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Photograph by Ari LeVaux
Omnivore's Dilemma : Which to eat first--pork or greens?

Greens, Eggs and Ham

Chef Boy Ari suggests new ways to enjoy nature's superfoods.

By Ari LeVaux

People have been eating greens, or plant leaves, basically forever. While much has been said about the benefits of leaf-eating, only a few negative assessments 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. Their condition is curable, usually by treatment with pork.

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

Beyond chlorophyll, most leaves are packed with a cocktail of vitamins, antioxidants, enzymes, minerals and fiber.

Ideally, the greens you eat will vary with the seasons and your 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 the edible leaves of another thousand or so plants growing around the world.

I like to hang in my garden with a bowl of salad dressing, munching on minimally refined sunshine via the dipped leaves of crops and edible weeds, leaves that are not only raw but still living. This technique is best after watering, when the leaves are on the clean side.

Most greenery falls into one of three flavor categories: bitter (dandelion, radicchio), sweet (lettuce, spinach, purslane) and spicy (garlic, arugula). I pick a mix of leaves and chew them together.

Most greens can be cooked as well, each with its own tolerances and requirements. Usually, you can simply add washed and chopped greens to whatever'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 the ham hock in Southern-style collard greens, it seems that pork and greens bring out the best in each other.

Which brings us to my recent breakfast of greens, eggs and ham.

In a medium-hot pan, I placed a few chunks of frozen fat from Ben and Julie's pig (not ham exactly, but you can be flexible here and use chopped bacon, pork chops, whatever; nonpiggyvores, use the cooking oil of your choice and/or butter). When the bacon is browned, add pepper flakes and chopped onions and garlic. When these have cooked together, turn up the heat to high. After a minute, add the greens of your choice.

The water from the just-washed greens will drip and sizzle in the pan, wilting the leaves. For some extra-flavored steam, add a shot of sherry (or another acid, like cider vinegar, Japanese "mirin" cooking wine, 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 the heat down to medium, steam-fry until the egg tops are as dry as you like 'em, and serve. If you're more in the mood for lunch, how about bacon greens with garlic and oyster sauce? Start the same pan of greens, but instead of cracking in eggs, add more garlic--or chopped garlic flowers, if you can get 'em--and then oyster sauce, along with a shot of mirin. Stir-fry till dry but not burning. Serve over rice, noodles, whatever.  

Once I found a leftover pork rib in the fridge. I pulled apart the rib with my fingers and fried the chunks slowly in their own fat. It started to burn, so I deglazed with a shot of mirin, switched the meat to a clean pan, turned up the heat, and added chopped onions and garlic flowers. After cooking briefly, I added oyster sauce, another shot of mirin and some pea-greens--with flowers attached!--and steam-fried it home.

For vegans and other pickyvores looking to spice up their greens life, one foolproof recipe is to blanch your greens for a minute in boiling water, drain and toss them with sesame oil, crushed garlic and soy sauce. Then toss in sliced green onions--a.k.a. onion greens--toasted nuts and cider vinegar to taste. So what are you waiting for, piggyvores and pickyvores? Go eat some plant leaves. Eat them till your blood runs green. And like it.

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