- Nutrition -

Crunch Time

Don’t like vegetables? Then you don’t know what you’ve been missing. For the sake of your body, it’s time you figured it out.

The National Cancer Institute estimates that one in three cancer deaths is diet related and that eight of 10 cancers have a nutrition/diet component. The best minds of our day all agree that eating more fresh vegetables – and especially raw, organic vegetables – is the single best change we can make to our diets. The exalted grand poo-bahs of wellness repeatedly promise that eating more vegetables will not only help us stay healthier and live longer, but will also help us start looking and feeling better within a matter of days.

Our typical response? We yawn and reach for the corn chips (hey, they’re made out of corn, aren’t they?). If we want to look and feel better fast, there’s always the magic pills and powders that promise instant results without any work on our part.

Wise up. This is your body we’re talking about – a complex, biochemical miracle that goes a long way toward determining your quality of life. Your body needs real food, real nutrition, real energy. But that doesn’t mean you can’t eat for flavor too! In fact, real flavor may be exactly what you’re missing: The subtle, deep and delicate flavors of foods so ingenious, so complex that only nature could design them, and virtually nothing could improve them.

Easy Way Out

We’re all busy. We’re stressed. We want food to be effortless. We want someone else to do the thinking (and chopping and cooking) for us. But it’s gotten to the point that if food doesn’t come ready to eat in a plastic or cardboard package, we barely recognize it as food at all.

Of course, this is all backwards: Most often, it’s the packaged and processed stuff that only marginally qualifies as food. And regardless of what the package labels may imply, the very best thing for a stressed-out, busy person is not another ready-to-rehydrate insty-meal. It’s a wholesome minimally altered vegetable. Or better yet, several of them.

Unfortunately, though we may not like to admit it, faced with a basket of plain, fresh-out-of-the-ground veggies, a lot of us don’t have the first clue how to turn them into an actual dish. Plus, cancer statistics aside, certain members of our families moan that they “just don’t like vegetables.” So why buy them (and wash and chop them) in the first place?

I won’t bore you with the nutritional breakdowns, micron by micron, of obscure co-op produce. Nor will I load you down with slicing and dicing tips for every tuber known to man. Once you’re motivated, that stuff is easy to find. What you really need is the big picture, some basic information and a little inspiration – to change your eating habits, and your life.

Hidden Treasure

Any study out there will tell you that diets high in vegetables, fruits and legumes reduce the risk of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and so on. You get all that great fiber, of course, and all vegetables are generally low in cholesterol, fats and calories. But the most powerful health-creating capacities of these foods are due to the richness of their nutritional profile – their vitamins, minerals, and in particular, their treasure-trove of antioxidants and phytochemicals. This is the stuff of life.

Antioxidants, as you know by now, are the sworn enemies of free radicals – those pesky electron bandits that cause wrinkles, create abnormal cell growth and precipitate serious disease. Supplementing your diet with additional vitamins and antioxidants is a good idea, because getting enough of some of them (especially vitamin E) is tricky no matter what you eat.

Still, no supplement – or arsenal of supplements – can reproduce all the subtle and delicate combinations of nutritional compounds available in live produce. And no amount of supplements will save you from a dead-food diet. Which brings us to phytochemicals.

Phytochemicals are biologically active substances in plants that also remain active in our cells, helping them to rid themselves of unwanted substances (like carcinogens) and to protect us from disease. According to the American Dietetic Association, a good deal of research has associated phytochemicals with the prevention and/or treatment of at least four of the leading causes of death in the United States, including cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and hypertension.

Phytochemicals are also involved in many processes that help prevent cell damage, prevent cancer-cell replication, and decrease cholesterol levels. Present in all live foods – and in almost inconceivable variety – all phytochemicals are thought to help excrete toxins, to prevent the formation of carcinogens and to increase immune activity.

Again, supplements containing isolated phytochemicals are now popping up on store shelves everywhere, but these should not be considered replacements for whole foods. The bottom line here: There is no supplement that can do for you half of what a fresh, chopped-vegetable salad can!

Vegging Out

By eating plenty of raw or slightly cooked vegetables, we get more of the benefits of the enzymes, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients that whole foods contain. Happily, raw and gently cooked foods are a hot trend in hoity-toity chef circles right now, and you can follow this trend in your at-home food-prep too. For the best success, whether you go raw or cooked, select your produce and fruits carefully and then handle them with care. Here are some tips:

Selection: When you can, opt for natural and organic vegetables that are in season and at their peak of freshness. Remember that ripening is a process that stops once a product has been separated from its root system and stem. Anything else is just called “rotting.” Also, peak produce has more nutrient content than overripe or under-ripe produce. Seek out local produce and try unusual, heirloom varieties when you can. Fill your basket with a variety of textures and colors.

Washing: All produce should be washed (and if it has a fibrous skin, scrubbed) before it is eaten. That goes for organics, too. Chemicals and bacteria of all kinds come in contact with your foods at several stages in the shipping and handling process. So wash your produce with water (ideally, filtered water) and a gentle, nontoxic soap or produce bath. Get yourself a good basin and vegetable brush for the job. I also highly recommend a salad spinner for speed-rinsing and drying loose-leaf veggies and small items.

Storage: Flavors and textures are at their peak right after picking, so unless you are reading this while gazing out at your bountiful vegetable garden, the best advice I can give you is to shop often, then cook and eat without delay. Most vegetables are best when eaten within two to three days of purchase. Different vegetables prefer different storage situations. Some like the fridge. Some don’t. Some like it dry. Some want water. Consult a good, general purpose cookbook for more veggie-by-veggie tips or visit www.manic-organic.com/tips/storage.htm.

Culling/Reviving: One trick of working with fresh produce is noticing when it’s no longer fresh and knowing what to do about it. Slightly wilted produce can often be substantially revived by a good dunk or soak in ice-cold water. It’s also okay to use otherwise healthy produce that has a few small dark spots or blemishes (just cut away the bad portion), but discard any fruits or vegetables that show signs of rot or mold, which tend to spread quickly to other healthy pieces. Also discard anything that’s gone mushy or wrinkled, or that you bought “a while back.” Make a point of clearing your fridge of aging produce on a weekly basis. Toss the salvageable items into the soup pot. Toss the rest into your compost pile or worm bin (see page 46 of magazine).

Preparation: First, invest in some good veggie-prep equipment. At minimum, you’ll want a sizable cutting board, a decent knife, a peeler and a grater. You really don’t need a fancy food processor, and if you hate cleaning it, you won’t use it often. Instead, get yourself a simpler gadget – one that doesn’t require an outlet and doesn’t take up much space. Many gourmet shops sell high-quality “mandolin” slicers that cut vegetables into an astonishing array of shapes and thicknesses, but they can be pricey. Just as effective for most jobs, and much less expensive, are Japanese vegetable slicers (see Inside Out, page 72 of magazine). They make beautiful, paper-thin slices and delicate julienne sticks, fast!

Many veggies (like cucumbers, carrots, bell peppers and jicama) are eminently edible just served up plain in slices, “chips” or sticks. For a lively snack or hors d’oeuvre, just drizzle them with a little lime juice and grated ginger or dip them in a yogurt- or olive-oil-based dressing. For a more substantial dish, you may want to get a bit more creative. Not the type to conjure up veggie recipes on your own? A single raw-foods or vegetarian cookbook can give you more ideas than you’ll ever need, and very likely, more eating pleasure than you ever thought possible.

Cooking and Seasoning: The key to enjoying vegetables lies in creating a pleasing combination of flavors, textures, colors and shapes. So don’t be afraid to experiment, both with the vegetables you buy and the way you prepare them.

Start scouring vegetarian cookbooks and gourmet, fresh-food Web sites for more ideas (see this article’s Web Extra! (see link at top of this page) for suggestions and a few of my favorite veggie recipes). Also check the produce section at your local market for recipe cards and ask your friends to share their favorites. Just don’t let boredom or apathy get the better of you. Refuse to spend one more night gumming mushy broccoli florets – or worse yet, munching on corn chips. Instead, get into the kitchen and get into real food for life.

Andrew Zimmern is a celebrated chef, restaurateur and expert culinary instructor. He is also Life Time Fitness's resident food expert and Experience Life's regular "Edibles" columnist. Contact Chef Andrew at chefaz@visi.com.

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