We Greeks all know HORTA (χορτα). The Greek comedian Basile cracks me up with his stories of remembering his family road trips when his yiayia would suddenly break the silence with a shriek: “Χορτα, χορτα!” The car screeched to a stop and the family followed yiayia into a nearby field to hack away at common roadside weeds. To her they were a treasure. Later that night, Basile and company ate endless amounts of horta at the laden dinner table.
I don’t know what type of horta Basile’s yiayia saw but in springtime in Utah, Greeks still pull over for vrouves or seenapies (two members of the wild mustard family) springing up among other types of local greens. In Crete, over 300 types of horta grow in the wild, each with its own different flavor and each available during different seasons. Horta is still served with nearly every meal.
When I first learned the word horta I immediately learned another Greek word at the same time—οχι (no). Thanks to horta, I hated nearly all vegetables. Macaroni and cheese is way cooler than horta, any school kid knows that. But there lay horta, at nearly every Greek dinner I ever ate. Every restaurant. Every time we had visitors. Every time we ate as visitors. On every dining table of food, there were the dreaded greens. Then one day, magic happened—I took a bite. I haven’t stopped biting since then. Because the truth is, horta is delicious.
From roadside weeds to heirloom greens: Any time you add greens to your diet, you’re doing your heart, joints, and your digestive system a favor. So let’s do this, let’s add some greens to our diets. If you can’t do it every day, add them weekly. Just do it. And no, that wrinkly lettuce on a cheeseburger doesn’t count. We are going to pile it on. Let’s start with five common greens that are readily available (mostly) and which Greeks use often in their cooking.
- Amaranth greens (vleeta). Technically this isn’t a true green—it grows more like a tree than a ground weed. It’s more commonly grown in gardens rather than found in grocery stores. Amaranth gives a great two-for-one deal: you can eat the leaves as well as the seed grains. Some people grow red amaranth, and some grow green. Amaranth stalks range from two feet to over six feet tall, and as you harvest the leaves, they keep growing back giving vleeta many months of garden yield. Vleeta improves eyesight and aids in weight loss. The grains, ignored by some people, are an excellent gluten free choice, packed with fibers that help lower cholesterol. Last and best, amaranth seeds have two times more calcium than milk.
- Dandelion greens (radikia). If you’re picking these along highways, be wary because such dandelion greens may have been sprayed with weed killers. That’s the bad news. The good news is, you know the dandelions in your yard are safe as houses. Alas, if you have no dandies to harvest at home, more and more grocery stores stock fresh dandelion greens. Radikia do have a bitter tang—which I love—and they are high in protein, loaded with minerals, and like all leafy vegetables, low in calories. Radikia detoxify and cleanse your blood, and benefit people with inflammatory diseases such as asthma. Long live dandelions.
- Spinach (spanaki). Spinach, a sweet green, cooks up simply and is very versatile. Spanakopita, the king of all savory pies, rests on the tender sweetness of spanaki. Spinach is high in Vitamin A and C, which are both noted antioxidants. Of course, youngsters tend to have an almost universal recoil from spinach. We need to get over that. Pretend you never met soggy spinach from a can. Let spanaki be your delicious, nutritious entry green into the wide world of horta.
- Beet greens (pantzaria). Sure, beets are great with a nice piece of salty feta or a dollop of garlic dip (skordalia). Most folks eat the beets and throw the delicious tops away. Big mistake in my culinary book. Deeply flavored and richly colored, chopped pantzaria always go into a cook pot next to my simmering beet roots. I combine them with the warm, chopped beets later or toss the greens with lemon juice and serve them on the side. Beet greens deliver protein, fiber, iron, and many important vitamins like K, A, and C. Your immune system and bones will thank you every time you eat a pile of beet greens. As will your taste buds.
- Chard (seskoula). Chard is a nutritional powerhouse. Add chard to your diet, and you’ll never have to buy those Vitamin K pills again. Just one cup packs 300% of your recommended daily allowance of Vitamin K. Seskoula has beauty chops too; it will improve your skin and hair. But its most important virtue is its ability to help fight heart disease. Chard comes in a red variety and green variety or a multi-colored blend, with notably brightly colored stems that shouldn’t be forgotten. First boil the tougher stems, followed by the chopped leaves, and add a splash of vinegar to get a full spectrum of this earthy green.
Now let’s head to the kitchen and start cooking. You can boil, sauté or steam most greens, just plunk them in some water and crank up the heat. As easy as that sounds, it’s also easy to overcook or undercook horta. Too long and they become a pile of mush, too short and they can be chewy. You define what is perfect for you. My perfect is the baby bear kind: not cooked too long or too short, making them just right.
- 1 bunch of preferred horta greens (dandelion, vlita, spinach, etc)
- extra virgin olive oil, to taste
- lemon or red wine vinegar, to taste
- 1 teaspoon salt, or more to taste
- Fill a large pot halfway up with water and bring to a boil. Add 1 teaspoon of salt.
- While the water is boiling, thoroughly wash your greens.
- Put the greens in your pot until the stems are tender (or in some cases, like with red vlita, when the stems and leaves turn green). About 20 minutes.
- When you’re satisfied, remove greens and put them under cold water to stop the cooking process. Strain the greens and serve on a platter.
- Dress with (lots of) olive oil plus (lots of) lemon or (lots of) vinegar. To taste preference.
- Serve either hot or cold.