Miriam's Garden: Powering up with plants

I first met Sharon Palmer, the “Plant Powered Dietitian,” at a food journalists conference in the pork-and-seafood-centric town of Charleston, S.C. She's mostly vegan, eating a little dairy and egg. We sat together during an incredible Southern lunch at Husk. Dish after dish arrived at our table, some veg-centered, such as raw dragon beans and a platter of tomato slices with olive oil, salt and pepper. Then chef Sean Brock got serious and sent out fried green tomatoes, each topped with a rosette of pimiento-cheese and a perfect curl of lean, salty, country ham.

When Sharon delicately plucked the ham off her fried green tomato, I considered stealing it. I admired her for her persistence in the face of so much decadent deliciousness, such as deep-fried chicken skins with honey and homemade hot sauce.

OK, deep-fried stuff isn't good for you, but if you don't eat it everyday, or every week, or every month, you'll be fine. Best is to consume a diet high in vegetables, fruits and legumes. Limit meat and processed ingredients. Eat fewer calories altogether.

To help us reach these goals, Ms. Palmer’s new book, "Plant-Powered For Life," is most welcome. It’s really a workbook, a collection of actionable steps to help readers eat more healthfully. With plants.

That's easy. I have a garden full of plants. I can do this, especially in the summertime. The plants grow and get strength and power from the sun, rain and soil. Eating them we feel better. Working the soil, pulling the weeds, hauling our bounty to the kitchen makes us strong.

As she writes: "Because if you really, truly start loving plants -- craving their flavors, textures, aromas and colors -- they will start loving you back."

One of her actionable steps is: "Take meat off the center of your plate." She doesn't mean off the center. She means off entirely.

At my house, at least four times a week, we go meatless. Yet for dinner the other night, my window-framing, roof-painting husband asked for a piece of meat. It was 6 p.m. and everything was frozen. We'd had meat that weekend, and lots of meat leftovers. I remembered the shrimp in the freezer. Thaws quickly. I got to work.

I steamed some brown rice. I sauteed the shrimp in olive oil with our own garlic and added garden-grown onion, hot peppers, zucchini, tomatoes, making a spicy, veggie-filled sauce. I added dried oregano, kosher salt and black pepper. Finished it with a knob of feta. Not a totally plant-powered dinner but still full of plants.

Was it good enough? Better would have been to ditch the shrimp, though they were farm-raised in the U.S. Leave off the feta. And the salt?

According to Ms. Palmer, the dish was pretty good. Though I could have made the same thing with tofu. I could have made it with canned white beans. Highlighted the plants even more. Anyway, the plants had more flavor than the shrimp.

But the good in my dish was excellent: The olive oil, onion, hot peppers, garlic, tomatoes, zucchini, dried oregano -- all packed with disease-fighting antioxidants.

In vegetables, the pigments, the pungent flavors -- such as the vibrant red and the heat in chile peppers -- are the same things that give the vegetables their healthful properties. Called phytochemicals, they're nature's natural defenses. They will fight for you. Eat a rainbow of colorful fruits and vegetables each day to get all the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant protection possible.

"The lycopene found in tomatoes may protect against prostate cancer, and the lutein in corn may help prevent age-related eye disease. There's a similar story to tell for dozens of phytochemicals," Ms. Palmer writes.

Plus, growing vegetables, especially in your own garden, uses far fewer precious resources. That shrimp in my quick dinner, the cheese -- they were harder on the environment, using water, air, feed. In our garden, we enrich our soil with manure from our horses. Soak it with rainwater collected in our pond from roof run-off. We try to be mindful of and helpful to our environment.

But no one is perfect. We are not self-sufficient and don’t aim to be. When the garden is gone and I want a salad, I'll buy lettuce from the grocery store. But I can use this book to take some steps towards better eating and better nutrition.

"Choose foods as close to nature as possible," Ms. Palmer advises in one step. "Minimally processed -- with ingredients that you can see with the naked eye. Think carrots, not orange snack puffs; almonds not almond-flavored nutrition bars; lentils, not lentil chips."

"Collect a pantry-powered arsenal," is another step. In order to prepare and eat better meals, keep the right stuff around. Stock up on dried and canned beans, canned tomatoes, frozen and dried vegetables, dried fruits and unsweetened frozen fruits, herbs and spices, nuts and seeds, minimally-processed oils, such as extra-virgin olive oil and expeller-pressed canola oil. Choose whole grains, such as brown rice and quinoa, whole grain flours instead of white and whole-grain pastas.

"And no matter what," she said, "eat more plants! You don't have to be a vegetarian or a vegan, fill ¾ of your plate with plant foods. For optimal health, consume fruits and vegetables throughout the day, and they'll fight for you all day long."

If you need me, you'll find me in the garden, planting more cabbages and some new broccoli. To keep us healthy.


Borscht with Beets and Beet Greens

PG tested

All the veggies for this recipe were ripe and ready in my garden for this extra-healthy, delicious soup. Sharon Palmer recommends serving it with a plant-based sour cream or unsweetened coconut yogurt or soy yogurt. We had some leftover dairy sour cream-based horseradish sauce so I used that.

Ms. Palmer writes: "Take a lesson from this recipe -- don't toss out the beet greens! They offer a savory-bitter flavor and powerful nutrition…" including the “star nutrients” folate and vitamins A and C.

1 bunch fresh beets, including greens (about 4 large beets, my beets alone weighed 1 pound)

1½ teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 medium carrots, cut into thin julienne strips

1 large onion (I used a sweet onion), halved and thinly sliced

½ medium head cabbage, cored and sliced into thin strands (about 6 cups)

5 cups water

2 reduced-sodium vegetable bouillon cubes

2 bay leaves

Juice of ½ lemon

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives

Separate beets from greens, reserving stems and leaves. (My beet stems seemed tough so I cut those off too, keeping only the leaves.) Trim beets, remove any woody spots and scrub well (I peeled them because the skins were rough). Cut beets into thin slices, cut slices into julienne matchsticks (you'll get about 4 cups).

Add olive oil to large heavy pot over medium heat. (I used a Dutch oven.) Add beets, carrots and onion. Saute, stirring occasionally, 8 minutes.

Add cabbage, water, bouillon and bay leaves. Stir well and bring to boil. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer 20 to 30 minutes, until all vegetables are tender.

Meanwhile, coarsely slice beet leaves and tender parts of stems. Add to soup with lemon juice, cover and cook 2 minutes or until leaves are wilted but still bright green. Add black pepper to taste. Before serving, remove and discard bay leaves. Garnish soup with chives.

Makes 8 1 1/4-cup servings, 61 calories each.

-- Adapted from "Plant-Powered For Life: Eat Your Way to Lasting Health with 52 Simple Steps & 125 Delicious Recipes" by Sharon Palmer (The Experiment, 2014, $21.95)


Pantescan Potato Salad

PG tested

I made this easy, flavorful salad with our fresh-dug potatoes and ripe tomatoes from the up-the-hill neighbor. I added a little salt, as there was none in the recipe. Sharon Palmer first tasted the salad on a trip to Pantelleria, an island in the Strait of Sicily, close to Tunisia.

She writes: "The heart-healthy fats found in extra virgin olive oil are a key feature of the Mediterranean diet and provide a mountain of health benefits.” Her “star nutrients” here: Niacin and vitamins A and B6.

3 medium potatoes, peeled if desired (about 1 pound)

4 cups water

4 large tomatoes (I used 2 huge ones, 1 ¼ pounds), sliced into wedges

½ medium red or sweet white onion, thinly sliced

½ cup green Sicilian or Calamata olives (I used fresh-tasting bright green Castelvetrano olives), drained and cut off the pits

1 ½ tablespoons capers, rinsed and drained

1 ½ tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 ½ teaspoons red-wine vinegar

1 ½ teaspoons dried oregano

Place potatoes and water in large pot. Cover and bring to boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to medium and simmer until tender but firm, about 25 minutes. Drain and let cool.

Slice potatoes into large chunks and place them in large bowl with tomatoes, onions, olives and capers. Toss together gently.

Drizzle with olive oil and vinegar and sprinkle with oregano. Toss to combine well and serve at room temperature or chilled.

Makes 8 1-cup servings at 148 calories each.

-- Adapted from "Plant-Powered For Life: Eat Your Way to Lasting Health with 52 Simple Steps & 125 Delicious Recipes" by Sharon Palmer, RDN (The Experiment, 2014, $21.95)

Miriam Rubin: mmmrubin@gmail.com and on Twitter @mmmrubin.


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