Learning to Love Bitter Greens


With our modern eating choices, we’ve lost the taste for some flavours and tend to gravitate more towards others.  "The sensation of taste can be categorized into five basic tastes: sweet, bitter, sour, salty, and umami. 'Umami' is originally the Japanese word for 'meaty' or 'savory'" (Wikipedia). Certainly most of us have no trouble getting our doses of sweet and salty, but when it comes to bitter foods many people choose to steer clear.

Bitterness is a taste that we don’t have a lot of tolerance for anymore. It can turn people off of eating dandelion greens for example, whose sap inside the stem and leaves are bitter, particularly in mature plants. However, dandelions are an amazingly versatile wild edible that are available free and abundantly locally. Other examples of bitter greens are the wild and wonderful winter cress, and cultivated greens like Swiss chard, kale, mustard greens, arugula, and mizuna.

Greens have always been a part of the human diet and should play a role in a healthy diet today as well. They're being heralded all over the place as superfoods that we all need to eat more of. Health Canada recommends eating at least one dark green vegetable a day to maintain good health. So how do we learn to enjoy this less lovable of the five tastes and the dark leafy greens that pack such a healthy punch?

Here are a few tips:

To lessen the bitterness of greens, try preparing them in combination with nuts, seeds or a small amount of healthy oils or fats. Those ingredients help to mute bitter flavours. A great way to prepare greens like this is to make pesto with them instead of basil. It usually involves a combination of greens, oil, nuts and sometimes cheese blended together. There are lots of recipes here. Another idea is to make a sauce out of nuts, seeds, healthy fats or oils and use that sauce on greens. Try this recipe for Garlic Tahini Swiss Chard and Quinoa.

Another technique to get more raw greens into your diet is to eat them in combination with sweet fruits. The fruit helps mute the bitterness in greens as well. Add greens to your favourite fruit smoothie for a nutritious breakfast or snack, or put fruit on your salad to sweeten it up. Try making vinaigrette with fruit, like this Partridgeberry Vinaigrette for your dark leafy greens salads.

Mix bitter greens in small amounts at first into salads with a larger quantity of milder greens like lettuce or spinach. Over time increase the amount of dark greens you use and decrease the amount of mild greens. Thinly slice or dice a little bit of kale or Swiss chard to add a deeper green colour and a bit of nutritious kick without a very noticeable change to a salad's flavour.

When cooking especially bitter greens, give them a double treatment to lessen bitterness. Lightly steam or blanch greens once with water or stock. Discard the liquid from that first round of cooking and you'll lose much of the bitterness from the greens. Then use the greens according to your recipe. Or instead save the liquid from that first cooking of the greens and use it as a nutritious addition to sauces or gravies where the flavour will get toned down.

Now the goal of all this isn't to always mute or tone down the bitter flavour of greens. Ideally what will happen is that after eating them for a while your taste buds will adapt from their sugary/salty lull and start to appreciate the awesomeness of greens for their own sake and even start craving that bitter goodness. You may not believe it now, but you could be chowing down on a salad of just bitter greens sometime soon!

Do you have any recipes or tips for enjoying greens even if your taste buds aren't accustomed to bitter flavours? Share them in the comments below!