Leave Well Enough Alone

When it comes to food, sometimes it’s best to leave well enough alone. I have a friend who tries every new superfood nutrient powder that comes along. Mostly, they buy it and it sits on the counter, but they believe this will make them healthy while eating fast food fried chicken plus some lettuce every other month.

There’s no shortage of these products. I’m confident I could find one that’s gluten-free, low histamine, and pleasant tasting. I’m also confident that it would cost more than the few cents per serving I’ll spend producing Swiss chard, arugula, lettuce, and bok choy in my garden. So why would I be tempted to opt for a powdery substitute?

fresh tomatoes

I’m not saying there’s absolutely no benefit to these products or that they shouldn’t be added to an already healthy, balanced diet. If you are creating a shelf-stable survival kit, they may be a good option. If an elderly relative has trouble chewing, they may be a good option. If you are traveling and uncertain about access to fresh fruits and vegetables, greens powder may be a good option. But for anyone who has access and can tolerate the ingredients in fresh form, a powder is not a superior substitute.

Flour that has been processed until it has virtually no nutrients left, then enriched is not better than flour that is less refined. Orange juice from concentrate that sits for months and then has flavor packets added so it will taste fresh is not healthier than eating an orange or squeezing one for juice.

Academics and food scientists have attempted to create functional ice cream that provides more health benefits than regular ice cream without the drawbacks. Along the way, some interesting things have been discovered. Dairy fat wasn’t shown to be associated with the risk of type 2 diabetes when compared with calories from carbohydrate. But replacing 5% of the dairy fat calories with other animal fat or carbohydrates from refined grains was associated with a 14% and 4% increased risk respectively of type 2 diabetes. Substituting whole grains for 5% of the calories on the other hand resulted in a 7% lower risk of type 2 diabetes. Even in this experimentation, whole foods proved healthier.

Ice cream may even reduce the risk of heart disease for diabetics. A few years ago, a Harvard doctoral student who had studied the relationship of dairy foods to chronic disease for his thesis presented evidence that eating ½ cup of ice cream per day was associated with a lower risk for heart problems. I’d like to believe this finding! I feel like ice cream has healing properties.

Even so, I’m sure homemade or local creamery ice cream without added fillers is better than commercially produced grocery store ice cream. I’m lucky to live less than a mile from a local creamery so a healing bowl of ice cream is never far away. Neither is the temptation to eat way more than half a cup.

When I was growing up, there would have been no reason for this post. The emphasis on processed and convenience food was small. Most of my family’s food came from the farm. I learned to love the smells, textures, and taste of fresh vegetables from the garden.

And my mother wasn’t keen on extra work in the kitchen. As a result, she kept things simple. That example inadvertently helped shape my preferences for healthier foods.

That doesn’t mean I’m a proponent of a raw food diet, but I do support including raw vegetables and fruits in meals every day. Why? They retain all of their nutrients. But also, I don’t think bananas, apples, peaches, grapes, blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, raspberries, oranges, arugula, lettuce, tomatoes, or baby bok choy are enhanced by cooking.

I don’t want to miss out on the peppery bitterness of arugula, the sweet juiciness of a fresh blackberry bursting open in my mouth, or the tender crunch a baby bok choy stem adds to my salad. I would miss all of this pleasure if they were ground into a powder.

When healthier and more pleasurable intersect, it’s best to leave well enough alone!

Grown-Up Nutrition

Bok choy packs grown-up nutrition into a few tiny calories. I’ve been eating a lot of baby bok choy the past few weeks. It’s the one thing in my garden that hasn’t been stressed by the heat.

Before this summer, I may have eaten bok choy a few times in stir fry, but I was generally unfamiliar with this green. Thanks to my sister providing seeds, I’m having the opportunity to discover how much I enjoy it.

I’m harvesting leaves rather than waiting for larger stemmed groupings. The leaves are tender and sweet – not exactly what you expect from a cabbage. As the plants grow larger, the aroma becomes more cabbage-like and the stems become tougher.

Whether you eat them raw or cooked, a one cup serving has a mere 9 calories. Of course, the cooked version will gain calories if you add meat or fat to the pan. And a salad may have added calories from other vegetables and dressing. Even so, with a little attention to ingredients you can get a remarkable amount of nutrition packed into a minimal number of calories.

Bok choy is high in antioxidants as well as cancer-fighting compounds like vitamins C and E, beta-carotene, folate, and selenium. It’s also a good source of the inflammation reducing flavonoid quercetin. And the good stuff doesn’t stop there. Bok choy contains many of the essentials for maintaining strong healthy bones – calcium, phosphorous, iron, magnesium, and vitamin K.

Including greens high in folate (like bok choy) in your diet during pregnancy can help prevent complications like spina bifida and anencephaly, a severe congenital condition in which a large part of the skull is absent along with the cerebral hemispheres of the brain.

I love a food that promotes good health without a load of calories, but the best thing about bok choy is it’s delicious! I read something recently that called it a gateway green. I can see how that’s an apt description. The mild sweetness makes it appealing for the consumer who isn’t yet accustomed to the bitterness found in many greens.

The mild, pleasant flavor makes a great background for prominent flavors like arugula and dried bing cherries, but it also blends well with more subtle flavors like red bell pepper, celery, cucumber, and carrots. Because I’m harvesting early, the stems are delicious chopped into a salad.

If you enjoy cooked greens, bok choy is great stir fried or sautéed. You can also cook it like more traditional mustard, collard, or turnip greens.

The other day, I filled a pot with chopped bok choy and a cup or so of chopped Swiss chard. I filled the pot with water to the top of the greens. Then I added about a cup of chicken broth, a chunk of onion, a jalapeño pepper with stem and seeds removed, a spoonful of chili garlic sauce, a dash of tamari, and some salt & pepper.

I brought the pot to a boil, then simmered the greens for about 20 minutes. You can vary the cooking time to fit your preferences. I’m from the south where we overcook things.

The result is flavorful, but mellow and just what I was looking for. I’ve eaten it as a side with both chicken and steak and have not been disappointed. Not to mention, I feel as happy as a child when I enjoy grown-up nutrition from baby bok choy!


Playing a Mandoline

When I talk about playing a mandolin, I mean a food slicer. While I have strummed a mandolin, I can’t competently play one. Since mandoline (slicer) can be spelled mandolin and mandolin (instrument) can be spelled mandoline, it seemed like a good idea to begin by specifying. Now, on to the playing…

My assignment for a 4th of July BBQ was to bring a salad from my garden. This year’s weather combined with a last-minute change in seeds has resulted in a haphazard, untidy selection of growth. My salad harvest no longer includes lettuce, spinach, or squash. Instead, I have baby bok choy, arugula, and a limited amount of Swiss chard.

I decided to shred bok choy for the base. To that I added shredded chard and lightly chopped arugula. This year’s arugula is milder in flavor than last year’s, but if not kept in check it can quickly overpower other greens. I used a ratio of about 4 to 1 bok choy to arugula.

To balance the bitterness of the greens, I chose Gala apples, fresh mozzarella, and honey roasted pecan pieces. Some salads are delicious deconstructed. This one was dependent on the flavor combination in each bite, so I wanted to make sure the apples were distributed throughout.

I decided julienned strips would be the best option. Of course, the day before I managed to melt the handle of the knife I needed to cut the apples. I know that sounds odd. Somehow, it fell out of the silverware basket of my dishwasher and lodged against the heating element without me noticing. Well, until there was weird blue smoke in the air. But that’s another story for another day.

In this narrative, it meant I needed another option to julienne the apple. Off I went to my dining room closet where I store the mandoline I use for scalloped potatoes. My thinking was that if I used the mandoline to make thin, uniform slices, it wouldn’t be that hard to cut those into strips.

What I had forgotten was that the mandoline came with several interchangeable blades I’d never tried. I gave them a look and did a test swipe using a grater looking blade. Apparently, it’s a julienne blade because it made the most perfect strips I’ve ever seen. Whoo-hoo!!! My job just got a whole lot easier. I played that mandoline for all it was worth.

Once I had the greens assembled, I tossed in the apple, and added the cheese and pecans. Earlier I had made a balsamic vinaigrette sweetened with molasses and a little honey. It was thick and rich and poured like a balsamic drizzle. It was just the top-off the salad needed. It was a big hit!

I left the party feeling grateful for the mandoline with its functional simplicity and changeable blades. It shortened the work in my holiday and created a professional looking cut with the swipe of a hand.

I’m not big on small kitchen appliances and I try to keep the gadgets at a minimum, but the right tool at the right time can change cooking from drudgery to pleasure. That’s one big reason to learn to play a mandoline!

Stretch Your Greenbacks with Forgotten Greens

When you’re trying to eat healthy on a budget, you can stretch your greenbacks with forgotten greens! It’s hard to grow up in the South without eating greens. They’re a staple in every home cooking, soul food, and barbecue restaurant and many grandmother’s kitchens. Most cooks have a favorite green. Some prefer collard, some mustard, and some turnip. When you generically refer to greens, it’s assumed you mean one of these three or a mix of them.
Often overlooked are the other greens that abound in Southern homes. We consume beets, radishes, carrots, and celery on a regular basis. Most of us have added kale to our menus, and many of us enjoy kohlrabi and bok choy in the occasional stir fry. In an effort to eat fresh, local food it’s more and more common to buy these vegetables from a community garden, neighborhood farmer’s market or CSA (community supported agriculture) produce coop.

If you shop in these venues, you know that the vegetables aren’t always uniform in size and shape, they may arrive still covered in soil, and most of them will have beautiful green leaves attached. It’s tempting to quickly chop off the leaves and discard them before cleaning beets, carrots, or radishes, and many cooks in my family do just that.
I’ll admit it takes more time to clean and shred the tops, but you can also end up with a delicious mix of greens just by saving what you’d normally throw away. This weekend, I cooked a pot of spicy greens using radish, kohlrabi, and bok choy greens, plus some Swiss chard. That’s not a special mix. It’s just what I had on hand. As is true of most combinations of leafy greens, they’re delicious together.

Of course, you can also use these tops in a salad or soup. Unfortunately, I don’t really like cabbage tasting greens in a salad, and I’m unlikely to make soup in the summer. But thinking of edible vegetable leaves in the way I think of turnip greens gives me another avenue for preparation. Seasoned with chicken stock, onion, garlic, dried chile peppers, salt, pepper, and a splash of vinegar, these greens have wonderful depth of flavor and a peppery bite.

I’m not sure how collard, mustard, and turnip greens came to be the standard for greens, or why my grandmother never used the radish greens or carrot tops she grew. I do know that I can stretch my greenbacks by broadening my definition of greens to include beet, bok choy, broccoli, carrot, celery, chard, dandelion, kale, kohlrabi, and radish.
And by cooking the greens attached to my vegetables, I gain another vegetable to serve, stretch my food budget, and include all the vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that make leafy greens an important part of a healthy diet. I also reduce my food waste. That makes me feel good.