We are now on to Tip #4 in this series of Cooking Tips on cooking/eating healthy. In this Tip, I want to talk about a very important part of everyone’s diets – Vegetables. We all should be eating more veggies but it would help if we could make them a bit more exciting without sacrificing nutrition.
All veggies are high in important nutrients such as vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. They are also high in fiber while being low in sugar, fat and sodium. There are some differences, though, in vegetables. Veggies can be divided into starch and non-starchy. Starch breaks down into glucose in our bodies and these veggies are higher in calories than non-starchy and lower in fiber.
It is recommended that we eat all types of veggies but we should consume more of the non-starchy, especially if you are diabetic or pre-diabetic.
Non-starchy vegetables contain only a small amount of starch. Here are some of the most common. One caveat – beets and carrots straddle the line between starch and non-starchy. So, if you are trying to decrease your intake of starchy veggies, you should limit these two items.
- Brussels Sprouts
- Greens (Collard, Kale, Mustard)
- Green Bean
- Pea Pods And Sugar Snap Peas
- Salad greens
- Summer Squash (Yellow, Zucchini)
- Water Chestnuts
Starchy veggies contain more starch but they also have abundant nutrients. Some examples are:
- Sweet potatoes
- Winter Squash (acorn, butternut)
The best form to eat vegetables are either fresh and frozen. Frozen is a great option as they are picked at the height of ripeness and then quickly frozen. Be careful, though, that the frozen package you pick up does not contain a sauce or seasonings. These often contain added sugars and sodium. Watch out for canned vegetables as they also often contain sodium and sugar. As I have said in my prior Tips in this series, you should become adept at reading the nutritional facts labels. Make sure the only ingredient on the label is the vegetable.
Unless you are eating canned or frozen veggies, you need to clean them. The USDA recommends washing your produce under cold running tap water to remove any dirt & reduce bacteria. If there is a firm surface, such as on apples or potatoes, the surface can be scrubbed with a brush. Do not use detergent or soap as these are not approved for use on foods. You could ingest residues from soap or detergent absorbed on the produce. Note that the recommendation is just for plain water. You don’t need any special type of produce spray. If you really want to do more than just plain water, make a mixture of 1 part distilled white vinegar to 3 parts water. This is really not necessary, though.
There is a bit of debate over washing pre-washed, bagged greens. Although some recommend washing these items, many others say you are more likely to introduce contamination from your kitchen by doing so. Also, any pathogens left on pre-washed greens are probably so tightly adhered that washing them again in your kitchen is probably not going to do anything. The latter is the opinion of the USDA.
What about peeling your veggies? It is generally accepted that the peels are full of beneficial nutrients that you will lose if you peel them. So, if you are able to just scrub your veggies and eat/cook them without peeling, you are better off. There are some peels, though that are just too fibrous to eat or they are too difficult to clean properly. In that case, wash them first and then peel them. By washing them first, you are not transferring debris/pathogens from the outside to the inside. Most pesticide residue can be removed by washing. However, if you are concerned about this, peeling will give you an extra measure of comfort.
Now that we know which veggies we should eat often, which ones we might limit somewhat, and how to clean them, how do we make them tasty? There are those people, like my husband, who just love veggies in the purest form. If you are not one of those, let’s look at some ways you can increase your interest.
Having a salad every day is one of the healthiest habits you can form, whether it is before dinner each night (as we do) or as the main part of the meal. It is a great way to get a variety of veggies in one dish. Start with a mixture of greens such as lettuce, spinach, arugula, microgreens or more. Add in fresh veg such as celery, carrots, cucumber, bell peppers and green onions. One drawback for me in making sure we eat salads every day is all the prep – slicing and dicing all those ingredients. Something I do to make this easier is to prep ahead for a few days. If I am making a salad for Monday night, I also set out small bowls for the next three nights. I then cut up enough veg for each of those nights and put them in the small bowls. Now, for the next three nights, I just have to put my greens in a salad bowl and dump in the contents of those bowls of precut veg. Voila – instant salad!
Sometimes we will eat our veggies raw but other times, we want them cooked. Cooking veggies can alter them in the following ways.
- Texture – caused by the fiber in the veggies
- Fiber is made firmer by:
- Adding acids such as citrus juice, vinegar or tomato products.
- Sugars – this is more often used when cooking fruit
- Fiber is softened by:
- Heat – the longer you cook veggies the softer they become.
- Alkalis – this is why you do not want to add baking soda to your veggies as it will make them mushy.
- Fiber is made firmer by:
- Flavor – flavor can be lost in the cooking liquid and with prolonged cooking times
- Cook your veggies in as short of time as possible to limit flavor loss.
- Some veggies where a bit of flavor loss is preferable is with strongly flavored veggies such as onions, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli, turnips and rutabagas.
- Color – there are white, red, green & yellow/orange veggies
- Potatoes, onions, cauliflower
- Other veggies may not be white on the outside but are on the inside. Examples are cucumbers, zucchini and celery.
- Acid helps to keep the whiteness. So, if you are cooking your veggies in water, add a small amount of lemon juice.
- Cooking for shorter amounts of time helps preserve the color.
- Red cabbage, beets
- Acids turn them brighter red.
- Alkalis turn them blue or blue-green.
- Over-cooking leads to loss of the red color.
- Acids lead to loss of the green color.
- Overcooking turns bright green veggies to an unappealing olive green.
- Carrots, corn, winter squash, sweet potatoes, some bell peppers
- Yellow & orange pigments are very stable. Acids and/or alkalis do not cause much of a color change.
- Overcooking can dull the color.
- Nutrients — nutrients are often lost by overcooking or cooking in a lot of water.
The main ways of preparing veggies (other than eating them raw) are boiling, microwaving, steaming, sauteing, grilling or roasting. Here is a colorful guide from Cooksmart.com showing you which veggies do best with which methods of cooking. The same website has a great section on how to prep veggies if you are not familiar with how to get them ready for eating.
This is not the best method as it is so easy to overcook the veggies and much of the flavor and nutrients can be lost in the water.
This method leaves your veggies crisp and there is less loss of flavor. It works great for porous vegetables such as asparagus, broccoli and cauliflower.
This is one area where your microwave is a useful tool, especially (but not exclusively) for frozen vegetables. A few minutes in the microwave and your veggies are ready for the table.
Sauteing is a great way of cooking veggies as it allows you to get some color on them. You can use a nonstick pan or you will need to add a bit of oil if using a regular pan. Heat your pan, add a small amount of oil and heat until hot. Before adding the veggies, add some aromatics such as shallots, garlic, or ginger. These will add great guilt-free flavor to the veggies. After sautéing the aromatics, add the veggies and cook until done. If the pan gets too dry during the cooking process, you may add a splash of water/broth. Add a bit of salt to taste as you are cooking and, if desired, finish with some acid such as lemon juice. Optional toppings include a grating of parmesan or pecorino cheese, nuts or seeds.
You can even do a combination of the above two if you are cooking raw veggies. Start them in the microwave with a touch of water to soften them – no more than about 3 minutes. Then, toss them in a hot pan (beware of splattering) as above and finish by sautéing.
You can even do a combination of the above two if you are cooking raw veggies. Start them in the microwave with a touch of water to soften them – no more than about 3 minutes. Then, toss them in a hot pan (beware of splattering) as above and finish by sautéing
Roasting veggies requires you to preheat the oven and takes longer (~30-45 minutes) than other methods. However, as moisture is driven off in the oven, it does concentrate flavors and leaves you with crispy edges.
Something that is helpful to get crispy results is to put your sheet pan in the oven as you preheat it. That way, your veggies start to cook and sizzle as soon as you put them on that hot pan. Oven temperature recommendations vary but are usually pretty hot — 400° to 500°. I will prep my veggies, put them in a bowl, season them with salt and fresh herbs (rosemary, thyme) and toss them in a small amount of olive oil. You can even add a bit of balsamic vinegar. Carefully remove the hot pan from the oven, add the veggies and roast until tender and crisp.
I am not a fan of most grilled foods and so, we do not own an outdoors grill. However, I do like to grill or char veggies stovetop. For that, I use either a grill pan or a cast iron pan. After preheating the pan, I add the veggies and cook them until they are brown and just a bit charred. I normally toss them first in a small amount of olive oil, salt and pepper. When cooking them on the pan, space them apart so they will char. If you place them too close together, they will steam, which is not the result you want with this method. I especially like this method for zucchini and Brussels sprouts.
None of these methods require you to add anything to the cooked veggies before eating. However, you can consider a small grating of a flavorful cheese such as parmesan, pecorino or asiago or a sprinkling of nuts such as slivered almonds. Just to be sure to watch how much you add. Some like to add a pat of butter (although this is a saturated fat) or a drizzle of olive oil. You can get butter-flavored olive oil or herb-infused oil for more flavor.
I hope this Tip will encourage to eat veggies every day whether it be in a salad, as a side dish or even both. They can be extremely tasty and are certainly a necessary part of a healthy diet.