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Build a dinner party around humble greens? Yes, you can

White-bean and beet-green cassoulet with rainbow beets and crispy shallots. Recipe by Bonnie Reichert; food styling by Heather Shaw; prop styling by Oksana Slavutych.

Maya Visnyei/The Globe and Mail

In my childhood home, greens were a straightforward affair. Along with hunks of Alberta beef, my mother would serve us a romaine-lettuce salad and, on occasion, a side of creamed spinach. And that was generally that. Compared to our neighbours, however, my restaurant-business family verged on the exotic – when my friends came to dinner, their dark green leaves would sit untouched on their plates, unaccustomed as they were to lettuce that was not pale in colour and as flavourless as water.

It must be these basic beginnings that make today's riot of choice in produce sections and farmers' markets so thrilling to me. You can shop your way through the alphabet, starting with arugula, butter lettuce, collards and dandelions and working all the way to watercress and wild leeks.

According to Vicki Emlaw, the proprietor of Vicki's Veggies in Prince Edward County, Ont., I'm not the only one delighted by the variety. Emlaw points out that her business has grown dramatically since its start in 2000, when it was a roadside stand selling heirloom tomatoes. "One day I brought home a catalogue from an organic conference in Guelph and I started growing lettuce after lettuce. Then I found arugula and spinach and kale. Now I'm working with mizuna and different mustard greens that come from Asia. They're super-hardy so we have sweet, fresh greens right into the winter."

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Not so long ago, the primary end point for all this green goodness might have been vegetarian kitchens or vegan restaurants, but the incredible popularity of kale has helped bring alternative greens into the mainstream. Emlaw says that many of her varieties are destined for top Toronto restaurants such as Acadia and Hopgood's Foodliner; the rest feed hungry farmers'-market aficionados clamouring for all the leafy greens they can find.

Of course, not every interesting green has to come from a high-end market stall. Folks have been eating dandelion greens for centuries and beet tops come as a bonus when you buy the roots. The advent of both foraging and nose-totail eating has helped us see how gratifying and delicious what we used to overlook or throw away can be.

Healthy, too. After the reckless indulgence of the holidays, a clean green meal may be just what the doctor ordered. But don't worry. Far from the Spartan salads of my youth, the hearty dishes on these pages deliver complex flavours and interesting textures. Take it from a steak-and-salad Alberta girl – you won't even miss the meat.

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