As a society we are becoming more nutrition conscious, but our diets are still less than ideal. Sugars and white flours contain “empty” calories and carbohydrates; fatty foods are high in calories and fats. These foods lack the vitamins, minerals, and fiber that the body needs. By including more fruits and freshly harvested vegetables in our daily diets, we provide our bodies with the essential minerals and trace elements needed for strong muscles and bones. Vegetables provide sufficient fiber to stimulate intestinal movement and aid digestion.
Our food consists of a variety of substances that supply the body with energy—fat, protein, carbohydrates—as well as substances that provide for a good metabolism: fiber, vitamins, minerals, and trace elements. Fats, carbohydrates, and protein are generally found in only small amounts in vegetables (there are a few exceptions), but vegetables distinguish themselves primarily through their generous contributions of fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
These nutritional elements prevent many health problems and help the body resist disease. Vitamins A, B, C, and D are especially important. To preserve as many vitamins and minerals as possible, harvest vegetables in the afternoon of a sunny day (unless it is so hot that the vegetables are wilting). The light a plant receives affects the vitamin C content. Studies show that a good crop still on the vine loses vitamin C in darkness or reduced light but regains what is lost when exposed to strong light.
Some simple kitchen practices can make the difference between optimizing and undermining the nutrition content of your produce.
- Tuberous vegetables store nutrients in and just underneath their skins. Do not scrape off the skin of carrots and new potatoes: It is especially high in vitamins and minerals.
- Use the dark green outer leaves of lettuce and cabbage, and wait until you are ready to cook before chopping or dicing.
- Steam, rather than boil, vegetables whenever possible. Water leaches out valuable water-soluble nutrients; boiling can destroy more than two thirds of the B and C vitamins as well as potassium, iron, and other minerals. Others are lost down the sink when you pour off the cooking water.
Because it is so nutritionally rich, never throw out the water in which you have cooked vegetables. Store it in a closed jar in the refrigerator or freezer. You can cook other vegetables in it, and before long you will have a stock flavorful enough to make soup. Use it for the water called for in stocks or gravies.