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September 2003 Issue
Maximize the nutrition of your produce.
by Michael Fick
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Nuking, steaming, or stir-frying veggies with just a little water or oil (olive or canola, please) cuts nutrition losses to <15%, and enhances flavor and appeal for all but the most Californicated live-veggie enthusiasts. The vegetables many of us grew up eating – long-dead plants stewed to tasteless, mushy, oblivion by overzealous cooks – would turn anyone off vegetables, and leaches out many nutrients. But cooking them only until hot and lightly tenderized retains the nutrition and the chewy texture, and enhances the flavor. Adding herbs, spices, and healthy sauces further entices that Iowa corn-fed beefeater in the house to expand his culinary interests while shrinking his waistline and extending his lifespan.

A friend’s pot roast and green beans are tough to tell apart. They have similar textures, their primary remaining flavor is salt after a day in or on the stove, and the juices, containing half of the nutrition and most of the natural flavor, are put on the dog’s food. (Her husband died at 40 but the dog hit 45.) At least in the deep South they gave the cooking juice a name – pot liquor, pronounced pot likker – and serve it with the food. That’s one reason southern food TASTES so great, and it usually improves its nutrition. Doing this with the juice from canned vegetables salvages much of their nutrition and flavor, too.

Next time the kid in your family -- whether he is in grade school or a midlife crisis -- refuses to eat that big bowl of fresh spinach, steam or nuke the whole bowlful for a moment into a more compact form, put it in a corner of the big baby’s plate, and tell him to eat the dang thing and shut up. He won’t know those few tender, moist forkfuls were the whole bowl if you don’t tell him, and the walnuts, raisins, dash of bacon, and honey mustard dressing in the lightly cooked version will draw him in and put a smile on his face. Condensing vegetables in this way helps the medicine go down, and enhancing them with seasonings creates food that even your favorite carnivore will enjoy … probably for an extra decade or two.

Not that there’s anything wrong with raw, as Seinfeld might say. It expands our options, makes for more convenient and more enticing snacks than cooking up some greens and pot likker, and dips far more easily in fondue than do pureed carrots or stewed tomatoes. The raw crunch appeals to many people, and provides a broader range of nutrients. Those who promote increasing our veggie consumption warn us to do so slowly, especially if it’s raw, to avoid gas due to the sudden change. Let me ask you veggie-phobes, though: how likely are you to increase your daily veggie consumption overnight from one baked potato to the recommended five to nine servings of green and yellow and red produce? I just thought I’d mention the warning in case you decide tonight that properly prepared Brussels sprouts (under seven minutes, or pay the price) are better than prime rib and ice cream.

Raw does have the advantage of not producing the carcinogens that baking and frying at high temperatures can generate from veggies and grains. Even cereal and toast may be guilty, but frogfries (a little contribution to the boycott) and potato chips are more likely suspects. Anyone who deep fat fries their food needn’t be concerned about freshness anyway, because the raw/cooked/fresh/frozen dilemma fades into insignificance as soon as the food hits the hot grease. Grilling it much more healthy, but only if we discard the burned edges and don’t subject the veggies to too much carcinogenic meat drippings smoke.

In essence, the biggest factor in our produce nutrition is variety in sources, colors, and preparation. Achieve that, and the details will take care of themselves. A great side benefit of all this delicious, healthy food is that we can eat all the produce we want and still manage our weight.

Thanks for being good sports, Californians. But watch out; those bean sprouts can harbor many biological and chemical hazards.

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