Last night I was hungry but while I am normally tempted to go for something sweet (make a protein shake w/cocoa powder for instance) I decided to spice up my vegetables and just eat them like a snack. Sure, you must count the calories of vegetables as well, but the beautiful thing about this food group is that you can eat A LOT of them and still consume very few calories! So if you are ever in the mood for a snack, don’t discount vegetables – they don’t have to be just bland and steamed, you can roast them in the oven, which brings out a wonderful sweetness, season liberally with salt and pepper (and yes, I’m not one of those who watch my sodium – in my opinion there are far worse things out there), grill them, puree them, saute them and season them with fresh herbs, and other spices from your pantry. There are SO many creative ways to cook this food group – if you are willing to do some research and do some experimenting, you will discover a new world! Look at these cool zucchini shoes (ok don’t try this at home! hahaha):
Most fresh vegetables can be judged by their freshness and quality by their appearance. You don’t want any bruising or brownish color /spots and they should feel firm, and not limp. The best place to buy them is at your local farmer market! Not only will you get the freshest produce, but you’ll also support your hard working farmers helping to keep them in business, as well as limit the carbon footprint from vegetables that have been shipped either across the country or the world… I like to buy my vegetables every 2-3 days, but if you don’t have the time, you can also chop them up and freeze them OR buy pre-packaged frozen veggies too as a last resort. They don’t lose their nutrients this way, but as a chef, I just prefer to work with the freshest ingredients possible 🙂
Here are some other guidelines to shopping for vegetables:
1) Try to buy vegetables that are in season, this is because this is when they are the tastiest and also cheapest!
2) Read the labels if you are buying frozen vegetables to make sure there isn’t a lot of added fat and salt or added ‘sauce’
3) You can also buy the pre-washed, pre-cut bags of salad, carrots and celery, broccoli, etc. to save time. This will typically be more expensive however, as someone has already done the job for you of cutting and washing the veggies! (always wash your veggies when taking them out of a bag regardless, however!)
4) Befriend the produce person in your store, and ask about unfamiliar vegetables, you may learn something you didn’t know and want to try something new to spice up your meals!
Here are some of my favorite vegetables:
1) Artichokes – they provide potassium and folic acid. Look for plump and heavy artichokes, the “scales” outside should be thick, green and fresh looking. Avoid any brown discoloration or moldy growth on the scales. You can steam them and dip them in a low calorie dipping, or puree them for a nice flavorful addition to your meal or add them in pretty much every other savory dish, even can them so you can use in your salads throughout the year.
2) Asparagus – they provide vitamins A, C, D, potassium, iron and folic acid. Look for closed, dense tips with smooth, deep, green spears. Avoid tips that seem to be limp or discolored. Asparagus is the ultimate “diet” food as they are a natural diuretic and very high in water content. I used to eat them by the bucket load a year ago, and is a vegetable I (luckily) never tire of – my favorite way to eat them is just to char grill them and season them with salt and a squirt of lemon juice. YUM!! Best in the spring.
3) Broccoli – provides calcium potassium, iron, fiber, vitamins A an C, folic acid and niacin. Look for stalks that are not TOO tough, but firm and dark green in color. You can also boil the broccoli to make a mash – a great substitute for the otherwise more calorie dense mashed potatoes. I also chop them finely and add into little egg muffins, or saute them with mushrooms in my stir fry.
4) Brussels Sprouts – provides vitamins A and C, potassium, folic acid and fiber. They should be bright green with tight-fitting outer leaves. Avoid the wilted ones with blemishes. I slice them finely and add some onion, leeks and scallions and saute them for a flavorful veggie side. In a restaurant I worked at they used to serve them raw, mixed with a TON of pecorino cheese, SO good but of course watch the cheese here. They also used to deep fry them – of course I wouldn’t recommend this but honestly – probably better than potato chips if you are ever so inclined! 🙂 Did you know they grow on stalks? This is how you’ll see them at the farmer market:
5) Cauliflower – provides vitamin C, folic acid, potassium and fiber. Look for compact, firm curds. Avoid blemished/brown spotted ones. Again, you can make a delicious cauliflower mash with a bit of parmesan and nutmeg, and you won’t miss those potatoes..At the farmer market you can get them in different colors too and I like to buy them here, just because I believe we eat with our eyes, and gorgeous colorful food taste best!
6) Lettuce – they come in different varieties, butter-head, Romaine, leaf lettuce, arugula, chicory, escarole, etc. They provide lots of good vitamin C and folic acid. Look for bright color and crisp lettuce, or succulent, tender leaves. In addition to having them in the token salad, try grilling romaine lettuce it brings out so much flavor and really adds something special.
7) Mushrooms – provide potassium, niacin and riboflavin. again, here we have a multitude of varieties, you want to avoid mushrooms with wide-open caps and dark, discolored gills. I usually smell the gills, and they should smell earthy and not “fishy” and also not look mushy (sign of old mushrooms). Some of my favorite mushrooms include maitake, morels and oyster mushrooms. I add them in my pasta sauce, in omelets, I make a mushroom spread to put on grilled bread, or simply just lightly grill or saute them as a nice addition to my meal. I also like to use dried mushrooms, plump them up in hot water, and I use the broth (strain first), in soups and sauces, they add such a rich flavor, it’s my “secret weapon”! 🙂
8) Peppers – provide vitamins A and C, potassium and fiber. You can pick green, yellow, red, purple, orange colors – they shold be firm and not be punctured on the outside. You can roast these in the oven and they bring out an incredible sweetness, delicious in rice and beans or in your salad, make a roast pepper dip instead of fatty mayonnaise/sour cream based dips, or you can also puree them to make a soup – delicious!
9) Spinach – provides vitamin A, C, calcium, folic acid, potassium and fiber. Look for healthy, fresh, firm leaves with a deep green color. Personally, I prefer raw spinach (in salads) as opposed to sauteed for some reason – one of my weird kinks. Some people insist more nutrition is had from cooking it – so I do use this sometimes, for instance, I sneak it into my soups and frittatas and other egg dishes, and this way it’s tastier.
10) Squash – provides vitamins A and C, potassium and fiber and also include several varieties. There are squash like the zucchini and patty pan squash, but also the winter squash like butternut, delicata and acorn squash. The latter are more calorie dense due to their higher carb content, while the summer squash have next to no calories due to their high water content. Add them into your breakfast bread for a low fat zucchini bread for instance (watch the butter/fat). Obviously buy according to the season for best results!
11) Lastly, my absolute favorite: Tomatoes – provides vitamins A and C, and potassium. Here you want well-ripened, smooth tomatoes with a rich, red color (or in the summer, look for those “Ugly” heirloom tomatoes in a variety of colors at the farmer’s market – the tastiest, beefiest tomatoes you have ever tasted, and SO incredibly versatile!). Use them to make tomato sauce or a spicy salsa, grill them, stuff them, add them in salads, on sandwiches or dry them for sun-dried tomatoes to use as a flavorful condiment in many dishes.
I could go on and on – carrots, peas and sweet potatoes are more starchy and I treat them almost like a carb source when I’m prepping for a show, but otherwise I eat them quite liberally.
I hope you have been inspired to go out and get some fresh vegetables this week – search out a new recipe to try out and add them to your favorite protein, for a healthy, well balanced meal! Happy cooking!