Looking to add more volume, flavor, and texture to your plate? Consider adding greens. But not just any greens–tender greens.
Produce 101: Tender Greens
What are tender greens? Well, they aren’t lettuces or braising greens, and they are typically used raw or wilted. They range in flavor from mild-almost-neutral, to pungent, spicy, or peppery.
Spinach is a great example of a tender green. In fact, spinach is the only tender green that has a USDA spec.
- US Extra #1
- US #1
- US Commercial
It is based mainly on color and uniformity of shape, but also importantly: mechanical damage. You may wonder what that is, and really, it’s just what it sounds like.
During the harvest, the harvesting blades may be a little dull or the leaf may be a little crispy, or as it’s being washed and cooled in the post-harvest operation, the leaves can get damaged. It doesn’t affect the quality and flavor, but it does decrease and diminish the shelf-life just a little bit. If you are looking to use whole leaves, set these aside, they can still be used in a sauce or cooked.
Spinach comes in really two main forms: we have the full-size spinach image below, and the baby spinach image above.
The differentiator between the two clearly is the size. Baby spinach is perfect for your salads. It is tender, the stems are delicate, and can be used where the tender texture is preferred. Full-size spinach is typically cooked—cook it really fast with a little olive oil, add handfuls to soup, or it can be braised.
It can be used raw, but it really shines better cooked. Full-size spinach sizes can range dependant on when it is harvested. You may see it just past the baby stage, all the way to fully mature with bunched stems.
We will go from mild to most flavorful, starting with Mache, called Lamb’s Lettuce or Corn Salad. Mache is incredibly tender with soft, velvety leaves, and as such it is best used raw. You don’t often put an undressed green on a plate, so toss it with a lightly flavored oil or a mild vinaigrette, salt, and pepper. If you use something heavier, it might not stand up on the plate.
Mache is a very old green. It is almost neutral flavored, it goes really well with delicately-flavored proteins or vegetables. More often than not, it comes attached to its root bulb in a plug (as seen above). This increases the shelf-life and holds that flavor and color a little bit longer. All you need to do it right before you use it, is snip it off, and you are ready to go.
We have arugula, it has a little peppery bite to it at the end. It’s great wilted, it really shines as a center of the plate green item, not necessarily as a salad. Consider setting your grilled fish on top of raw, vinaigrette dressed arugula. The residual heat will wilt it down just a little bit.
It also makes a wonderful pesto. Try it if you’ve got some and you are a little long on your arugula, throw it in your blender with a little olive oil, some parmesan cheese or Grana Padano cheese, pine nuts, walnuts–even pecans will work. Grind it up, blend it, you’ve got a great new flavorful pesto to use.
Watercress and Upland Cress
We have the familiar watercress (pictured above). It’s a little spicier than arugula, and then we have watercress’ close cousin, Upland cress pictured below.
These two greens are usually used raw and known for adding a peppery bite to dishes.
Upland cress, much like Mache, typically comes on the root plug (again, pictured above). It’s a little more vibrantly flavored from the watercress, it’s got more of a punch and an almost horseradish-like finish and works wonderfully with grilled meats and seafood.
Baby Kale Mix
Last but certainly not least, one of the hot new items, is baby kale mix. Kale is recognized as a superfood for its nutrient qualities. Baby kale would be perfect as an alternative to a traditional Caesar salad. It’s just tender enough that you can eat it raw, but it has enough bite and enough crunch that it adds a layer of texture to your traditional Caesar salad.
Produce 101: Tender Greens — Storage and Handling
When storing tender greens, you want to keep them cold. Don’t let them get below 32°F, that’s sort of the magic number, if they freeze, they are ruined. The cell walls rupture and break, the leaves break down, they just don’t hold up.
Keep them dry. Wash them just before using them. They don’t like to sit damp. So keep them in the back of your cooler, covered. Don’t stack heavy items on top, they are susceptible to bruising and damage. And only take what you need at each time.
Minimize the amount of times you touch the leaves, because everytime you touch them, you run the risk of bruising.
Watch Dan go over the basics of tender greens in Produce 101: Tender Greens.
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Content provided by Chef Daniel Snowden, the Director of Culinary Development for FreshPoint Central Florida. He has been in the produce industry years almost 20 years and loves getting geeky about food. Follow FreshPoint Central Florida on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
Additional contributions by Lisa Pettineo, the Digital Marketing Manager for FreshPoint, Inc. She has been in the produce industry for almost 20 years and loves fruits and veggies.