There are lots of ways for gardeners to get more food from their gardens. They can improve the soil, optimize the layout of growing beds, rotate crops, plant in successions, keep up with picking - things like that. But what about putting those vegetables on the table? It doesn’t matter how many bumper crops you have if you’re not eating them.
By now, most people know that vegetables and fruits are as good for you as the traditional mother-and-grandmother brigade always told you they were. Armed with vitamins, antioxidants and fiber, they nurture the human body in many ways. We’ve all seen posters showing their honorable position on the food pyramid, and the importance of food diversity. Eat a rainbow of yellow, orange, red, purple and green, we are told, at least five servings a day!
Most people do pretty well with salad greens and herbs, which are easy to grow and easy to serve. Cooking vegetables in an appetizing way can be a little harder. Often they are overcooked, poorly seasoned, or served with a misguided effort to go fat-free. Some of the nutrients in vegetables aren’t even absorbed if there is no fat in the meal, so don’t sweat that pat of butter that makes the green beans yummy, or that modest sprinkle of salt.
Part of the problem is our faith in the food trinity of meat, starch and vegetables. The fact that those three have ruled our plates so long is not wholly illogical. We need protein, carbs, fat and all the knowables and unknowables the veggie rainbow offers. But with what standards of quality? And how much of each? Even if the meat you buy is organic, and the carbs are whole, fiber-rich grains or legumes, they need not rule the meal. It’s fine to use meat as a condiment, on occasion, instead of the main event. Carbs can sometimes be gotten from bread or pasta, especially if they are whole and unrefined, but there are many instances in which a garden vegetable would serve the same function.
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You don’t have to be a gardener to think this through. It applies to groceries as well, especially if the source is a local farmers market.
Let’s take the common potato. Of all the foods that currently dominate the carb position, it may well be the healthiest, especially if you leave its skin on when you eat it. Potatoes are great. But richly colored, richly flavored sweet potatoes, though totally unrelated, are a fine substitute, and easy to cook. Just put them in the oven until soft, slit the tops, and drop a pat of butter in to melt. Winter squash such as butternut are great cut when into chunks or disks, rolled in olive oil and roasted. You can mash them or serve as is, with the tough peel removed.
Other root vegetables can be used too. Try celery root (celeriac) either mashed or pureed with carrots (two veggies in one!). There are many delicious ways to serve turnips and parsnips as well. Any root vegetables can be turned into a gratin, perhaps with cubed ham or sausage added, and a cheese topping. There. You have a whole meal in one dish. Maybe add a side of sautéed spinach, kale or Swiss chard.
Beets can be roasted whole or in chunks and kept in the fridge to eat cold with salad greens or heated with butter. When you make pancakes, add blueberries, bananas, finely chopped apples or even corn kernels to the batter. Do the same with muffins.
There are many wonderful ways you can add vegetables to pasta and rice dishes, but how about making the vegetables predominate, with the pasta or rice a sort of connective tissue? I plan my life so that I always have a cup of cooked brown rice in my fridge or freezer. That way I can make fried rice, starting with a bit of meat and oil in a big skillet, then as many chopped vegetables as I can think of, and finally the rice. This makes a hearty meal for two.
Anytime you make a soup, stew, omelet, quiche, stir-fry, salad, or chili, ask yourself, “What vegetables can I add to this?” It will certainly be more interesting than the old meat-starch-vegetables, one-two-three.
Damrosch is the author of “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.”