Vibrant vlita! Quick, easy and so very good!
When is the last time you had boiled spinach for supper? Or a plate piled high with steamed collard greens? Not as a side to anything, but as the actual meal. Like, that was the only thing on your plate. If you’re Greek, then the answer might be, earlier this afternoon. And if you’re not Greek, then this type of pauper, bland meal might seem a little strang, and sad. But trust us…it’s not!
Greeks love their horta, a term we use to classify a wide range of greens, and a word whose nomenclature has a slightly different significance depending upon which part of Greece, and which family, you grew up in. For us, although horta is a catch-all way of describing cooked greens, we reserve it primarily to refer to dandelion greens…those weeds we grew up hunting for and foraging in remote landscapes, the sides of highways and possibly, likely, private property fields. This was an activity that most Greek children of our generation can relate to; take a read over here if you would like a trip down that particularly humiliating memory lane, and get ready to smile. Because really, those were great times.
Another green which we often had growing up, was vlita. We considered vlita to be the more refined cousin of the dandelion green. Horta were picked on the side of the road whereas vlita grew in our parents’ garden. Much more civilized. Also, the taste of vlita is more mellow, not sharp and bitter as dandelion greens often are. And they are tender; found fresh and cooked properly, the stalk is soft without being mushy and the leaves delicious.
Vlita are in fact amaranth plants; the species name is Amaranthus viridis and belongs to the botanical family called Amaranthaceae. The common name in English is slender amaranth or green amaranth. The plant grows annually and has a large green stem which can reach a height of between 60 – 80 centimeters. Many other stems emerge from the base, and each has several oval shaped leaves growing off of it. According to our parents, vlita are quite easy to grow and do well every year in their garden. The plant also has edible seeds which can be used for anything from baking cookies to making porridge. Although our parents never use the seeds, we found a bag of seeds at the health food shop, paid a small fortune for them, and look forward to sharing some recipes using these seeds in the future!
Interestingly enough, even if you think that you have never eaten vlita, you may have. They grow in various parts of the world and are used in several different cuisines. It is eaten in the Maldives, Latin America, India and is a staple of the Jamaican diet, where it is called callaloo. In fact, when one of us was in Jamaica last summer, breakfast was often scrambled eggs with callaloo…who knew we would be eating horta in the Caribbean!
Vlita are incredibly nutritious; a quick read on google tells us so, and our parents have been telling us so forever. That is why it is actually acceptable to a Greek parent to serve only this to their children for lunch, and still feel that they are giving their child a nutritious meal. With a side of feta and a slice of bread, there really is nothing better. To ensure that you keep as much of the nutrients as you can, it is important not to overcook your vlita. You want the stems, which are the thickest part, to be just fork tender, but not overly mushy, and you want your greens to maintain their vibrant green colour. You will have to keep an eye on your vlita as there is no real set cooking time (as you will see in the recipe); it will really depend upon how fresh your vlita are, and how thick the stems are. An estimate for cooking time however is between 10 – 15 minutes.
How to grow your own vlita or amaranth greens
We have received so many questions and comments about growing your own vlita or amaranth greens – our parents’ garden is a shining example of just how successful this can be! Here are some tips that will help you to have success in your garden too:
- Harvest the seeds. Vlita or amaranth greens are full of seeds and as a result they will self-seed in the garden. This means that if you start off with healthy plants, leave them alone and next year you will likely find vlita regrowing. Our parents however don’t do this, for a few reasons. First, they don’t like to leave anything to chance, even something with a very high probability of working out just fine. Second, they don’t always grow their vlita in the same spot in their garden. Given the large variety of vegetables and herbs that they grow, they tend to rotate their crops every year. Third, before planting their garden in the spring, our parents turn the soil in their garden very well. Because of this, it would be difficult to know where any vlita seeds would end up – not handy when plotting out the garden.
- So, how then to harvest the seeds! Your amaranth plant will flower, and this flower is full of seeds. Allow the flower to begin to dry out on the plant and when it has rub the dried out flower between your fingers. Use a bowl (or your hand) to catch all the seeds that will fall. With the seeds you will also likely gets some of the flower petals – a gentle blow will remove them (the seeds are heavier and so blowing on them will remove the petals but not the seeds). After you have harvested the seeds, spread them out on a baking tray and keep them indoors to dry out completely. Then, store them in a container and keep in a dark cool place until the following spring.
- In the spring, plant your seeds in a large pot filled with soil. Once the seedlings are about 4 inches tall, transfer them into the garden and mix some sheep manure in with the soil. A couple of times, in the first weeks of the growing season, our parents also use 20-20-20 plant food fertilizer to help the vlita grow.
How are vlita or amaranth greens served?
We love to eat vlita topped with red wine vinegar and olive oil. If you would prefer lemon juice to vinegar, go ahead.
Regardless of what you will top your vlita with, do so just before serving them. Otherwise, the acid in your vinegar or lemon juice will change the colour your vlita.
Although vlita are great as their own meal, they are also very often served with bakaliaro and skordalia (cod and garlic mashed potato spread). You may want to do this too one day!
How can I freeze vlita or amaranth greens?
Freezing vlita is a great way to enjoy this green even in the fall and winter months. Drain them well after cooking and freeze them in serving size portions in well sealed freezer bags. When you are ready to eat them, defrost them, and simply drop the greens into a pot of boiling water (remove from freezer bag) and cook until they are heated through.
Looking for some more summer greens? How about these?
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- large pot
- Several bunches of vlita
- Red wine vinegar, to taste
- Olive oil, to taste
To harvest vlita:
- Harvest the top part of your plant, stem and leaves. As well, cut off any large stems, with their leaves, shooting off of the main core stem. Leave at least part of the main core stem so that your plant will continue to grow.
- Cut off the excess leaves. Our parents like to cut the tops off the large leaves and discard them; they toss them in their garden for compost. Cut the stems into 3 inch lengths and keep the remaining leaves intact. You are not looking for small bite size pieces. Separate the stems from the leaves as they will require different cooking times. (It’s fine that your stems will likely still have some leaves attached).
To cook vlita:
- Rinse your vlita very well until the water runs clear.
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add about 1 teaspoon of salt for every pot of water. When the water is boiling, add the stems and cook over medium heat until they are fork tender. The time can vary, depending upon the freshness and maturity of your vlita, about 7 to 10 minutes.
- When the stems are almost ready, add the leaves. Continue to cook for another 3 to 5 minutes, until your leaves are soft, but still vibrant green.
- Pour the contents of your pot into a colander set in your sink. Immediately rinse with some cold water to stop the cooking and to keep the vibrant green color of the vlita.
- To serve, toss with olive oil and red wine vinegar to taste. Any vlita which you will not eat immediately should not be dressed with vinegar and oil.
- If you wish to freeze some vlita, simply place serving size portions in freezer bags, remove excess air, and store in the freezer for several months. To serve, defrost the Vlita, and simply bring a pot of water to a boil, pour the contents of the freezer bag into the water and cook until heated through. Toss with olive oil and red wine vinegar and serve immediately.