. I get it now. And I guess if you’re here, reading a blog post about greens, you’ve probably heard the old rabble too. Of course, it makes sense that eating food with the seasons means it’s going to be better – it was plucked fairly nearby, it didn’t travel far and therefore, it’s going to be cheaper, fresher and taste far more like itself than anything you get from further away. It just makes sense. In the chaos of our everyday lives, it can be tricky to navigate eating seasonally. Go to the supermarket on any given day and we could be fooled into thinking that asparagus and apples just grew when we asked them to. I’ve found that avoiding supermarkets and all the plastic-wrapped, drab-tasting veg they churn out and sticking to markets and local shops is a good way to know what’s what. (I realise sadly that this is a lot easier to do in a big city with all our farmers’ markets and veg box initiatives – I recently went home to Wales and our only option was the Tesco Metro! – but nevertheless, it’s not impossible). The online guide, Eat the Seasons is at least a good start to knowing roughly what’s in season when.
So leafy greens. When it comes to eating the seasons, these guys are a good place to start. They can, more or less be cooked and used in similar ways so really, as long as you have the season nailed, you can just adapt them to what you’d usually cook. Kale in winter morphs into spinach and purple sprouting broccoli in spring. Summer brings cavolo nero and all kinds of salad leaves, which becomes beet tops and chard come autumn. And on it goes.
When I have nothing but the season’s greens at home, my fall-back dinner is green pasta. Just a handful of fairly hardy leafy greens (salad leaves don’t count here), sea salt, garlic, extra virgin olive oil and pasta, and 12 minutes of your time, will get you the most simple, but elegant expression of good pasta I can think of. The greens are cooked twice; first in boiling water until they’re really tender, then again, tossed in a hot pan with pasta and extra virgin olive oil until it all sticks and clings together, glistening and bright.
I like to blanch the garlic in the greens’ cooking water, but you could also fry it in oil as Rachel Roddy does in her own version with broccoli – if you want to save on washing up or gas or both, then blanching your garlic will still give you a nice garlicky hum. Once cooked, remove it all to a food processor or bowl, bring the water back up to the boil, add salt and tip in the pasta (this is a satisfying way to make double use of the cooking water). The greens and garlic are then whizzed up with a good pour of extra virgin olive oil and sea salt until you get a vibrantly green kinda pesto and you want to eat it with a spoon. If you have extra greens that need using, make a double batch, then use it over the following days, tossed through new potatoes or hot gnocchi or spread on hot toasts with ricotta and chilli to finish.
As the pasta reaches its perfect bite, scoop out a cupful of the cooking water, then drain and return the pasta to the hot pan. The starchy cooking water is important here, as it is for every pot of pasta and its sauce, marrying the two so every bit of pasta is coated and glistening. If you have any, a grating of Parmesan, also helps attain deliciously silky results. A side note: the quality of your olive oil and salt will make or break this, so make sure you save the good stuff for dishes like these where every ingredient counts for something.
250g leafy greens, such as cavolo nero,
purple sprouting broccoli, chard, kale, dark cabbage
1 clove of garlic
extra virgin olive oil
optional: Parmesan cheese
Bring a large pan of water to the boil. Trim the greens and peel the garlic, then add both to the boiling water. Cook until tender – this might take longer depending on how hardy your vegetables are. If using broccoli, cook it until you can easily pierce it with a knife. Using a slotted spoon or tongs, remove the greens and garlic to a food processor (or use a bowl and hand blender). Bring the water back to the boil, add salt, then tip in the pasta. Cook until al dente.
Meanwhile, add roughly 2 tablespoons of oil and a pinch of sea salt to the greens, then blitz well until you get a smooth, silky sauce. Add more oil to loosen if needed or more salt to taste.
Reserving a cupful of the cooking water, drain the pasta, then return it to the hot pan. Spoon in the blitzed greens and toss to coat, adding splashes of the cooking water to loosen, if needed. Finely grate in some Parmesan if you have any, and toss through again. Serve straightaway with a drizzle of oil and a final grating of Parmesan, if you like.