Big taste, few calories.

Five vegetables to add to your 2012 repertoire.

Could this be the end of popping vitamin supplements? Probably not, but many studies show that a balanced diet high in nutrient-rich produce is the best way to get vitamins and minerals, fiber and antioxidants.

How about this mâche salad? I like to think of trying new vegetables as an adventure. Heck, we know they are good for us, so why not make it fun? They offer so many flavors, for so few calories.  Bon Appetit.

Savoy Cabbage: This stunning cabbage has a ruffled surface crisscrossed with road-map white veining. Overcooked or cooked in too much liquid, it has an unappealing odor. The crispness turns soggy and the spicy-sweet taste turns bland. Cook it enough to make it just barely tender and it is delicious (try the quick-braise recipe that follows).

Look for heads that seem heavy for their size with crisp leaves that are free of discoloration or soft spots. Refrigerate unwashed and dry in plastic bag in crisper drawer up to 2 weeks.  Before using, remove the first layer of leaves (they may be tough, but many markets trim them off before they are displayed).

Wash exterior with cold water. To remove the core, cut into quarters from top to bottom, then cut away and discard the solid white core. If shredding, place flat side on cutting surface and cut crosswise into narrow shreds.

Tuscan Kale (also called dinosaur kale or lacinato kale):  Tender and flavorful, these heavily puckered leaves are such a deep green that in Italian it is called cavolo nero,” which translates as black cabbage. I like the taste better than common curly-edged kale and it can be cooked more quickly.

Buy bunches that have smallish leaves, preferably those with stems no wider than 1/4 inch. The scent should be fresh and the leaves crisp, without wilting or discoloration. Rinse in tub of cold water, gently swishing the leaves around to remove any dirt or grit; repeat if necessary until water is clear. Shake to remove excess water. Wrap in clean kitchen towel or paper towels and place in partially closed plastic bag. Refrigerate in crisper drawer up to 3 days.

Mâche (also called lamb’s lettuce): These delicate, spoon-shaped lettuce leaves taste sweet. Honest, and nutty, too. The tender little leaves cluster around the roots in small loose heads.

Bright green and luscious, they haven’t made their way to my local supermarket yet, but Trader Joe’s sells them tucked into nifty cellophane bags. For storing at home, I find that refrigerated in the crisper drawer inside those cellophane bags, mâche will keep 5 or 6 days.

It’s usually eaten raw in salads, but served as a cooked dish, steam it just until barely tender, or toss it into soups during the last few minutes of cooking.

Watercress: The mellow peppery taste of these tender leaves offers just-right balance to a wide variety of dishes. I notice that the spiciness varies; sometimes it is subtle, sometimes strong. But I love the balance it brings to dishes, everything from sandwiches to salads, soups to appetizers. That is especially true when a sweet element it present, such as honey-spiked vinaigrette or a handful of raisins.

Look for bright green leaves without wilting and stems without discoloration. To store it, trim off and discard large lower stems and swirl leaves attached to thin stems in large tub of cold water. Shake off excess water and wrap in clean kitchen towel or paper towels and place in partially closed plastic bag. Refrigerate in crisper drawer. It is perishable, so use it within 2 days. Before use, most often I use a paring knife to cut thin stems into 2-inch long portions to make bite-sized pieces.

Cactus Leaves: Don’t turn your nose up at these fleshy paddles. Thorn-free and cooked, they have a green bean texture and taste, with a little green bell pepper and citrus thrown in to the flavor profile for extra pizzazz. Most supermarkets sell them prepped and packaged in sealed plastic bags. Some Latin American markets and farmers markets offer them whole, but with the thorns removed.

If for some reason you need to prep a whole, thorny leaf (oh, it’s been years since I’ve done this), here’s how: Wear gloves to protect hands and trim off edge around perimeter of leaf. Cut or scrape off thorns from both sides, or peel with a swivel-bladed vegetable peeler. Rinse thoroughly with cold water to remove sticky fluid and loose thorns. Use right away or pat dry, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate up to 2 days.

Simmering strips of cactus leaf creates a slimy substance, so grill or roast to lessen the slim factor. Roast strips in 375-degree oven on rimmed baking sheet for about 18 minutes or until limp and tender. Or to grill, brush whole leaf with canola oil. Sprinkle with coarse salt and grill over medium coals until limp, turning frequently (grilling times vary depending on size of leaf and degree of heat). OR, cut trimmed oiled and salted leaf into 3/4-inch wide strips and grill on grill rack or in grill basket, until grill marks form and strips are limp, about 5 minutes.

These dandy little open-faced sandwiches can make a light lunch, but my favorite way to enjoy them is as a dessert. A finale of fruit and cheese rounds out a meal so beautifully and in this case, sprigs of fresh watercress add their perky attitude, too. I like to use a rustic unsliced whole wheat loaf; I cut it into half-inch slices.

Grilled Gorgonzola, Pear, and Watercress Sandwiches
Yield: 4 open-faced sandwiches
1 ripe but slightly firm pear, such as Bartlett or Anjou
4 slices rustic whole wheat bread
1 cup watercress sprigs with the coarse stems discarded, about 1/2 bunch
1/4 pound chilled Gorgonzola cheese (or Maytag or Point Reyes), thinly sliced or crumbled
1. Arrange oven rack to 5 inches below broiler element; preheat broiler.
2. Remove stems from pear and cut in half lengthwise. Remove core with melon baller. Cut crosswise (from side to side) into thin slices.
3. Place bread slices in single layer on rimmed baking sheet. Place under broiler and turn on oven light. Broil until lightly browned. Keep an eye on them; will probably take less than 2 minutes. Remove sheet from oven and turn slices over. Divide watercress between toasts and cover with slightly overlapping pear slices. Place cheese on top. Broil until cheese melts, about 1 minute; keep an eye on them because they can easily burn. Provide diners with knives and forks.
Nutrition information (per serving): 250 calories, 35 percent of calories from fat, 9.7 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 25 mg cholesterol, 30.5 g carbohydrates, 9 g protein, 340 mg sodium, 2.0g fiber
Source: adapted from “The Gourmet Cookbook” edited by Ruth Reichl (Houghton Mifflin, $40)

Cactus leaf, nopalitos in Spanish, are best when they are about 8 inches long; smaller leaves don’t provide enough flesh and larger leaves are sometimes tough. Some purveyors cut the pieces smaller for packaging, about 1/4-inches wide; that is fine.
Shrimp and Cactus Salad
Yield: 8 servings
2 cups of 1/2-by 1-inch pieces barb-free raw cactus leaves
1 1/2 tablespoons canola oil or extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup thinly sliced red onion, see cook’s notes
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 Roma tomatoes, diced
3 radishes, trimmed, halved lengthwise, thinly sliced crosswise
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
1 teaspoon dried oregano
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/4 cup crumbled queso fresco or feta cheese
1 1/4 pounds small cooked, peeled and deveined shrimp
Garnish: corn tortilla chips
Cook’s notes: If red onion is strong, soak slices in ice water for 30 to 40 minutes. Drain and pat dry with paper towel.
1. Preheat grill. In a large nonreactive bowl (such as glass or ceramic) toss cactus leaf strips with 1 1/2 tablespoons oil. Do not wash bowl, but sit aside. Place mixture in grill basket or grill rack. Grill until slightly charred and softened, about 5 minutes. Set aside to cool.
2. Combine with the remaining ingredients with the cooled cactus in reserved large bowl. Cover and chill in refrigerator for 3 hours or until cold. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed. Serve cold garnished with tortilla chips.
Nutrition information (per serving): 290 calories, 46 percent of calories from fat, 15 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 65 mg cholesterol, 27 g carbohydrates, 11 g protein, 620 mg sodium, 3 g fiber

One of my favorite ingredient combinations on the planet is bacon paired with greens and cider vinegar. I personally like to add a lot more than 1 tablespoon of vinegar, buts that’s me! Here the balance of smoke, salt and sour tastes makes the deep-hued Tuscan kale irresistible. I love the aroma too, when that fresh-tasting, tart cider vinegar meets the bacon-y greens.

Sautéed Tuscan Kale with Bacon and Vinegar
Yield: 4 side-dish servings
1 1/4 pounds Tuscan kale, or common curly-edge kale, stems and center ribs discarded or used in soup, leaves coarsely torn into bite-size pieces
1/4 pound bacon, nitrate-free preferred, about 4 slices, chopped
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon cider vinegar, or to taste
Salt, plus freshly ground pepper to taste
1. Bring a large saucepan or Dutch oven three-fourths full of salted water to a boil on high heat. Add kale and cook, uncovered, for 3 to 4 minutes or until wilted and tender; drain well.
2. In a large, deep skillet, cook bacon on medium heat, stirring until crisp, about 5 minutes. If bacon is super lean, you will probably need to add a little oil with it to get it going. Pour off all but about 1 tablespoon of fat from skillet, leaving bacon behind. Add olive oil and well-drained kale to bacon. Increase heat to medium-high and cook, stirring frequently, until heated through, about 2 minutes. Add vinegar and toss. Remove from heat and season with salt and pepper to taste.
Nutrition information (per serving): 170 calories, 47 percent of calories from fat, 9 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 60 mg cholesterol, 13 g carbohydrates, 4 g protein, 872 mg sodium, 4 g fiber
Butter tastes scrumptious in this recipe, but you may prefer to use soft tub margarine instead. Or try the technique using broth (see cook’s notes).

Quick-Cook Savoy Cabbage, With or Without Butter
Yield: 6 to 8 side-dish servings
One large head of Savoy cabbage, about 3/4 to 1 pound
3 tablespoons water
3 to 4 tablespoons butter or soft tub margarine, divided use, see cook’s notes
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Cook’s notes: If you prefer, use 1 tablespoon of extra-virgin olive oil to briefly stir-fry the cabbage then add 1/3 cup vegetable broth or chicken broth and 1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves and cabbage. Bring to boil on high heat; cover and cook on medium heat, tossing occasionally, until wilted, about 5 minutes; do not overcook. Season with salt and pepper; sprinkle with 1 1/2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley.
1. If cabbage has large, tough outer leaves, remove them. Cut cabbage in quarters from top to bottom. Remove core from each quarter and discard core. Cut each quarter crosswise into thin strips.
2. In a large, deep skillet bring water, 3 tablespoons butter or margarine and pinch of salt to a boil on high heat. Add shredded cabbage and toss. Cover and cook for 2 to 3 minutes. Season with salt and pepper; toss. Add 1 tablespoon butter or margarine and toss. Serve.
Nutrition information (per serving, without butter): 36 calories, less than 2 percent of calories from fat, 0.5 g fat, 0.6 g saturated fat, 0.1 mg cholesterol, 7 g carbohydrates, 3 g protein, 59 mg sodium, 2.6 g fiber

Bless Trader Joe’s little heart; they sell cellophane bags filled with mâche. I love the tender leaves and use them in myriad ways. This salad looks glorious on a buffet table. Served on an elongated platter, a tangle of mâche salad sits in the middle, with red beets on one end and yellow on the other. The beets can be cooked and tossed with vinaigrette several hours in advance, making it a very practical dish for entertaining. I nabbed the recipe from my new cookbook that will be released this fall.

Mâche and Beet Salad Platter
Yield: 10 servings
8 medium-size red beets, with 1-inch stem attached
8 medium-size golden beets, with 1-inch stem attached
Zest and juice of 1 large lemon
Zest and juice of 1 lime
1 1/2 tablespoons honey
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
5 cups mâche
1. Roast beets: Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Wash beets. Enclose, still wet, in aluminum foil, 3 to a packet. Place packets on rimmed baking sheet.  Bake in preheated oven until fork tender, 30 to 60 minutes, depending on size. When cool enough to handle, slip off peel. Cut into 1/2-inch chunks. Place each color in separate bowls.
2. Prepare vinaigrette: In a bowl or measuring cup with a handle, whisk juices, zests, honey, mustard, salt and pepper. Add oil in a thin stream, whisking constantly. Pour 1/3 of vinaigrette over each of the two bowls of beets and gently toss.
3. Place mâche in bowl. Toss with remaining vinaigrette.
4. Taste beets and adjust seasoning if needed. On an elongated platter, either rectangular or oval, arrange red beets at one end and yellow beets at the opposite end, leaving a space in the middle. Place mâche in center. Serve.
Nutrition information (per serving): 270 calories, 33 percent of calories from fat, 10 g fat, 2.1 g saturated fat, 10 mg cholesterol, 40 g carbohydrates, 5 g protein, 849 mg sodium, 3.5 g fiber