Any green deemed “bitter” has some things working against it—the word itself doesn’t have the best connotations. But for those of us who live in a food bubble, the phrase “bitter greens” conjures up visions of satisfying salads, sharply flavored sautées, and vivid stews.
When you’re bored with kale or spinach just won’t cut it, an array of bitter leafy vegetables are waiting at your farmers’ market or supermarket shelves to sweep you off your feet. There’s watercress, which—no big deal—the Center for Disease Control and Prevention has deemed the world’s most nutrient-rich vegetable. And other powerhouse bitter greens like chicory, arugula, turnip greens, endive, mustard green, and dandelions fall close behind it in terms of healthiness. Bitter greens have also been reported to purify the blood, aid in weight reduction, cleanse skin, prevent anemia, and improve digestion, among other miraculous feats.
But the quality we love most is their ability to transform dishes and pack in flavor. Be it collards, escarole, puntarelle or frisee, their bold flavor can boost any salad from a pile of greens to a sophisticated dish—and a whole lot more. Use them to make ace frittatas, fill ravioli and stromboli too, top soup, garnish crostini, or perk up a pureed soup, smoothie, or dip for crudité.
The trick is knowing how to temper their sometimes spicy heat, or pair them with other ingredients to keep a dish balanced. Adding fat—in the form of good olive oil, bacon or prosciutto, or meaty drippings from a roast or sautée—can help tame their flavor, or rich foods like runny egg yolks, buttery doughs, or mild cheeses also work well. Salt and acids (like vinaigrettes, vinegars, or citrus juices) are two other important keys: Both can mellow the flavor of the greens and also brighten a dish, helping the brain register deliciousness and not just bitterness.
The proof is at the table. These 40 tried-and-true recipes and techniques for cooking with bitter greens will set you on a path to obsession:
Seared Radicchio with Raisins and Shaved Parmigiano
This warm salad is made with a naturally sweet, high-quality balsamic vinegar to balance the bitterness of the leaves. If top-shelf balsamic vinegar di Modena is unavailable or out of your price range, cooking the grocery store version down by about one-third of its volume over a medium-low flame—and further sweetening it to taste with a drizzle of honey as needed—helps produce a similar level of sweetness.
Endive and Walnut Salad
With winter looming, this salad with endive, comte and walnuts is a great choice for cold weather. The recipe, adapted from Susan Herrmann Loomis’s The French Farmhouse Cookbook, is from a cook in the town of Vinay, where walnuts are produced. The crisp and bright salad is made heartier by the addition of nuts and cheese. Get the recipe for Endive and Walnut Salad »
Kohlrabi and Watercress Salad
For a twist on the classic Waldorf salad, try tossing sweet apples with crisp watercress and nutty kohlrabi in a sumac-infused yogurt dressing.
Colonial Philadelphia, with its busy waterfront, was well influenced by trade from points south. Among the most famous Caribbean culinary imports was pepper pot. The rich, spicy stew of beef, pork, root vegetables, and greens became a staple in Philly, where West Indian hawkers advertised it with cries of “pepper pot, smoking hot!” Today, at City Tavern, a colonial-style saloon, this version is served. Get the recipe for Pepper Pot »
Ramp and Wild Greens Pesto
Fermentation revivalist Sandor Katz makes this punchy pesto to capture the essence of spring. Chickweed, a spicy herb, is his green of choice to pair with ramps, to which he adds mild herbs and sunflower seeds, but you can replace chickweed with watercress, arugula, or any other peppery green. The same goes for the ramps—this pesto works just as well with spring onions or garlic. It will keep in the fridge for a few weeks, and Katz uses it throughout the day: on grits or eggs for breakfast, slathered on sandwiches for lunch, and tossed with potatoes or pasta for dinner. Get the recipe for Ramp and Wild Greens Pesto »
Garlicky Skillet Greens with Ham
Garlic confit, a silky, spreadable condiment, relies on a French technique for gently poaching peeled whole cloves in oil or fat. The process caramelizes the cloves and draws out their sweetness, yielding a sumptuous spread. We love to use it in dishes like these skillet-cooked greens from Linton Hopkins, chef and owner of Restaurant Eugene in Atlanta, which feature garlic confit and a piquant sorghum gastrique. Get the recipe for Garlicky Skillet Greens with Ham »