Say Hello to Squash (and Other Seasonal Favorites)!

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Enjoying the benefits of diverse autumn produce

Every season has its signature produce, and each harvest provides just the right combination of foods to make dishes that complement the weather. (As I’m fond of saying, God knew what He was doing!) In autumn, we’re greeted with a delightful array of starchy and crunchy vegetables, chewy mushrooms and dense fruits. This combination not only makes for lovely soups, stews, casseroles and pies but also contains high levels of nutrients that support overall health by zapping common disease markers.

Squashes for Roasting and Stuffing

squashes by salsachia

salsachia/FreeImages

There are so many varieties of winter squashes that it’s impossible to list them all! Here are a few that should be on your radar this season:

  • Acorn
  • Butternut
  • Buttercup
  • Delicata
  • Hubbard
  • Kabocha
  • Spaghetti
  • Sugar pumpkin

Each has its own unique appearance and flavor, but the one thing they all share is the vibrant color that broadcasts their abundant antioxidant content. In fact, World’s Healthiest Foods reports that winter squashes are one of the top three food sources of cancer-fighting carotenoid compounds. High levels of fiber contain pectins that protect against inflammation and diabetes. A compound called cucurbitacin has a regulating effect on certain inflammatory markers in the body, meaning that squashes could hold promise for those with conditions that present with or are affected by inflammation.

In terms of nutrition, eating squash gives you a big dose of vitamin A, vitamin C, a range of B vitamins and several trace minerals. They’re also an unlikely source of omega-3 fatty acids despite being a low-fat, high-starch food.

More information about specific squash varieties can be found at Epicurious and The Kitchn.

Ways to Enjoy Winter Squash: Roast in the oven (cut in half or cubed), boil and mash the flesh with sweet spices, use spaghetti squash instead of pasta, hollow out and stuff with a mix of grains and beans or use as serving bowls for autumn soups and stews.

Picking Perfect Potatoes

The potato’s bad reputation stems from the typical Western practice of taking a perfectly healthy vegetable and turning it into deep fried junk food. When you skip the oil and enjoy potatoes in their natural state, they’re amazingly good for you. Browse any farmers market in the fall, and you’ll find Russet, Yukon gold, purple, red, fingerling and sweet potatoes. And that’s just a few highlights from the litany of tasty potato varieties.

white potatoes wikimedia commons

By McKay Savage from London, UK [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Far from being the nutrient-poor “white vegetable” that they’re often made out to be, potatoes contain quite a bit of vitamin B6, vitamin C, potassium and copper. Sweet potatoes are even more nutritious. The bright orange flesh delivers a dose of vitamin A, vitamin C and an impressive amount of B complex vitamins. All types of potatoes are rich in fiber.

Consuming regular potatoes may help to lower blood pressure thanks to compounds called kukoamines. The vitamin B6 content supports the creation of neurotransmitters, which are essential for proper brain and nerve function. Carotenoids are abundant in orange sweet potatoes, and sweet potatoes with purple flesh provide anthocyanins. These and other antioxidant phytonutritents might help reduce the risk of damage from heavy metals and free radicals as the food passes through the digestive tract, making sweet potatoes are a sweet treat when it comes to cellular health.

Ways to Enjoy Potatoes: Roast them in the oven, make baked fries with or without seasonings, make curry with cauliflower or spinach, layer in casseroles, add to soups, bake and top with nutritional yeast and vegan sour cream or serve baked and smothered in chili.

Beautiful Brassicas

Also called cruciferous vegetables, Brassicas include cabbage, kale, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, radishes and rutabagas. One of the outstanding characteristics of these leafy and crunchy veggies is their reputation for being cancer-fighting powerhouses. Thanks to beneficial sulfur compounds, including sulforaphane, Brassicas may be able to modulate the development of tumors and aid in mechanisms that kill off cancer cells. Phytonutrients known as glucosinolates convert to other compounds during digestion and could also help lower the risk of certain types of cancers.

brussels sprouts by debsch

debsch/FreeImages

World’s Healthiest Foods offers and extensive breakdown of the Brassica nutrient profile. In a nutshell, adding these fall favorites to your diet gives you:

  • The highest amount of vitamin A carotenoids, vitamin C and folic acid of all vegetables
  • More fiber than any other vegetable
  • A high dose of bone-building, anti-inflammatory vitamin K

Omega-3 fatty acids appear in Brassicas at levels comparable to those in fish. Although these fats are in ALA form rather than EPA or DHA, you still get an impressive amount of essential fatty acids from eating your favorite crucifers.

Ways to Enjoy Brassicas/Crucifers: Toss raw into salads or slaws, steam lightly and season with mixed herbs, add to curries or stir fries, saute with garlic and mushrooms, add to soups, use leafy greens as wraps, use cauliflower to “lighten up” mashed potatoes, mix broccoli into mac & “cheese” or make hash with Brussels sprouts.

Note that you can enjoy pretty much the whole plant, including the leaves and stalks of broccoli and cauliflower. Chop the stems with the rest of the vegetable and use the leaves in place of another green veggie instead of throwing them away. Broccoli stalks are also great with hummus!

Appreciating Apples and Pears

I literally eat apples by the bushel this time of year, and for good reason. There are so many to enjoy: McIntosh, Granny Smith, Gala, Fuji, Crispin, Braeburn, Cameo, Empire, honeycrisp…the list goes on. You can even find out your “apple personalty” on the New York Apple Country website.

apples in a basket

By Oxfordian Kissuth (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

No matter what kind of apples you eat, you reap the synergistic effects that various compounds in the fruit have when combined with the fiber. Along with a high phytonutrient content, this has a powerful positive impact on the health of the flora in the GI tract, which may help explain how apples lower both total and LDL cholesterol levels. Eating apples in their whole form helps to slow carbohydrate digestion, reduce glucose absorption, stimulate insulin release and improve insulin sensitivity at a cellular level. In short, apple lovers have healthier digestive systems, a lower risk of heart disease and more stable blood sugar.

Pears are at least as impressive as apples with their wide variety and numerous health benefits. They’re best consumed with the skins on, since that’s where half of the fiber and a majority of the phenols are found. This time of year, you might munch on Anjou, Asian, Bartlett, Bosc, Comice, Forell or red pears. The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods notes that all types of pears provide healthy doses of vitamins C and K, as well as copper and the powerful antioxidants known as epichatechins. In addition to fiber’s ability to lower the risk of both heart disease and diabetes, the type of fiber in pears may also be able to bind with excess bile acids to offer protection against gastrointestinal cancers.

Ways to Enjoy Apples and Pears: Eaten raw with or without nut butter, dried, cooked in oatmeal, baked into crisps and crumbles, in pies, stuffed with dried fruit and spices and baked, baked with sweet sauce or on top of waffles and pancakes.

Munching on Mushrooms

With their earthy flavor and chewy texture, mushrooms were one of the original meat alternatives for vegetarians and vegans. It’s hard to find a word other than “meaty” to describe varieties like portobello and oyster. White and crimini mushrooms are a bit less intense but no less delicious. When it comes to Asian dishes, shiitake are the king, and porcini make their way into a variety of unique recipes that require a deeper flavor.

In The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods, Michael Murray highlights the cancer fighting properties of many types of mushrooms. Polysaccharides and beta-glucans give button mushrooms this power, and shiitake, maitake and reishi have been prized for their medicinal properties for centuries. Shiitake in particular are known for their lentinan content, a compound that not only boosts the immune system but may also help to lower cholesterol. Administering lentinan along with chemotherapy has been shown to improve survival rates among patients with certain cancers.

Depending on the type, eating mushrooms can give you a good amount of minerals such as selenium and iron along with vitamin C and protein. If you’re lucky enough to have a source for gourmet mushrooms like I do with the Mariaville Mushroom Men, don’t hesitate to try something new like pink oysters, puffballs or the oddly named (but completely vegan) chicken of the woods.

mushrooms by gogsy7

gogsy7/FreeImages

Remember, although guides like this visual one from Epicurious and this interesting article about fall foraging from Mother Earth News give a lot of information about different kinds of mushrooms, you should never pick wild mushrooms without a guide to show you which ones are safe. If you’ve been trained in foraging, pass the knowledge on to someone else to preserve the tradition!

Ways to Enjoy Mushrooms: Sauteed with garlic & greens, as a pizza topping, as a burger or steak substitute, sliced and sauteed as wrap ingredients, marinated and baked, in gravy, in stir fries or on salads (but make sure they’re safe to eat raw).

How is autumn produce making its way to your table? I’d love to hear how you’re enjoying these and other fall favorites!

Want to learn more about how eating fresh, seasonal produce can improve your health? Schedule a FREE 15-minute phone consultation with me and get started on the path to better living through plants!

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Enjoying Seasonal Berries: Benefits, Recipes and Shopping Tips

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Promoting health with tasty summer fruits

Berry season is almost upon us! Soon farmers markets and grocery stores will be exploding with vibrant displays of blueberries, strawberries, raspberries and every other kind of berry that you can think of. Berries are awesome in so many ways that I couldn’t help putting together a post that sings their praises.

Top 5 Reasons to Make Berries a Summer Stapleraspberries by Galina-NB

In addition to being delicious, berries have fabulous health benefits:

They’re Packed with Nutrients

According to The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods, berries provide a beneficial combination of nutrients including vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin K, several B vitamins and trace minerals such as manganese. Levels vary depending on the type of berry, so be sure to eat a variety to get as much as you can!

They’re High in Antioxidants

The abundance of free-radical-busting antioxidants in berries is what’s earned them their reputation as superfoods. Antioxidants are powerful protectors at a cellular level, and the more you have in reserve, the easier it is for your body to combat damage that can lead to heart disease, dementia and premature aging. The deeper and richer the color, the more antioxidants you get.

They’re Low in Sugar

Many conditions including diabetes, candida and Lyme disease require a low-sugar diet, which can mean missing out on a lot of fruits. Berries, however, are low enough in sugar to allow most people on restricted diets to enjoy a natural sweet treat. They’re also a good choice if you experience blood sugar imbalances unrelated to diabetes or are simply looking to reduce your overall sugar intake.

They Fill You with Fiber

Fiber is partially responsible for feelings of fullness and satisfaction, and berries are a great source of it. Eating more fiber helps you feel full longer, preventing cravings and aiding in weight maintenance. Fiber also slows the delivery of sugar to the bloodstream to help balance glucose levels, and of course it promotes regular, healthy digestion!

They Fight Inflammation

Quercetin, an antioxidant that’s particularly abundant in berries, has powerful anti-inflammatory properties. By helping to block the production of histamine and other inflammatory markers, quercetin can stop inflammation  before it starts. This makes it beneficial for everything from allergies to arthritis. It may also explain the apparent protective properties that berries have when it comes to heart health. Excessive inflammation is suspected to be a catalyst for heart disease as well as other degenerative conditions, and cooling it off can have far-reaching benefits.

If you’re curious about properties of specific berries, the Mother Nature Network has an informative article on how 11 different varieties work to promote health.

strawberries by theswedish

Making the Most of Bountiful Berries

So how do you get all the most benefit from berries? It depends on what you’re in the mood to eat! Berries make any meal or snack sweeter and more satisfying. Try these tasty ideas to enjoy more berries this season:

  • Make a parfait with vegan yogurt, a crunchy nugget cereal such as Ezekiel 4:9 and your favorite berries.
  • Top oatmeal with sliced fresh berries or stir blueberries and raspberries into overnight oats.
  • Put blueberries on (or in!) pancakes.
  • Liven up a spinach salad with some sliced strawberries and balsamic vinegar.
  • Whip up a batch of quick chia seed jam.
  • Put a healthy twist on dessert with a raw berry pie or cheesecake.
  • Cool down on a hot day with a satisfying berry-filled smoothie.
  • Toss a bunch of berries in a bowl with some walnuts and cinnamon for an instant fruit salad.

And because I’ve been obsessed with it lately, I couldn’t share a list of berry recipes without a few for baked oatmeal!

Selecting and Storing

blueberries by grafikdAs with any produce, freshness counts when choosing berries. If you can find a local farm that offers pick-your-own, take advantage of it to load up on your favorite berries when they’re at peak ripeness. At this point, they’ll have the highest nutrient content and, incidentally, the best flavor.

The next best thing to picking your own berries is to buy them at a farmers market or farm stand. They’ll still deliver a big boost of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, and sometimes you can find buy-one-get-one deals or quantity discounts.

If you don’t have access to either of these options, look for organic berries at the grocery store. Check the origin and choose brands that come from as close by as possible.to minimize the nutrient loss that occurs during transportation. Berry prices should be more reasonable this time of year thanks to seasonality, so keep an eye on ads to find the best deals.

No matter where you shop, be discerning when choosing your berries. After all, to truly enjoy the seasonal bounty, you want the best possible berries you can get!

Look For

  • Bright, bold, uniform colors
  • Ripeness
  • Firm texture

Avoid

  • Bruised, broken or leaking fruits
  • Rot or mold
  • Shrunken or dry appearance

Finding a huge haul of perfect berries is exciting, but once you’ve got them home, you have to be able to keep them fresh. Berries should be washed (Better Homes and Gardens has a useful guide to this) and either stored in the refrigerator or laid out on cookie sheets and placed in the freezer. Once frozen, transfer to freezer-safe zipper bags or airtight containers. I did this with a bunch of blueberries that I bought last year and was still putting them in oatmeal in December!

To keep berries fresh longer in the refrigerator, I recommend using green bags. These BPA-free bags extend the life of produce by a significant amount to preserve freshness and reduce waste.

Incorporating berries into your daily diet is a delicious way to fight cellular damage, protect yourself from degenerative diseases and promote an overall feeling of wellness. How do you include berries in your meals? Share your favorite recipe in the comments!

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