Superfoods TM_SF_WCRESS_FI_002_1

I’ve willfully never jumped on the kale bandwagon. I haven’t added the leafy green to my morning smoothies. I’ve yet to bake my own kale chips and I don’t find it an attractive green for salads. Yes, I know, it’s one of the most fashionable vegetables of the last 50 years and touts even trendier health benefits. But the closest kale has ever gotten to my heart was after I sautéed it in enough bacon fat to strip it of all its superfood qualities.

So I was happy when a study revealed last month that kale was actually nowhere near being the most nutrient-dense food. Not even close. In fact, it ranked number 15, far behind its nemesis, spinach, and less-popular greens like beet, collard, chard, and chicory. To everyone’s surprise, another vegetable came out on top: watercress.

A close relative to mustard greens and arugula, watercress is a delicate but feisty green. As its name implies, it grows partially submerged in water. According to researchers, watercress is the ultimate superfood — full of essential vitamins and minerals, with a higher percentage of nutrients than any other vegetable. It’s long been known for its copious amounts of calcium and iron, and it’s just as good for you in its raw state as it is cooked. MORE

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Towards the end of our foraging journey, there was a flurry of excitement. Someone had spotted a lone morel mushroom growing on the side of our trail. This sought-after fungus, for which connoisseurs will pay up to $35 per pound, was the most valuable find of our entire trek, but no one ventured to pick the specimen — perhaps because of its neighbors. The cone-shaped mushroom grew right next to a leaky-looking battery and just steps away from a rusty razor blade.

We weren’t foraging in a beautiful park or someone’s woodsy backyard. No, on this Sunday morning, we were looking for edible and useful plant life in “The Cut” — an abandoned, four-track-wide section of Philadelphia’s abandoned Reading Viaduct railroad, sunk some 40 feet below street level. We entered, somewhat ironically, through a chain link fence separating the encroaching wilderness from the employee parking lot of a Whole Foods market. A few members of the tour took the opportunity to forage for some coffee inside before signing the requisite waiver form and venturing down the parking ramp and into the unknown. After circumnavigating a moderately sized pile of general trash, it quickly became clear that this little section of abandoned city space was home to more than just weeds and rats (and a few vagrants). Tall grasses, sprawling bushes, and full sized trees had spent the previous few decades reclaiming The Cut and creating an impromptu slice of nature.

Bookshelf TM_BK_SOUTHERN_FI_002

Brys Stephens’  The New Southern Table explores classic Southern ingredients such as okra, lima beans, peaches, and pecans through recipes inspired by cuisines from around the world. In this excerpt, he tackles collard greens with recipes that go well beyond the “mess o’ greens”. The book is available now on QBookshopAmazon and at your local bookstore.

As a child, I mostly knew collards as that wet mess of overcooked greens in a small bowl alongside chicken or pork chops in a countrystyle meat-and-three (a casual, country-style restaurant common in the South, usually serving a choice of one meat dish and a choice of three vegetable dishes). At home, we always seemed to prefer spinach and cabbage. Traveling in France, Italy, and the Middle East years later and seeing how folks cooked with chard and kale, I realized collards could be incorporated into all kinds of dishes in the same quick-cook way as those greens.

Since moving to the Lowcountry, where collards grow year-round in the moderate climate and sandy soils of the sea islands (including in my garden on Sullivan’s Island), I’ve made collards one of my staple greens. They do well in both the heat and the cold, unlike other greens with more delicate leaves. They tend to be sweeter in the colder months after they’ve gone through a frost, and they are usually less bitter than mustard greens, turnip greens, and broccoli rabe, though more so than chard and kale. They usually take a little longer to cook than those greens because their leaves are sturdier, and younger collards with smaller leaves cook pretty quickly.