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How to eat to satisfy your tastebuds and your thighs… Part I: vegetables

March 28, 2011

…not to mention your general wellbeing. I’m not a dietitian or food scientist, so while these tips may not be the be-all and end-all of eating well, they are realistic, and I would argue totally achievable. As in, they come from a real person, with realistic cravings for delicious things. Despite all these cravings, and despite giving in to a lot of them, I manage to stay a healthy size (although yes, I will admit it helps that my family are all thin so there’s some genetic advantage I have), keep all my official nutrient levels normal (I will admit I’m a little low in iron though), and keep my food budget in line with my occupation as a full time student. I decided to write this up after lots of contemplation because most of the posts I see from nutritionists and well meaning doctors require way too much translating into normal speak and also don’t clearly help with actual meal planning. They also don’t seem to consider the taste factor – no one wants to eat food that tastes bad, at the end of the day. So I’ve decided to start a several-part series of tips that I find help me (healthily) enjoy everything I eat. Originally it was going to be one long post but a few steps at a time are generally easier to make than one great big leap.

First up, a subject close to my heart. Vegetables.

Part II: Simple Switches 

Part III: Changing your mindset

Learn to cook vegetables well

This is probably the most important tip of all. When I was growing up, my parents basically stir fried all veges, and in some dishes mixed the meat in so that the whole dish would be flavoured. Stir frying also kept the nutrients and flavour from being tipped out with the water, and was also quick and did not require waiting around for a giant pot of water to boil. Oil was used to cook veges, not only on meat. The one thing that frustrates me most of all about people who complain about veges is that more often than not, they simply FAIL at cooking them well. The best way to tell if a vegetable based recipe will taste good is to simply look at a) how it’s cooked (if it’s mostly boiled and involves tipping out the boiling water, skip it) and b) what else it’s paired with. With regards to cooking, I find searing the veges in a little oil so that they just start to brown a little makes them taste a lot better, hence why you’ll see the instruction in a lot of my recipes. It’s also why roasted veges tend to be so tasty. Browning  is especially good for mushrooms – if you cook them until they really start to brown then they stop being slimy and take on a wonderfully meaty texture. With regards to pairing, you need to remember that vegetables, just like meat, won’t always taste good on their own, especially if you’re going to boil the crap out of them and refuse to season them. Just like meat, they want a bit of fat, and seasoning (see my post on how I like my veggies done). If you’re new to playing around with vegetable combinations, invest in The Flavor Bible. I use it every time I “invent” something new, and it helps me be a bit adventurous while minimising epic failure. One last note: If you know you don’t like a certain vegetable a certain wait, don’t eat it that way. Don’t add the vegetable because you feel obliged, try it a different way, and keep trying until you find a way that you do like it cooked/seasoned. For example, I dislike raw carrot, but grated, it’s totally acceptable and even desirable in a lot of salads (see below) or with a bit of mayo in a sandwich with other delicious things.

Base your meals around vegetables

Instead of using the protein as the centrepiece of your dish, think of vegetables first – but don’t take this to mean that you have to eat vegetarian. Generally, protein comes naturally to us – few meals are complete without it (same goes for carbs), so you generally don’t have to worry about “not getting enough” of it. I think of proteins as flavour enhancers, or a texture contrast, or complimentary. Then add carbs. You’re now quite likely to have a pretty well-rounded dish that would make the food pyramid proud. This tip really helps me come up with dishes like vegetable carbonara (pictured above), which still satisfy my cravings for creamy and fatty things but balance that with a healthy dose of fibre and nutrients from the veges. So many dishes we make have waaay more protein than is necessary, so even just replacing some of that protein with veges can be an easy way to enhance them. Often the result is even more delicious, because vegetables tend to be refreshing and help balance out the excessively umami-based flavours of dishes. The New Zealand Vegetable Cookbook is the best book I’ve found so far that helps heaps with this.

Buy smart and seasonal

This will help your budget stay healthy – buy fruits and vegetables in season, or basically, whatever is cheap but still produced in the same country. This isn’t anything against “evil foreign growers,” it’s just that locally, or nationally grown stuff tends to take less time to get to the shelves and thus more of the nutrients are still hangin around when you bite into them. Of course they usually taste better fresher too – berries are an obvious example. If you really want to eat fresh but can’t grow much yourself, farmers markets really are about as fresh as you can get. Don’t just assume though – veges should never be limp, so if they are ask when they were picked.

Grow a few easy things yourself

Vegetables get less nutrient dense the less fresh they become, but they also become less flavoursome. Growing a few herbs on your windowsill make it easy to inject a big dose of healthy stuff, and is much cheaper and tastier.

Be picky about frozen veges

Frozen veges can be great, but they can also be the bane of any meal. Nutritionally they’re on par with fresh according to some research, but taste wise it really depends. Spinach, peas and corn generally freeze ok, but that’s where my frozen vegetable spending pretty much stops. Freezing really ruins the texture of veges for me, but if you don’t notice, by all means go ahead and use them. I can’t stand the frozen vege mixes consisting of just carrots, peas, and corn, not only because carrot freezes badly, but because often the carrots used should really have been fed to horses to begin with. Some stir fry mixes can be alright but again I’d much rather just buy seasonally fresh vegetables.

Next in the series: Balance


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