Gorgeous greens of spring

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Some of the first fresh vegetables of the season are in the greens family. Let's look at how these vegetables interact with your body to provide their powerhouse nutrition.

All greens are a superior source of minerals and a good source of vitamin A, with beta-carotene as well as vitamin K, which aids in your natural ability to stop bleeding. Most greens are a fabulous source of calcium, good for strong bones. Especially for people who are not eating dairy, this plant-based source of calcium can provide awesome benefits.

Eating whole foods provides your body with more nutrition per bite than taking vitamins. Why? It turns out that there are other substances that are naturally occurring in a plant that provide a red carpet entry into your body, so that you absorb and assimilate a greater percentage of goodness. It makes perfect sense if you think about it -- we have evolved with plants and animals -- we are connected. Once you make this connection, the next question would be, "Does your body absorb some vegetables better than others?" The answer is yes.

Most people like spinach for their greens. But how does spinach compare with other greens? Kids know that Popeye transformed into a mighty being by eating spinach. Two factors play into how much nutrition you will get per bite. One is "bioavailability," or how easily the human body absorbs, or uses, the nutrition in the food. Some foods are good for you, but your body cannot actually utilize their full potential. The best example I can think of in discussing bioavailability in healthy foods is between spinach and other more bitter greens, like kale or collard greens.

The second concept is “nutrient density,” which is a measure of how “tightly packed” the vitamins and minerals are within that foodstuff. Looking purely at nutrient density, there are 357 milligrams of calcium per cup of cooked collard greens, 179 mg of calcium per cup of kale, and 244 milligrams of calcium per cup of cooked spinach, per the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It would seem that spinach is a very nutritious source of calcium. But it turns out that the calcium in spinach is not as “bioavailable” as the calcium in other greens that you might not have tried.

While spinach contains calcium, it is not well “taken in” -- it’s poorly absorbed. Why? Because it has a natural ingredient called oxalate, which binds up the calcium in a package and prevents the body from using it like it could. Other greens in this family including kale, broccoli, turnip greens, collard greens and mustard greens are “low-oxalate,” so their calcium is more “bioavailable” -- you get more of it in you in the same bite.

This spring, open up your culinary outlook to include lots of different kinds of greens. You can substitute them for spinach in a recipe. A little less tender, they will need a few more minutes to cook, but only a few -- you don’t want to cook away their fabulous nutrition. Greens are going to be fresh from gardens and all over the farmers markets in early spring -- buy new kinds in place of spinach.

Want to try a different green in a totally yummy dish? Try an easy, tasty recipe for Maple Collard Greens at the bottom of this page, from Clark College cooking instructor and New Seasons chef Betty Walberg.

Maple Collard Greens

Makes 3-4 servings.

2 tablespoons butter or olive oil

1 small onion, chopped in small dice

1 bunch collard greens, washed, stems removed, chopped and still damp

1½ tablespoons real maple syrup

1 tablespoon barbecue sauce

Salt and pepper, to taste

Heat butter or oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat until hot. Add onions and sauté for 5 minutes or until lightly browned.

Add collards and cover pan with a lid and cook for 3-5 minutes. Add maple syrup, barbecue sauce, a pinch of salt and pepper. Mix together and cook covered over medium heat for about 10-15 minutes or until greens are tender.

Tracy Reilly Kelly is program manager for corporate and continuing education at Clark College. Reach her at tkelly@clark.edu or 360-992-2163.