Gaining the most nutrition

A new cookbook features nutrient dense vegetables and fruits to get the most nutritious value per calorie.

Beet salad (photo credit: Courtesy)
Beet salad
(photo credit: Courtesy)
"Eat your spinach’ or “eat your broccoli” are what many children hear from their mothers; luckily, most kids don’t need much urging to eat tangerines, strawberries or watermelon. All of these are among the vegetables and fruits featured in Cathy Thomas’s new cookbook, Melissa’s 50 Best Plants on the Planet.
Thomas comes from a nutrition-conscious family. “When I was a child, when we were out for a drive, we’d stop the car and gather weeds,” she says at the party to celebrate the book’s publication. Such edible weeds as dandelion and mustard greens are among the most nutritious of foods. After Thomas ate cauliflower gratin in France and found it the most delicious vegetable dish she had ever tasted, she asked her mother why she had never prepared it. Her mother’s answer: “Broccoli is more nutritious than cauliflower.”
The vegetables and fruits in the book were chosen according to their nutrition density, which measures the nutrient content per calorie. The idea is that if you eat nutrient-dense foods, you gain the most in nutritional benefits for the “price” you pay in calories.
From the tempting array of foods at the party, few would guess that these were recipes from a book on healthy eating. A favorite of ours was the quinoa tabbouleh.
It was studded with roasted beets, red onion dice, cucumber, parsley, mint and toasted almonds and dressed with olive oil and lemon juice. (See recipe below.) “Beets are so good for you they border on the mystic,” writes Thomas. “From root tip to leafy green, the amount of nutrition in a single beet is impressive.” The root is “loaded with nearly every metabolically important mineral,” while the greens are high in fiber and a variety of vitamins.
Steam-roasting, or baking in foil, is the technique that Thomas prefers for cooking beets. Once the beets are cooked, an easy, elegant way to serve them is as appetizer beet sandwiches: Between every two beet slices Thomas puts a thin slice of goat cheese, and sets this mini-sandwich on a slice of baguette. To make a colorful salad, she pairs beets with tangerines, which are also nutrient-dense, and enhances the salad with vinaigrette, red onion slivers and a sprinkling of pistachios.
Among the top 50 plants in the book is “one of the most ancient herbal medicines” – cilantro or fresh coriander, known as ‘kusbara’ in the Mideast, where it originated. Its use “has been traced back more than eight thousand years,” writes Thomas. “Ounce for ounce containing more nutrition than many other leafy greens... [it] was recently shown to have an ability to trigger insulin release by leveling blood sugar, helping to mitigate the symptoms of diabetes.”
ALTHOUGH AMERICANS think of cilantro as Mexican, Thomas notes that it is “an essential herb in many cuisines with a spicy sizzle. With its sharp, almost lemony flavor and peppery aroma, cilantro offers a cooling balance to the heat of chiles and spices.”
Depending how it is used, cilantro can give different flavors to dishes. Cilantro is usually used raw; we often add it to omelets and sprinkle it over our vegetable soups just before serving. It also is good cooked for a few minutes in rice or bean dishes or sauted briefly with garlic for adding to braised green beans, zucchini, okra and other vegetable dishes. Thomas recommends cilantro even as a garnish for sliced tropical fruit.
Yakir was surprised to learn that sabra fruit or cactus pear (also called prickly pear), which he has loved since he was a young boy in Israel, is one of the healthiest of fruits. When he was a child, he and his brothers picked them using a tin can attached to a long stick to avoid being pricked by the plant’s nasty thorns. As a result of his boyhood experiences, he became an expert in handling the fruit. To prepare it, he holds the fruit on the cutting board with tongs in one hand, and cuts the skin off with a knife held in his other hand.
At the party, we enjoyed the fruit in sabra sorbet and in a tasty “grown-up fruit salad” with pineapple, mango, melon, strawberries, fresh mint and a splash of tequila. Cactus leaves, which are popular in Mexican cuisine, are also full of nutritional benefits; the grilled peeled leaves tasted good in toasted cheese sandwiches.
One piece of good news from the selection of 50 best plants – you don’t need to spend a lot of money on exotic ingredients. This exclusive list includes plenty of everyday, reasonably priced produce items, like cabbage, romaine lettuce, green onions, pumpkin and oranges.
Faye Levy is the author of Faye Levy’s International Vegetable Cookbook, winner of the James Beard Cookbook Award in 1994 as the year’s Best Book in the category of Fruits, Vegetables and Grains.QUINOA TABBOULEH WITH BEETS
This recipe is from Melissa’s 50 Best Plants on the Planet. Author Cathy Thomas recommends serving the salad in lettuce cups made from large leaves of butter lettuce, or serving it as a bed under grilled fish or tofu.
Thomas prefers golden beets. If using red beets, she advises using red quinoa, which is sold in natural foods stores, since the beets will stain the salad red. Cook red quinoa the same way as white.
Makes 4 servings as a side dish salad, or 8 servings as a lettuce wrap
3/4 cup quinoa (see Note 1 below)1/3 cup fresh lemon juiceSaltFreshly ground black pepper1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil2 medium beets, roasted, peeled, cut into 1-cm (about 1/2-inch) chunks (see Note 2 below)2/3 cup finely diced unpeeled cucumber1/2 cup finely chopped parsley1/2 medium red onion, finely diced1/3 cup finely chopped fresh mint1/3 cup slivered almonds, toasted (see Note 3 below)
In a medium saucepan, combine 1 1/2 cups water and the quinoa. Bring to a boil on high heat. Cover and reduce the heat to medium-low. Simmer for 12 minutes. Remove from the heat and allow the pan to rest off the heat, covered, for 4 minutes. If any water remains, drain it off.  Fluff the quinoa with a fork.
In a large bowl, season the lemon juice with salt and pepper. Add the oil and whisk to combine. Add the quinoa, beets, cucumber, parsley, onion and mint; toss gently. For the best flavor, allow the tabbouleh to sit for 30 to 40 minutes before serving. Taste and adjust the seasoning if needed. Sprinkle with the almonds just before serving. Spoon the tabbouleh into bowls and serve.
Note 1: To prepare quinoa: In its natural state, quinoa is coated with bitter saponins.
Much of the quinoa sold has been processed to remove the coating, so it doesn’t need rinsing. Check the cooking instructions on the package to see if they direct you to rinse the quinoa before cooking. If buying in bulk or if package advises rinsing, rinse quinoa in a fine-meshed strainer under running water for about 45 seconds. Shake vigorously to remove excess water.
Note 2: To steam-roast and peel beets: This is the less messy way to cook beets. It is a steaming method that uses the oven. Preheat the oven to 205ºC (400ºF). Wash the beets in cold water. Wrap the wet beets, three to a packet (four if they are small), in heavy-duty aluminum foil. Place the packets on a rimmed baking sheet. Roast until the beets are fork tender, 30 to 60 minutes, depending on their size. When cool enough to handle, slip off the peels with your fingers.
Note 3: To toast slivered almonds: Place almonds in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet. Bake in a 180ºC (350ºF) oven for 3 to 4 minutes or until lightly browned. Watch carefully because nuts burn easily. Remove to a plate.
Cilantro is used in two ways in this dish – some is sauted with garlic to flavor the sauce and some is added at the end for a fresh accent.
If you like, you can heat a few slices of smoked lean turkey sausage with the cooked beans or add a few oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes cut in strips. Serve the beans as a main course with rice or as a side dish with roasted or braised chicken.
Makes 3 or 4 servings
1 to 1 1/2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil1 large onion, halved, cut in thin slices3 large garlic cloves, minced1/2 cup chopped cilantroSalt and freshly ground pepper1 small carrot, thinly sliced3/4 cup vegetable or chicken broth2 cups frozen baby lima beans or frozen fava beans (see Note)
Heat oil in a medium saucepan, add onion and sauté over medium heat about 5 minutes or until soft.  Add garlic and half the cilantro and sauté 1/2 minute. Add carrot and 1/2 cup stock and bring to a boil. Cover and cook over low heat 8 minutes.
Add 1⁄4 cup stock and lima beans and bring to a boil. Cover and cook over low heat about 5 minutes or until beans and other vegetables are tender. Add remaining cilantro.
Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve hot.
Note: If fresh fava beans are available, use 900 grams (2 pounds). Remove beans from pods. Put beans in large saucepan of boiling water and cook uncovered over high heat for 10 to 20 minutes or until tender. Drain well; if you like, peel off thick skins. Add to the saucepan, following the recipe above, at same time you would have added lima beans.
Faye Levy is the author of Faye Levy’s International Vegetable Cookbook, winner of the James Beard Cookbook Award in 1994 as the year’s Best Book in the category of Fruits, Vegetables and Grains.