Every New Year’s Day people look for a way to incorporate more healthy habits into their lives. With the stress level and excessive eating and drinking associated with the holidays, most of us are ready for Canyon Ranch by the time our real vacations are over.
But when time and money are prohibitive of a spa vacation to realign the body and mind, it’s a good idea to look for new ways to protect and nourish oneself with the things that are the most readily available. A trip to the grocery can be the best way to access one of the most powerful forms of budget-friendly medicine: food. In fact, cooking for wellness can be a huge step toward bringing body and mind into harmony. But with so many different ideas available in mainstream culture about what constitutes healthy eating, it can be overwhelming to contemplate the overhaul of one’s diet, let alone to know where to begin.
So we enlisted the help of Wild Oats nutritionist Ellen Speare in a search to find cheap and easy ways to detoxify the body, boost the immune system, and promote everyday good health. Ms. Speare provided a wealth of information about vegetables that are often overlooked in the grocery, and why some of these are such powerful allies in a search for daily nutrition. Some of our choices, especially the Asian vegetables, may look completely alien to those more used to mashed potatoes and creamed corn, but some of these lesser known plants are undeniable powerhouses of vitamins and minerals.
Bok choy is one of the vegetables that leads the pack. Built roughly like celery, with white stalks and dark green leaves, it is one of the best-kept health secrets in the produce section. Extremely high in calcium as well as antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals, bok choy as a part of one’s regular diet helps to protect against disease by neutralizing free radicals. Free radicals occur naturally in the process of oxidation of the body, but problems introduced by radiation from the sun, pollution, or cigarette smoke to name a few offenders, can cause an imbalance of excessive free radicals that can in turn cause disease. In high volumes, free radicals can alter our cells’ genetic codes, and it is these mutations that can lead to leukemia and other types of cancer.
The wealth of antioxidants found in humble bok choysuch as beta-carotene, folic acid, and vitamins A and Cis one of the best defenses nature has to offer us against aging. Folic acid, in particulara nutrient associated with dark leafy greens like spinach and kaleis essential in DNA synthesis and repair. These vitamins are quite literally packaged sunshine for your body. The more sunlight a plant gets, the more vitamin C it produces by photosynthesis. In addition, the amount of light a plant receives determines how much pigment, in the form of chlorophyll, is needed to handle the energy input. Thus, the darker the color of the leaves and stem surfaces, the more sunshine that plant has seen, and ultimately, the more body-boosting vitamins and minerals are on your plate.
A completely underrated family of plants with a deep Southern heritage and a terrific supply of antioxidants is collard greens. Most people either love or hate collards, but the nutritional roster for this vegetable has inspired many people to find an easy and delicious way to eat these greens. Collards, along with kale and spinach, provide one of the richest sources of vitamin A, vitamin C, and beta-carotene known to man. Recent studies published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute involving approximately 30,000 residents of northern China found that those participants who had been given a daily dose of antioxidants had a reduced cancer rate of 13 percent. Even more dramatic are the results of the American Heart Association studies. These testsconducted on 1,795 female nurses who each had a history of heart attack, chest pain due to coronary disease, or treatment for a blockage in a coronary arteryshowed that the women who consumed high amounts of antioxidants in their food had a 33-percent lower risk of heart attack and a 71-percent lower risk of stroke. So when you eat your greens, you’re eating for life.
Another aspect of what makes some of these vegetables so valuable to our bodies is their fiber content. One of Speare’s personal favorites in this regard is the cruciferous asparagus, so high in fiber that, added to one’s regular diet, it functions as a “spring cleaning” in the colon. It’s a lack of fiber in the American diet, Speare is quick to point out, that is largely responsible for our high incidence of colon cancer, intestinal problems, gallstones, and heart disease, compared to the incidence of these ailments in nations whose diets rely more on plant fiber as a source of nutrition.
Asparagus also has the added bonus of being high in sulfur, which acts as a powerful detoxifier for the body, making it a great candidate for people who want any sort of cleansing fast. Speare recommends eating these vegetables as close to raw as possible to get the most nutrients, and to mix in some brown rice (one half-cup contains 1.6 grams of dietary fiber) to achieve that aforementioned “spring cleaning.”
Before we make it to the spring, however, we must get through the rest of the winter, which can be aided by boosting the immune system to ward off infections. Last but not least on our vegetable A-list is the sweet potato. Not only does the sweet potato contain high levels of fiber and beta-carotene, but very high amounts of vitamin C as well, an essential vitamin that acts to build up white blood cells to fight off bacterial and viral infections. A simple sweet potato with a little butter and salt could be your new best friend for keeping colds away this winter.
Knowing how to prepare some simple yet delicious recipes with these nutritional all-star veggies is the next step in adding dishes that pack a healthy punch to your diet. Local chef Tony Patton from Virago has provided a cabbage stir-fry recipe that stimulates both the appetite and the imagination. (Don’t forget that the dark leaves on bok choy have roughly 30 times the amount of beta-carotene as the white part, so try to buy bunches with outer leaves that have not been weather-beaten.) Also included is a recipe for asparagus in a fragrant sauce from Pierre Francois de la Varenne, France’s first great culinary writer and chef to Henri IV, as well as Jane Brody’s rice with collards and an intriguing Thai yam and coconut-milk soup from Scott Alderson at 6º. While these recipes might not do everything for your psyche that a few weeks at a Caribbean spa would, a mess of greens might be just what the doctor ordered. Enjoy!
1 head bok choy, chopped and rinsed
1 head napa cabbage, chopped and rinsed
1 c. red bell pepper, julienned
1 c. carrot matchsticks
1 c. red onion, julienned
1 c. mushroom slices
1 c. soy sauce
1 tbsp. fresh grated ginger
2 tbsp. mirin or sweet sherry
2-3 tbsp. peanut or canola oil
1 tbsp. toasted sesame seeds
chili paste to desired heat
Heat wok or skillet over medium high heat until oil just begins to smoke. Add onion and ginger to pan, stirring constantly, about one minute. Add carrots and peppers, and continue to cook one or two minutes, then quickly add mushrooms and cabbage. Stir constantly while adding soy, mirin, and chili paste. Remove from heat and add toasted sesame seeds. Serve over steamed rice.
Asparagus in a Fragrant Sauce
Choose the largest asparagus, scrape them at the bottom, and wash. Cook them in some water, salt them well, and do not let them overcook (approximately four minutes). When done, let them drain, and make a sauce with some good fresh butter, a little vinegar, salt, nutmeg, and an egg yolk to bind the sauce, taking care that it doesn’t curdle. Serve the asparagus garnished with whatever you like.
Rice With Collards
2 c. broth, chicken or vegetable
1 c. long-grain rice, white or brown
1 tsp. butter or margarine
3 c. chopped fresh collard greens
freshly ground black pepper to taste
salt, if desired, to taste
Bring the broth to a boil in a medium saucepan. Add the butter or margarine, stir in the rice, and add the collards in three batches, stirring the mixture after each addition. Return the mixture to a boil, reduce the heat, cover the pan, and simmer the mixture for 20 minutes (35 minutes for brown rice) or until the rice is done. Add salt and pepper, if needed.
Thai Golden Yam and Coconut Milk Soup
6 golden yams, peeled and chopped
2 c. leeks, sliced and rinsed
6 shallots, sliced
3 tbsp. ginger, finely minced
1 cup mirin
1/4 c. coconut vinegar
4 Kaffir lime leaves
3 tbsp. mint leaves, chopped
1 tbsp. coriander seeds
1/2 c. yellow miso paste
1/2 Scotch Bonnet chile, deseeded
2 cans coconut milk
1/4 c. scallions, thinly sliced
juice from two limes
1/3 c. mango, diced small
1/4 c. sesame oil
1/4 c. olive oil
black sesame seeds (for garnish)
salt to taste
In a heavy bottomed sauce pan, sweat leeks, shallots, ginger, Kaffir lime leaves, mint leaves, coriander seeds, and Scotch Bonnet chile in the sesame oil and olive oil until tender. Add coconut vinegar and reduce. Add mirin and reduce. Add miso and yams, just covering with water, and simmer until yams are fork tender. Puree in food processor or blender and strain through a fine mesh sieve. Return to stove and add coconut milk. Season to taste with salt. Toss mango, scallion, and lime juice together, then marinate for one hour. Serve soup, garnished with mango compote and a sprinkle of black sesame seeds.