Jamie Bissonnette on the best greens you've never heard of
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I eat a lot of greens, but lately I feel like I’ve been getting into a rut. I’m sick of spinach, bored of kale, and it’s only a matter of time before I tire of arugula. But what other options does a person have when it comes to greens?
If you ask James Beard Award-winning Chef Jamie Bissonnette—and I did—there are plenty of other, more interesting options to munch on.
Bissonnette may seem like an odd person to consult. He’s known for restaurants like Toro, Coppa, and Little Donkey, which feature meats quite heavily on the menu. His cookbook is an ode to charcuterie, and he has a ham bone tattoo on his hand. But Bissonnette was once a vegan for 7 years, and says that he eats a mostly plant-based diet when he’s not working. And despite the hearty helping of offal you’ll find served up at Toro, he says the greens he cooks at home “always find their way onto the menu.”
“And what greens in particular might these be?” I want to know. Bissonnette’s answer doesn’t disappoint. Here are some of his favorites:
One of Bissonnette’s favorite greens to eat cooked is the stinging nettle.
“I cannot get enough stinging nettles,” he says. “I love how much iron is in them, I love that really rich flavor that they have, I love the texture, and they can add a lot of great flavor to a lot of simple dishes.”
“What kind of dishes?” I want to know.
My favorite way to prepare stinging nettles is just to clean them and wash them, make sure that there’s no grit, kind of break down their barbs, so they don’t sting you anymore, then cook them with lots and lots of onions and garlic and olive oil or butter. Then I’ll fold them into a Spanish tortilla... So lots of eggs, a little bit of potato, and a little bit of onions. Cook over high heat, flipping it over and over again until it gets a really dense texture and awesome exterior crunch.
If you’re wondering about Bissonnette’s mention of “barbs”—stinging nettles are an aptly-named wild plant. They’re covered in tiny stinging hairs that can really smart when they touch your skin. I’ve been stung before, and while it’s not dangerous, it’s not exactly pleasant. Bissonnette, however, is unfazed.
“I’ve been stung so many times that I don’t even care anymore.” he says. “I think eating them is their punishment for stinging me.”
And suddenly I find the idea of eating nettles a whole lot more appealing.
I’m no stranger to fiddleheads—that is, the curled young ferns you can eat come springtime—but in comparison to Bissonnette, I’ve barely scraped the surface of enjoying these greens.
As a kid, I foraged for fiddleheads. And that’s just because they were all around. I didn’t really know anything about food. I just knew if I ate too many they gave me a stomachache, and that if I brought it to the local restaurant I could trade it for some pasta—and I loved food as a kid.
Growing up I loved just cooking them in salted water and then tossing them with butter, but here at Little Donkey, we have a wok, and stir-frying them in the wok with just a little bit of oyster sauce is my new favorite.
“My favorite green to eat raw is probably, as far as an exotic green, or a foraged green, would be miner’s lettuce,” says Bissonnette.
Like many of his other favorites, it’s a green you’re most likely to find in the wild. I think I’ve never heard of it before until I do a quick Google search and realize my childhood backyard was full of claytonia. Who knew? Apparently the stuff is great in a salad.
I’ve heard of chicory before—as in, chicory coffee. I haven’t heard of actually eating chicory. According to Bissonnette, I should be eating the stuff.
“Sometimes we use some of the more exotic chicories [at the restaurant], and those are really great. I love the bitterness [of chicory] and how it helps with digestion. It’s a little bit more interesting to eat.”
Bissonnette is also a fan of salad burnet, which he says is “one of the first things that you’ll see kind of popping through the frost in the spring and one of the last things you see in the winter.” Like his other favorites, it’s a foraged green—one you might find in grassy areas—and folks say it tastes a little bit like cucumber and is great in salads.
If you’re not much of a forager (which, of course, most people aren’t) how do you get your paws on all these tasty Jamie Bissonnette-approved greens?
Once the farmer’s markets start, you’ll start to see a lot more of the foraged things. Some of the people sell them... But as far as claytonia, miner’s lettuce, burnet, things like that, you really have to find them at the farmer’s markets or really get to know a forager.
Of course, you might also be able to try some of them at one of his restaurants.
As far as I’m concerned, Bissonnette’s assurance that these greens are tasty is the only motivation I need to eat them. But the chef has other reasons why he thinks foraged greens are the way to go.
I think when it comes to wild and foraged greens, it’s really important to get used to them. Because I think those are things that are going to help with the fact that we’re running out of water in the world, and mass farming of vegetables is starting to be a problem. If everybody went vegan right now the world would run out of water, so all the vegans who want us to stop eating animals, it’s like… either way, we’re going to run out of food. So learning more about foraged and wild ingredients, to me, is super important.
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