For money or health, they do a body good

Everywhere we turn these days, things are going "green." If your diet isn't already, it's an opportune time to get on board.

While there are green vegetables of all kinds, we're talking specifically about leafy greens such as collards, kale and spinach. Southerners profess that eating cooked greens on New Year's Day brings money the rest of the year. Who wants to risk otherwise?

But having greens regularly is a way to enrich your health, too, like making deposits in a nutrition bank. They're generous givers of vitamins, minerals and fiber, and low-calorie, too, unless you overdo fatty additives such as pork.

The government's food pyramid recommends 3 cups of dark green vegetables, many of them leafy, each week for adult men and women.

The word seems to be spreading.

"Consumption of greens goes up every year," says Steve Bowers, produce supervisor for Piggly Wiggly Carolina.

Among the locals, he says, collards and mustard greens are the most popular, especially at Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's. Southerners tend to favor the bolder-tasting greens, while spinach, being milder and more tender, is more universally liked.

Babs Ambrose of the Stono Market on Johns Island is doing a brisk business in collards this week. She and her husband, Pete, grow their own on Wadmalaw Island. They'll go through about 250 bunches between today and Tuesday.

Leafy greens often are on chef Frank Lee's menu at Slightly North of Broad restaurant. They're a perennial favorite with natives, and he says tourists are increasingly receptive.

"More people are coming to Charleston who want to experience the cuisine of the region," he says.

For the assertive ones, such as collards, turnips and mustard, Lee says it's hard to beat the classic preparation — braised with smoked bacon or fatback, onions, with a touch of sugar and vinegar at the finish.

Pork and greens are a natural pair, Lee says, and made sense for cooks in times past who didn't have access to olive or vegetable oils, or even butter.

"Greens are sharp and acidic and kind of bitter, so they take that softening of the (pork) fat; it mellows the bitterness for some reason."

But greens work nicely in a number of other dishes, says Lee. The chef has made a Tuscan white bean soup with red mustard greens and blended finely cut greens into a custard, for example.

With so much flavor, most greens need nothing more than a simple saute with olive oil and garlic.

"Greens really complement other items," Lee says. "They're a good foil for a roast or a hunky piece of fish like a spottail bass, sheepshead, king mackerel or speckled sea trout."

THE GREENS

Kale

ABOUT: Green and purple varieties are most common. Frilly leaves have a slightly bitter, peppery flavor that complements soups and stir-fries.

NUTRITION: Kale is a generous provider of calcium, folic acid, potassium and lutein, which promotes eye health. Also rich in vitamins C, A and E.

FYI: Kale is believed to be one of the first cultivated members of the brassica family, which includes cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower. The Irish thought it had supernatural powers and that fairies rode kale stalks during the new moon.

Turnip

ABOUT: Turnip greens are a bit prickly with scalloped leaves that are slightly ruffled. The taste is sharp and peppery, especially as the plant ages. May be boiled, steamed, sauteed or stir-fried. May be served alone or with mustard greens.

NUTRITION: Loaded with vitamins C and K, and is a good source of folate and calcium. Turnips are a good low-calorie fiber source.

FYI: Soul food at its best.

Spinach

ABOUT: Sweet, tender and one of the most versatile of the leafy greens. Steamed or sauteed, spinach is delicious by itself, but it also marries well with eggs and pasta, and often is used in soups or as a filling for pastry. It's a popular salad green, too.

NUTRITION: High in iron, calcium, vitamins A and C. But oxalic acid in spinach lessens the benefits because it inhibits the body's absorption of calcium and iron.

FYI: Spinach frequently was included in sweet dishes during medieval times. Adding a pinch of nutmeg to cooked spinach may be a surviving practice.

Collards

ABOUT: Collards have large, stiff, paddlelike leaves with prominent, thick stems. Leaves should be stripped from the stems before cooking. They are the mildest of the Southern greens, with a taste a little stronger than cabbage but less than mustard greens or kale. A frost is said to make them sweeter. Long, moist cooking with a piece of smoked pork is traditional, but try sauteeing torn collards in olive oil and minced garlic — very tasty, too.

NUTRITION: Excellent source of calcium, A and C vitamins. Low in calories (1 cup = 11), but high in antioxidants such as beta carotene and lutein.

FYI: A cherished Southern ritual is dunking a chunk of cornbread in the "pot likker," the flavorful cooking liquid left in the pot. Some believe that hanging a fresh collard leaf over the door will ward off evil spirits.

Chard

ABOUT: Also called Swiss chard, it's a member of the beet family. The taste is similar to spinach, but the leaves are larger and coarser with celerylike stalks. Varieties are indicated by the stalk color: green, red and rainbow, which sports pink, yellow and orange stems. Like spinach, chard can be prepared or used in many ways: sauteed, braised or stir-fried; in soups, casseroles and salads.

NUTRITION: Rich in vitamins A and C and calcium.

FYI: The leaves and stalks often are cooked separately in different ways: the greens like spinach, the stalks like asparagus.

Mustard

ABOUT: Assertive and spicy with a hot mustard kick. Cooking mellows them. Use in salads; steam, saute or simmer; add to stews or stir-fries. Onion, garlic, ham, salt pork or bacon will flavor them nicely.

NUTRITION: High in vitamins A, C and K, thiamine and riboflavin.

FYI: The same plant produces the brown seeds used to make Dijon mustard.

Recipes

This recipe, adapted from "Crescent City Cooking: Unforgettable Recipes From Susan Spicer's New Orleans" (Alfred A. Knopf, 2007), was developed to create the traditional smoky pork flavor of Southern greens without using pork. The trick? Smoked onions.

"When it comes to selecting greens, a mixture of two or three varieties is the most delicious," the author writes. "Feel free to include red chard, beet tops, kale or other hearty greens in the mix."

Smothered Greens With Smoked Onions

Makes 4 servings

1 tablespoon olive oil or rendered bacon fat

1 medium raw onion and 1 medium smoked onion (recipe follows), diced

1 garlic clove minced

4-6 cups greens, such as mustard, turnip or collard, stemmed, washed and chopped

2 teaspoons apple cider vinegar

Salt and pepper

Hot sauce

Heat the olive oil in a wide, heavy-bottomed skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and saute for about 5 minutes, stirring often, until softened but not brown. Add the garlic and cook 1 more minute. Stir in the greens and cook over medium-high heat until wilted, about 5 minutes. Add about 1 cup of water, (or more if you want more pot liquor) cover the pan, and cook 20 minutes more.

Remove the cover and turn up the heat to evaporate some of the liquid. Taste the greens: If they're slightly bitter, reduce the heat and cook a little longer. When the greens taste nice and sweet, sprinkle with vinegar and season to taste with salt, pepper and hot sauce.

Smoked Onions

You can use a domed barbecue grill or smoker for smoking vegetables. Get the chips going and fill the drip pan with ice. Use onions, cut in half, or whole if small. Lay them out on the grill, close the cover, and let them smoke. Check periodically and take them off when they look and smell ready, about 20-30 minutes.

Other vegetables such as mushrooms, corn, red or bell peppers and tomatoes also may be smoked and added to vinaigrettes, sauces, salsas and stuffings. Use the smoked onions anywhere you might use bacon or smoked ham.

While this recipe calls for Swiss chard, spinach and chard are interchangeable, since they are both tender and on the sweeter side of leafy greens.

This recipe is adapted from "Fine Cooking Annual: A Year of Great Recipes, Tips & Techniques" (The Taunton Press, 2007). You easily can substitute other kinds of fish.

Sauteed Tilapia Over Swiss Chard With Tarragon Butter

Serves 2

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 pound Swiss chard, stems and ribs discarded, leaves coarsely chopped, washed and dried

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

5 tablespoons unsalted butter (4 tablespoons of it cut into small pieces)

2 tilapia fillets (6 ounces each)

1 shallot, chopped

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1 1/2 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon

Heat the oil in a 10- to 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium high heat. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, 30-45 seconds. Add a big handful of the Swiss chard and cook, tossing often, until it has collapsed enough to add more. Continue adding the chard in batches until it's all in the pan, then cook until tender, 2-3 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper, divide the chard between two dinner plates, and keep warm.

Wipe out the skillet and return it to medium high heat. Add 1 tablespoon of the butter and let melt. Sprinkle the tilapia with 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt and a few grinds of pepper. Add the tilapia and cook, turning once halfway through cooking, until it's well-browned and cooked through, 4-6 minutes. Top the chard with the tilapia and keep warm.

Add the shallot to the skillet and cook, stirring, until lightly browned and beginning to soften, 30-60 seconds. Add the lemon juice; it should evaporate almost instantly, but if not, cook until nearly evaporated, about 30 seconds.

Remove from the heat and add the 4 tablespoons of butter pieces and the tarragon, stirring constantly until the butter melts. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Pour the sauce over the fish and chard and serve immediately.

Look for little turnips with their greens on, if you can find them. The smaller the better for this recipe, adapted from "Vegetarian Suppers From Deborah Madison's Kitchen" (Broadway Books, $19.95).

Mashed Potatoes and Turnips With Sauteed Onions and Greens

4 russet potatoes (about 2 pounds), peeled and chunked

3/4 pound or more turnips (8-10 small)

1 thyme sprig

Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

3-ounce chunk of goat cheese and/or butter to taste (optional)

1 tablespoon butter plus 2 teaspoons olive oil, or all olive oil

2 large onions, sliced about 1/4-inch thick

1 pound, more of less, washed turnip greens

Put the potatoes and turnips in a pot, cover with cold water, and add the thyme and 2 teaspoons salt. Bring to a boil and cook, uncovered, until soft, 20-25 minutes. Drain, then mash, adding cooking water if needed to thin the vegetables, and the cheese and/or butter to taste. Taste for salt and season with pepper. Keep warm in a double boiler if you're not ready to serve.

Melt the butter with oil in a large cast-iron skillet or nonstick skillet. Add the onions and cook over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, until golden and tender, 12-15 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and turn off the heat.

Lop off the stems of the turnip greens. Cook in boiling salted water until tender, about 8 minutes, but taste to make sure. Drain, then add them to the pan with the onions.

To serve, mound the mash on a platter and smother it with the onions and greens.