Jenn Louis is the chef of Ray restaurant in Portland, Oregon, and the author of the new cookbook, The Book of Greens. She spent two years writing the book, focusing on both the nutritional impact and high flavor factors of a wide range of greens. She talks with host Francis Lam about some of her favorite greens, and gives suggestions on how to prepare them. Jenn Louis left us with two recipes from her book; one for a terrific condiment, Salted Herbs with Vietnamese Coriander, and the other is for a unique dessert she came up with, Butter Lettuce Panna Cotta.

Francis Lam: This is a beautiful book full of information on different kinds of greens. Flipping through it, the first one in the book is agretti. I've never even heard of agretti, and there are still 300 more pages to go! You might be the exact wrong person for me to say this to, but aren't most greens the same?

Jenn Louis: That's a fair question. In the process of writing this book I thought a lot about greens, their flavor profiles, and what you use when to cook them. There are a lot of similarities. What do greens taste like? Chlorophyll, right? But you have greener tasting greens and you have more lemon-y tasting greens. I found myself, over and over, using a salty pork product, a lemon, anchovy, garlic, but they are green-tasting. Some are hearty, like a kale or collards; some are delicate, like butter lettuce.

I thought about how they work seasonally and texturally, as far as the best uses for them. Like butter lettuce, you don't want to braise that. You could sauté it briefly – have a little bit of heat on it – but too much heat would break it down. Then I would think about it as a fresh salad or, like in the book, I did a butter lettuce panna cotta infusing the flavor of the inner leaves with cream; I made a dessert with it and paired that with strawberries. I thought about them as the texture of the green, and how much flavor they have. I made shumai and I put collard greens in there. Collard greens go great with Chinese food. They hold well up to pork. I looked at different places where I could fit something – like aloe into a cocktail – and where greens would add nutrition and flavor to food, whether it be that lemon-y chlorophyll or the grassy chlorophyll flavor.

Jenn Louis
(Photo: Ed Anderson/Ten Speed Press)

FL: When you're talking about the shumai, these are the open skin dumplings. Do you just chop them up and put them in with the fillings?

JL: Yes. I sautéed them with mushrooms, added them to the pork, filled the wonton wrappers, and steamed them for extra flavor and texture. Most cultures outside of the US serve greens in all different dishes. They're not just a side salad or a braised green side. They put them in all different dishes, and we don't tend to do that here. It was fun to look at how greens are used internationally.

FL: I haven't thought of it like the way you're describing. When I'm at the market and see a nice head of whatever – say I see a nice bunch of collards – I'll buy that without even knowing what to do with it. I’m like, “That's dinner on Tuesday. I’ll figure out what to do with that.” Usually, Tuesday comes – and I’m lazy – so what I'll do is braise it down with a little anchovy and toss it with pasta. It ends up being something very simple like that. You’re so right that cooking a green as the focal point of a meal is something that does feel so intuitive in so many cultures.

You have this big book of dozens and dozens of greens. What are some of the hidden all-stars for you? What are some of the underappreciated or unique ones that you've come across?

JL: I like to think about the greens in three different categories based on how you get them. You go to your grocery store and you get kale, arugula, or iceberg lettuce – all those common greens. Then you go to the farmer's market to get more unique greens, whether it be more heirloom varieties or mustard greens that you don’t see in the grocery store. The third way that I think you find the coolest little gems is you plant a garden. I have a really cool garden at my house; it's an urban garden and it's big. I grow a lot of food. I try to grow varieties of vegetables that you can't get at the farmer's market or the grocery store.

The other hidden gems are stuff that you find when you're traveling. When I was writing this book, I had two trips – one to Vietnam and one to Hong Kong. I was blown away by the varieties of greens in Asia. Again, Asian grocery stores are amazing resources for cool greens like chickweed. It kind of reminds me of what you find on the playground in the grass. It's nutritious and very lemon-y flavored. It pairs nicely with something a little sturdy, or it could be accompanied raw with something cooked. In the book, I have it with arepas. There's an egg that's cooked in the arepa. It's something that's clean, paired with something that's a little richer.

FL: I love that. The arepas are like corn cakes, like thick tortillas, essentially. They're sort of heavy and earthy. I love the idea of that lemon-y green with that.

JL: I have a wonderful recipe I love for salted herbs. It’s something that they use in eastern Canada, near Montreal. You take carrots and celery, etcetera, and salt them. And they preserve. You use them to season food. I did them with green onions, Vietnamese coriander leaves, chives, endive, celery, and carrots; it's crunchy but super salty. It preserves in the fridge for two to three weeks. You can season fried rice, a soup, or scrambled eggs with it. It's a way to season your food, but have all of that other flavor from the vegetables in it.

FL: Do you chop up all the herbs?

JL: Yes. Everything's finely chopped. All the vegetables pick up the flavor from the salt, and become part of that salty flavor.

ALT INFOThe Book of Greens
by Jenn Louis

FL: When you were talking about hidden gems before, my mind immediately went to beets or turnips. They come in these beautiful bunches with greens on top. Everyone takes them, cuts them and throws them away; but one day I realized, that's food!

JL: Absolutely.

FL: I just got free food with my food.

JL: I know!

FL: Talk about the free food that comes with your food.

JL: That’s hilarious and true. Having a conversation with someone recently, I said, “Did you know that broccoli has leaves?” They were like, “What?!”

FL: They're the best!

JL: I know. And you never see them because they clip them off. I think it's for perishability reasons; the leaves will deteriorate before the head of broccoli. For mass production, they take the leaves off, but they are delicious. Beet greens are unique because they're going to have that beet-y redness. If you don't want your food that include your beet greens into to turn red, blanch them first and squeeze them out so that a lot of that color comes out. There's all these leaves. Cauliflower leaves can be fibrous, so you cut them fine and toss them in with your stir fry or pasta. Carrot greens make salsa verde; it's nice with carrot greens, because they're grassy flavored. It's nice to cut them with a few other herbs like basil or mint, and balance them out. All of these things can be used and eaten.

FL: There was one in your book that I was really surprised by, and that's tomato leaves. I've never tried to eat them, but I remember touching them one time on a friend's tomato plant. I couldn't get the smell off me.

JL: Most people think they are poisonous; they're not. They are part of the nightshade family. I have put them on a bunch of different things. They are a little fuzzy sometimes, so cook them; like nettles, you don't want to eat raw. I have a recipe for putting them in pasta, basically blanching them, then putting them in with the egg and the liquid, and making your pasta with them. They're delicious, have a great flavor, and I love cooking with them. Same with squash vine leaves. People don't think you can eat the leaves from your zucchini plant. There's a wonderful Sicilian soup, and they use the squash leaves.

FL: I love that you're opening our minds to the other free food that comes with your food.

JL: For sure.

Francis Lam

Francis Lam is the host of The Splendid Table. He is the former Eat columnist for The New York Times Magazine and is Editor-at-Large at Clarkson Potter. He graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America and has written for numerous publications. Lam lives with his family in New York City.