When Jenn Louis, the celebrated Portland chef and restaurateur, was learning to cook, she would buy one new-to-her ingredient per week. “You should do this, too,” she instructs in the introduction of her latest cookbook, The Book of Greens, which is an encyclopedia of 175 recipes and know-how on 40 greens from arugula to watercress.
“Challenge yourself,” she recommends: “that is how chefs become better at their jobs.” It is from this confident chef's perspective that Louis approaches the book, which is meant “not only to catalog the many varieties of greens out there but also to inspire home cooks to get creative with flavors and cooking methods.”
"Chefs have training, and we know how to cook all sorts of foods," she writes, and with every one of the 175 recipes, Louis demonstrates that. Instead of fluffing greens into salads or sautéing them into sides, she blends them into hot sauce, folds them into cake batter, fries them into savory zeppole, and ferments them into a fizzy soda.
She doesn't just make biscuits with greens; she makes Nori and Coconut Flour Buttermilk Biscuits with Sesame Shichimi Butter. Her miso soup is Miso Soup Stracciatella with Ramp Greens. Her pizza is Carrot Greens Salsa Verde and Egg Pizza. Her shakshuka? Malabar Spinach Shakshuka.
The lettuce chapter, especially, had me gasping with every turn of the page. Lettuce jam? Butter lettuce panna cotta? Lettuce and carrot cake? That last one has rather sparse headnote for a dessert you'd think would merit a description.
Every year, I host a rabbit dinner. We use all parts of the rabbit, and we make sure we don’t waste anything. There was the challenge of the dessert course, however. I didn’t think rabbit would go over so well, so I opted for carrot cake to provide an appropriate finish. Rabbits love carrots, after all.
(And that's it!)
This isn't a cookbook for a time-strapped someone strategizing simple ways to incorporate more leafy greens into their diet; it's for an ambitious cook and a curious learner, like Louis herself. Her interest in the culinary traditions of other parts of the world makes for an hugely diverse group of recipes, such as Doubles with Broccoli Rabe and Slow-Roasted Pork; Arepas with Egg, Feta, and Chickweed; and Curry Leaf Dosa. And she isn't afraid to mix things up from time to time, either; she suggests, for example, that Steamed Buns with Ho-Mi Z (Dragon Tongue) be filled with muhammara.
It's doubly intriguing, both for the diversity of greens and for the range of flavors and techniques that might be unfamiliar.
At moments in the book, though, it can feel like Louis is speaking to (and impressing) fellow chefs rather than home cooks. A fairly pared-down recipe, Acorn Squash with Kimchi Butter, Poached Egg, and Brussels Chips (Louis writes that “no one element is overly complicated") requires you make kimchi butter, brussels chips, and tahini sauce to assemble the finished dish.
And considering the scope of the book—from soups to hand-shaped pastas to sorbets to flatbreads, from Egypt to Japan to Mexico to the UK—I'd have liked a bit more guidance, the holding-hand of someone who understood that I am not a chef. I'd never rolled out kulcha before I started on Kulcha with Celtuce: Should I roll the dough on a floured surface, I wondered? And if I'm subbing mustard greens for celtuce, as is suggested, how thinly should I slice them? Help me!
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Luckily, the supplementary information closes the gap between intermediate home cooks and those who are undaunted by the several sub-recipes required to assemble the finished dish.
The book opens, for example, with a brilliant schematic that I'd like as a poster for my kitchen: The forty greens are classified as either robust, tender, delicate, sturdy, with instructions on how to best prepare each type. When each is introduced, Louis offers instructions for how to choose, clean, store, and refresh them and flavor-friends (mustard greens and game, for example; minutina and oily fish).
There's also a seasonal chart based on North American availability and formulas for making any type of green taco, well-balanced salad, and pesto (Louis suggests adding cotija, cornichons, hard-cooked eggs, or orange zest—the madness!).
And, of course, each recipe comes with suggestions for other greens that can get the job done—if you can't find lovage, let's say. I wasn't able to buy the recommended greens for any of the three recipes my heart was set on (Kulcha with Celtuce, Amaranth Falafel, or Little Gem Skhug) near my parents' home in Baltimore, so I used the substitutions (mustard greens, spinach, and romaine, respectively), and with great success. I ate the kulcha with a smear of skhug and a couple of falafel balls in some weirdo fusion sandwich-wrap thing that, I hope, would've made Louis proud.
These recommended substitutes are helpful—and essential, if readers who don't have access to farmers markets or international grocery stores are going to cook from the book—but they're also a double-edged sword: Because if I can substitute mustard greens for celtuce, why seek celtuce at all?
And sometimes, the suggested substitutions might not get you far. If you can't find chickweed for the arepas, you can substitute it with mâche or miner's lettuce; if you can't find Ho-Mi Z for the Steamed Buns with Ho-Mi Z, you can substitute New Zealand spinach or red orach.
But even if you only make a handful of recipes from The Book of Greens to begin with, the incredible bounty of information will—if you're adventurous and resilient!—introduce you to flavor pairings, techniques, and ingredients, all while challenging your understanding of what greens can even do.
And when you do come home from the market with an exciting new leafy friend, The Book of Greens will be in your library, full of suggestions for very special ways to use it.
What green do you find most challenging to prepare? Tell us in the comments below.