Powerful Produce

Powerful Produce

By Ellen Oltman Kellner
Photographs by Timothy Peters

Fresh produce is as nutritious as it is beautiful. With nutrients ranging from vitamins and minerals to phytonutrients and antioxidants, the colors and flavors of vegetables and fruits make meals delicious as they keep us healthy and glowing. A general rule of thumb when shopping is the deeper the color, the denser the health benefits.

Some produce is linked to a particular season, such as asparagus and rhubarb in the spring, peaches and tomatoes in summer, and pumpkins and apples in autumn. We are fortunate that even our larger markets have a commitment to local produce in season, and with few exceptions, we can access most fruits and vegetables at any time of the year. I can get imported apples in my supermarket in the spring and summer, and locally harvested varieties in the fall. I eat fresh asparagus even in the depth of winter, and a variety of lettuces and other greens in every season.

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I love the array of greens and purples in lettuces. Tender and mild, lettuce is the easy base from which to build a creative salad. I used
to think of salads as an obligation rather than a joy. Fairly boring and predictable, they provided vitamins and fiber but not much taste or excitement. Then I was served a salad that changed that view: mixed baby lettuces, shaved radishes, raspberries, crumbled feta cheese, all sprinkled with a little lemon juice and extra-virgin olive oil. It was a revelation, combining sweet, creamy, and crunchy tastes and textures. Now my salads contain whatever is seasonal and fresh, with an eye toward adding color and texture.

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Like lettuce, kale and spinach are versatile, flavorful, and nutrient dense. Both are good either cooked or raw, and marry well with a variety of seasonings. Because kale doesn’t wilt when dressed in advance, it makes a perfect salad green for picnics and potlucks. It is also beautiful—red kale is planted to add color to a winterdrab garden or window box. Be sure to trim the tough stems from your kale before chopping it, and if you are using it in a salad, give it a little massage first: using your hands or two spoons, toss it gently with a bit of lemon juice and kosher salt. Spinach is very tender, so it requires no preparation besides a thorough washing. Sauté kale or spinach with garlic, salt, and pepper, mix it with some cheese, and use it as a filling for omelets, quiches, or savory mini calzones.

Two of my favorite dishes use raw vegetables that are rarely served uncooked. Shredded beets mixed with an abundance of minced fresh parsley, mint, and a Dijon vinaigrette is refreshing, colorful, and unusual. Likewise, butternut squash makes a beautiful and delicious slaw when shredded and tossed with dried cranberries and an orange-ginger dressing.

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In the late summer my garden overflows with parsley, mint, and basil, so all of my dishes and drinks, including my water bottle, have a handful of fresh herbs. All can be used to brighten sauces, pestos, and salads. Aunt Donna’s Pasta, a staple dish in my house, is made with a quick mint and parsley pesto that has no cheese or nuts, keeping it light and fresh. Chopped mint, and lots of it, is a necessary ingredient in foods as varied as Greek watermelon salad, Lebanese tabbouleh, and Puerto Rican mojitos. When cooked in sauces, mint loses some of its pungency but none of its essential earthiness.

Also quintessentially earthy is the pumpkin. What other fruit or vegetable is more emblematic of harvest and abundance? High in vitamins A and C and fiber, pumpkin is a nutritional powerhouse. Main courses with pumpkin may include a beef and pumpkin stew or a hearty pumpkin soup. Pumpkin can be shredded raw or cubed and sautéed for a salad, mashed for a side dish, or puréed for breads, muffins, and desserts.

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The bounty of our markets, whether farmers’, super, or something in between, supply an almost endless array of possibilities to increase the color, taste, and health benefits of our meals. Be adventurous!