Eating on the Wild Side
Jo Robinson, a health writer and food activist, has just published Eating on the Wild Side, a book that is loaded with new and interesting ideas. I strongly suggest that you buy it! Here are a few ideas from early chapters. The fruits and vegetables we grow, buy and eat today have been made more palatable than their wild ancestors by centuries of plant breeding. This does not mean genetic modification, but rather careful selection of varieties of each plant that are large, sweeter, less bitter and easier to chew and digest. However, we have lost many of the important plant nutrients in this process. Industrial farming has taken the process further, and has resulted in loss of flavor. Robinson suggests many ways to find, store and cook foods to optimize their taste and nutritional value.
Here is what she says about lettuce. The most intensely colored leaves have the most plant nutrients – so look for lettuce that is red, purple or reddish brown rather than all green. The arrangement of leaves on the stem is also important – there are fewer plant nutrients in tightly packed leaves as in iceberg lettuce or even romaine than in looseleaf varieties. Leaves need sunlight, but when they are more exposed to the sun, as in looseleaf lettuces, they must make more anti-oxidants to protect themselves against UV light. We absorb these compounds, which make up part of our own self-defense against disease. Buy the freshest lettuces you can – packaged salad greens have been longer in transit than a heavy head of looseleaf lettuce with crisp leaves. If you do buy packaged greens, look for ones that contain a mixture of dark greens that include some spicy ones, such as arugula, mustard greens or radicchio, and look for the most distant “use by” date. When you get your salad greens home, Robinson suggests that you tear off the leaves, rinse them, and soak them for 10 minutes in very cold water. This will lower their temperature and slow the aging process. Dry them with a towel or salad spinner. Then tear the leaves into smaller pieces – she says that this will double their antioxidant value. The plant reacts as if it was being gnawed by a predator and produces a burst of nutrients to ward off the intruding insect. You should eat the leaves within a day or two after tearing them. If this seems like a lot of work, here is a final suggestion that sounds easy. To store lettuce and other greens in the refrigerator, put them in a plastic bag, squeeze out the air and seal the bag; then use a needle or pin to prick the bag with 10-20 evenly spaced holes. Put the bag in the crisper section of your fridge. The tiny pinpricks will provide the most ideal level of humidity in the bag and enable the leaves to consume oxygen and give off carbon dioxide. The leaves will stay alive, and fresher, for a longer time. Mark these bags, so you can reuse them later. Robinson likes to use this storage technique of microperforated bags for many fruits and vegetables.
Arugula, a member of the cabbage family, is exceptionally high in plant nutrients, and should be a regular ingredient in salads. Look for younger plants with shorter leaves if you find it too peppery. Use arugula as a spinach substitute in stirfry dishes. Robinson warns that the healthful, anti-cancer properties of arugula can be lost into the water if the leaves are boiled. In subsequent columns I will write about what Robinson says about artichokes, asparagus and tomatoes. I’ll close by telling you that she recommends the smallest tomatoes you can find for both flavor and lycopene content. Apparently there is a new tiny tomato called the currant tomato that is close to the earliest tomatoes found in the Andes, and a real winner.
Sadja Greenwood, MD, MPH