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.
This is the time of year when thinking about fresh local foods in Minnesota can be a little dismal, so I’m going in the other direction and embracing citrus from the southern US - and WOW - are they glorious right now.
Murcott tangerines, pixie tangerines, ruby red grapefruit, Meyer lemons, Cara Cara oranges, Valencia and navel oranges: all juicy and delicious, all very opposite of a grey Minnesota day.
Citrus fruits are a fantastic way to get your daily Vitamin C, and are an excellent source of flavonoids as well as B vitamins, carotenes, pectin and potassium. When we eat the whole citrus fruit - which is much preferable to drinking the fruit in a juice version, we’re getting a good source of fiber, too. Even the membranes surrounding the juicy flesh as well as the pith (the pale white inner peel) are loaded with good things for us: it’s where the highest concentration of flavonoids are located, which are plant-based compounds that provide a broad array of antioxident and positive biochemical benefits. Flavonoids work in conjunction with Vitamin C, an antioxident vitamin that is essential for tissue growth and repair, maintaining the immune system, keeping our skin, joints, gums and connective tissues healthy, and contributing to our overall health, especially in times of stress.
It doesn’t really seem like an accident that citrus fruits hold so much allure in the winter - and not just because of their vitamin content. How about the vibrant colors and that incredible aroma released when you peel or cut into the skin of an orange? Doesn’t it just make you think of sunshine and positive thoughts? In fact, the essential oil of sweet orange and other citrus is proven to improve mood and decrease anxiety, and is finding widespread use in palliative care programs in mainstream medical institutions, including the Penny George Institute at Abbott Northwestern Hospital here in Minneapolis.
When you’re buying citrus, pick the fruits that have a sweet fragrance and seem heavy for their size, which is the best measure of a juicy, sweet insides instead of dried out flesh. Opt for organic whenever possible - citrus fruits are one of the most heavily sprayed fruit crops - especially if you plan on using the zest, or the brightly colored outer skin. Pesticide residues on conventional oranges can transfer to the flesh when cutting or peeling, and the peel can contain artificial orange color, Citrus Red No. 2 which is a possible carcinogenic and can cause allergic reactions.
Whether it’s an orange, grapefruit, tangerine or mandarin, make sure to enjoy plenty of citrus this season - in the year of Tangerine (as determined by Pantone, the color experts) - to stay healthy, look young, and to feel better all the way around!
If you’re like most of us, this cozy holiday season is filled - to the top - with busyness. We have so many plans - for gatherings, for holiday activities, photo shoots and Santa visits, shopping, parties and more.
But how do you plan to stay well?
I’d like to suggest a few things:
Keep moving. Make at least 20 minutes of activity a priority every day: a quick walk outside, a simple yoga or stretching series, or any moderate form of exercise to stimulate the immune system.
Schedule sleep. Make a plan for the same bedtime every night and try to keep to it. Keeping sleep patterns as regular as possible – and with the number of hours per night that are right for you – is a key to a healthy immune system.
Stick to a well-balanced, whole foods diet during the meals that are in your control.
• Aim for plenty of good proteins from plants, fatty fish and organic and/or humanely-raised animals.
• Eat whole grains in their natural, minimally-processed form. Wild rice, quinoa, millet, brown rice make a great base for a quick stir-fry, stirred into soup for a satisfying whole meal, and eaten on fresh salads.
• Choose lots of vegetables – especially green veggies such as broccoli, greens (spinach, chard, kale, romaine), orange veggies like squash and sweet potatoes, red veggies – red peppers and beets, and good fruits, such as apples, berries (frozen is the best winter option), and mangos (in season right now!).
Go easy on sugar, alcohol and refined white starches. It takes your immune system 5 hours to recover from each dose of sugar from any of these sources, which is important to keep in mind during the time of year when you most want to resist catching a bug.
Remember to breathe. Take regular, deep, cleansing breaths throughout the day. Practice when you’re in your car at a stop light, practice when you’re in line at the store, practice when you’re in the elevator. It is calming and naturally stress-relieving.
Schedule downtime. Plan at least a couple of nights at home each week. Block the time, and make plans to do next to nothing – but with intention. Keep the television off and the computer closed and eat a good meal. Practice calming techniques that feel the best to you: take a long soak in a warm bath, cozy up with a book or magazine, listen to music or make a pot of soothing herbal tea.
Laugh often. Practice gratitude. Remember your blessings. Spend time with a good friend.
The basic idea is to allow for the excesses, within a framework of general good, healthy practices that sustain us. With awareness and attention to our health, we can arrive in the new year - not trying to spend months to undo, but to return with relative ease to our natural state of balance.
I wish you joy, balance, and a happy, healthy holiday season!
No matter which end of the trend you fall on when it comes to choosing to eat more local and seasonal foods, I think more of all of all good - in fact, I think more talk and action around all of it is great. Local foods are fresher, having traveled fewer distances to arrive on our tables, have higher nutrient values having spent less time in transit, they come from local growers who live and work in our economic region and contribute to the health of our communities, and most of all - they taste better. Taking a step toward choosing more foods from local sources couldn't be easier or more delicious than right now.
At the heart of it, eating seasonally means preparing vegetables picked at their prime in way that makes the most of their flavor and freshness by simply elaborating on the perfection that’s already there.
Lately the corn has been so good - both in Minnesota and in Colorado. Sweet, juice-filled and loaded with flavor, local sweet corn is still without any starchiness or toughness to the kernels. As part of a healthful diet that is loaded with a wide variety of colorful vegetables, corn is a delicious addition to celebrate the height of summer flavors.
To find the best sweet corn from a local stand or at the farmer’s market, ask the farmer when it was picked - you'll ideally want corn that was harvested within the past 24 hours for maximum sweetness and tender kernels. You don’t need to peel back every cob to get the best pickings - rather, gently squeeze the cob through the husks to feel for bruising or denting in the middle of the cob. I don’t worry about imperfections at the top of the cobs - once peeled back those can easily be cut off before preparing.
Once you get your sweet corn home, one of the easiest ways to prepare it is to simply pan-fry the freshly cut kernels in the best organic butter you can find, seasoned with a little sea salt and some fresh basil: it couldn’t be easier or more delicious. Enjoy it alongside your meal along with a big, fresh green salad and a plate of perfectly ripe locally-grown tomatoes drizzled with great olive oil and you’ve got the makings of a fantastic, seasonally-maximized dinner. Enjoy!
Fresh Summer Sweet Corn in Butter with Basil
kernels from 5 ears of sweet corn, preferably organic
3 tablespoons best-quality organic butter
several pinches of fine sea salt
1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil
freshly ground black pepper
Heat a large cast-iron skillet over medium heat and add butter. Allow the butter to melt and brown slightly. Add corn kernels and sauté for 4 minutes, or just until warmed through and hot. Season with sea salt, fresh basil and black pepper. Serve immediately or at room temperature.
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.