More than beautiful and delicious, adding variety and interest to meals, vegetables brim with nutrients such as cancer-fighting folate and selenium, as well as other essential vitamins and minerals. Potent phytochemical storehouses, vegetables contain beta-carotene, lycopene, flavonoids, and thousands of other compounds nutritionists are only beginning to discover. Phytochemicals are non nutritive substances in plants that may serve a variety of protective functions in the human body, from blocking carcinogens and flushing them out of the body to strengthening the immune system.
Vegetables contain few calories in exchange for such high nutrient levels, making this the food group for serious indulgence. On top of all these benefits, vegetables contain fiber, which is linked to decreased cancer risk and also helps to fill you up and keep your digestive tract working smoothly.
Every vegetable contains its own unique package of nutrients and phytochemicals, so to reap the most benefit, eat a wide variety of vegetables. Remember the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid, and the USDA’s emphasis on variety? Studies show too much variety in other food categories, such as meat or sweets, can actually lead to overconsumption and overweight, but eating a variety of vegetables is inversely proportional to body fat. In other words, the more vegetables you eat, the less body fat you are likely to have. The great variety and range of flavors, textures, and colors make vegetables the perfect food group around which to base a meal.
Remember to sample vegetables from all the following categories. A handful of veggies from each category thrown into a soup pot with some chicken stock or vegetable stock and some dried oregano, fresh basil or thyme leaves, and a clove or two of minced garlic makes a fantastic, Mediterranean-inspired vegetable soup!
- Cruciferous Vegetables. These vegetables, which include broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, bok choy, cauliflower, kale, kohlrabi, and greens like watercress, mustard, rutabaga, and turnip, are so named because their flower petals are arranged in a cross shape (crucifer means “cross-bearing”). Even though not all these mentioned vegetables are native to the Mediterranean regions (such as bok choy), they fit nicely into a Mediterranean-inspired diet when fresh and preferably organic. Cruciferous vegetables have many nutritional benefits, and none more so than broccoli, a nutritional “star” rich with fiber, vitamins A and C, folate, calcium, iron, potassium, magnesium, and a host of phytochemicals including beta-carotene found to be active in the human body. Many cruciferous vegetables feature prominently in traditional Mediterranean dishes:cabbage in minestrone soup or boiled and then baked with olive oil and garlic; steamed broccoli with garlic, olive oil, and hot peppers or cooked until tender and tossed with a variety of pasta shapes; Brussels sprouts in a white sauce with a little grated cheese, nutmeg, and pine nuts; kale tossed with chestnuts, onion, and just an ounce or so of bacon.
- Solanaceae Vegetables. This family of vegetables includes the tomato, pepper, potato, and eggplant. These vegetables are good sources of vitamins A and C and potassium. Tomatoes have recently been in the spotlight because of a phytochemical called lycopene that gives them (as well as watermelons and red grapefruit) their red color. Consumption of lycopene, which is particularly concentrated in tomato sauce and tomato paste, has been linked with reduced risk of prostate cancer and some other cancers. The solanaceae family of vegetables may be the most heavily featured in traditional Mediterranean dishes. What would Italian cuisine be without the tomato? What more does a good pasta require than a simple sauce of ripe, fresh crushed tomatoes and a little olive oil? (Because lycopene is fat-soluble, it becomes even more available to the body when tomatoes are cooked in a small amount of oil). When tomatoes combine with eggplant in fragrant dishes such as ratatouille or eggplant Parmesan, these vegetables make a mouthwatering treat. Other favorite dishes include peppers roasted with eggplant; potatoes boiled with garlic cloves and mashed together; baba ghanouj, an eggplant dip popular in the Middle East; and any or all of these vegetables roasted, sautéed, or lightly boiled and tossed with pasta, rice, or polenta, or eaten on their own. (Fresh tomatoes with mozzarella cheese, anyone?)
- Umbelliferous Vegetables. These vegetables have umbrella-like leaves. They include carrots, celery, parsnips, fennel, and the herbs parsley and cilantro. Rich in beta-carotene, vitamin A, and vitamin C, these vegetables further expand the vegetable lover’s culinary repertoire. Parsley and cilantro, umbelliferous herbs, appear again and again in Mediterranean recipes. Raw fennel makes a sublime palate cleanser between courses; carrots add color, crunch, and flavor to salads and a sweetness to soups; and braised celery is a Mediterranean staple.
- Cucurbitaceous Vegetables. Offerings from this family of vegetables include the gourds and melons, those fleshy fruits and vegetables that grow on vines. These include pumpkins, summer squash, winter squash, zucchini, cucumbers, honeydew melons, and watermelons. Cucurbitaceous vegetables contain high levels of vitamins A and C, beta-carotene, phosphorous, iron, and fiber. While squash isn’t typically considered a part of traditional Mediterranean cuisine, zucchini is the one excep-tion. Ubiquitous in many Italian soups and stews as well as stuffed, grilled, baked, stewed, mixed with pasta, tossed into an Italian frittata, or cooked with tomatoes for ratatouille, zucchini is loved in Italy, and because this vegetable grows so well in the United States, we can easily enjoy authentic Mediterranean flavor in our own zucchini recipes.
- ·~Allium Vegetables. These vegetables (some consid-ered herbs) include those Mediterranean staples, garlic and onions. They also include shallots, chives, and leeks. Allium vegetables contain a host of cancer-fighting phytochemicals, and may also have antibiotic properties. Flip through any Mediterranean-inspired cookbook and you’ll see garlic and onions featured in many recipes. Garlic makes a fantastic and surprisingly mellow featured ingredient in Spanish garlic soup. Who can forget the rich aroma and savory taste of French onion soup brimming with tender sweet onions, flavored with a splash of brandy, and topped with a slice of French bread and a little grated cheese? The Italian version of liver and onions contains far more onions than liver, and stifado, a Greek beef stew, contains more onions than beef.
Nowhere are vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals more densely concentrated than in vegetables. If you do not typically include a lot of vegetables in your diet, knowing a little more about the health-boosting elements in vegetables may inspire you to increase your vegetable consumption. Let’s start with vitamins.