As winter lengthens and farmers market and kitchen garden offerings dwindle, it is often the sturdy cool-weather greens that are available longest. Swiss chard, spinach, kales (in all their assortment), and even wild plants—like tenaciously invasive garlic mustard, and sheep sorrel—deserve a starring role at dinner time, preferably in a dish that also suggests comfort and coziness. Leafballs—just like their carnivore-counterpart, but minus the meat—are a substantial and umami-laden vegetarian main course that I make in deep winter, when I crave the mineral richness of green things. (They are just as good in the brighter seasons when a glut of leaves demands recipes that use them in quantity.) Leafballs are an extremely satisfying and very versatile way to make the most of these healthy vegetables, without letting any of their nutritious goodness go to waste.
Photography by Marie Viljoen.
Leafballs can be made with any greens. Their flavor benefits from the sour punch that garden, sheep, and even wood sorrel (in summer!) provides, but if none of those is available, ground sumac stands in.
Cooking greens like spinach and Swiss chard boosts their nutritional value. On the one hand, cooking reduces their oxalic acid content (only an issue for people who have compromised kidney function), and on the other, it makes antioxidants bio-available.
Too many fat chard stems after stripping the leaves? Just trim and then blanch the stems until they are barely tender. Bathe them overnight in a marinade of finely chopped anchovies mashed up with sherry vinegar (or lemon juice) and olive oil. Then pan-sauté or grill them.
The beauty of this recipe is that is can be adapted to what you have at hand: Any leafy green, your favorite nuts, and any firm white, salty cheese. If you like the heat of chiles, add some flakes, or ancho powder, or even East African berbere. You can also make them in advance, pan-sauté and then finish them in a hot oven. Or chill them overnight for quick roasting the next day. Usually, I just pan-fry them.
To make leafballs for a crowd—I think they are an outstanding holiday table dish—double (or triple) the quantities below and bake the leafballs in a buttered baking dish in a 400-degree oven for 10 minutes, then broil them for 3 minutes, to gain a topping of toasty color.
The leaves are first blanched briefly in boiling water, then squeezed as dry as possible, before being chopped and mixed with the other ingredients. Their succulent greenness is preserved, and the subsequent pan-sautéing is brief. If you use kale, add a few more minutes to the blanching time, as the leaves are tougher; they should be bite-tender. For a gluten-free version, omit the crumbs, and add 2 extra tablespoons of nuts.
1 lb Swiss chard, spinach, kale, or other leafy greens, washed
½ packed cup sheep sorrel or other sorrel leaves (optional)
4 oz feta cheese, crumbled
¼ cup Panko breadcrumbs
2 tablespoons pine nuts (or chopped almonds, pecans, or walnuts)
1 tablespoon powdered sumac
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 large eggs
3 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons chives or field garlic (optional)
If using chard, strip the leaves from their sturdy stems. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Drop in the leaves. When the water boils again, push the leaves down several times, cooking them for about 3 minutes—they should still be bright green. Drain the leaves, refresh them in cold water, and squeeze them dry (either using your hands, and pressing the water out, or by rolling them in clean kitchen towels). Chop them finely.
Place the chopped greens in a bowl with all the other ingredients except the butter and chives. Mix very well. Form the mixture into balls about 2 inches in diameter. At this point you can chill them for later use, or proceed.
In a skillet over medium-high heat, melt half the butter. When it is foaming, add the leafballs. Cook them for 3 minutes, then turn over carefully. Add the rest of the butter to the skillet. Cook another 3 minutes to heat through and take on some golden color. Finish with a flurry of chives or field garlic, if using.