In cold weather, you may be tempted to give up on the farmers' market and head straight to the tropical-fruit aisle of your grocery store. But don't turn away so quickly. Those durable, sturdy veggies that last long after the peaches and blueberries have come and gone are secret stores of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and more; plus, they all have a proven track record of fighting disease and promoting good health.
Don't let their pesky peels or unwieldy tops intimidate you: These seasonal superstars are all fairly easy to prepare using the following tips. And once your appetite's whetted, check out "Power Foods," the new book from Whole Living -- our first!
Known for their earthy sweetness, beets have the highest sugar content of any vegetable. Nevertheless, they're low in calories, high in fiber, and rich in iron; they're also loaded with heart-healthy folic acid and the cancer-fighting antioxidant beta-carotene.
The leafy greens, which can stand in for their botanical cousin Swiss chard, are even more nutritious than the roots, with double the potassium, folic acid, calcium, and iron.
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At farmers' markets and gourmet grocers you'll likely find golden, white, and striped beets -- called Chioggia or Candy Cane -- alongside the red ones. Look for bunches of firm beets with hearty greens. (Wilted tops don't necessarily signal bad beets, but fresher greens mean more vegetable for your money.)
Unless you're planning to chop or grate the beets, choose a uniform-size bunch so they'll cook in the same amount of time. Leaving an inch of stem attached to the root, cut away the greens and refrigerate the beets and tops in separate plastic bags. Beets will last at least a month, but you should use the greens within three or four days.
Cooking beets can be a messy business, but if you do it with their skins on, all those bright purple juices won't leach out. It's easy to slip the skins off once the beets are cooked and ready to eat. To roast beets, trim both ends. Drizzle them with olive oil and wrap in parchment-lined foil. Roast at 450 degrees until tender, 1 to 1 1/2 hours, depending on their size. Let cool slightly, then rub off skins with paper towels.
Don't forget the greens: Saute the chopped stems and leaves in oil with minced garlic, and voila, another side dish is born.
Diminutive in size, brussels sprouts are nutritional giants, packed with nutrients that benefit the heart, boost the immune system, and promote healthy, resilient skin. A member of the phytochemical-heavy cruciferous family, sprouts also contain a wealth of glucosinolates, thought to fight cancer. (They also give the sprouts that pungent smell when they're cooked.) Isothiocyanates, a by-product of these sulfurous compounds, trigger the liver to produce detoxifying enzymes that aid in the elimination of potential carcinogens.
Research has shown that eating cruciferous vegetables may reduce the risk of premenopausal breast cancer. Need more reasons to love them? These baby cabbages are also loaded with vitamin A, which promotes a strong immune system, as well as fiber, vitamin C, and folate.
Trim whole sprouts at the base and cut a 1/4-inch-deep X into the flat end so heat can penetrate evenly. If steaming, cook the sprouts no longer than 10 minutes. If you're cooking for people who claim they don't like brussels sprouts, try roasting them. Spread trimmed and halved sprouts on a rimmed baking sheet and toss with olive oil, salt, and pepper; cook in a 425-degree oven until brown and tender, tossing occasionally, 20 to 30 minutes. The resulting rich, caramelized flavor can convert even the most crucifer-phobic eater.
This sweet, crunchy root contains more carotenoids, the antioxidants that give carrots their yellow-orange pigment, than any other veggie. That helps explain why they're so good for you: Carotenoids may protect against certain types of cancer, heart disease, and cataracts.
What's more, beta-carotene is converted by the body into vitamin A, essential for healthy skin and a strong immune system. Other virtues of carrots: soluble fiber, vitamin C, and bone-strengthening calcium.
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Choose firm, deep-orange carrots without splits or cracks. If the leafy tops are attached, they should be bright green. Trim them down immediately to one inch; otherwise the roots will go limp and lose nutrients more quickly. Compost or discard the greens, or toss them into a salad (they taste a bit like parsley). Stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator, carrots without their tops will stay fresh for about two weeks.
Since beta-carotene is fat-soluble, combining carrots with a little healthy fat -- for instance, tossing them in a salad with a vinaigrette -- will help your body absorb the antioxidant more fully. If you're cooking carrots, try steaming them: Put carrots in a basket or colander, covered, over simmering water until crisp-tender, about 5 to 7 minutes. Just be sure not to reduce them to mush -- overcooking carrots can destroy all that precious beta-carotene.
These low-calorie greens -- actually ":non-heading" cabbage -- provide an excellent source of vitamins A, B6, and C, along with a decent amount of fiber, iron, and calcium. In fact, kale is one of the healthiest greens you can eat: Our bodies can better absorb the calcium in kale than in spinach, as its leaves contain less oxalic acid, a substance that can disrupt the nutrient's absorption.
Kale contains more vitamin K -- essential for proper blood clotting -- than broccoli, spinach, and Swiss chard. Perhaps most impressive, this versatile green contains especially high amounts of lutein and zeaxanthin, two powerful phytochemicals that may help safeguard the eyes from conditions such as macular degeneration and cataracts.
Strip the leaves of extra-thick or woody stems with a paring knife. (Compost or discard the stems.) For easy cutting, stack the leaves, roll them, and cut crosswise into thin ribbons. Braising or sauteing kale in olive oil works well, but don't boil it; you'll lose some vital nutrients.
More colorful -- and better for you -- than a regular old spud, this root vegetable comes in a variety of hues, from yellow to dark orange to reddish purple. When cooked, an enzyme in the sweet potato breaks down the tuber's starch and turns it into maltose, creating an appealingly sweet flavor.
Like carrots, brightly colored sweet potatoes are packed with beta-carotene -- so they may be good for vision, help prevent some kinds of cancer, and boost immunity. Low in calories and high in fiber, sweet potatoes are also great for weight loss or maintenance. And as if all that weren't enough, they deliver folate and vitamins B6, C, and E.
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Look for small or medium sweet potatoes that feel firm and heavy, with smooth, unblemished skin and no sprouts. In ideal conditions -- perfectly dry, cool, and dark -- sweet potatoes will keep for up to four weeks. Don't refrigerate them; at temperatures below 50 degrees they can develop a condition called "hardcore" that causes their centers to stay solid even after cooking.
You can bake and roast them, of course, but to mix it up a little, try sticking them on the grill. Slice the tuber lengthwise about 1/3 inch thick. Brush all over with oil and season with salt and pepper. Grill over medium heat until browned and tender, about 2 minutes per side.
These robust, versatile gourds come in all kinds of quirky shapes, colors, and textures, from the striped carnival squash to the elongated butternut. Winter squash get their incredible antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties from beta-carotene and high levels of vitamin C.
They also provide significant amounts of potassium (good for bone health), vitamin B6 (essential for the immune and nervous systems), and plenty of fiber, making them an especially heart-friendly choice. Folate adds yet another boost to their heart-healthy reputation and, when consumed during pregnancy, helps guard against some birth defects.
Place a halved squash, cut side down, on an oiled baking sheet and roast in the oven at 400 degrees for 30 to 40 minutes, until you can pierce it with a sharp knife. Or you can remove the skin using a peeler and cut the flesh into chunks for roasting, steaming, or sauteing. Once cooked, mash the squash, puree it for soup, or fold it into pasta or risotto.