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Greens, Eggs, & Ham

What's not to like about leaves?

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People have been eating greens, or plant leaves, basically forever. While much has been said about the benefits of leaf eating, a few bad words have stuck. The occasional E. coli victim has complained, as have those who ate leaves from the wrong plant. And of course there is the enduring tradition of people who claim to not like greens. This condition is totally curable, usually by treatment with pork.

Leaves contain the majority of any plant's chlorophyll — a pigment molecule that helps convert solar energy into biological energy during photosynthesis. Chlorophyll is a close biochemical relative to hemoglobin, the oxygen-carrier in our blood, and research suggests that our bodies can convert chlorophyll into hemoglobin — especially if the chlorophyll is taken in crude form (i.e., leaves, as opposed to purified). Thus, salad might be as effective a blood-builder as meat.

There are other health claims made of chlorophyll too, some of them probably true. Meanwhile, most leaves are packed with a cocktail of vitamins, anti-oxidants, enzymes, minerals, etc. Not to mention all that fiber, which will make you a happy crapper in the morning.

Ideally, the greens you eat will vary with season and location and include purchased, gathered, and homegrown specimens, such as amaranth, arugula, beets, broccoli, bok choy, cabbage, chickweed, collards, dandelion, endive, fennel, garlic, kale, lambs quarter, lettuce, mustard, nettle, plantain, purslane, radicchio, seaweed, sorrel, spinach, turnip, watercress — and another thousand or so plants with edible leaves around the world.

I like to hang out in my garden with a bowl of salad dressing, plucking leaves, dipping them in dressing, and generally grazing blissfully on a mix of leafy plants. I match greenery to contrast the various bitter leaves (dandelion, radicchio, etc.), sweet leaves (lettuce, spinach, purslane), and spicy leaves (garlic, arugula). Chewed together, these combos pack the potent flavor of leaves that are not only raw but still alive.

This technique is best right after watering, when leaves are clean. It's a fun way to party with your friends in the garden, everyone with their own bowl, munching on minimally refined sunshine, while the grill heats up.

My current salad dressing is equal parts oil and balsamic vinegar (the oil part being equal parts olive and safflower), plus a clove or two of garlic per cup. Put everything in the blender and liquefy, or 'til you smell the blender's motor heating up.

Most greens can be cooked as well, each with its own tolerances and requirements. Spinach wilts with barely a hard stare, while tough greens like kale can use some tenderization. Consider removing the leaf's central vein, which is even tougher and takes longer to cook.

Usually, you can simply add washed and chopped greens to what's cooking — soup, lasagna, whatever. Or greens can be a load-bearing pillar of your dish.

Many culinary traditions combine greens and pig. From bacon bits at the salad bar to ham hock in the Southern-style collard greens, it seems pork and greens, like pork and beans, bring out the best in each other.

The other day for breakfast I made a dish of greens, eggs, and ham. Well, bacon, actually.

In a medium-hot pan, I placed a few chunks of frozen fat from Ben and Julie's pig. If none of your friends have a pig, used chopped bacon, or pork chops, or leftover ribs. Non-pig-eaters, use the cooking oil of your choice and/or butter.

When the meat is browned, add pepper flakes, chopped onions, and garlic. When these have cooked together, turn up the heat to high for a minute and add the greens of your choice.

The water from the just-washed greens will drip and sizzle in the pan, wilting the greens. For some extra-flavored steam, give a shot of sherry (or cider vinegar, or Japanese mirin cooking wine, or pickled pepper brine, etc.), and drop the lid. At this point, you want the pan to be just a little wet, steaming furiously and on schedule to dry out, but not burn, by the time the eggs are cooked. Season with salt and pepper.

Give the greens a final stir, and crack in your eggs, sunny-side up. Replace the lid, turn down to medium, steam-fry until the egg tops are as dry as you like 'em, and serve.

Not bad for breakfast. For lunch, one could start the same pan of greens, but instead of cracking in eggs, add oyster sauce, raw garlic, and a shot of mirin (this stuff's a bit spendy but great for Asian-style cooking). Stir-fry until dry but not burning. Serve over rice. Or not.

The other day I wanted oyster sauce and didn't have it. Soy sauce kind of works as a substitute, but I wanted some salty sea in my greens. So I went with chopped anchovy, olive oil, bay leaf, salt, onion, and garlic as a base for a Mediterranean-style stir-fry, with a shot of sherry as I added my lambs quarter and spinach. Oh, man.

For vegans and other "pickyvores" looking to spice up their greens life, any way you can add fat and protein to your greens is worth exploring. One foolproof recipe is to blanch your greens for a minute in boiling water, then drain and toss them with sesame oil, crushed garlic, soy sauce, and then cider vinegar to taste. Then toss in sliced green onions and toasted nuts.

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