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Good for you greens

Introducing winter greens into your diet could be THE ticket to a better 2012

WINTER GREENS: Not just for rabbits and guinea pigs. photo credit:

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Hunkering down for the winter can mean staying indoors, inactivity and switching to a basic comfort food diet of meat and potatoes, pasta and bread. For all intents and purposes, the average Pacific Northwesterner embraces hibernation mode. Fresh fruit and vegetables disappear, and with them micronutrients and minerals.

While that's not to say death is imminent without a daily salad, circulation, digestion, bone strength and energy levels are all improved by eating winter greens.

I'm talking about collards, beet and turnip greens, escarole and spinach, kale and chard.

Eaten throughout the world, winter greens are bitter, sweet, earthy, tart, spicy and mild. You don't have to dump the comfort food, just add seasonal produce and rake in a veritable goldmine of calcium, along with vitamins A, K and C. Buy your own winter greens and experiment with recipes for soup, sauces and pastas at home. Or let someone else do the work while you enjoy dishes crafted by area chefs at restaurants throughout the South Sound.

From naturally spicy mustard greens to sweet rhubarb (aka Swiss chard), leafy winter greens can be eaten raw or cooked. Sturdier greens hold texture and shape, making them more versatile (like kale). Others wilt, shrink and become silky (like spinach). From the cabbage family, kale can even be a healthy alternative to potato chips. Tear raw, frilly-edged kale into bite size "chips", toss in seasoned olive oil and bake for a nutrient-dense, crisp snack.

Not a fan of the actual flavor of greens? Eat them in a way that masks it.

In salads, escarole and beet greens are bitter. Offset sharp flavor with fruit like mandarin oranges or dried cranberries. From the chicory family, escarole shines in stews, soups and sautés.

"Swimming Angel," a popular Thai dish served at East West Café in Tacoma's Proctor District (2514 N. Proctor St.), consists of mounded sautéed spinach and carrots circled by golden peanut curry sauce.

At Adriatic Grill (4201 S. Steele St., Tacoma), Chef Bill Trudnowski serves a hearty soup that reminds me of minestrone. The lentil and Italian sausage soup is packed with spinach, carrots, celery, tomato, garlic and a dollop of cream.

At Joeseppi's Italian Ristorante (2207 N. Pearl St., Tacoma) spinach is served fresh and cold. A heaping portion of the tender leaves is topped with tangy goat cheese, sliced red onion, almonds and a warm bacon dressing.

Brilliant hued Swiss chard stems run from purple, magenta and deep red to orange, yellow and pearly white - adding dazzle to blah winter dishes. Large, crinkled leaves shot through with reddish veins are sweet and tart - use them in rhubarb pie. White-stemmed chard is bitter when raw, but sautéed with rich, salty pancetta, fresh garlic and cilantro it makes an excellent topper to pasta, rice or potatoes. White-stemmed chard can also roll solo as a side dish.

Swiftly becoming known for interesting flavor and texture combinations, Chef Kyle Wnuk at Marrow Kitchen & Bar (2717 Sixth Ave., Tacoma) makes Swiss chard as a side dish to New York strip loin and mascarpone potatoes. He also prepares a vegetarian dish of Swiss chard gratin, fig salad, arugula and walnut vinaigrette. Whether used in place of mustard on sandwiches, added to salads, replacing basil in pesto, or chopped roughly and folded into wild rice, peppery arugula (a personal favorite) punches up any dish.

At Marzano Italian Restaurant (516 Garfield St., Tacoma), sweet sliced pear is set off by peppery arugula in a salad with Rogue smoky blue cheese, walnuts, salty prosciutto ham and pear vinaigrette. Tuscan greens - or dinosaur kale - is braised and served with black beluga lentils as accompaniment to slow roasted pork shoulder with roasted fennel, golden raisins, sausage, herbs and pine nuts.

The tough texture of collard greens can call for slow cooking to reach a desired tenderness; at home, throw in some bacon, fat back or ham hock, vinegar, onion and garlic - and watch out for over cooking. Out and about, enjoy a side order with some fried chicken or barbecue at Porter's Place, Uncle Thurm's, and Southern Kitchen in Tacoma, or Beau Leg's in Lacey.

Word to the wise: the gradual introduction of these winter greens to your diet will save you an uncomfortable upset in digestive process. Simply put, don't overdo it. You'll thank me later.

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