This is the true story of how salad greens saved my life. I caution you to read this story with the utmost attention to detail, for, if you should ever find yourself in the circumstances that brought me to the cliff, dangled me over the edge and almost let go, you will be equipped with valuable information.
It is not a complicated story: One day, I felt like a hairy pile of crap -- headache, sore throat, mucus mouth. Then I ate a huge garden salad, and everything was back to good again.
I think I was lacking something internally, and that thing was salad, because as soon as I ate it, I felt like a million bucks. I didn't need antibiotics or herbal sups, I needed a salad. That's it.
And that's the whole story, and the moral is: Eat your greens.
Since that epiphany earlier this summer, I have devoted one quarter of virtually all dinners to salad. The ingredients come from a handy-dandy neighborhood garden in which I've dug, pulled, planted and picked. There are no traces of steroids, insect repellants or preserving agents, which might stunt the healing powers of salad, anywhere near this garden. It is a big lot, and it is loaded with all kinds of edible greens.
Experimentation has been the rule. There have been salads made with bittersweet arugula and Swiss chard; cabbage tossed with dandelion leaves and carrot tops; romaine and thyme flowers; red leaf lettuce and radish greens -- and other combos not so successful. Once we fecklessly threw some leafy, uncooked kale in with a mellow bowl of head lettuce to make it seem more interesting; the kale was so acrid and punky it put a mean look on everyone's face. Raw is a really bad way to eat kale.
Leaf greens, in general, are more potent than the head variety, and so they are often better boiled. No doubt, boiled kale is the food of long baby frowns. In its prettiest form, it still looks like a pile of wet, green mush. Not even the folks who like kale think it looks any better than a pile of wet, green mush. But done right, it is mush of the gods.
Once thought to be the food of country bumpkins, boiled greens are now the stuff of haute couture regional cuisine. Still, about every kind of chef -- professionally trained or an Uncle Jesse-type -- cooks greens the same way: boiled in a quarter-pan of water, sometimes with a piece of salt pork (bacon, ham or fatback) and a handful of spices (essential are red chile-pepper flakes). The green water produced at the bottom of the pan is either dumped out or, if you're Mr./Ms. Fitness, refrigerated for gonzo breakfast shots of vitamins A, C and K.
Table salt and ground pepper are applied to the greens before serving to draw out inner flavors that the boiling loosens up. Lawd have mercy, greens like these go down well with beans, cornbread and pan-seared catfish.
The same boil method for kale is used when cooking collard greens or even spinach, for that matter -- spinach simply requires a shorter cooking time. Spinach boiled down to a green mess is the perfect foundation for a number of vegetarian entres and baked goods, like pasta al Fiorentina, Indian saag, spanikopita or (always the holiday favorite) Cara DeGette's Famous Spinach Cheese Squares.
Despite such versatility when cooked, there is a stigma spinach can't seem to shake when taken raw. People think preparing spinach for a salad is a pain in the ass, because the stems are bitter and usually need to be peeled off. These people are right. It is a total pain in the ass. But there are benefits to manual labor, one of which is good health, another is pure flavor.
A word to all you people who buy pre-cleaned spinach salad bags as a timesaving device and douse them with partially hydrogenated dressing: I am glad you are eating your salad, but you are lazy and weak, and you should spend your money more wisely. Our bodies are temples, not garbage disposals. And they deserve a few tedious minutes spent pulling stems and washing dirt from our spinach leaves, or double-rinsing a mess of kale or collards in the kitchen sink until every last speck of sandy soil is washed off.