Culinate

Savita Iyer-Ahrestani is a journalist based in State College, Pennsylvania, who writes about business, parenting, travel, and food. She has lived in Switzerland, India, Malaysia, Myanmar, the United Kingdom, Holland, and New Jersey.

From orange to green

Crossing the vegetable border

By
January 4, 2011

I’m a huge fan of Seabrook Farms' frozen creamed spinach. It might not have all the nutritional value of fresh spinach, but it goes great with many of the dishes I make, and it’s a fantastic way to get my children to eat spinach. Indeed, my Spinach Tart is a favorite (albeit grudgingly) of even my rather vegetable-averse daughter.

“Do you like spinach?” I asked her friend, who was over for a playdate on a night that I was making the dish.

“I haven’t ever tried it,” came the reply.

It took me a second to get over the shock (for lack of a better word) of the realization that an eight-year-old girl had never tried spinach. I know that things have changed a lot since my time — coming from a vegetarian family whose main food was, well, vegetables, I had little choice in the matter — and I make a lot of concessions for children, American children in particular.

But although I have been in the U.S. for some time now, I am still shocked at how few vegetables Americans — children and adults, too — seem to consume. Most homes I have been to don’t seem to venture beyond the usual suspects: corn, carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, broccoli (de rigueur in an American household), beans (sometimes), and perhaps when it’s in season, butternut squash.

Why, I wonder? Are people so frightened of vegetables?

It isn’t fear, says Aarti Aziz, a nutritionist and wellness counselor in Maplewood, New Jersey. Most Americans, she says, are not even aware of the existence of vegetables beyond the familiar few, and even if they do know of them, not knowing what to do with them is intimidating.

Leafy green kale.

“It is only when people try and see the amazing difference in themselves after incorporating a variety of vegetables that they enjoy the true potential of vegetables,” Aziz says.

For Aziz, there is nothing in the world quite like dark green leafy vegetables. They’re powerhouses of nutrition, she says, and they’re loaded with every kind of vitamin, from A to K. They’re also high in fiber, energy-giving, and packed with chlorophyll, which is essential for every cell in the body.

Of all the greens, kale is the ultimate powerhouse, Aziz says. Yet it’s also one of the most intimidating vegetables for those who are new to the vegetable-cooking territory, which is why Aziz makes a point of really talking it up in the first chapter of the program she’s devised for her clients, highlighting the fact that kale (and other leafy greens) helps with the nutritional deficiencies that lead to food cravings.

“I give [my clients] simple recipes to start working with, but most of all, I buy them three different leafy greens so the first hurdle is overcome, and they have no choice but to try them,” she says.

The thought of crossing the vegetable border from the orange/yellow side to the green side can be nerve-wracking for many people, but Aziz also believes that most people haven’t even explored the full potential of the “safe” side of the divide. Told to think of orange and yellow vegetables, most Americans don’t look beyond, say, bell peppers, because they’re quick and easy to prepare and eat.

But there are so many other colorful vegetables out there that are equally, if not more, delicious, not to mention jam-packed with nutrients. Consider orange and red beets, Aziz says, or spaghetti and acorn squash.

All colorful vegetables have high nutritional value. But according to Aziz, it’s important to “stick with the seasons to maintain harmony with your environment.” So while carrots, bell peppers, and tomatoes are great veggie choices, they don’t offer the same benefits all year round. They’re also considered “nightshade” vegetables, which means they contain trace amounts of alkaloids and can be harmful to some people.

We are all creatures of habit, and even the best of us would rather stick with what we know best. But cooking vegetables is actually far easier than most people think, Aziz points out. In fact, she says, there’s nothing simpler than sautéing or stir-frying greens.

As a green-vegetable-loving vegetarian, I know that’s true. But I also understand how hard it is for some people to believe it, so for those working up the guts to go the Green Way, I’d say take small steps. The recipe for kale chips is easy and tasty — it’s so easy and tasty that I might just try it out at my daughter’s next playdate.

Related recipe: Spinach Tart