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The Joy of Fall's First Greens

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Many years ago, when Johnson was in office and our news was littered with tales of war and woe, I tasted my first fresh greens. Up until that moment, my diet as a child of the 1960s consisted primarily of frozen dinners and stringy asparagus -- the one canned green vegetable I'd inexplicably condescend to eat. My disdain for all things green apparently ran in the family: like the humorist S.J. Perelman, my father firmly believed that the only green vegetable worth eating was apple strudel.

But there we were, befuddled Northerners unaccountably on vacation in the South during the hottest September days of the 1960s, and surrounded by fresh greens nearly everywhere we went: they showed up with ham, grits, fish, and barbecue. When served with fried chicken, biscuits and gravy, they looked positively edible, even to me. I took a judicious forkful off my mother's plate; the greens were smoky and spicy, sweet and bitter, all at once, thanks in part to the copious quantities of fatback they were doubtless cooked with. I never touched canned vegetables again. It also meant that it would be another quarter century before I ate green vegetables of any sort again (not even my mother's steamed broccoli Rita, which she overcooks to the point that it's healthier to throw out the vegetables and drink the steaming water): in the 1960s, fresh, leafy greens were simply not widely available in my part of the world.

But today, we have no excuse: while pushing a cart through supermarkets large and small, rural or urban, one is bombarded by fresh greens of every size, shape, and magnificent color, be they collards, rainbow-stemmed Bright Lights chard, kale, or broccoli rabe. Of course, some folks of a certain age accurately point out that fresh greens don't last as long as the canned variety, which also can be easily had at the ubiquitous three for a dollar. A bargain, maybe, so perhaps both storability and savings point to why this my own grandmother used to horde cans of Green Giant in our cellar right next to the fallout shelter. Unfortunately, she never made the connection that she'd only reap the savings if she actually ate them, which she never did. But beyond the ease and savings that canned greens supposedly provides, many people stay away from the fresh stuff because it's plain intimidating: greens can be big and unwieldy. Isn't it just easier to go down to the fallout shelter for a nice, healthy side dish?

First, the good news is that fresh greens don't really need to last long: they miraculously love cooler weather and therefore show up in our markets just as the rest of the summer's fresh vegetables are on the wane (like, now) and they continue on into the winter. (Growing them after the frost actually makes them sweeter. Go figure.) Second, they're a breeze to prepare (wash them like lettuce leaves, chop the stems off, toss them into a big pan with some olive oil, water, a handful of minced garlic, and cover them up for 10 minutes). Fresh greens are also packed with voluminous flavor, fiber, and colossal amounts of iron and calcium, vitamin C and beta carotene. Moreover, unlike their flaccid canned cousins, which turn gray and vile when re-heated, they're perfect leftover vehicles for everything from chicken to pasta to eggs, which makes them extremely economical. The Italians seem to be aware of this fact, and their splendid broccoli rabe with garlic and hot red pepper flakes shows up nearly everywhere in their ancient cuisine; likewise the Greeks, the Asians, and the Portuguese, whose delicious kale and linguica soup can be had all over the New England coastline, from Groton to Provincetown, and beyond.

Over recent years, I've given up preparing greens southern style -- simmering them with a ham hock or three -- which does indeed impart incomparable flavor but should be reserved only for the creation of a last meal for an inmate on death row. These days, I stick fresh greens cooked in a holy trinity of garlic, a bit of olive oil, and lemon, spiked with some red pepper and a dash of decent white wine vinegar for a subtle kick. If the greens are bitter -- like broccoli rabe or mustard greens -- I'll use lusciously sweet balsamic vinegar (the older the better). I've been known to eat gobs of this stuff from late September straight through the winter, out of an ancient Delft tag sale bowl that called out to me one Sunday from underneath a paint-by-number Sermon on the Mount picture; if I have any leftovers, I toss them into an omelet, scramble them with a combination of eggs and whites (one whole egg to three whites), or top them with one perfectly poached egg. If I'm feeling particularly peckish, I mix them with that beautiful baby-ear shaped pasta, orecchiete, and a few slices of sweet Italian sausage (pork, chicken, turkey, or even meatless sausage will do in a pinch), and they last a few days longer. One can wrap a thinly pounded chicken breast around them and simmer the whole shebang in broth, wine or a combination of the two for a few minutes, and served with rice, they quickly become an anti-leftover leftover.

So when the weather cools down and fresh greens start to appear in all their fulsome loveliness, take advantage of them: load up your cart and buy as many varieties as you can, and then use them regularly. Whether you try kale, chard, collards, broccoli rabe, or mustard greens, fear not: they can all be prepared exactly the same way, and will yield a staggeringly delicious, healthy dish that even your kids will eat. Hell, I did.

Vegetable Hater's Favorite Greens

Serves 4

2 bunches of kale, chard, collards, broccoli rabe, or mustard greens

1 Tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil

4 cloves of fresh garlic, minced

2/3 cup water (white wine, fat free chicken or vegetable broth can be substituted)

1 teaspoon of red pepper flakes (or to taste)

white wine vinegar (or balsamic if the greens are bitter)

¼ cup fresh lemon juice (optional)

Laying the greens flat, chop off their stems at the point where they meet the greens. Discard stems, wash the greens thoroughly, and dry them well in a salad spinner.

Heat the olive oil over a medium-high flame, until it coats the pan and just begins to ripple. Carefully add the greens in batches, turning to coat. Their volume will reduce as they begin to cook.

Add garlic, the water, and red pepper flakes. Combine thoroughly, cover, and lower heat to a mild simmer. Cook until tender, approximately eight to 10 minutes, or longer if they're hardy greens.

Drain in a colander, drizzle with the vinegar and lemon juice (if using), and toss well.

Serve hot as a side dish or an accompaniment to fish, chicken, or meat.

Leftovers will keep well three days in refrigerator stored in a tightly sealed container.

Variations:

Toss leftovers with pasta, sausage, more fresh garlic, and grated Parmesan cheese.

Scramble with eggs, egg whites, or combination of the two.

Toss with steamed baby potatoes, onions, and bake in a cast iron pan for a modern not-exactly-Colcannon.

Add to an Omelet, with sautéed shallots.

Wrap a thinly pounded chicken breast around leftovers, secure with a toothpick, and cover with a combination of stock and dry white wine. Poach gently for 10 to 12 minutes, and serve with rice.