12/03/2012 10:30 am ET Updated Feb 02, 2013

Meatless Monday: Friends With Benefits

"Broccoli, eh?" said a guy, checking out my basket of farmers market haul. "I'll stick with my friend here." He bit into a hoagie piled high with processed meat.

You call that a friend? Study after study has linked processed meat to cancer. The World Cancer Research Fund calls it unsafe to eat. And processed meat isn't the only frenemy out there. Processed baked goods -- like that scone from the coffee megafranchise you picked up on the way to work -- are made with bleached white flour, with all the natural goodness of wheat refined right out of it, to the point it's nutritionally neutered. Instant or microwaved anything is processed food and it's where most of the hidden salt, sugar and fat in your diet is. The sugar, fat and salt are there to mask the weird taste of additives. At worst, processed food can kill you. At best, it's a liar. You deserve better from your friends.

On the other hand, our vegetable friends offers the most nutrients and fiber for the least amount of calories. One serving of broccoli offers heaping helpfuls of vitamins C and K, calcium, lutein, even protein, all for 30 calories. That's way fewer calories than a skinny latte and way more fiber than meat (which has zero). Yet less than 10 percent of Americans -- including, I'm guessing, Mr. Hoagie -- eat their recommended daily serving of fruits and vegetables.

What does produce have going for it? Everything. But it's saddled with the geeky rep of being good for you. We've shown time and time again we just don't care. Considering how eager vegetables are to make friends and get along well with others, though, it seems kind of cruel to keep dismissing them.

Think of beans, whole grains, pasta, as blank canvases that deserve a produce palate. Why eat a plain bowl of rice when you can enjoy rice tossed with a confetti of sauteed peppers, onions and mushrooms?  Can't stand the idea of spending a minute more in the kitchen than you have to?  Add a handful or two of spinach to hot, ready-to-serve spaghetti. Give it a toss and the greens will wilt happily into the noodles, with no extra cooking. They add color, flavor and texture, not fat, sugar, salt and chemicals you can't even identify.

We fall for processed food because it seems to make our lives easy. Because it's got cool (if unbiodegradable) packaging. Because the ad campaign is funny (and unrelenting). But vegetables want to show you a good time, too -- not the quickie hookup of processed food, but a lasting relationship you can feel good about. Swap a bad friend for a real one, swap a little processed for a little fresh produce. Let it be the start of a beautiful friendship. 

Friendly Broccoli and Black Beans With Sherry

This sherry-splashed dish is quick and easy and would love to be friends with crusty bread and a green salad.  

1 tablespoon olive oil
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 poblano pepper or other mild chile, chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
1 teaspoon cumin
1 pint grape tomatoes, halved or 1 large tomato, chopped
1 head of broccoli, chopped or broken into bite-sized pieces
3 tablespoons sherry
2 cups cooked black beans or 1 15-ounce can, well-drained
1 bunch cilantro, chopped
sea salt and fresh ground pepper to taste
a handful pepitas (pumpkin seeds) for garnish (optional)

Heat olive oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add chopped garlic, pepper and celery. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 to 7 minutes, or until vegetables soften and turn translucent.  

Add cumin, grape tomatoes and broccoli, stirring gently to combine. Add sherry and stir again. Cover pot, reduce heat to medium low and continue cooking for about 10 minutes, until broccoli is al dente but still a healthy, bright green.

Gently mix in black beans. Cover and heat through, another 10 minutes or so.

Add chopped cilantro, season with sea salt and pepper. Top with optional pepitas, if desired.

Makes 4 servings.