What is the Vegetable Challenge?

Editor’s note: Kim Carlson, Culinate’s editorial director, monitored her diet over four weeks to be sure she ate five servings of vegetables each day, every day. She reported back on her strategies, successes, and discoveries along the way. The Challenge is finished — long live the Challenge! — but there’s plenty of veg-centric content here for you to digest. You too can take the Vegetable Challenge. Begin today!

When it comes to vegetables, are you getting your five a day?

“Sure,” you say. “No problem.”

I know you say that, because I say it, too.

But are we really eating enough vegetables?

Probably not, according to studies that found a mere 27 percent of U.S. adults eat vegetables three times a day (which I’m taking to mean three servings).

The USDA recommends that most adults eat two-and-a-half cups of veg — or five servings — per day, in part to help decrease our risk of having a stroke or developing colon cancer, diabetes, and a host of other health problems:

Consume a sufficient amount of fruits and vegetables while staying within energy needs. Two cups of fruit and 2½ cups of vegetables per day are recommended for a reference 2,000-calorie intake, with higher or lower amounts depending on the calorie level.
Fresh produce from the farmers’ market.

The Centers for Disease Control (via its curiously named website, fruitsandveggiesmatter.gov) encourages a similarly robust diet of vegetables.

And across the Atlantic, the British government concurs. It has enlisted a supermodel named Melinda Messenger to help spread the, uh, message about its 5 a day campaign.

In the private sector, the Harvard School of Public Health (led by Walter Willett) suggests that four-and-a-half cups of fruits and vegetables per day is desirable.

So, OK. It’s practically unanimous. We should eat plenty of vegetables for our personal health.

But there’s another compelling reason to beef up the veg: Eating more of the green (and yellow and red) stuff may mean eating less meat, which many are saying could affect the health of our planet as a whole.

Rajendra Pachauri, who chairs the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (which last year shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore), suggested recently that cutting their meat consumption is the single easiest thing people can do to reduce climate change. The Guardian newspaper reported on the announcement:

“In terms of immediacy of action and the feasibility of bringing about reductions in a short period of time, it clearly is the most attractive opportunity,” said Pachauri. “Give up meat for one day [a week] initially, and decrease it from there,” said the Indian economist, who is a vegetarian.

The UN panel has found, in Pachauri’s words to the BBC, that “direct emissions from meat production account for about 18 percent of the world’s total greenhouse-gas emissions.”

Eating more vegetables is good for us; eating less meat (and perhaps more vegetables) is good for the planet.

Which is why several of us at Culinate, led by yours truly, have decided that for the next month (until October 15), we’re going to dedicate ourselves to the Vegetable Challenge. I’m on a mission to eat two-and-a-half cups of vegetables a day — five servings — every day. (That’s 150 servings of vegetables, folks.)

With the harvest in full force, this might be easy. But I’m hoping to build up some strategies and recipes so that in February, when fresh vegetables are more scarce, I won’t be caught eating just two or three a day.

Please join the Vegetable Challenge and keep track of your veg count along with others in the Culinate community. And here’s an added incentive to join: On October 15, we’ll give away three copies each of Culinate columnist Deborah Madison’s Local Flavors, Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, and Daphne Miller’s The Jungle Effect. Join the Challenge and you’ll have a chance to win.

Join The Vegetable Challenge

The Vegetable Challenge ends

Long live the Vegetable Challenge

October 16, 2008

Thanks, everyone, for participating in the Vegetable Challenge with me. I am inspired to head into winter eating more veg than last year; I hope you are too. Since we started the Challenge, the economy’s gone cuckoo; vegetables may prove to be the best buys out there.

Baby artichokes are beautiful, but not too beautiful to eat.

Watch for a VC reprise in February; we can see how we’re all managing with our winter squash and cabbage. Meanwhile, though, here are the prize winners for the Vegetable Challenge giveaways:

A $100 farmers’ market gift certificate goes to Christie; books go to Jean, Christine R., Rexy, Diane, Jeanette, Meg K., Nils B., Robin C., Ruth, and Darlene. Congratulations, all; you’ve been notified by email.

And finally, do as your mother said: Eat your vegetables!

The best books about vegetables

Cookbooks in my crisper

October 16, 2008

Signing up for a CSA is like getting used to a new pet in the house. Just as the joy of a new puppy gets all mixed up with the dismay of house training and chewed-up possessions, the delight of stellar-tasting produce waxes and wanes with the tasks of procuring and cooking those darn vegetables before they rot.

Thankfully, there are a gazillion recipes to help you figure out how to turn four eggplant and two ears of corn into dinner. Here are several cookbooks I pull off the shelf when looking for vegetable inspiration. Let me know in the comments which book(s) you consider essential when it’s time to eat your vegetables.

Reading up on veggies.

Alice Waters
Chez Panisse Vegetables
I love this book in its entirety: the illustrations, the recipes, the paper both are printed on, even the solid binding that holds everything together. I cook from this book (and its sibling, Chez Panisse Fruit) all year round, turning to the asparagus section in the spring, finding solace in the fennel recipes come fall when my CSA share overfloweth in fennel, consulting it repeatedly in the winter for variations on cooking leafy greens.

Waters writes in a voice both reverent and informed, providing background on the season, heirlooms and hybrids, how the particular vegetable gets prepared at the restaurant, cooking suggestions, and tasty little relevant tidbits to whet the appetite. This woman knows and loves her subject.

From its pages I have supped on Braised Cabbage; Beets with Blood Orange, Endive, and Walnuts; Sage and Butternut Squash Risotto; and Tomato and Cantal Cheese Galette.

Deborah Madison
Vegetable Soups From Deborah Madison’s Kitchen
Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone
One excellent way to work more vegetables into your daily diet lies in making and eating vegetable soup. Deborah Madison’s Vegetable Soups is brimming with delicious possibilities that fall into chapters by season, hardiness, and accompaniments (beans, grains, bread). Recipes I’ve marked to try include Wild Rice Chowder; Roasted Squash, Pear and Ginger Soup; and Broccoli Rabe and White Bean Soup.

As for Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, it’s a cherished reference book in my house, one I turn to again and again when pondering what to make or how to cook a certain vegetable (legume, grain). Hands down, if I only get one book to take to my desert island, this is it. There I’ll have time to digest all 742 pages, to finally read up on salsify, grasp the many types of squash and how to cook them, and commit to memory the recipes for Winter Squash Soup with Lemongrass and Coconut Milk, Stir-Fried Roasted Eggplant, Polenta Gratin with Mushrooms and Tomato . . .

Madhur Jaffrey
Madhur Jaffrey’s World-of-the-East Vegetarian Cooking
Madhur Jaffrey is a great writer who never fails to make me hungry when I read her books. And, too, her writing is so thorough, I have yet to cook a recipe of hers I haven’t liked. The binding of this particular book cracked long ago (I’m always stuffing the pages back in as I turn them), but still, it’s a resource I rely on when looking for straightforward and compelling ways to prepare vegetables.

An example of the breadth and depth here are the 22 recipes for green beans — cooked alone, mixed with other vegetables, fried into fritters, and combined with coconut and mustard seeds.

If you like Asian and Middle Eastern cooking, you’ll appreciate having such a variety of recipes from so many countries — India, China, the Philippines, Korea, Japan, Indonesia, Thailand, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, etc. — all in one book.

Mollie Katzen
The Vegetable Dishes I Can’t Live Without
Artichokes to zucchini, the recipes here are arranged by vegetable alphabetically with Mollie Katzen’s signature script and illustrations. In the introduction Katzen defines vegetarian as “pro-vegetable,” and throughout the book she illustrates both simple and detailed ways of cooking vegetables: roasting, pickling, stir-frying, braising, sautéing, searing, stuffing, chopping, shaving, mashing, grilling, and marinating. In the back of the book there’s information on stocking your pantry and kitchen equipment essential for preparing vegetables, as well as a compendium of ways to up your veggie quota.

On my docket to try: Broccoli Stem Pickles; Eggplant, Green Beans, Pumpkin, and Basil in Coconut-Tomato Curry; Bright Greens on a Bed of Creamy Polenta; and Stir-Fried Eggplant with Ginger-Plum Sauce.

Cynthia Lair
Feeding the Whole Family
Author Cynthia Lair is a wizard at combining whole foods — grains, vegetables, meat — for the full healthy-meal deal. A certified nutrition counselor and teacher, Lair’s book focuses on family-friendly meals that just so happen to work a lot of vegetables into the mix: with eggs for breakfast, into sushi rolls, salads and sandwiches for lunch, and soup, stews, and casseroles for supper.

The chapter “Got Color” offers tips on easy methods to cook vegetables, as well as salad and cooked vegetable recipes such as Garlic-Sautéed Greens and Luscious Beet Salad with Toasted Pumpkin Seeds. My favorite recipe from this book is Emerald City Salad.

Mark Bittman
How to Cook Everything Vegetarian
Mark Bittman excels in no-nonsense, plain-talk basics. There’s nothing to be afraid of is the subtext of his writing, which in the chapter called “Produce” manifests itself in comprehensive how-to vegetable prep. Think of this as a reference book to consult on preparing and cooking vegetables, complete with illustrations (dicing carrots), graphs (grilling everyday vegetables), and as many recipes as there are days in the year.

The cross-referencing sidebars (which list other recipes in the book) are great resources if you are searching for ways to cook a particular ingredient. I also appreciate the variations that often follow a recipe; Oven-Roasted Fresh Plum Tomatoes, for example, is followed by variations for canned and “everyday” tomatoes. Recipes range from simple (steamed corn on the cob) to more complex (corn pancakes, Thai style), though few are complicated.

A delicata squash tip

Slice bite-sized pieces to roast

October 10, 2008

I used to follow the same routine for delicata squash that I followed for most winter squash: cut one in half, scrape out the seeds, roast it, then scoop the flesh from the skin and eat it. This technique was a little cumbersome, but because I love the sweet flavor of this winter squash, I went along for years thinking it was fine.

roasted delicata squash
A delicious way to eat delicata.

Then I learned a trick from the clever people at Tastebud Farm: Cut the squash lengthwise into quarters, scrape out the seeds, then slice the squash into bite-sized, moon-shaped pieces, about 1/3 inch thick each.

You can roast these in a 425-degree oven for 15 to 20 minutes, turning once (my favorite), or sauté them like zucchini.

When it’s well cooked, the delicata skin is easy to eat — and tasty too.

Tips for roasting vegetables

An excellent cooking method for veg

October 10, 2008

Guest author Alanna Kellogg is the “veggie evangelist” at A Veggie Venture, a food blog about vegetables. For an entire year, Alanna cooked a vegetable in a new way each day, amassing recipes and techniques for cooking vegetables from A to Z. On day one, she roasted cauliflower; today, she has more than 50 recipes for roasted vegetables. Alanna is also the second-generation author of Kitchen Parade, the food column. Welcome, Alanna!

Quick! Name the single technique for cooking vegetables that we can use again and again, the same one for every single vegetable. Hint: It’s perfect for fall, as the air turns cool and our bodies begin to crave hearty food to sustain us through the long dark winter.

Give up? You’ll never forget again, once you’ve tried roasting vegetables — whether root vegetables like beets, carrots, sweet potatoes, and parsnips, or others like zucchini, kohlrabi, and winter squashes like butternut and acorn.

Truth is, roasting transforms vegetables. If vegetables were to write a love letter, the page would begin, “Dear Oven: How we love thee. You coax the sweetness from our earthly forms, you transform our color into golden bites of caramel.” The technique is dead simple, requiring just vegetables, oil, seasoning, and heat. Still, a few simple tricks will help.

Singles or pairs? Mostly, we roast one vegetable at a time, since it’s hard for more than one kind to finish cooking at the same time.

Heat the oven: Roasting temperatures vary. While 200 degrees is perfect for slow-roasting tomatoes, high temperatures like 400, 425, and even 500 degrees are more typical.

roasted broccoli
Cut the vegetables in a uniform size so they cook at the same rate.

Same size: While the oven preheats, prep the vegetables. Wash and trim them first, cutting off stems and tails, removing any blemishes, and removing skins. Then cut them into pieces roughly the same size. The smaller the pieces, the quicker the vegetables will roast; the larger, the longer.

Coat evenly: Toss the cut vegetables with olive oil in a bowl, really getting in there with a spatula or even your hands, making sure the pieces are coated on all sides. Save the über-expensive, extra-virgin oils for salad dressings and drizzles. For roasting, any good-quality oil will do. I allow a tablespoon of oil per pound of vegetables; it’s plenty, but sometimes I splurge on a couple of tablespoons. Using more oil will shorten the cooking time.

Seasoning: A vegetable’s own natural and unadorned flavor will emerge when seasoned with just salt and pepper. For gentleness, use kosher salt or sea salt; for sharpness, use freshly ground pepper. But experiment with other seasonings, too. Carrot is deepened with thyme, zucchini is brightened by lemon. Dried herbs are fine, preferable even.

No crowding: Arrange the vegetables on a baking sheet, preferably one with a rim, leaving space between the pieces so the oven’s heat can weave its way between.

Check and toss: About halfway through the roasting time, give the vegetables a quick toss, redistributing the pieces. After that, check and toss every five minutes or so, until they’re done.

Golden done: The vegetables are done when their centers are soft and creamy and their outside edges almost crisp and beginning to caramelize. Allow 30 to 90 minutes, depending on the vegetable and the oven temperature.

Get comfortable with roasting vegetables this fall. Start with a vegetable you already like and find a recipe to eliminate the guesswork for temperature and timing. Soon enough, you’ll be writing your own love letter.

Editor’s note: It’s never too late to join the Vegetable Challenge. Not only is it good for you, it is always in season!

Healthy and tasty

Making appealing vegetarian food

October 8, 2008

Once upon a time — like, say, around 1975 or so — people who were trying to eat vegetarian meals tended to serve casseroles covered with cheese. But within 15 years or so, the vegetarian attempt had shifted, from smothering everything in a blanket of dairy to that all-purpose dish, the stir-fry.

Now, don’t get me wrong; I like cheese, and I like stir-fries. But I can’t help but wonder if, like me, people were turned off in droves to “vegetarian cuisine” by sad-sack cheese glops and mushy, watery stir-fries.

Buying fresh, local, organic, etc., produce is one thing; figuring out what to do with it in the kitchen is another. When I look back on my high-school and college days, I recall eating what feels like an endless succession of meals in which under- or overcooked vegetables were consumed with righteous fervor, often accompanied by comments like, “Wow, this is just so good for you!”

True, maybe, but telling ourselves it was healthy didn’t necessarily make it taste any better.

Bland? No, cauliflower can be the flavorful center of a vegetarian meal.

Which is why I was so pleased with the meal my husband cooked up the other night. It began, as so many of our summer and fall meals begin, with an inventory of the random offerings of our CSA for the week — in this case, cauliflower, ears of corn, onions, and spinach, among other things. My husband then rummaged around in the indexes of our cookbooks, looking for interesting dishes that used these ingredients. He struck gold with Madhur Jaffrey’s World Vegetarian, turning up a recipe for cauliflower cooked with onions and corn and a yogurt condiment/salad mixed with toasted rice and wilted spinach.

He put a pot of rice on to simmer and got to work making the other two dishes — first the spinach, then the cauliflower, because the spinach needed to cool a bit before getting mixed with the yogurt. Forty minutes or so later, when he served it up, I took a forkful of all three — rice, cauliflower, and yogurt stuff — and tasted.

It was good. Really good. I don’t even usually like cauliflower, much less mixed with corn, but dabbed with the spicy-spinachy-yogurt dip, it was delicious.

Which reminded me of all those blah veggie meals I had suffered through years before. What was different about this one? Two things, I think: An interesting (and appealing) combination of vegetables and spices, and a careful cooking of the produce so that it wasn’t too crunchy or too gluey. Combining flavors and using heat appropriately are both skills that take a good deal of practice to acquire, and if you didn’t grow up cooking — a not-infrequent problem among my high-school and college pals — you’ll inevitably have a lot of slips before successes.

A cousin of mine recently decided to go vegetarian. She chose a strategy built around flavor instead of health: vegetarian dishes from cuisines that have a long history of tasty vegetarian cooking, such as Indian (my husband’s choice for the evening) or Mexican.

This strategy won’t guarantee that you actually cook that pot of pinto beans correctly or take the toasting curry spices off the stove soon enough. But it will help you get a better idea of interesting vegetarian flavors that go well together.

Lentil bowl

Veg and beans

October 6, 2008

Sensing on a cellular level the change in the weather (or maybe it was the economy), I went to the kitchen the other day craving something warm and comforting, but not too rich. It didn’t take long to decide on lentils.

I love them simple, with rice, and I love them embellished, with vinegar or sausage. With the Veg Challenge in mind, though, this time I decided on lentils with vegetables.

A warm bowl of lentils and veg on a chilly day.

Last year, Helen Rennie taught us all to make better lentils. I started with Helen’s recipe for Basic Lentils, cooking them slowly in a pot, no lid. Separately, I sautéed a chopped onion and some rounds of pale yellow heirloom carrots that look like parsnips but taste like the sweetest, most carroty carrot you can imagine.

I added a cup or two of vegetable broth to the lentils, then tossed in the carrots. Finally, I threw in some chunks of fingerling potatoes that I had cooked a day or two earlier.

If I’d had kale or spinach, I would have sautéed that and thrown it in too, but for a bit of green, I had to content myself with chopped cilantro — which, in the end, wasn’t a sacrifice at all.

Everyone in the house loved this lunch. Simple and tasty, it was best kind.

Omega-3s from plants

Susan Allport’s 11 tips for better eating

October 2, 2008

At the back of Susan Allport’s science-history book, The Queen of Fats, she gives a list of 11 tips for making sure you get enough omega-3s in your diet.

Most Americans, as Allport points out, get plenty of omega-6s, another essential fatty acid; we snarf them in vegetable oils and, alas, processed foods. It’s the omega-3s that we don’t down enough of, and we should; they’re important for cellular health throughout the body.

kale and beets at market
Green vegetables are good sources of omega-3s.

You’ve probably seen articles saying you should eat more fish, which are chock full of omega-3s, especially fatty fish like salmon and mackerel. You might’ve also seen fresh eggs labeled as containing omega-3s; the chickens that lay the eggs are fed flaxseed-rich diets, and their eggs are higher in omega-3s than conventional eggs.

But what else can you do? Here are Allport’s 11 tips — and pay close attention to numero uno:

  1. Eat lots (and lots) of fruits and vegetables. As Allport writes, “Green vegetables are full of alpha linolenic acid, the parent omega-3 fatty acid, and all fruits and vegetables contain antioxidants that protect fats against oxidation . . . You should eat the vegetables you enjoy — and lots of them.”
  2. Consume oils that have a healthy balance of omega-3s and omega-6s. Certain vegetable oils, such as safflower, sunflower, corn, cottonseed, and peanut oil, are very high in omega-6s and low in omega-3s. Other vegetable oils, such as flaxseed, walnut, and canola, are much higher in omega-3s.
  3. Eat a wide variety of fish. Don’t just focus your efforts on fatty fish, even though they have more omega-3s than other types of fish; all fish, says Allport, have omega-3s. And eating a wide diversity of fish, Allport writes, “should also help to prevent overfishing and protect us against toxins that tend to accumulate in certain species.”
  4. Eat omega-3-enriched eggs. The carton may say “DHA” instead of “omega-3” — the acronym stands for docosahexaenoic acid, one of the omega-3s (others include eicosapentaenoic acid and alpha linolenic acid).
  5. Try to include a source of omega-3s in every meal. In addition to the aforementioned fruits, vegetables, oils, fish, and eggs, Allport suggests soybeans and nuts, especially walnuts.
  6. Avoid hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils. You know these oils better by the name trans fats, prevalent in processed foods. Their omega-3 content is much lower than that of non-hydrogenated oils.
  7. Choose free-range chicken, beef, bison, and pork whenever you can. Because free-range animals — and we’re talking animals that are truly free-range, not chickens with the seldom-used option of wandering outside onto a dirt field — have more diverse diets (think grass instead of corn), their flesh is much higher in omega-3s.
  8. Cut down on saturated fats. But don’t make the mistake of replacing those saturated fats with tons of omega-6s; you won’t do yourself any good.
  9. Take special precautions if you are pregnant or a woman of reproductive age. You’ve heard all this before: watch out for mercury-laced fish and make every effort to breastfeed.
  10. Use supplements carefully. Skip the supplements that combine omega-3s and omega-6s, says Allport; you’re probably already eating too many omega-6s anyways. “If you take fish oil,” writes Allport, “look for products that are of pharmaceutical grade or are molecularly distilled, thus ensuring that they will be free of metals and other toxins.” Fish oil (usually made from mackerel and sardines) is better than cod-liver oil, which contains high levels of vitamin A. Flaxseed oil should be taken with vitamin B6, since flaxseed consumption can interfere with B6.
  11. Maintain a healthy weight by getting the exercise and calories you need. Well, duh. But of course, this is often easier said than done.

Eat your water

A lower BMI is associated with water-rich foods

September 30, 2008

A few facts: First, water-bottle usage has risen dramatically in this country, from being an industry that barely existed 30 years ago to a $16 billion business today. (I’m not referring to people packing their own water in Siggs or Nalgenes, but to the prepackaged H2O.)

Second, obesity has risen dramatically in the United States; this awesome animation shows state-by-state numbers of obese adults rising over the last 22 years.

Meanwhile, advice to drink plenty of water has been touted as a way to lose weight.

lemon cucumbers
Lemon cucumbers are a water-rich food.

Which brings us back to the first two facts: If Americans are drinking so much water, why do we still weigh too much?

The journal Nutrition published a study this month that shows people who eat food with a high water content have lower BMIs than people whose fluid intake is mostly from liquids (maybe from such sources as disposable water bottles).

Foods that have high water content? Watermelon, certainly, but most other fruits and vegetables too; grains, pasta, and legumes are also good sources of water.

Which is all a long way of saying that if you want to lose a few pounds, the Vegetable Challenge may be just where you want to be.

Have you found that eating foods with a high water content has helped you lose weight?

It’s not baby food

Baba ganoush and other vegetable purées

September 29, 2008

One way to work more vegetables into your daily diet is to turn them into vegetable purées. Unfortunately, the word “vegetable” coupled with the word “purée” conjures up images of baby food, which does little to perk up my appetite.

What’s in a name? Everything. Call those pulverized vegetables something else — pesto, dip or spread, cream of anything soup, baba ganoush — and I’ll try it.

A bonanza of eggplant from my CSA this week prompted me to make baba ganoush. First I pricked four eggplants with a fork, then roasted them at 425 degrees for about 30 minutes until they were soft and squishy. Once they cooled, I pulled the flesh from the skins and puréed it in a blender with a few garlic cloves, a heaping soup-spoonful of tahini (a purée of roasted sesame seeds), a glug of olive oil, plenty of salt, and the fresh juice of three lemons.


It’s not pretty, but it’s delicious. No, it doesn’t really compare to the exquisitely smoky baba ganoush served at Ya Hala, my neighborhood Middle Eastern restaurant, but it’s a fine-tasting dip in and of itself.

And boy, does it satisfy the goal of eating enough vegetables in a day, or even in a single meal, such as the lunch I made of homemade baba ganoush and a heaping plate of cut-up veggies (carrots, fennel, peppers, cukes).

It’s also good on a sandwich with grilled chicken and sautéed greens. After school, it makes a great snack with whole-grain pita chips.

The other purée I’ve been enjoying is the pesto I made a couple of weeks ago. Though I followed a pretty typical recipe — basil, toasted pine nuts, garlic, and olive oil — at the suggestion of a friend, I decided to add spinach to the mix. I made a huge batch for the freezer (I always add freshly grated Parmesan to the pesto once it’s thawed), but have already dipped into our winter allotment.

Honestly, I can’t taste the spinach, though it does make the pesto a brighter green. I wasn’t trying to be sneaky by adding spinach; I just wanted to up the vegetable quotient for those nights when dinner consists of a bowl of pasta and pesto.

As for the question of sneaking in vegetables (particularly when it comes to kids), I like how Mark Bittman addresses the topic in his video on how to make what he calls “vegetable spreads.”

Warming up to vegetables

Focusing on vegetables helps balance the meal

September 25, 2008

In taking The Vegetable Challenge, I’ve noticed something interesting: As long as I really concentrate on the challenge when planning my meals, meeting the challenge requirements is no problem, and very rewarding.

But if my attention lapses, and I let meals come to me a little more randomly, it can be hard to get in enough vegetables. (Witness this last Saturday, when I filled up on too much pasta and came up short for my daily veg allotment.)

This single-minded focus on vegetables, of course, is the method behind the madness of the challenge, which encourages us to fixate on vegetables in the hope that we’ll carry many of these habits forward into our everyday meal plans. I sense the impact of this, at least with respect to the recent The Whole-Grain Challenge, which continues to have a strong influence on my daily eating.

Heirloom carrots.

Yesterday was a banner day for the vegetables. At breakfast I succumbed to oat groats with peaches (spoils of the aforementioned The Whole-Grain Challenge), but lunch shook out the rugs with homemade sandwiches of generous portions of tomato, cucumber, avocado, and a small amount of turkey.

Dinner was an absolute ode to vegetables, the bounty of a trip to the farmers’ market over the weekend: shell beans cooked with onions and garlic, braised baby artichokes, heirloom carrots, dandelion greens sautéed with bacon, some exotic (and edible) mushrooms sautéed in olive oil and dressed with lemon juice, and a small amount of pasta on the side.

Something I’ve noticed about my most successful vegetable days is that meals are focused on the vegetables themselves, with just enough starch and/or meat protein to add filling and flavor. That miniscule slice of turkey in my sandwich at lunch and those small chunks of bacon in the dandelion greens at dinner, while pointedly less meaty than a Quarter Pounder, were sufficient to add the flavor my carnivore’s brain expects, while keeping the meal centered where the health experts say it belongs: on the vegetables.

How’d I do?

Vegetable score card
Sandwich veg1 cup
Shell beans1 cup
Artichokes¾ cup
Carrots1 cup
Dandelion greens¾ cup
Total4½ cups

What’s a serving size?


September 24, 2008

One commenter asked a question a while back that I could relate to: “Any suggestions on measuring ‘servings’ without having to put everything I eat into a measuring cup?”

I’ve seen all kinds of advice on this subject, from “a handful” (of broken cauliflowerettes or sliced zucchini) to a “medium-sized” fill-in-the-blank (carrot, lemon cucumber, russet potato, avocado, etc.), to a “soup-bowl full” (for salad greens).

Just how many servings of vegetables are in this salade niçoise?

The BBC published a set of guidelines for serving size. And the USDA has a good visual guide — click on the blue bar labeled “View Vegetables Food Gallery” — although it’s limited in scope.

What surprises me in these guidelines is how small the portions seem to be, at least for such things as corn and broccoli and (on the BBC) “mushy peas.” Did you know that just two slices of red onion qualifies as a serving? However, a few items seem rather hard to fathom. An entire sweet potato, for example, is daunting; half seems like a generous portion to me.

And the serving question is complicated by things like Roasted Vegetable Lasagna, a delicious portion of which I had the other day for lunch. How many veggies are there in that? Given the fact that the whole thing could fill a cup — noodles and all — I’m guessing the vegetable portion was about half a cup, or one serving. But what variety! Snow peas, zucchini, asparagus, broccoli, and of course tomatoes. Maybe, based on sheer scope, that should count as two servings?

Too bad we can’t wear a vegetable pedometer that could gauge for us whether we’re eating our daily fill. Instead, we have to rely on our estimating abilities — and our appetites.

Both of which — for me anyway — are less than perfect.

A week’s worth of veg

The CSA version of the vegetable challenge

September 23, 2008

So my May-October CSA is in full harvest mode; when I go to the weekly pickup, I need to bring two big cloth shopping bags and several plastic bags (for, you know, the loose stuff, like salad mix and herbs). I practically have to waddle back to my car with it all.

With only two people in my household, we really have to work to get through a week’s share of vegetables. Fortunately, our three chickens are happy to eat the wilting leftovers when Thursday rolls around again and we still haven’t finished off all the lettuce or cilantro. The cat, alas, is worthless in the veg department.

Last week’s pickup, for example, included the following:

  • 1 pound green beans (this sounds like a lot, and it is)
  • 1 pound fingerling potatoes (this sounds like a lot, but potatoes are heavy, so it’s not)
  • 2 pounds tomatoes (a ton if you’re getting small tomatoes, but maybe only two tomatoes if you’re getting enormous, water-heavy heirlooms)
  • Cucumbers
  • 8 ounces lettuce mix
  • 1 head lettuce
  • 1 enormous bunch of scallions
  • A couple of heads of kohlrabi
  • Ditto for beets
  • A variety of peppers (Anaheim, jalapeño, yellow sweet)
  • Eggplant
  • Summer squash
  • Herbs (usually basil, cilantro, or parsley, but occasionally odder stuff such as fennel flowers)
  • Garlic
  • 1 dozen eggs
BLT sandwich
A bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich is perfect this time of year.

Because everything is local and seasonal, the vegetables don’t change drastically from week to week; we’ve had lettuce for many a week now, while the heirloom tomatoes were new last week. So, while we have a few standby recipes we trot out again and again — Cilantro-Pecan Pesto, Tomato-Basil Bruschetta, baba ganouj, and plenty of fresh salads — the latest round of produce often has us scratching our heads, trying to come up with new flavors for familiar foods.

We love green beans served in a simple salad, for example: stemmed, sliced, blanched, and dressed with a homemade vinaigrette and chopped parsley or dill. But after three rounds of this, you kind of want something else. So on Friday night, I threw the beans into a wok, thinking I might dry-fry them Chinese style, with garlic and chiles.

But, rooting around in the fridge, I turned up some yogurt, which made me think, Nah, I’ll make an impromptu curry instead. Green onions, tomatoes, and garlic from the CSA got sautéed in curry spices first while the beans blanched, then everything got whisked together and the yogurt added as the dish was cooling. Served over fresh basmati rice, it was fast, tasty, and filling.

Saturday night we took a house guest out to eat, so the crowded fridge stayed crowded. But Sunday? Sunday was BLT day, a sandwich we’d been holding out for until we got some truly excellent heirloom tomatoes.

I could rest on my spicy laurels. But an evening of BLTs only knocked off a few lettuce leaves and one enormous tomato. And we only have a few days to go before the next pickup looms, and our fridge is still crammed with beets, kohlrabi, lettuce, squash, cucumbers, and onions. Yikes.

What is a vegetable?

Defining our terms

September 19, 2008

Let’s define “vegetables.” That may sound, um, fruitless — after all, who doesn’t know a vegetable when she sees one? But there can be confusion.

I posed the “what is a vegetable?” question to the folks at the Produce for Better Health Foundation — a nonprofit whose sole purpose, according to their website, is “to motivate people to eat more fruits and vegetables to improve public health.” PBH’s Jeanette Sukhu told me they get this question all the time. Here’s her response:

We accept the botanical definition that fruits have seeds, which means that technically, tomatoes, cucumbers, and eggplant are fruits.
We also accept the ruling of the Supreme Court from 1883 (which is posted on our website in the frequently asked questions).
Salad means vegetables — or does it?
That ruling acknowledged that tomatoes, as well as cucumbers, squashes, beans, and peas, are “fruits of the vine.” However, in the common language of the people, they are vegetables because “they are usually served at dinner in, with, or after the soup, fish, or meats which constitute the principal part of the” meal, and they are not generally consumed as dessert, like fruits.
So to answer your question, we count potatoes and beans as vegetables, but do not count tofu because while it is made from vegetables, it is not itself a vegetable.

I found the Produce for Better Health Foundation via the Centers for Disease Control’s fruitsandveggiesmatter.gov; the agency is apparently partnering with the nonprofit to get the word out about the connection between vegetables and good health.

But if you go to another governmental agency, the USDA, and look for guidance, you get this, which is rather oblique:

Any vegetable or 100 percent vegetable juice counts as a member of the vegetable group. Vegetables may be raw or cooked; fresh, frozen, canned, or dried/dehydrated; and may be whole, cut up, or mashed.

Fortunately, the USDA also offers a list of what it considers to be vegetables, by category:

The USDA’s veg list

Dark green vegetables

  • bok choy
  • broccoli
  • collard greens
  • dark green leafy lettuce
  • kale
  • mesclun
  • mustard greens
  • romaine lettuce
  • spinach
  • turnip greens
  • watercress

Orange vegetables

  • acorn squash
  • butternut squash
  • carrots
  • Hubbard squash
  • pumpkin
  • sweet potatoes

Dry beans and peas

  • black beans
  • black-eyed peas
  • garbanzo beans (chickpeas)
  • kidney beans
  • lentils
  • lima beans (mature)
  • navy beans
  • pinto beans
  • soy beans
  • split peas
  • tofu (bean curd made from soybeans)
  • white beans

Starchy vegetables

  • corn
  • green peas
  • lima beans (green)
  • potatoes

Other vegetables

  • artichokes
  • asparagus
  • bean sprouts
  • beets
  • Brussels sprouts
  • cabbage
  • cauliflower
  • celery
  • cucumbers
  • eggplant
  • green beans
  • green or red peppers
  • iceberg (head) lettuce
  • mushrooms
  • okra
  • onions
  • parsnips
  • tomatoes
  • tomato juice
  • vegetable juice
  • turnips
  • wax beans
  • zucchini

Tofu and potatoes are on the USDA list, which is good news for me. I like black beans, tofu, and, once in a while, potatoes, and find it handy to include them in my daily count.

Still, I decided to check one more source: the British government’s 5 A Day site. Here’s where it really got interesting. According to the Brits:

One portion of vegetables is, for example, 3 heaped tablespoonfuls of cooked carrots or peas or sweetcorn, or 1 cereal bowl of mixed salad. Beans and other pulse vegetables, such as kidney beans, lentils and chick peas, only count once a day, however much you eat. Potatoes don’t count towards the 5 A Day target because they are a “starchy” food. [Italics mine.]

So beans and tofu are OK once a day, but potatoes are out. Unless I’m in a pinch one day, and then I can use the USDA list and bake a potato. Relativism rules in this challenge.

And you get to decide on your own what you’ll do.

Vegetable love

Links to inspire you

September 18, 2008

Tomorrow, we’ll get down to business and define exactly what we mean by “vegetables” here at the Vegetable Challenge. But today, let me direct your attention to several links that might be useful to all you Challengers out there:

pasta with raw tomatoes
Carrie’s fresh-tomato pasta.

Meanwhile, here at Culinate, food editor Carrie Floyd dishes on eight ways she’s eating fresh tomatoes right now, including Pasta with Fresh Tomatoes and Herbs.

In an effort to help inform your shopping decisions, our staff put together a visually oriented list of 20 readily available produce items — fruits and vegetables — that contain the most pesticide residues, along with 20 items that contain the least.

And, in case you missed it, last month Kelly Myers penned an ode to zucchini — good reading for anyone who’s still plucking zucchini from the vine (or the market booth).

Finally, food for thought: Dinner Guest blogger Harriet Fasenfest walks us through a three-part look at her garden, ending with her belief that “the only true sign of our economic health is our soil.”


The sun never sets on the Vegetable Challenge

Grilled stuffed peppers on day two

September 17, 2008

On my second day of the Vegetable Challenge, I should have been able to bring a bit more forethought to the table, but success ended up hanging on fate and leftovers.

Breakfast I whiffed once again, though I’m looking forward to trying soon some of the ideas suggested by all of you. For lunch, I went with the bounty of the season, pulling together a cheese-and-tomato sandwich, with carrots on the side. Very satisfying.

Green Peppers
Peppers ready to stuff.

Racing out of the office toward home and dinner as my wife rushed to an engagement, I wondered how I was going to pull off a dinner that the kids would eat and that would satisfy my vegetable goal — while still making it to the Apple Store at 7:20 for a Genius Bar appointment to fix a broken machine.

Fortunately, fate triumphed over panic as office-mate Mark handed me a bag of homegrown peppers, and inspiration soon joined the party: I’d stuff those suckers. My luck held as the refrigerator yielded sufficient leftovers to make the stuffing, a key ingredient of which I decided should be oat groats — a discovery from the last challenge.

Peppers on Grill
The peppers were grilled for 20-30 minutes.

I lit the grill, then carefully cut the tops off the peppers and scraped out the seeds. In a bit of olive oil, I heated a cup and a half of leftover cooked oat groats (one could substitute rice or breadcrumbs), and added a similar amount of diced mozzarella, along with red-pepper flakes, chopped fresh basil, and salt. I stirred it over the heat until it bound together in a hot runny mass.

Then it was just a matter of stuffing the mixture into the peppers, reinserting their tops, and putting them onto the grill until they were adequately cooked, 20 to 30 minutes.

One caution: If you’re going to try this, don’t fill the peppers completely, as the expanding stuffing will push the tops out.

The stuffed peppers, along with a butter lettuce and avocado salad, made a satisfying dinner that even my girls gobbled up. Score one for Dad. Do I get bonus points for incorporating bits of two challenges?

Stuffed peppers
Peppers ready to eat — they didn’t last long.
The vegetable scorecard
Tomatoes¾ cup
Carrots¾ cup
Peppers1½ cups
Green salad1½ cups
Total4½ cups

Q: Anybody have other interesting variations on how to stuff peppers?

Going easy on myself

Why I’m not worried about veg at every meal

September 16, 2008

I agree with what James wrote earlier: I’m not really keen on the idea of vegetables for breakfast. I’m never very hungry in the morning anyways, and what I do eat tends to be lightly sweet: oatmeal, yogurt and granola, or toast with peanut butter and honey. This usually takes care of at least a serving or two of fruit, as I like my oatmeal with grated apple or chopped dried fruit and my granola or toast with sliced fresh fruit. But it also narrows the vegetable field down to lunch and dinner.

I have tried Cindy Burke’s breakfast salad, which I found delicious — for dinner. My husband, on the other hand, is always up for a mighty meal in the morning; he’s been known to make himself an entire frittata dotted with cheese and vegetables for breakfast, or even a meaty banh mi sandwich — crammed with pickles, cilantro, scallions, and chiles — topped, in order to justify it as “breakfast,” with a fried egg. I can only admire the fortitude of his digestive system.

banh mi sandwich prep
Would you eat a banh mi sandwich for breakfast?

Late summer, of course, is the easiest time of the year to eat lots of vegetables. We’ve been eating homemade pizza topped with tomatoes and basil from the garden, and cucumber-tomato gazpacho, and caponata, and green beans as a salad instead of a side dish. Lunch yesterday was grilled squash and roasted potatoes, both from our CSA; dinner was enchiladas with pinto beans, cheese, and grilled zucchini.

What we’ve been eating less of, of course, are all those dark leafy greens the science types say are so good for us: kale, spinach, collards, and the like. Frankly, I’m waiting for winter for those; they’ll taste sweeter anyways, and I won’t be able to overdose on tomatoes and cucumbers then. Every plant to its season.

In How to Cook a Wolf, M. F. K. Fisher wrote:

One of the stupidest things in an earnest but stupid school of culinary thought is that each of the three daily meals should be “balanced.” In the first place, not all people need or want three meals each day. Many of them feel better with two, or one and one-half, or five. Next, and most important perhaps, “balance” is something that depends entirely on the individual.

In other words, don’t bother trying to cram fruit, veg, protein, and starch into every meal of the day; you’ll just feel stressed about “balance,” not to mention overfed and bored. As Fisher concludes:

Try this simple plan: Balance the day, not each meal in the day. Try it. It is easy, and simple, and fun, and — perhaps most important — people like it.

So the fact that I like fruit in the morning and vegetables later in the day, and a bit of protein here and there, is perfectly OK in the Fisher handbook. In fact, she goes on to say, your daily diet could be nothing more than toast and coffee for breakfast, soup or salad for lunch, and a cheese soufflé or rare steak with fresh vegetables for dinner. Sounds pretty good to me.

And should I worry about the fact that eating seasonally means too many tomatoes in September and too many mounds of kale in February? Only if Fisher’s principle of stretching your “balanced” diet out over the course of a day doesn’t work when applied to an entire year.

My first day of veg

Floundering through the Vegetable Challenge

September 16, 2008

OK, so I’m going to be taking this challenge, hoping to find my way to more vegetables. My intent is to blog each day, or nearly each day, about my experiences with the challenge: what I ate, what I found challenging, what I learned.

It’s not that the last several years of working on Culinate have been without vegetables. In fact, there have been lots of them, and I’ve learned to prepare them in (some) new ways. But this challenge brings us up against the cold facts: Did I get five helpings of vegetables? Did I get at least two-and-a-half cups of vegetables?

While I’ve been eating vegetables for years, I do wonder how I’ll measure up against such cold judgment. I guess we’ll see.

My first day on the challenge started out with an absolute dearth of vegetables: French toast for breakfast was a real treat, but there was not a vegetable to be found on the menu. I’m guessing breakfast is going to be a good place to get in that additional couple of cups of fruit, but I am very interested to see where I can fit vegetables into my breakfast regimen. Breakfast salads? Ack. I’m not sure I’m ready. Please let me know if you’ve got ideas.

Bento box with a few pickled veggies.
Beautiful carrots.

In a single paragraph I’ve skated past the demands of breakfast, and I’m now gliding in to lunch, another vegetable-challenged time. Wider awake, I face the challenge . . . and take the easy way out: a bento box with chicken, rice, and precious little veg to be found. Fortunately my bento guy is not just about protein and carbs; he puts some pickled cucumbers and carrots into the box. They’re my first vegetables of the day, if only perhaps a quarter-cup. A small victory, but hardly inspiring, nor likely to get me to the two-and-a-half-cup finish line.

Thinking quickly (and in need of a walk to relieve the stress of the morning), I trek to our local grocery store and purchase some lovely, local carrots. I eat two, congratulating myself on an additional cup of veg matter. Not bad: exercise, stress relief, and vegetables in a single 10-minute outing!

I’m interested to see how (and if) the Vegetable Challenge helps me to replace meat products with non-meat products. I’m not a vegetarian by any means, and I do like meat, but I can go for a number of meals before the need for animal protein calls to me. One of my goals in the challenge is to increase the proportion of vegetables in my diet, while reducing that of meat — a ratio that is probably not only healthier but certainly better for the Earth (that place we call home).

Albacore tuna with sauteed vegetables and salad
Albacore tuna, sauté of squash, tomato salad.

So dinner comes along, probably my last chance to get in that last cup of vegetables. Ah, glorious dinner, time of vegetables, especially in the summer and fall. Dinner is a zingy appetizer of Pimientos de Padrón peppers (absolute heaven on Earth: I promise a recipe soon), followed by a sauté of squash, sweet peppers, and leeks; a Caprese salad with tomato, basil, and mozzarella; and some grilled tuna. I think I’ve made it. Dessert, anyone?

The vegetable scorecard
Pickled vegetables¼ cup
Carrots1 cup
Pimientos de Padrón½ cup
Squash medley1 cup
Caprese salad¾ cup
Total3½ cups

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There are 2 comments on this item
Add a comment
1. by andshecooks on Sep 17, 2008 at 12:11 PM PDT

Well this IS the easiest time of year for this challenge. The farmers
markets are bursting out with the best most bountiful produce. I only wish we could have these choices locally year round but of course we can’t. And I love green veggie salad with eggs for breakfast. Or sometimes I just do a veggie hash, and then break an egg on top or poach one and put it on top of the hash.

2. by jo greeb on Aug 3, 2010 at 1:47 PM PDT

The way I find best to get myself to eat veg is to grow my own. When you have put the effort in to nurture them from seeds you are going to eat it regardless. I have been growing my own potatoes, courgettes, aubergine, peppers, chilli, lettuce, rocket, spinach, tomotoes and squashes for years and it is the nly way I can truly enjoy veg, it is also a great way to get the kids involved.

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