“Eat your horta!” – a common saying at a Greek dinner table as a child again tries to avoid eating the wild greens that take a side profile on their plate. Little do they know that these horta are probably higher in nutrients, vitamins and have more health benefits than anything else they are eating there and then. But every adult knows this, surely that’s why they insist their children down the hearty leafy greens.
But what are horta? If we take the literal translation, then horta means greens. And that’s what horta are – a dish made up of wild greens. One of the most versatile of all vegetables and one of the most common in Greek cookery, wild or cultivated greens (leaves) are used in salads or served hot with lemon and olive oil. And as they appear in fields after the first autumn rains, now’s the perfect time to sample Greek delicacies using wild greens.
With followers of the Greek Orthodox faith fasting for Lent, horta becomes the perfect meal to supplement all the daily vitamin and mineral requirements. Boiled greens are a staple in any Greek household. They are easy to prepare, and if you eat them as is, you will really enjoy the clean, pure taste. Like spinach, boiled greens wilt and reduce when cooked to a fraction of their original quantity.
Horta are made up of a variety of different wild greens including leaves of purslane, silverbeet, asparagus, nettle, chicory, young poppies, dandelion, curly endive and milk thistle. What is commonly termed vlita in Greek cooking can be found in Australia as amaranth, and is popular in Asian supermarkets and various Mediterranean fruit and vegetable markets, and can be spotted due to the deep red flush on the leaf.
Purslane is a herb-like plant and is one of the most popular horta leaves. Wild purslane is slender and has small crunchy leaves, whereas the cultivated variety has silvery, furry leaves and thick stems. It is light in taste with a lemony tang, and is frequently used in salads on its own or mixed with other leaves. The stems and flower buds are also edible. Trim the tough stems near the roots using a sharp knife. Cook at a low temperature for a shorter period in order to preserve the majority of nutrients. Although its antioxidant properties are significantly decreased when frying and boiling, purslane’s minerals, carotenes and flavonoids may remain intact with steam cooking. The plant has more omega-3 fatty acids than some fish oils. Even though this leafy green vegetable is incredibly low in fat, it’s high in vitamins and fibre. It is an excellent source of Vitamin A – one of the highest among green leafy vegetables. Vitamin A is a known powerful natural antioxidant and is essential for vision. Consumption of natural vegetables and fruits rich in vitamin A is known to help to protect from lung and oral cavity cancers. Purslane is also a rich source of vitamin C and some B-complex vitamins like riboflavin, niacin, pyridoxine and carotenoids, as well as dietary minerals, such as iron, magnesium, calcium, potassium, and manganese.
Silverbeet – also known as Swiss chard – is a leafy green vegetable with a colourful and thick stem and is considered one of the healthiest of all vegetables available. It is high in vitamins A, K and C, with a 175g serving containing 214 per cent, 716 per cent, and 53 per cent, respectively, of the recommended daily intake. Silverbeet is very common in Mediterranean cooking. The colour differences are mostly in the stalks, which can be white, yellow, orange, red or pink, although you can get some varieties with red stalks and red-black leaves. The variety with red stalks and green leaves is often known as Ruby Chard.
Chicory is a bitter plant and grows with rosette style leaves and short stems. The leaves are used more for salads but can also be boiled too. The health benefits of chicory leaves are extensive, including helping in cardiovascular conditions. Chicory contains many nutrients including vitamins A, B6, C, E, and K, as well as zinc, folate, calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron and manganese. Chicory can be used as a supplement that may have laxative, diuretic, cardioprotective and anti-inflammatory properties.
Another from the chicory family is endive, probably the most readily available of cultivated greens in Australia. It is similar in flavour, also having bitter leaves, and can be found in two varieties – curly leaf and broad-leaved. Endive is rich in many vitamins and minerals, especially in folate and vitamins A and K, and is high in fibre.
Milk thistle got its name from the white speckles that feature on the plant’s leaves as well as its milky sap. Not only are the leaves rich in nutrients, the seeds of this plant are known for their health benefits, particularly to the liver. Known for centuries as a ‘liver tonic’, milk thistle is high in a chemical component called silymarin, the active agent in its liver-protective capacities. Milk thistle has also been reported to greatly improve the overall functioning of the liver, and is used for reducing cirrhosis of the liver, chronic liver inflammation, damage done to the liver through the intake of alcohol and other intoxicants, as well as gallbladder disease. It may also be used to lower LDL cholesterol and reduce the growth of cancer cells in the breast, cervix and prostate. It has also been known to reduce the toxic effects of a hangover, and is used to help individuals withdrawing from opiates.
The most common leaves called vlita in Australia come from amaranth. There are around 60 species of amaranthus, including weeds, leaf vegetables, grain crops and ornamentals. Many have large, colourful leaves and tassel-like flower spikes. Also known as leaf amaranth, edible amaranth (or Chinese spinach as it’s known in Australia), the young leaves have a sweet, tangy flavour, and cooked leaves can be added to salads, soups and stir-fries. Fresh leaves should not be eaten very often, as they are high in nitrates and oxalic acid. Young shoots are peeled, steamed and then eaten.