Cooking greens are simply leafy portions of vegetables that are well suited for cooking rather than being served raw in salads. A good many root vegetables, such as beets and turnips, serve both functions—the roots are cooked or sliced up for salads, while the above-ground leafy portions are used for cooking greens.
While vegetables in the cooking greens category aren't always related to one another botanically, they all share some similar qualities. Most are easy to grow, and many offer a long season of cut-and-come-again harvesting, meaning you can take what you need for cooking and leave the rest of the plant to continue producing. Many cooking greens can be frozen for winter eating, and most can be succession planted—planted at different times in the same garden area to make maximum use of the growing season.
Here are 12 vegetables for the home garden that make great cooking greens.
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Bok Choy (Brassica rapa var. chinensis)
Many of the Asian varieties within the Brassica rapa species are versatile and can be grown either for fresh eating or as cooking greens. Bok choy is an option that's familiar to many people. But tatsoi, napa cabbage, and several others also make great side dishes. Bok choy and napa cabbage (B. rapa var. pekinensis) require a longer growing season than the loose-leaf greens, along with protection from common cabbage pests, such as cabbage worms. You can grow the faster-maturing dwarf varieties of bok choy and reseed them directly in the garden every two to three weeks for a steady supply.
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Cabbage (Brassica oleracea)
Cabbage can be a tough vegetable to grow. As with many of the vegetables in the Brassica genus, there are multiple pests ready to devour your crop before it's ready for the table. Growing cabbage under row covers isn't the prettiest look for a garden, but it does foil cabbage moths looking for a spot to lay their eggs. Cabbage might resprout and grow a couple of smaller heads after the initial harvest, but it is best to stagger your planting if you want a continual supply.
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Collard Greens (Brassica oleracea subsp. acephala)
Kale and chard are finally having their day in the sun, and collards may well be the next big thing in cooking greens. Every bit as easy to grow as the others, these are billowy plants with plenty of regrowth for cut-and-come-again harvesting. Don't feel like you have to boil collards into submission. Their sweet, mustardy flavor is best when they are just fork-tender.
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Kale (Brassica oleracea, Acephala Group)
Kale is packed with nutrients and tons of flavor. It is quick to grow and to cook, and there is much more variety than just the curly types in the produce aisle. Kale is an excellent choice for cut-and-come-again harvesting and also for a mid to late-season planting. The plants can handle early fall frosts and actually get a little sweeter from the experience.Continue to 5 of 12 below.
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Sorrel (Rumex spp.)
Sorrel is a perennial plant that is grown for its lemon-flavored leaves. You can use young, tender sorrel leaves fresh in salads and on sandwiches, but it is a real treat when cooked. The leaves can almost liquify when cooked, imparting a very distinct flavor to dishes.
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Swiss Chard (Beta vulgaris, Leaf Beet Group)
Swiss chard is a vigorous grower that will continue sending up new tender leaves all season. You can start plants indoors a few weeks before your last frost date to get an even earlier start on the season. Like beets, chard seed comes in clusters, so expect to have to thin the young plants. But don't throw away the trimmings, as the tiny leaves are edible.
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Beet Greens (Beta vulgaris, Garden Beet Group)
Beets are among a handful of plants that are normally grown for their roots or fruit, but which also have edible shoots and foliage. Tasting similar to Swiss chard (a different cultivar group of the same species), beet greens are laden with nutrients. Beet greens are best harvested while young—you can clip off some of the stems while leaving the bulk of the foliage in place to continue nourishing the roots.
Beet greens are delicious if they are rinsed well, cut into 2-inch pieces, then boiled in slightly salty water for three to five minutes before rinsing and serving.
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Pea Shoots (Pisum sativum)
Although normally grown for edible pods or seeds, the shoots of the pea plant are also edible, and commonly used in Asian cuisine. The leaves, stems, and tendrils are tender enough to eat raw in salads, but they become especially flavorful if stir-fried with garlic and other seasonings.Continue to 9 of 12 below.
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Turnip Tops ( Brassica rapa, Rapifera Group)
The leaves of turnip plants make excellent cooked greens, simply by boiling them and seasoning with lemon juice and butter. They are among the most nutritious of all greens, containing plentiful amounts of vitamin K, vitamin A, vitamin C, and calcium.
If you expect to later harvest the roots, leave a good amount of foliage in place as you selectively clip some leaves to use for cooked greens. The greens will be most tender if harvested early in the season, before the roots have matured. Tasting similar to spinach though a little stronger, turnip tops have many uses in cooking. They are usually boiled, and are often added to ham dishes.
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Spinach (Spinacia oleracea)
Spinach is not only an excellent salad plant, but it also is one of the best vegetables for cooked greens. It is a cool-season annual vegetable that can be planted very early in the spring, then again in the fall as the weather cools down again. Mature, large spinach leaves often respond well to cooking, long after they have become too woody for salads. Spinach is a nutrient-rich vegetable that can be steamed, blanched, or sauteed.
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Mustard Greens (Brassica juncea)
Several species of mustard are used in seasoning and condiments, but the one most often eaten as cooked leaves is Brassic juncea, also known as Chinese mustard or Indian mustard. This fast-growing annual is ready to harvest in about 40 days. It adds a spicy flavor to salads or cooked dishes, and is often used in Asian cuisine. If left to flower (bolt), the seeds can also be used to make pungent sauces.
This plant can self-seed and spread rampantly, so take pains to supervise it in the garden.
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Dandelion Greens (Taraxacum spp.)
The same plant that makes homeowners gnash their teeth as they survey the springtime lawn can actually be harvested for edible greens. Dandelions are entirely edible—from flower to root. Dandelions are full of vitamin E, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, and folate; they also have notable amounts of calcium, iron, and magnesium.
Dandelion leaves make a good addition to salads, but as a cooked green they are usually sauteed in oil for use in casseroles, or as a replacement for spinach in recipes calling for that leafy vegetable.
But make sure not to harvest dandelions from your lawn if the turf has been treated with weed killers.