We all know horta. Many of us have heard the comedian, Basile, tell the funny story of how his family would be driving down a road and his yiayia would suddenly break the silence with a shrieking scream of “χορτα, χορτα!” The car would screech to a stop and the family would follow yiayia into a nearby field to hack away at what everyone else regarded as common weeds, but to her they were a treasure. Later that night, endless amounts of horta would be served at the dinner table.
I don’t know what type of horta Basili’s yiayia saw, but in springtime in Utah, Greeks still pull over for vrouves or seenapies (two members of the wild mustard family) 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.
Horta is the Greek word for greens. When I first learned the word horta I immediately learned another Greek word at the same time—οχι (no). Thanks to horta, I learned to hate nearly all vegetables. At school, I ate mostly macaroni and cheese because it was cooler than horta. We all know mac and cheese is easier to love more than horta. No matter how much I didn’t like horta, it was still served 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 was horta. Then one day, magic happened—I took a bite. And then another. And then another. Because the truth is, horta is delicious and is officially Greek fanny approved.
Of course, horta is more than just a roadside weed, and it is served in many styles that you are probably already familiar with. But are you eating enough of it? Any time you add greens to your diet, you’re doing your Greek fanny a favor—plus your heart, your joints, and your digestive system. So let’s do this, let’s add some greens to our diet. 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 5 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 is a great two for one steal: you can eat the leaves as well as the seed grains. Some people grow red amaranth, and some grow green. Amaranth stalks can 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, are packed with fibers, help lower cholesterol, and have 2x more calcium than milk.
- Dandelion greens (radikia). If you’re picking this from your yard or along highways, be wary because such dandelion greens may have been sprayed with weed killers. That’s the bad news. The good news is more and more grocery stores are stocking fresh dandelion greens. Dandelion greens are often classed as more of a bitter tasting green, but they are high in protein, loaded with minerals, and like all leafy vegetables, low in calories. Dandelion greens are a well known detoxifying and cleansing agent and benefit those persons with inflammatory diseases such as asthma.
- Spinach (spanaki). Spinach is considered a sweet green. It’s the most common green, simplest to cook and is very versatile (you can put any kind of green into a pie—sweet or bitter, but the king of all pies is the spanakopita for good reason). Spinach is high in Vitamin A and C, which are both noted antioxidants. If there is one green many of us learned to hate at an early age, it’s spinach. We need to get over that. Let spinach be your entry green into the wide world of horta.
- Beet (pantzaria) greens. Sure beets are great with a nice piece of salty feta or a dollop of garlic dip (skordalia). They are so good that people often throw the delicious tops away. Don’t do that—cook the greens and eat them, too (just boil them up in a pot next to your beet roots and combine them later or serve them on the side). Beet greens contain important nutrients like 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.
- Chard (seskoula). Chard is a nutritional powerhouse. Add chard to your diet and you’ll never have to buy those Vitamin K pills again because just one cup packs 300% of your recommended daily allowance of Vitamin K. Chard will improve your skin and hair, but it’s most important virtue is its ability to help fight heart disease. Chard comes in a red variety and green variety. Each is equally healthy.
Now let’s head to the kitchen and start cooking. You can either boil 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 over cook or under cook greens. Too long and they are a pile of mush, too short and they can be chewy. You can define what is perfect for you. My perfect is the baby bear kind: not cooked too long or too short, making them just right.
Follow these simple steps: 1. Boil water in a large pot 2. While the water is boiling, thoroughly wash your greens. 3. Once your greens are clean, put them in your pot until the stems are tender (or in some cases, like with red vleeta, when the stems and leaves turn green). 4. When you’re satisfied, remove greens and put them under cold water to stop the cooking process. 5. Dress with (lots of) olive oil plus (lots of) lemon or (lots of) vinegar. 6. Serve either hot or cold.
Preparing horta is easy. Now just slowly add it to your diet. Need a boost? Add some bacon or other meats and spices (as Southerners famously do with Collard Greens). Add them to your omelets, bake them in a pie, stuff inside a pork loin, or for a twist, combine several greens into one serving, mixing bitter greens with sweet (my dad mixes mustard greens, spinach, and dandelion greens together). Spinach is a great addition to any smoothie and spares you having to even see them. The point is to get some sort of greens and all those healthy benefits into your daily diet. Every part of you, all the way down to your Greek fanny will reap the benefits, and someday, like me, you will shock your parents by saying, “pass me the horta.”