Hey Chef, What Can I Do With Bitter Greens?

Ben Jay

Welcome to the first installment of Hey Chef, where we ask pros around the country for tips on how to use ingredients we love. First up: bitter greens.

The first greens of spring tend to be sweet, tender salad greens, but we're not ready to give up our kale, collards, rabe, mustard, dandelions...you get the idea. As the chefs we polled showed, bitter greens are well worth using in warm weather dishes.

What is a bitter green exactly? As a good rule of thumb, think of heartier green vegetables that you'd likely cook rather than eat raw (though some, like arugula and fellow traveler radicchio, are quite tender). Bitter greens usually have a slightly rough texture and pungent, peppery flavor compared to sweeter salad greens, which makes them a fun challenge to play with. You can't substitute all bitter greens for each other—kale and collards have tough leaves and thick stems compared to leafier dandelions—but some methods, like blanching or chopped salads, work for all of them.

If you're bored with kale salads, sautéed rabe, and stewed collards, here are some new ideas to keep the bitter green game going.

Dandelion Pesto

Photograph: Jason Varney.

James Beard award winning, cookbook-writing chef Jose Garces is the restaurateur behind Philly's Amada, Tinto, JG Domestic, and, most recently, Volver. He also owns nearby Luna Farm, so there's really no one better to ask about using farm-fresh produce.

"We make a dandelion green pesto with almonds and Pecorino. The bitterness is tempered by lemon zest and juice, and it's really nice for a summer pasta; a little unexpected heartiness to your pesto. You can use it with most bitter greens: kale, mustard, chard. Blanch them in salted water for 10 or 15 seconds, dunk them in ice water, chop them fine, then work them in the food processor with nuts and cheese. Think of it like broccoli rabe and sausage with pasta, but with different greens and a different texture."

Bake Them into Bread or Chips


San Francisco's Matt Accarrino is a 2014 Food & Wine "Best New Chef" and his restaurant SPQR has been awarded a Michelin star for two years running.

"We use a ton of bitter greens. Right now we do an olive oil flatbread: it's flour, water, olive oil and white wine, and no yeast, and you can't over- or under-work it, so it's kind of the perfect dough. We roll it out and fill it with braised greens, then roll it up. For the filling we cook onions in butter and some water until they're soft, then wilt greens until they're tender but not mushy. Then we'll mix in things like sofrito and onions. Right now we're doing a meatball mix, so we put a layer of greens down on the dough, lay down a strip of meat, and roll the whole thing up.

"We also make chips out of bitter greens like kale. We make a purée of roasted peppers, carrots, onions, and whatever greens we want to put in, then bind it with a little raw cashew purée made from cashews soaked in hot water. We spread the mix thinly onto baking sheets and cook them in a low, low oven (as low as it'll go) until they're crisp like chips.

"Sometimes we have a dish with burrata, bitter greens, and broccoli; we dp a Green Goddess dressing, toss it with the greens, and then smash an avocado in there to hold it all together to serve with the vegetable chips."

Or Grill 'Em

Chef Dylan Fultineer has made a name for himself in the Richmond food scene at Rappahannock, and Zagat pinned him as one of their "Ten Southern Chefs to Watch" for his use of hyper-local ingredients.

"I use tons of bitter greens, but I don't usually go outside the box. When I get chicory, it's really amazing chicory, and I don't feel the need to do much to them. So if they're good raw, we'll eat them raw, and if you're looking to do the same, go for young, small greens. For larger ones we drizzle them with oil, salt, and pepper and throw them on the grill for salads with other flavors like artichoke, olives, and cauliflower. You can get similar effects in a really hot oven, about 450°F.

"This time of year we do a lot of asparagus and puntarelle—it's similar to a dandelion green with a long tender stem and leaf with spiky edges. It's amazing raw, so I do a grilled asparagus salad with raw puntarelle, a cured meat, and a warm anchovy oil. It has a really bold, bitter flavor that's one of my favorites."

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