Ask the RD: A Walk through Winter Vegetables

December 2nd, 2013


paragraph_introWinter is not a season of hibernation. It is a time of discovery, of variety, of traditional flavors and culinary surprises. Winter is a season, as Alicia Walter of La Scuola at Eataly says, “to buy whatever you don’t recognize.” And the best place to buy them, even in winter, is at your local farmers’ market.

So with heirloom tomatoes gone for the season and months from the first peas of spring, on a brisk November afternoon, Meatless Monday’s Registered Dietitian, Diana Rice, along with Creative Director Brian Wheeler, headed to the Union Square Greenmarket to see what local, hearty produce we all can be cooking for the next couple months. To our surprise, alongside the familiar lettuces and dozens of apple varieties, there were potatoes the size of softballs, squid-shaped salsify, and a rainbow of squash, chard and cauliflower.

Brian Wheeler: Okay, as we come into the market, I’m seeing a lot of Brussels sprouts here today. Which I love.

Diana Rice: Me too! But I only developed a taste for them recently. I’d only had them steamed, and steamed Brussels sprouts can be mushy. My favorite way to prepare them is to cut them in half, sauté them cut side down in a little olive oil until they begin to brown and add a splash of balsamic vinegar at the end.

paragraph2BW: Let’s talk about these tri-color carrots. Is there a health benefit over traditional carrots?

DR: Mainly in that they’re so appealing, you’re likely to eat even more of them. I can’t wait to try them in this Roasted Rainbow Carrots with Maple-Mustard Glaze recipe. The different colors occur due to varying levels of pigmented nutrients that are of course very good for us, but that’s no reason to snub the orange variety. Just like the others, it’s full of nutrients that promote eye health, beta-carotene and lutein.

paragraph3BW: I have no idea what lamb’s quarters are. I would have guessed these are dandelion greens. 

DR: This is new to me, too. I’ve only encountered lamb’s quarters as a pesky weed I have to rip from my garden all the time. I didn’t know you could eat them. I bet they would be a great addition to a vegetable noodle soup.

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BW: And here, on the same table with broccoli and cauliflower, the Romanesco sort of steals the show. What should we know about this great looking veggie?

DR: Isn’t it intriguing? For any math nerds out there, Romanesco is an example of a naturally occurring Fibonacci spiral. But if you’re more interested in its taste, you can expect a sort of crunchier cauliflower. It’s great roasted. I’m planning to try it in this pasta recipe.

BW: Let’s talk about winter foods in general. If we buy turnips, parsnips, even beets, what are we getting that maybe we’re not getting in the summer?

paragraph5DR: Most of the items we think of as summer vegetables, like tomatoes, zucchini and eggplant, are actually fruits. They typically have a higher water content than winter options. Winter root vegetables are higher in starch and naturally occurring sugar, which provides energy that the plant would use to get through the winter, if we didn’t harvest it. They’re a great source of complex carbohydrates.

BW: I think every school kid should take a field trip to a market and see these vegetables. Broccoli and Brussels sprouts on the stems. Potatoes larger than your hands. The variety is more surprising than in summer months.

DR: I love that visiting a farmers’ market gives you a chance to learn a little more about how your food grows, and it’s such a great educational experience for children. I bet any kid who has ever been turned off by a plate of Brussels sprouts might be willing to give them a second shot if they got to help pull the little sprouts off these alien-looking arms! And for the parents, cook them up in this sweet Cranberry Balsamic Brussels Sprouts dish.

BW: You would think the colors of winter food would resemble the drabness of the weather. But everywhere I turn I see red and orange, vibrant greens and deep purples. What relationship does color have to health? 

DR: I mentioned that most of the nutrients that are so good for us are pigments. Beta-carotene is orange, vitamin K is dark green, many antioxidants are blue or purple. Most of the “drab” foods that come to mind have actually had their most nutritious parts removed! White rice is missing the nutritious golden grain. Sugar is refined to remove the dark, rich molasses that contains so many minerals. There’s one caveat: some nutritious pigments–anthoxanthins–are actually white, like those found in cauliflower, garlic and turnips.

BW: Obviously, we’re lucky to have a Union Square Greenmarket within walking distance. 

paragraph8DR: Sure. But I rely more on my neighborhood farmers’ market because it’s so convenient for where I live, and I find great variety there. Check out the Eat Well Guide if you’re looking for a market in your area. Or consider joining a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). Many offer winter shares and will deliver or arrange for you to pick up a box of locally-grown produce every few weeks. Being a CSA member is how I learned to cook most of these unusual items. I might have been too intimidated to pick them up on my own!

BW: So now that we have all these great winter veggies, what should we make?

DR: I have just the recipe – this Roasted Winter Veggie Bowl from one of our RD bloggers, Maria of Bean A Foodie. It calls for almost everything we saw today, but it’s totally flexible to whatever winter produce you happen to find. Plus, serving the veggies over whole grains and beans is a great way to incorporate some meatless protein into the meal!