Sak Leafy Green Vegetables
MANY KIDS PUSH leafy green vegetables around the plate and eat them last, if at all. I was one of those kids in the 40s and 50s. Spinach, the most frequent offering those days, was likely served in a cheesy cream sauce to pass muster with most family members. Other leafy green vegetables were virtually nonexistent on the table. Even after leaving home, in my early years exploring Krsna conscious cooking, I tended to ignore other greens and make only spinach-based sautes.
Fortunately, my repertoire has expanded considerably, and when possible I prepare a different type of leafy green dish daily. My first stop in the produce section is to eye the best greens, sometimes planning meals on availability. My basket is often half filled with a variety of crisp, brightly colored green leaves.
Green dishes are one of the most exciting aspects of classical Indian vegetarian cooking, loved as much today as they were centuries ago. Greens, including the tops of root vegetables, the leaves of cabbages and grapevines, and in warm climates the fifty-plus species grown especially for tender leaves, constitute the basis of a group of dishes called sak. The popularity of sak is only limited by seasonal availability, with flavors ranging from sweet to pleasantly bitter, and textures ranging from purees to textured sautes. Fortunately, many greens traditionally used in Indian kitchens are widely available in the West. Kale, spinach, escarole, mustard greens, collard greens, radish greens, and green and red Swiss chard fill most produce aisles.
Sak in the Vaisnava Kitchen
Sak has a wonderful history in Vaisnava kitchens. It is mentioned in Vedic scriptures and in Bengali prayers and is offered to Deities daily in large temples. It was one of Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu's favorite dishes. The Caitanya-caritamrta, in describing Lord Caitanya's trip from Jagannatha Puri to Vrndavana through the vast Jharikanda forest, says that Lord Caitanya's servant, Balabhadra Bhattacarya, would collect all kinds of forest greens and edible shoots and roots, and with only a few spices and oil would prepare delicious sak for the Lord. Lord Caitanya's devotees, knowing His fondness for this simple food, would invariably offer it as part of His meals. The Bengali song Bhaja Bhakata Vatsala mentions sak in describing a long line of dishes Krsna eats at noon in Vrndavana.
Preparation and Storage
As with all vegetables, the closer to harvest the better. If possible, buy locally grown unpacked greens so you can easily detect yellow or wilted leaves. Thick leaves have a longer storage life than do fragile ones, so kale keeps a day or two longer than spinach. If you must store greens, refrigerate them unwashed in a moist muslin bag for one to three days.
Since dirt and sand cling easily in the nooks and crannies of unwashed leaves, you have to wash the leaves well before use. Half fill a large bowl or sink with cool water, and then add the leaves and swish them to loosen sand or mud. Remove the leaves and repeat the operation two or three times, or until all traces of dirt are off the leaves. Sometimes you'll have to wash each leaf individually. Avoid superficial rinsing in a colander it's pretty useless.
You will likely want to remove all tough stems and keep them for stock or the like. To do this, fold each leaf in half, glossy side in. Grasp the thick stem at the base of the leaf and pull it off toward the tip, removing not only the central core but also coarse veins in the leaves. Depending on the dish, the leaves are now ready for shredding, chopping, stuffing, layering, or other uses.
If you follow the class series, prepare three or four dishes from the class textbook, Lord Krishna's Cuisine. To further note how seasoning affects the flavor of greens, steam one or more varieties and simply sprinkle them with one or two kinds of pan-toasted spice seeds and barely drizzle them with a distinctive oil for more flavor. For newcomers to greens, I highly recommend the above dish; it is easy and elegant.
Yamuna Devi is the author of the award-winning cookbooks Lord Krishna's Cuisine; The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking and Yamuna's Table. She is a regular contributor to The Washington Post andVegetarian Times. You can write to her in care of Back to Godhead.
Kale And Yams With Currants
2 large bunches kale
1 yam or sweet potato (about 8 oz.)
1-2 teaspoons ghee or unrefined corn oil
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
½ teaspoon fennel seeds
1 jalapeno chili
fresh juice of 1 orange
½ cup water
2 tablespoons currants or raisins
salt and pepper
Wash the kale and remove the stems and coarse veins from the leaves; chop the leaves coarse. Peel and dice the yam or sweet potato. Heat the ghee or oil in a large heavy-bottomed pan over moderately high heat. Add the mustard and fennel seeds and toast them until the mustard seeds pop. Add the chili, orange juice, yam, and water. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, add the currants or raisins, cover partially, and cook until the yam is ¾ tender and the liquid is almost gone, about 15 minutes. Add the greens and cook them until the leaves wilt and the color intensifies (4 or 5 minutes). Season with salt and pepper and offer to Krsna.