Greens move off salad plate

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Like many vegetable lovers, I've experienced mustard greens mostly as a salad ingredient. Those pungent little leaves give a nice punch. But they're also becoming a favorite in heartier dishes, especially because they're available at farmers markets most, if not all, of the year.

That same spicy flavor that sparks up a salad can add life to a quick pasta dish, in which mustard greens perform like a cross between spinach and broccoli rabe, with all the tenderness of the former and the personality of the latter. Orecchiette, that cute ear-shaped pasta, is a perfect choice for this recipe: The sautéed greens — along with shaved pecorino-Romano cheese for a little richness — nestle right in those little cups.

Orecchiette with Mustard Greens

Servings: 4

The original version of this recipe called for blanching the greens in the boiling water. But if you prefer your greens to keep a little of their spicy bite, sautéing them is the way to go. Adapted from “50 Best Plants on the Planet” by Cathy Thomas and Melissa’s Produce (Chronicle Books, 2013).

Kosher or sea salt

8 ounces dried orecchiette pasta

2 pounds mustard greens

2 tablespoons olive oil

3 large garlic cloves, chopped

½ teaspoon red pepper flakes

1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil

3 tablespoons toasted pine nuts (see note)

Black pepper

⅓ cup grated pecorino-Romano cheese, for garnish

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the pasta and cook until al dente, according to the package directions. Reserve 1 cup of the cooking water and drain the pasta.

While the pasta is cooking, remove the thick ribs from the mustard greens and discard. Wash and thoroughly dry the leaves, then cut into 1-inch-wide strips.

Heat the oil in a large, deep skillet over medium-high heat. Once it shimmers, add the garlic and red pepper flakes; cook briefly, until the garlic just starts to soften. Add the greens and use tongs to toss them as they wilt. Cook them, tossing and stirring frequently, until they become tender, about 5 minutes, then turn off the heat, stir in the basil and pine nuts and toss.

Add the pasta and toss to combine, adding enough of the reserved pasta cooking water to form a creamy sauce. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Spoon the pasta into individual bowls, top with the cheese and serve.

Note: Toast the pine nuts in a small, dry skillet over medium heat, shaking the pan frequently, just until they start to brown and become fragrant. Transfer them to a plate, so they don’t continue cooking.

Per serving: 360 calories, 13 g protein, 52 g carbohydrates, 13 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 50 mg sodium, 9 g dietary fiber, 1 g sugar