You can tell a lot about people by the vegetables they eat. If he's a European who loves broccoli, there's a good chance he's Italian. An American who hates spinach but loves collard greens and kale is almost sure to be a Southerner. And if you're served parsley as a side dish rather than as a garnish, it's a safe guess that the cook was Mediterranean.
Broccoli has been beloved by the Italians at least as far back as the Romans. Pliny wrote of it, Tiberius was fond of it. And while the French do serve it nowadays, it is recent enough in their culinary repertoire that it has no French name.
While there is disagreement whether the Italians brought broccoli to America or found it already here, they certainly popularized it. By 1920, it was grown commercially. Even so, broccoli needed the salad bar to give it everyday status and the dieting craze to promote it as a raw snack.
Rare among vegetables, broccoli can be eaten in its entirety. Americans eat the stalk as well as the buds. But we ignore the leaves, which the Chinese shred and deep-fry into a crisp green thicket that melts on the tongue.
Spinach seems to be taking a back seat to broccoli nowadays. Yet in ancient times, it was considered so glamorous that during the Tang dynasty the King of Nepal sent it as a royal gift to China. The Arabs imported it from Asia as part of the spice trade, and Catherine de Medici was sufficiently fond of it that her adopted countrymen, the French, began to call anything made with spinach "a la Florentine."
In the U.S., the home of Popeye the Sailor, spinach became more or less the oat bran of the early 20th century. So nutritious was spinach thought to be that members of Congress sent free seeds to their constituents. And, of course, Popeye attributed to spinach roughtly the properties that Samson credited to long hair.
Collards and kale missed out on all this adoration -- or lost it long ago. Aristotle was a kale eater. Before the Greeks, the Egyptains ate leafy, non-heading cabbages such as collards and kale before a banquet in hopes the greens would prevent the wine from turning their heads fuzzy.
Of course, collards and kale are immensely popular in the South. Northern cooks are only now beginning to catch on to these strong-flavored greens, and once again their new-found cachet has to do with healthful properties.
Parsley is still seen as something to be used one sprig at a time. But the Italians and Arabs know better. Parsley can be deliciously used by the handful as the main ingredient of a salad, mixed with bulgur in tabbouleh or cooked in a stew.
The ancient Greeks, however, associated parsley with death, and in medieval times it was thought to belong to the devil. It seems parsley has had as much to overcome as the tomato, which was long believed to be poisonous. No wonder they go so well together.
Nutritionally dense but always cooperative, these vegetables -- broccoli, kale, spinach, collards, parsley -- mixed well with everything from red meats to smooth white yogurt or sour cream. Four examples:
Greek Steamed Broccoli (4 servings) 1 bunch broccoli 1 tablespoon olive oil 1 large onion thinly sliced 2 cloves garlic, sliced 8 Greek black olives, coarsely chopped 1/4 cup water 1 teaspoon lemon juice 2 teaspoons butter
Peel broccoli stems and cut broccoli into large chunks. In a large skillet with a cover, heat olive oil and saute onion and garlic 2 or 3 minutes until tender but not browned. Add broccoli and stir to coat well. Add olives and water. Cover and steam 8 minutes, or until broccoli is tender. Remove cover, add salt, pepper, lemon juice and butter. Combine thoroughly, adjust seasoning and serve hot or cold.
Bulgarian Spinach (6 servings) 2 pounds spinach 2 cloves garlic, minced 1/3 cup onion, finely chopped 2 teaspoons fresh dill 1 cup yogurt 1 cup walnuts, coarsely chopped Oil for greasing casserole
Wash and trim spinach. In a covered pot, cook spinach in just the water that clings to its leaves, until wilted -- 3 to 5 minutes. Drain and chop coarsely.
Grease a 1-quart casserole. Combine spinach with garlic, onion, dill, yogurt, walnuts, salt and pepper. Pour into casserole and bake at 325 degrees for 30 minutes. Serve hot.
Mediterranean Parsley Salad (4 servings) 2 cups parsley, preferably Italian 1 rib celery, finely diced 1/2 cup red onion, finely diced 1 tablesppon olive oil 1 tablespoon lemon juice 2 tablespoons grated fresh parmensan cheese
Wash parsley and dry thoroughly. Chop coarsely. Combine with celery, onion and salt. Toss with olive oil, then lemon juice. Adjust seasoning. Toss with parmesan and serve.
Italian Pork Chops With Kale (4 servings) 2 pounds kale 1/4 cup olive oil 1 large clove garlic, peeled and left whole 4 thick pork chops, well trimmed 2 teaspoons fennel seeds 1 cup hot water 1 tablespoon tomato paste
Trim large stems from kale, coarsely chop and soak in cold water for 30 minutes to thoroughly clean. Fill a large pot with water an bring to a boil. Add salt, then kale, and cook for 20 minutes.
While kale is cooking, heat olive oil in a large frying pan. Add garlic and cook over low heat for 2 minutes, then raise heat and add pork chops. Saute 5 minutes on each side. Season with salt, pepper and fennel seeds.
Dissolve tomato paste in hot water, then add to the chops. Cover and cook over low heat for 30 minutes.
Drain kale and cool under cold running water. Squeeze out excess water and set aside.
When pork is cooked through, transfer to a serving dish and keep warm. Remove garlic from pan and discard. Add kale to pan and saute over medium heat for 10 minutes. Adjust seasoning and arrange pork over the kale in the pan. Cover and cook slowly for 6 to 7 minutes more.
Serve very hot.
-- From "The fine Art of Italian Cooking," by Giuliano Bugialli (Times Books/Random House, 1989)
For all recipes, add salt to taste.
Phyllis Richman is the food critic of The Washington Post.