When I’ve got a pile of greens in front of me, like spinach, escarole, or arugula, I don’t usually think of low-and-slow cooking. Most often, I quickly wilt my greens over high heat with some oil and garlic, or massage them with vinaigrette for a salad. Even the so-called hearty greens, like collards and kale, I’ll eat raw and crunchy.
But it’s getting chilly, and I’m craving foods that feel warm and rich, and I just can’t get that cozy feeling from a salad. So I’m flipping the script—simmering the greens low and slow, just like you do for Southern-style collards with ham hocks, or the Egyptian long-simmered Jew’s mallow soup, molokhia.
When you cook your greens low and slow, they become tender and silky: the perfect thing to sauce up any pasta. I like to throw in beans too, for some creamy bites, making the whole dish filling and satisfying. This works well with any kind of green—you just have to determine whether it’s hearty or tender.
Heartier greens like kale, collards, mature spinach, and carrot tops take much longer to simmer and break down. In contrast, tender greens like baby arugula, young spinach, dill, parsley, and cilantro melt almost instantly. How do you know if your greens are hearty or tender? Taste them raw. Does it feel like you need to chew forever or are left with fibrous bits in your mouth? That’s a hearty green! If they are crisp and easy to eat, that’s a tender baby!
Today, I’m sharing two recipes with you: one for hearty collards, which take longer to cook and require more liquid to accommodate the longer simmer, and another for tender herbs like dill and parsley, which cooks down faster with less liquid.
Once you know the template for both, you can easily play around, using whatever greens, beans, and pasta you’ve got around. This is just the place for that wilty bunch of chives, those radish tops you never know what to do with, and the last few celery leaves on the stalk. Learn these easy steps, and no green will ever go unloved in your kitchen again.
Time for a Soak
The first thing I do is soak my pasta. This is a really cool trick I learned about in Ideas in Food by Aki Kamozawa and Alexander Talbot. Two things happen when you cook pasta in boiling water: First, the pasta starches hydrate, swelling with water, and second, they gelatinize, becoming tender and chewy. When you soak pasta in a cold liquid, you take care of that initial hydrating step. The dry pasta will swell in the moisture, so all you need to do to finish is add some heat, and it will quickly gelatinize without much time or water.
All of this means we can cook our pasta in the same pot as the greens after they’ve simmered down. If I were to add the pasta and greens simultaneously, the pasta would overcook and get mushy by the time the greens melted. By soaking and staggering, we get al dente pasta without using a second pot.
Another added benefit is that the liquid I soak the pasta in grows super starchy as it sits. Once simmered with the greens, that starchy liquid becomes creamy, adding lots of body to our sauce.
Now, what to soak the pasta in? I like chicken or vegetable stock, which flavors the pasta inside and out. But if all you have is water, that’s OK too—there are plenty of other flavor makers in play in this dish. Just be sure to season the pasta soaking water with salt to taste.
When it comes to pasta varieties, this dish is an opportunity to use up whatever is kicking around. Since the soak shortens the cook time, I found that all short pasta shapes, like ditalini, penne, macaroni, and even broken spaghetti, cook up in about the same amount of time (three to five minutes). It’s harder to evenly cook longer pasta shapes, like fettuccini or bucatini, with this method, but if that’s all you’ve got, snap them into 1-inch lengths before soaking.
Build Big Flavor
This dish has a lot of greenery, which can taste boring if you don’t punch it up.
In Orecchiette With Bacony Collards & Cannellini Beans, I take inspiration from the smoky ham hocks you’ll find in Southern-style greens, and I start the dish by rendering some bacon. This leaves me with smoky, salty bacon fat to cook everything in, plus crispy bacon bits to garnish with at the end.
But you don’t have to use bacon. Anything bold can create a solid flavor foundation, from anchovies and garlic (the one-two punch in Ditalini With Tender Herbs, Chickpeas & Yogurt) to onion and ginger, and even sliced whole lemon or a spice blend like adobo.
Grab Your Greens and Beans
Now it’s time to ready your braising engine. Load up the pot with your hearty or tender greens, drained and rinsed beans, and the cooking liquid of your choice.
Mix and match, using whatever greens you’d like—just be sure to roughly chop them into small pieces that will readily wrap around your pasta shape and comfortably fit in a spoon. Big pieces of greens will be unwieldy to eat and interrupt the silky smooth experience we’re trying to achieve.
As with the pasta-soaking step, I like to cook in chicken or vegetable stock for the extra richness and savory flavor. If all you have is water, you can make up for it by bumping up the fat and salt to taste. If you have bouillon paste or cubes, add them to the cooking liquid to taste, but don’t go crazy because the liquid will cook down, concentrating the salt. You can always add more at the end if needed.
I use canned (or precooked) beans for this recipe because the simmering time isn’t long enough to cook beans from scratch. If all you have are dry beans, soak and cook them in a flavorful base of aromatics or spices with stock or water, then add the greens to the pot of beans and bean liquid, and simmer it all together. You’ll have to reverse the order of operations to ensure everything is cooked for as long as it needs to be.
Blink and You’ll Miss It
This is gonna be the fastest you’ve ever seen pasta cook up. Once the greens have grown hopelessly tender and the cooking liquid has reduced, add the soaked pasta and all the soaking liquid, making sure to scrape in every last bit of starch that has settled at the bottom of the bowl. Now, all it takes is a few minutes of vigorous simmering to cook the pasta to al dente and thicken the sauce with that starchy soaking liquid.
Because the greens have been simmering for so long, they can feel heavy or one-note without a final flourish to perk things up.
I finish the collards with finely ground pecorino or Parmesan for a final layer of flavor, which adds salty depth to the dish. Beyond cheese, yogurt, lemon, and/or fresh herbs bring brightness and balance.
A little pat of butter at the end adds richness and body, so our greens feel extra decadent—the perfect way to eat vegetables on a cold night.
More From Food52:
23 Festive Christmas Cakes to Fill the Season With Joy (and Treats!)
The Happiest Ending for Leftovers Is Quiche
Making Chicken for Dinner? Brine It in Olive Juice.
What to Simmer for a Fresh, Seasonal-Smelling Home
The Best Way to Make Kimchi, According to My Korean Mom
This Is the Single Best Pot for Anyone Who Lives Alone