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Vegetables And Vegetable Cookery

Vegetables And Salads

VEGETABLE cookery is a better test of a good cook than fancy desserts. At its best it is most simple; the freshest of vegetables at just the right maturity, the briefest of cooking in the least water, and served at once. This way vegetables bring grace and lightness to a meal, they supply vitamins, minerals, and a pleasant sense of fullness - with very little fat and few calories.

Excess water and overcooking eliminate flavour, texture, vitamins, and minerals. Nutrients are conserved by bringing the water to the boil before adding the vegetables, and if more than a few drops have to be strained off before serving, too much water was used. If the vegetables are so old and tough they refuse to become tender with brief cooking, throw them out; prolonged cooking will only result in a limp and tasteless mess.

Not that boiling is the only way to cook vegetables. Most vegetables, including lettuce, are excellent braised (do not worry about the few drops of oil needed), and all vegetables can be worked into casserole dishes. The more we travel around the world, the more kinds of vegetables and methods of preparation we discover. Where we find the men rejecting "rabbit food", their wives are just poor vegetable cooks.

On the strictest low fat reducing diets you may eat all the leafy green vegetables you wish. Select leafy vegetables for their texture (the crisper, the better) and their colour (preferring the darker natural colour for most purposes). Spinach should be the deepest possible green. Ordinary cabbage is better if it has some colour, and red cabbage is excellent in some dishes where ordinary cabbage would be insipid. As for a head of lettuce - well, it has its uses but in many places it is a poor substitute for lettuce leaves, endive, and other more colourful, and flavourful, plants.

In a different culinary class are the fresh seeds and seed pods or fruit heads. The same rules apply; select for deep colour and crisp texture, cook no more than necessary (usually less than you think!) and consider water an evil to be avoided so far as possible. All seeds, including peas and beans, are relatively rich in good proteins and vitamins, and if your diet is low in meat and dairy products, include plenty of them in the diet. Tomatoes and all members of the pepper family are extremely good sources of vitamin C (ascorbic acid), so if you do not eat citrus fruits, make up for that loss by abundant use of this wonderful family. The little orange or yellow "plum tomatoes" or Peruvian tomatoes", peppers, and paprika are positively stuffed with vitamin C. Stalk, root, and tuber vegetables of all kinds, not only celery and radishes, are prized for their crispness. If the carrots or parsnips bend without breaking when you are preparing them, throw them out ! Turnips and potatoes, too, should be crisp, and you can test this with a knife. Even if you are going to have mashed potatoes select potatoes that slice crisply.

[ Roots and Tubers Roots and tubers are really plant food storage systems. They tend to have more calories, as starch, than other vegetables. That is not a condemnation; we must have calories, but remember that potatoes, especially, add up to more calories per pound than the edible parts of vegetables that show above the ground. Even though you may be uninterested in calories, the "calorie density" of foods needs consideration in arranging the most satisfactory menu. Peas and potatoes make a "heavy" combination, for example, while spinach and celery as the only vegetables may seem too "light".

Potatoes have been much maligned as being only starch and for making people fat. As for getting fat, most of the trouble with starchy foods, bread and potatoes, for example, is not the starch but the butter and gravy many people put on them. Anyway, potatoes are not all starch. The protein content is small but not negligible, as was proved during World War II when millions of people maintained a tolerable state of nutrition because of the lowly potato. In cooked potatoes about 5 to 6 per cent of the calories are in the form of proteins. Potatoes are also good sources of vitamin C and fair sources of niacin, the "anti-pellagra vitamin". But they contain practically no fat.

All yellow roots and tubers are excellent sources of vitamin A, with carrots at the top of the list (hence the name carotene). Yellow turnips are rich in carotene, white turnips and parsnips have almost none.

Legumes - Peas, Beans, and Lentils Peas, beans, and lentils have special nutritional properties and their cooking characteristics are different from other vegetables, especially when prepared from the dried state. They are often called the poor man's meat, and they are actually good meat substitutes because of their high content of protein. Beans are plebeian, but rare is the person who honestly does not like them.

The legumes, so-called because of their special system of extracting nitrogen from the air and using it to build proteins, provide about 20, and even up to 25, per cent of their calories as proteins, so they approach beef and pork in this regard. Since a good diet in regard to proteins seldom averages over 15 per cent protein calories, the legumes contribute more than their share. They also tend to be fair sources of some of the water-soluble vitamins, they are low in fat, and such fat as they contain is mainly unsaturated.

The legumes vary in their flavours but in general they are more bland than meats, so when they are used in place of meat they profit by the use of suitable seasoning. Bits of smoked meat, garlic, and a little oil often add much zest to dishes prepared from dried beans, peas, and lentils.

Beans have for so long been a major staple all over the world that it seems incredible that most of the bean types we know today were once limited to the Americas. Before Columbus, only the broad bean was known in Europe. But the returning early transatlantic sailors soon discovered the worth of the beans they found in America and they became a mainstay for the crews of the sailing ships then extending traffic over all the world's oceans. Without beans the nutritional deficiencies of the men in the great days of sailing would have been much worse.

As we have noted ad nauseam, meats pose the biggest problem for a low fat diet; moderation in the use of meats is necessary. Here enters the bean. Plain boiled haricot beans provide over 25 per cent protein calories and only 4 per cent as fats. Compare, for example, a steak with 29 per cent protein and 71 per cent fat calories. But ordinary dried beans are not nutritionally complete; they are short of vitamins A and C (as are meats). String beans and Scarlet Runners, however, are good sources of vitamins A and C as well as of most of the B vitamins.

The "crude fibre", that is, the indigestible residue, of cooked haricot beans averages 2 per cent or less of the weight. This is not very high and is valuable for people who want a little extra bulk to maintain bowel regularity, but it may be undesirable for some invalids, ulcer patients, and the like. In any case, prolonged cooking is needed to soften the fibre of dried beans. Fresh young peas, and fresh string beans contain little fibre and should be cooked briefly. Five to ten minutes are enough for young but not for old string beans. If they are still tough after 20 to 25 minutes, throw them out as hopeless.

After dried beans are cooked they may be kept cold, and they are ready for a quick meal whenever the spirit moves you. Beans stand canning better than the majority of foods, indeed, "baked beans" are one of the most characteristic gifts of American technology to the Old World, but if you want to use canned baked beans we suggest you buy the plain type and put in whatever else you want to add flavour in your own kitchen to avoid the monotonous taste homogeneity of the standardized variety.

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Staying well and eating well