Not so long ago, the admonishment to "Eat your greens!" generally focused on lettuce, maybe spinach. And that's about as adventurous as it got.
Today, it's hard to flip through food magazines or watch television shows without seeing someone sautéing chard, roasting kale, wilting mustard greens or swooning over watercress. You even can get collards and kale washed, chopped and bagged at big box stores and niche grocers like Trader Joe's.
It's a change for the better, says the New York Times food and opinion columnist Mark Bittman. And it's happening because more people are listening to messages about what is good for them to eat.
"That is a big change. All the talk about these things has had some kind of impact and that's a great thing," he said.
"They're being sold because there's noise being made about them and there's noise because they're good things for us to be eating," he said. "And some people are listening."
Greens were one of Bittman's early obsessions as a gardener. They still feature prominently in his recipes and in his overall approach to food. In fact, he just reissued his 1995 book, "Leafy Greens" (Wiley, $18.99, 208 pages).
Several years ago, Bittman began including more plants and fewer animal products in his diet. The result? He dropped more than 30 pounds, published the responsible-eating manifesto "Food Matters" and began writing about food policy and its effect on our health. Today, his fresh, unfussy recipes share space with columns that advocate a healthful, environmentally friendly plant-heavy diet.
Most Americans fall somewhere on a spectrum that runs from pure vegans who eschew all animal products to folks who live Morgan Spurlock's famous 30-day fast-food-only diet.
"For better personal and planetary health, the idea is for all of us to move away from the Morgan Spurlock end toward the vegan end," said Bittman, whose next book, "VB6: Eat Vegan Before 6:00" (due out in March), encourages people to eat vegan for the first two meals of the day.
"I don't think that means we have to become vegans. But I do think we need to move toward eating a greater portion of plants."
Bittman thinks real change needs to come at the political rather than personal level. He urges the revamping of the government subsidies that support commodity crops, a system many say artificially lowers the cost of many of the unhealthiest processed foods.
He also favors regulations that discourage eating junk food, such as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's proposal to ban from city restaurants all sodas and sugary drinks larger than 16 ounces.
"In 50 years, I won't be alive, but people who are will say, 'Ha, ha! Remember when you could buy soda for a dollar anywhere you wanted?' " he said. "That's not going to be the case."
The following gnocchi recipe is from Mark Bittman's "Leafy Greens" cookbook.
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 51 minutes
Serves 4 for lunch or an appetizer
Spinach not your style? Bittman says chard and beet greens (leaves only for both) can be substituted.
10 ounces fresh spinach, tough stems removed
3 or 4 medium potatoes
Salt and ground black pepper, to taste
Dash or tiny grating of nutmeg, about 1/16 teaspoon
1 cup all-purpose flour, approximately
About 1 cup any light tomato sauce
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Set a bowl of ice water nearby.
When the water boils, add the spinach and cook until it wilts and the stems become tender, 30 seconds to 2 minutes. Use a slotted spoon or strainer to transfer the spinach to the bowl of ice water (leave the pan of water at a boil). Once the spinach has cooled, lift it from the water, squeeze out any excess moisture, then chop very finely.
Wash the potatoes. Using the same water the spinach was cooked in, cook the potatoes until tender but not mushy, 30 to 40 minutes. Transfer the potatoes to a large bowl (leave the pan of water at a boil, adding more water if needed).
Mash the potatoes or put them through a food mill, then combine them with the spinach, salt, pepper and nutmeg. Add the flour a bit at a time, kneading with your hands, until the mixture is no longer extremely sticky (the amount of flour you add will depend on the potatoes). Not enough flour will make gnocchi that fall apart; too much will rob them of flavor. Once they stop sticking, add a little more flour and do a test run, then add more flour if necessary. Form the gnocchi, by hand, into inch-long oval shapes.
Cook the gnocchi about 6 at a time, lowering them into the water and removing them with a slotted spoon when they rise to the top, 2 to 3 minutes. Place the cooked gnocchi in a warm, shallow bowl and keep warm. When all the gnocchi are cooked, top them with tomato sauce and cheese, then serve.
Per serving: 400 calories; 25 calories from fat (6% of total calories); 2.5 g fat (1 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 5 mg cholesterol; 83 g carbohydrate; 14 g protein; 11 g fiber; 820 mg sodium.