Spinach has dominated my day so far - in a good way. A few of us talked about it during class this morning at Alotapilates; we bought some from an overflowing box just picked and delivered from the Hjele farm to Local D’Lish this morning which we ate as a salad with brunch; and it will be on our table tomorrow at lunch, wilted and stuffed into crepes with sautéed cremini mushrooms and a little bit of locally made havarti from Morning Star Farm in Cokato, MN.
Spinach is an easy entry into eating dark leafy green vegetables since it is mild tasting and delicious, whether served raw or lightly cooked. In the spring, it is usually one of the first local greens to make an appearance at the markets since it prefers cool growing conditions and doesn't mind spring rains.
For being so delicate, spinach packs a big nutritional punch: it is extremely high in vitamins A, K, C folic acid and B2, as well as the minerals manganese, magnesium, calcium (yes, really!) and iron. Spinach is also loaded with antioxident-rich phytochemicals that are especially good for eye health - age related macular degeneration in particular and cancer protection, especially stomach, skin and breast cancers.
In order to get the most nutritional benefit out of your beautiful, local spinach, eat it both raw and cooked to maximize vitamin absorption and phytochemical benefits (raw to get the vitamins, minerals and enzymes; cooked to get the phytochemicals). Either way, be sure to prepare it with a good healthy fat, such as cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil and raw almonds or walnuts in a salad, or by cooking it in a little coconut oil or organic butter to access the fat-soluble nutrients.
Buy fresh spinach when it looks bright green and fresh; store it loosely packed in a sealed plastic bag in the refrigerator where it should last for about four days. Wash fresh spinach by swishing in a bowl of cold water to removed trapped sand particles and dry in salad spinner or by wrapping in clean cotton towel and refrigerated until ready to use that day.
Visit Mark Bittman’s article from last week’s NYTimes Magazine to find a whole matrix of recipes for eating cooked spinach, or try this salad below which totally simple and truly delicious.
Spinach Salad with Grapefruit, Avocado and Walnuts
Four large handfuls (about 8 loose cups) of fresh organic spinach (tender stems are fine to include), washed and dried
2 tablespoons top quality extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 wedge of a fresh organic lemon
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 ripe avocado, pitted and flesh cubed into 1/2” pieces
1 ruby red grapefruit, peeled and sections cut into bite-sized pieces, preferably organic
1/2 cup walnuts (halves or pieces, preferably raw but toasted if you like. Can substitute raw pecans or almonds.)
Place spinach leaves in a large bowl; drizzle with olive oil, squeeze the fresh lemon juice all over and sprinkle a large pinch sea salt evenly on top (about 1/4 teaspoon). Add a generous grinding of black pepper. Toss well to evenly coat the spinach leaves, then top with the avocado pieces and grapefruit chunks, sprinkle with the walnuts and serve.
Ever heard of a sunchoke? You’re not alone if you haven’t: it’s not a common vegetable for many of us, but it’s a vegetable that is worth finding it’s way into our diet.
Also known as a Jerusalem artichoke, sunchokes are the tuberous root of the sunchoke plant, a relative of sunflowers. Sunchokes are knobby and misshapen, with a papery skin and flesh the texture of a radish when eaten raw, and creamy like a potato when cooked.
So why bother learning about this funny little tuber and consider adding it into your diet? Gut health. Our digestive systems need all the help they can get from foods that contribute to a finely operating gut, especially if we have trouble with blood sugar imbalance, have received antibiotic treatment, or suffer from digestive distress including stomach upset or IBS, Crohn's or colitis. Jerusalem artichokes - like other inulin-rich sources such as chicory root (most often consumed as an herbal tea or coffee substitute), asparagus, artichokes, dandelion root, onions and garlic - can help.
Inulin is a carbohydrate that acts as a soluble dietary fiber: whole foods inulin sources are considered natural prebiotics, which help establish a healthy intestinal environment by stimulating the growth of beneficial intestinal bacteria. A healthy intestinal environment prepares us to access the benefits of probiotic foods such as unsweetened yogurt and kefir, unpasteurized sauerkraut, kimchee, miso and other fermented foods that contain beneficial bacteria.
So if you’re willing to give a sunchoke a try, there are very simple ways to get them into your diet. Buy a small amount, scrub them well with a vegetable brush, and slice them thinly to eat them raw with a healthy dip like hummus or white bean dip, or substitute them where canned water chestnuts are typically called for. To cook, clean them the same way, then slice them into 1/4” crosswise pieces, cover with salted water and gently boil until tender. Then mash with a little olive oil, salt and pepper and eat as a vegetable side with your dinner. (You could also go half and half with potatoes on that one). To roast, prep them as above, then toss with coconut oil, salt and pepper and roast for 30 minutes - alone or as part of a big pan of roasted vegetables - until tender and caramelized.
Or try this simple soup, put together in 10 minutes with a few other basic ingredients and simmered for less than an hour.
Jerusalem Artichoke (Sunchoke) Soup
2 medium leeks, white parts and pale green parts only (save dark greens of leeks for soup stock)
3-5 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
2 tablespoons coconut oil or olive oil
1 bulb fennel, rinsed, tops removed and bulb sliced crosswise (optional)
1 lb Jerusalem Artichokes (sunchokes); scrubbed, quartered the long way and sliced into 1/8” pieces
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon oregano, crushed
1 teaspoon cumin
pinch red pepper flakes
2 small branches rosemary (optional)
2 bay leaves
filtered water to cover by 1 inch
freshly ground black pepper
Heat a medium soup pot over medium heat. When it is warm to the touch, add the coconut oil, leeks and garlic and sauté until softened but not brown, about 5 minutes. Add the fennel (if using) and Jerusalem Artichokes and continue to sauté about 5 minutes longer. Season with the salt, oregano and cumin, add the rosemary and bay leaves, and cover by 1 inch with filtered water. Increase heat to bring to a boil; reduce heat to medium low and simmer for 40 minutes or until vegetables are tender. Add salt, if necessary, season with freshly ground black pepper and serve.
* Add cooked wild rice for a more substantial soup. Purée in a blender for a smooth soup.
Most days it can feel like if we only had enough time, we could do a much better job at being healthy. Sound familiar? We’d have enough time for a proper breakfast; we’d have time to pack a healthy lunch and prepare a nourishing dinner; we’d carve out downtime for ourselves plus time to connect with friends and loved ones; and time for exercise. Yet we usually end up cutting corners for our well-being throughout the day, but still end up spending ever more hours in front of the computer and television out of exhaustion, lack of energy or seeking a way to connect.
Everything we do makes a difference, though, and even a small amount of exercise is no exception. A recent study shows that regular physical activity has important benefits for our blood sugar levels, whether we’re in good physical condition to begin with or currently living a sedentary lifestyle. With heart disease, Type-2 diabetes and other chronic illnesses on the rise for both women and men, it is becoming clear that this is the kind of information that deserves to get us off of the couch.
The upshot of the study, reviewed on a nytimes.com blog last week, is that it doesn’t take much to control our blood sugar levels with exercise - just 30 minutes over the course of a day, or around 10,000 steps per day. That is the amount of exercise that can easily be achieved by adding up the minutes from a lunch time or after-dinner walk around the neighborhood, riding a bike to work or to the store, walking the stairs at work instead of taking the elevator, or parking in a space farthest away from the store entrance.
So even though this study doesn’t grant us our wish of a lucky pill that will help us lose weight and get fit while catching up on Facebook or watching American Idol, it gives us an easy, doable and best of all - free! - way to make a significant impact on our health. With warmer temperatures and sunshine in the months to come, we’ve got the makings of some great motivation to get out there and get moving. Happy Spring!
Easy Ways to Get Moving
Get a pedometer (usually free from a managed health care provider) and wear it to track your steps
Work better with a goal? Set a goal, make it public, and use a fun way to track your progress
Ride your bike to work, the supermarket, or for errands
Play ball with your kids
Have a dance party in your living room
Walk to the park, walk to lunch instead of driving, and walk the dog
Pair up with a friend
Try something new: hula hooping, a dance class, or hill climbing in the parks
Find an exercise that you like to do - and do that (instead of doing the exercise that you really hate)
Ride the bus to work and walk home
I recently took some time away in Colorado for a little getaway – one week by myself, and one week joined by my husband. For the first week, I made a priority to take care of myself - an intentional stretch of a few days without a schedule, computer, phone or any electronic intrusions of any kind. I also made it a priority to eat healthfully without spending a lot of time in the kitchen – since food of all ways - preparation, recipe creation, and teaching has become such a big part of my daily life.
So I planned ahead. I took with me 3 pounds of organic greens (baby greens mix, spinach and arugula) from my two CSA shares - Uptown Farmers and Burning River Farm. I brought two pints of MN grown cherry tomatoes and some MN grown hydroponic cucumbers; radishes from my CSA share; a head each of organic broccoli and cauliflower; and a variety of freshly cut herbs from the gardens of my mom in MN and my friend Austine in Denver. Planning was important because the nearest grocery store was a 45 minute drive each way from my cabin, and fresh, local vegetables wouldn’t be possible.
My non-cooking meal plan was simple: to have good ingredients on hand, prepare a few key items ahead of time that could be mixed or matched and seasoned to taste, to use different vinegars, oils, miso, tahini or yogurt to create a variety of salad dressings, and to have the rainbow of nutrients thought out in advance and available so that meals could be optimally balanced without needing to think about it when I was hungry.
Once I arrived at the cabin, I roasted a large sweet potato, cooked a pot of quinoa, soaked and cooked a pot of Colorado-grown borlotti beans (similar to a pinto bean), and cooked up a pot of lentils seasoned with onions, garlic and carrots. For lunch and dinner I ate big salads topped with a changing combination of all of my available ingredients: I never ate the same salad twice because I always varied the crunch and texture of the mix and I made micro-batches of different salad dressings.
My point is this: preparing healthful meals in minutes is possible with advance planning and cooking to minimize kitchen time and to avoid take out or packaged meals. Salads are a great option for minimalist eating this time of year because they fit with our natural inclination to eat lighter during warmer weather, they make the most of local and seasonal ingredients, and they supply our bodies with loads of Vitamin A and other nutrients. To use them as the backdrop for a meal ensures that we’re eating a nutritious, fiber-rich meal that can be adjusted to be a light or substantial summer main dish. In my case, I prepared a few items to have on hand, but a salad can be built around whatever is easy and available, such as leftover grilled meats or vegetables, baby new potatoes, or fresh sweet corn cut right off the cob.
I find the biggest key to a delicious and successful salad is homemade salad dressing: without additives, preservatives, emulsifiers and texture or flavor enhancers, salad dressing goes from being a nutritionally zero calorie bomb to being a healthy and flavorful key element of a delicious main-dish salad. We need healthy fat to be able to absorb and utilize the fat soluble Vitamin A-rich leafy greens and other vegetables and a good homemade dressing can provide just that, without all of the unwanted gunk.
Even if eating a main dish salad for every meal isn’t on your radar, it is certainly possible to enjoy a main dish salad a few times a week as a way to increase vegetables into the diet - and uncooked vegetables at that. In my case, they payoff was worth it. When it was all tallied I ended up with 10 days and 20 different salads: I felt great, I was able to throw together meals in a flash when I was hungry, I had plenty of energy for my 3 hour hikes and extra walks, and I lost a few pounds to boot.
Not bad for salad days.
Chop Salad with Creamy Basil Dressing
Dressing: (makes enough for several salads)
1-2 cloves garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
1 1/2 c. organic whole milk yogurt
1 cup of fresh basil leaves, loosely packed
juice of 1/2 lemon
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
generous grind of black pepper
pinch cayenne pepper
Blend until green and smooth in blender or with immersion blender.
Salad for One:
2 cups of leafy greens or arugula
1/2 cup chopped cauliflower or broccoli
1/4 - 1/2 cup halved cherry tomatoes
1/2 cup cooked garbanzo beans or black beans, drained
1/2 tablespoon raw sunflower seeds
1/2 tablespoon raw pumpkin seeds
freshly ground black pepper to taste
With such a cool, rainy spring, I’ve been extending my soup season much longer than usual. I love soup anytime – it’s a filling, naturally low-calorie and vegetable packed food. Instead of hearty soup this time of year, I aim for light and bright – focusing on what tastes best during spring cleansing period when we naturally crave lighter foods with inherent detoxifying properties.
Root vegetables are still available – and they can bridge the season from winter to spring vegetable dishes beautifully. I was craving the flavors of this soup a few weeks ago when I had Israel on my mind. Four springs ago we made a trip there to visit dear friends, and were treated to a grand tour around the small country. After one excursion, we returned to find that Grandma, who had generously offered to babysit, had also prepared a delicious borscht for us. It was a perfect soup - flavorful and bright, whether eaten plain or topped with crumbled hard-boiled egg, dill, diced potatoes, pickles and a little dollop of yogurt.
With that in mind, I created this quick beet soup. Beets are a lovely food – earthy, naturally sweet and mineral-rich – as well as a being a wonderful tonic for the liver. It’s a good idea to take a little extra care for our livers this time of year since they’ve (most likely) had a busy season cleansing our bodies from winter excesses of rich foods, alcohol, and sugar from the holidays that started at Thanksgiving and lasted up through spring. Beets are rich in folate and potassium as well as the antioxident betacyanin, found in deep red color varieties of the root. Betacyanin is one of the antioxidents that is especially important for cancer prevention, especially colon cancer. Beet roots also contain a little discussed nutrient called betaine which is important for cardiovascular health by helping to reduce homocysteine, a protein that can build-up in the blood and contribute to heart disease, stroke and other cardiovascular diseases. Beets are great eating year round - whether shredded raw, roasted, or steamed - and added to salads, eaten as part of a roasted vegetable plate, or juiced with other fresh vegetables.
In this case, I was in the soup mood. For this recipe, adding a potato to the soup gives it a little more body, while garnishing it with fresh basil gives it spring-like and optimistic nod to summer. Use any tender herb that’s coming up in your garden, though - anything fresh will taste delicious.
If you happen to make this soup in the weeks to come, be sure to save the green tops from the beets to use just as you would kale, chard or spinach – it’s delicious simply sautéed with a little garlic and olive oil while providing a phenomenal source of iron, calcium and magnesium.
Spring Beet Soup
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 large beets*, scrubbed, trimmed of tough peel
1 small Yukon Gold potato*
1 medium carrot*, scrubbed and diced
1 large leek*, white and tender green parts only
2 large shallots or 1/2 sweet or red onion*, chopped
1 large clove garlic, peeled and finely chopped
4 cups (one quart) water
freshly ground black pepper
large handful fresh basil (or fresh parsley, oregano, marjoram, dill, or tarragon), chopped just before serving.
Heat a medium saucepan or soup pot over medium heat. When it is warm to the touch, add the oil, leeks, shallot and garlic and sauté for 5 minutes until tender and starting to color. Add beets, potato and carrot, season with 1 teaspoon of sea salt, and continue to sauté, stirring occasionally, for an additional 5 minutes.
Add the water and stir with a wooden spoon to release any browned bits of potato that have stuck to the bottom of the pot. Bring the soup to a gentle boil over medium-high heat, reduce the heat, and to allow to simmer for 25 minutes. Season to taste with additional salt and freshly ground pepper, add fresh herbs and serve immediately.
In the best possible world, we would always have access to the freshest, most life-giving food - whether from ingredients used make our own meals – or from some terrific person who prepared them for us. The meals would be balanced, chock full of nutrition and delicious. Quite simply, there is no better way to give your body the most optimum diet than to eat whole (real!) foods that have been thoughtfully put together and prepared from scratch.
On a daily basis, though, in spite of all logic that would guide us otherwise, we consider the nutritional needs of our body a hasty afterthought. Life gets in the way, of course.
So what do you do when the light has gone on and you know what you should be eating, but anticipate having busy mornings, afternoons or evenings when you’ll be on the run?
Plan ahead. Keeping healthy and convenient food items stocked in your refrigerator will make grabbing a quick meal simple and practical.
Consider “wrappers”, pockets or vegetables for quick foods. Sprouted whole grain tortillas, whole grain pita pockets, nori seaweed sheets, or collard greens are all perfect vehicles for rolling and stuffing with nutritious ingredients. They’ll work for breakfast, lunch or dinner and are easy to vary depending on what you choose to put in them.
Make a practice of cooking a batch of rice and beans (or lentils, quinoa, hummus and wild rice) on the weekend to have available all week long. It is a good habit to make basic foods to us as the backbone of filling for your quick wrap or pocket meals in addition to eating them a variety of ways throughout the week. Chopping greens, crunchy brassicas like broccoli or cauliflower and peeling whole carrots to store in airtight containers will make filling your wraps, pockets or green rolls with abundant vegetables a fast, easy choice.
Keep a fruit bowl available on the kitchen counter. You’ll be amazed at how much easier it is to remember a piece of fruit or two to take with you on your way out the door if you see it. Fruit will last just fine on the counter for a few days and can be replenished from extra stored in the refrigerator.
Blend up a smoothie and pack it along with you in a glass jar. This is a good way to have a healthy option ready in advance - blended up with fruit, some greens, and a little nut butter it will keep just fine without refrigeration for several hours - just shake it up before drinking.
Make your own snack packs with raw nuts for a healthy between meals option, as is preparing your own sandwich snack crackers made out of whole grain flatbreads (Ryvita, Wasa or RyCrisp) – filled with nut butters and a little honey or raisins, or hummus and sliced veggies, or cheese. Or take along big slices and chunks of raw organic vegetables - whole peeled carrots, big wedges of red pepper, thick slices of cucumber - and pack along a small container of hummus or nut butter. Any choice will fill you up and help you to avoid resorting to unhealthy snacks with zero nutritional value.
Even if you took one of these options and incorporated it into to your need for quick meals once, twice or a few times a week you’d be doing yourself a HUGE favor by reducing bad fat, sodium or sugar grams in fast food options. It will also cost less, it will contribute less garbage to the waste stream and you’ll feel better at the end of the day.
Don’t beat yourself up when you can’t achieve the optimum, but keep an eye on making these small changes become the new habit - and you’ll make a big impact on your health in no time.
Collard Green Wrap
1 collard green leaf
1/4 cup hummus
1/2 sweet red pepper, cut into strips
1/3 cucumber (skin on) cut into spears or flat slices
Cut the spine out of one large collard leaf (washed and patted dry). Lay each half flat on a cutting board and spread with hummus. Fill with avocado slices, sliced red pepper, cucumber wedges or a small handful of spinach. Roll up starting at one pointed end. Secure with a toothpick and fill the second collard leaf half in a similar manner.