Eating on the Wild Side – In pursuit of good taste and nutrition
My food world has been turned upside down, and I’m in glee. If you’re an incurable foodie, gardener, or soil nerd like me, you know what it’s like to go down a series of rabbit holes in pursuit of good eating. Who knew that broccoli and asparagus lose most of their nutrition soon after they’re picked? Who knew that I needed to let my chopped garlic “rest” for 10 minutes before cooking it to allow the active ingredients time to combine in order to become beneficial?
Thanks to Eating on the Wild Side by bestselling author and investigative journalist Jo Robinson, I have a roadmap for shopping, cooking, and storing produce to get the level of beneficial plant phytonutrients and antioxidants that is closest to where the plants came from. Nutrition in plants has dramatically declined, and they have been selectively transformed since agriculture began 10,000 years ago.
To head in that nutritious direction, from a previous Romaine-dominated lettuce situation in our house, our salads now include more nutritious red leaf lettuce (it’s got even more antioxidants than arugula), red cabbage, and radicchio, all of which follow the red-is-good and bitter-is-better basic tenet for antioxidants. I also often add canned artichoke hearts, a surprising “nutritional superstar” available in most grocery stores.
At Purdy’s Farmer & the Fish restaurant, owner-farmer-chef Michael Kaphan (who has a degree in agriculture) has addressed the Romaine issue by growing a healthier lettuce that has a salad-friendly crunchy central rib like Romaine, as well as more tender, outer leaves. He says that bitter greens don’t always fly with customers.
Most important for maximizing nutrition in all produce, Kaphan says, is the fact that they harvest and use their veggies on the same day, according to what the chefs have requested the day before. “That’s what sets us apart,” he says. “Our farm is 100 feet away from the restaurant, and we have a full crew to get it from the farm to the table quicker than many growers can manage to do.
At The Outpost in Bedford Village, another owner-farmer-chef, John Ubaldo (a.k.a. “John Boy”) follows the garlic-rest rule, but admits that they don’t do it on purpose: “We prep so much garlic that it ends up resting before it’s cooked.”
Even though shallots are the most nutritious allium, they have a very distinct flavor that Ubaldo says is hard to incorporate into dishes. “I wouldn’t use them in salads, and they don’t caramelize like other onions but can work well in French dishes.” In my home kitchen, however, I have been experimenting with adding shallots whenever a dish calls for garlic or onions, seeing how far I can swing the pendulum in that direction.
Changing to more nutritious apples is more of a challenge for me. “An apple a day may keep the doctor away,” but it may not do the job if it’s the low-nutrient and most popular, Golden Delicious. You’d more likely benefit from Granny Smiths, one of the most nutritious of the thirty-five apple varieties, all of which can be traced back to a single wild species native to central Asia. Swinging the pendulum in the Granny direction for snacking doesn’t work for me, but using them for baking is already in place. Score!
Now that I’m re-convinced of organic blueberries’ disease-fighting benefits, it’s easier to ignore their out-of-season price, or I just buy frozen berries which are almost as good. It’s caused my quinoa oatmeal hot cereal to turn dark blue and instead of just common raisins, I’m also adding currants. They’re made from black grapes (instead of less nutritious green grapes) and contain more phytonutrients than most dried fruit.
There’s one more important factor, as Ubaldo points out. “You can talk about nutrition in different produce, but it all gets down to the soil. At my farm, we use compost from the animals and do rotational grazing, so they trample and aerate the soil, allowing for great water filtration. We use cover crops, allow weeds to add biology to the soil, and rotate the crops to resist pests. Who knows, maybe our romaine would have higher nutrition because of that.”
My mission is to select organic, fresh, ripe produce of preferred varieties at stores and farmers markets, but I’m also more inspired to grow more of my own food in good soil, which really is the solution. As Hippocrates said, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine thy food.” Hopefully, I’m one step closer to that.