I am a superhero — perhaps the goofiest superhero ever. I am Illiteracy Girl, equipped with the power of knowing what I don’t know. When it comes to helping others, my own ignorance is my greatest strength.
I first realized my superpowers when, years ago, I confessed my environmental illiteracy in these pages. I shamelessly admitted that I had always thought bees and butterflies did nothing but flit about like diamond-bedecked socialites.
Then I learned about pollination and that if pollinators go, plants go, and they take birds and mammals with them. Maybe us humans, too.
Whenever I describe my former cluelessness about the things I’ve learned relatively late in life (regarding bees and butterflies, or anything else for that matter), my hope is that people will take comfort in discovering that someone else is also just learning. I want them to feel that it’s OK to confess not knowing some little (or not so little) thing that we somehow all feel we’re supposed to know.
With that in mind, here’s another topic that could benefit from a public admission of illiteracy: leaves.
It’s actually one of the key bits of nutrition that everyone agrees on these days. Lettuce, mint, chard — leaves of every sort are good for you, and we should all be eating more of them. But there are so many different sorts of leafy produce available now, how can one make sense of them all?
Let me offer you courage: Before I was a restaurant critic, I knew nothing about vegetables. Growing up in New York City, I recognized the ones we got from the grocery. Broccoli, carrots, tomatoes . . . the usual suspects. I knew a couple more from cooking in a restaurant kitchen — mushrooms, asparagus, kale. But the veggies I had never heard of numbered in the thousands.
The first time I tasted sorrel soup, I ran off to find out what the heck that lovely sour green stuff could have been. And I spent the next 20 years figuring out what other stuff was: frisée, mache, shiso . . . the list goes on.
Now I realize there are so many vegetables on God’s green earth, no one could possibly know them all. Just last week, a chef was telling me about micro bull’s blood, and I bravely interrupted him to ask, “What’s that?” At which point I learned: It’s a lettuce green.
There’s no reason to be embarrassed about not being knowledgeable when it comes to the enormous wealth of good stuff surrounding us. On the other hand, the more you know, the more you’ll want to learn.
So here’s my primer for the leaves we most commonly eat.
First, there are the leaves that taste more or less like lettuce; they lie on a spectrum from sweet, soft lettuces, like romaine and butter lettuce, to the other end of the continuum: bitter, crunchy chicories such as radicchio and endive. You can eat them raw or cooked. The sweeter they are, the better they are raw.
After those guys, you have your brassicas (like kale and cabbage) and goosefoots (like spinach and chard). These fellows you generally cook, though you can eat them raw when they’re young.
Next are aromatic leaves that smell and taste like nothing else. We call them herbs, and they include mint, lemongrass, and many, many more.
Aside from these, we have a couple of weirdo outliers, like sorrel and watercress. Are they lettuces or herbs? Half and half, I’d say.
So, how can this little bit of knowledge empower you? Here’s how: Taste a leaf. Does it taste like you could eat it right now? It’s probably lettuce. Eat it in a salad with a simple vinaigrette.
Do you have to chew it way too long? It probably needs to be cooked. Braise it with olive oil, lemon, garlic, and black pepper.
Is the flavor super intense? It’s an herb. These will have more specific uses: Google them when you get a minute. Until then, though, most herbs go well raw in a vinaigrette. Try it with cucumbers.
That covers leaves. (And it took me 20 years to amass this knowledge.)
Does this give you courage? I hope it does, because if there’s anything I know for sure, it’s that a world where we make room for things we don’t know is a richer, better world by far.