Quick. How many vegetables can you name? Make a list and don't read below.
According to the Center for Disease Control, less than a third of us eat the recommended amounts of daily veggies, and this is including fried potatoes (i.e. french fries) in the category. Part of the problem may be that we eat out too often. Studies show that those who eat out more tend to eat less produce.
I would argue part of our produce problem is related to variety. There are over 60 types of fruits available to us, but Americans eat just 6 of them on a regular basis. Vegetables are just as varied, but how many of us cook with kohlrabi or kale with any frequency (I happen to be falling in love with the Brassica family lately).
We tend to eat the same few vegetables over and over, and they're not necessarily the healthiest. Topping the list for American veggies: tomatoes and potatoes. And who knows how much of this is accounted for by pizza toppings and french fries.
Some of us may just not like vegetables, but how are we to know until we try them.
L Is for Leek
I hadn't thought about how limited was my veggie vocabulary until my mother-in-law Candela starting making baby food for my 6-month-old. She was worried she wouldn't get enough variety in one sitting and would recite what she had added to the day's meal: "puerro, apio, acelga, calabazin, calabaza, col, zanahoria" (leek, celery, chard, zucchini, squash, cabbage, carrot). I would just nod as I think anything beyond peas and carrots sounds extravagant.
Today I started looking for recipes for a dinner party I'm throwing this weekend. I wanted an easy throw-in-the-oven type dish and I saw something for a leek and potato dish casserole. Before going to the store, I threw "leek" into my online translating tool and was surprised that it popped up "puerro." All this time, I had thought that meant celery. Though with a bit more thought, I realized I knew that celery was "apio." Simply my mind must have registered long green veggie and thought "celery."
Growing up, my mother never once cooked with leek. We didn't have a garden and we tended to stick to the nightly iceberg lettuce and cucumbers with the occasional peas or corn as side dish. So my veggie vocab is a bit stunted.
E Is for Escarole
Candela has more than 12 veggies planted in her garden at any given time. I've already discussed all the variations of col (cabbage) she has planted out there right now. Last week she sent me home with a huge bag of escarole. I struggled to find something to do with it and finally called for advice. She recommended chopping it finely and sauteing it with garlic, olive oil and smashed potatoes. It's surprisingly addictive.
Obviously gardening helps to grow your veggie vocab, but if you don't have a garden to motivate you to stretch your culinary muscle, try doing it for your health. That is, not all vegetables are created equal. And some of the best are those that we don't bother to eat.
P Is for Purslane
Consider Purslane, aka Verdolaga, Pigweed, Little Hogweed, Pusley or Portulaca oleracea. Most of us in the U.S. would consider the succulent a weed, but in other parts of the world- Europe, Asia and Mexico -- it's used as a salad, in stir fry and soup or as a health booster.
The editors at Mens Health Magazine gave this weed props in their list of the 11 best foods you aren't eating. They understand that my childhood favorites- iceberg lettuce and cucumbers- bring very little to the table. Instead, to help fight the big killers like cancers and heart disease, we should be eating more beets, cabbage and swiss chard (their top 3 picks).
B Is for Beets, C Is for Cabbage
While this may sound like a rather difficult leap -- it did to me a few years ago -- I am now a firm believer that you will only enjoy your food more by expanding your picks. There's no doubt that sliced and steamed beets are a much sweeter and tastier addition to salads than cucumbers.
And if you still relate cabbage to a soggy mayonnaise-laden coleslaw from a 4th of July barbecue, give it another try. I recently was forced to when my mother-in-law sent me home with a few heads of the stuff (see post The comeback of cabbage: a seasonal wonder veggie).
Once I had determined the exact vegetable I'd been gifted, I made one of my favorite new salads for 2010: a lemon/vinegar green cabbage slaw (see video A seasonal winter salad: green cabbage coleslaw).