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Sunday, February 10, 2013

Winter Rainbows

Since she was very young, my daughter has loved colors. She could barley speak, but she could identify every hue. She was two and already knew what combination of primary colors made every secondary one. She requested her fourth birthday party to be rainbow themed, and even as she pretends now to be an 8-year-old teenager and begs me to get her pencil skirts and allow her to wear makeup, she still tries to wear as many colors as possible, even if that means complete mismatch. All her friends know rainbows are her thing, and she made her little brother memorize the right order of the color spectrum while he only wanted to play with cars.
And that's why the Eat-A-Rainbow strategy is so effective in my household, and I truly believe that it's the right way to teach our kids and ourselves how to eat right.
Of course, by eating-a-rainbow, I'm not referring to squeezing out the bottle of  Red #45 food coloring on the chicken (although, I did once accidentally served my guests blue fish after a container had fallen from the shelf onto the tilapia) or adding sprinkles.
The rainbow should be made up of plant-derived foods, that are NATURALLY pigmented.
The result is not only healthy, but fun, delicious and gorgeously looking. It's also easier to keep track of what we eat and how many more colorful fruits, veggies, etc we still need to eat to fulfill our daily rainbow quota.
For optimal health, we're supposed to eat 5 to 9 portions of produce each day, and it's easy to forget, so again, thinking of every color might help. I personally hate measuring and counting my food, so I fill my plate at least half full of a combination of plant-derived foods at every meal.
While combining different fruits, we make them even more nutritious, as the compounds in some plants synergize the compounds present in others; complementing and/or enhancing each other and interacting in different ways to help our bodies benefit more fully.
For example, the addition of foods rich in vitamin C (such as citrus, chile peppers, bell peppers, tomatoes, mango, etc) to dark leafy greens allows us to absorb the iron in the greens more effectively.
Another tip is adding oils, nuts or avocado to fruits and vegetables, as they help us use the vitamins A, D, E and K they might contain.
Besides being rich in vital nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, protein (especially legumes combined with whole grains) and good fats (avocado, nuts, seeds) and providing us with the fiber we need, produce contains other important substances.
The different colors are the natural marketing campaign plants use to attract us, and to teach us about some of the beneficial chemicals they contain. These substances are collectively known as phytochemicals or phytonutrients and there are more than 1000 of them.They  are non-nutritive plant chemicals that have protective or disease preventive properties. Phytochemicals are considered non-nutritive because they are not required by the human body for sustaining life, but they are beneficial to preserve our health (mostly in a preventive way). They are present in fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts and legumes. 

Phytonutrients can help us stay healthy in different ways, for example, most of them are ANTIOXIDANTS, which protect our cells against the oxidative damage of free radicals (from other foods, the environment, and our own metabolism), reducing the risk of developing certain types of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and other diseases; and can boost immunity to certain infections. 
Other phytochemicals have HORMONAL ACTION, for example, isoflavones, found in soy, imitate human estrogen and help to reduce menopausal symptoms and osteoporosis. Some phytonutrients STIMULATE or INTERVENE with ENZYMES and others INTERVENE WITH THE REPLICATION OF OUR DNA. For example, saponins, found in beans interfere with the replication of cell DNA, thereby preventing the multiplication of cancer cells. Capsaicin, found in hot peppers, protects DNA from carcinogens.

There are some phytochemicals with ANTIBACTERIAL EFFECT, such as allicin from garlic. Lastly, some phytonutrients can BIND PHYSICALLY to cell walls and prevent the adhesion of pathogens to human cell walls. This is the case with proanthocyanidins, which are responsible for the anti-adhesion properties of cranberries, which reduce the risk urinary tract infections and improve dental health through this mechanism. 

So, going back to the kitchen, let the color guide you when food shopping, and remember, that the deeper the color of each piece of produce, the higher level of phytochemicals. The following is a guide of some phytonutrients and their colors that is good to keep in mind to inspire your cooking. Mix and match at leisure, but always remember to vary your combinations of WHOLE PRODUCE as much as you can, to ensure you obtain the maximum benefit, not only of phytochemicals, but of all nutrients.
I love this quote published a couple of years ago in Martha Stewart Living (I scientific of me!). David Jacobs, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota said: "A tomato isn't just lycopene. An orange isn't just vitamin C. The foods we eat are living systems, with a careful balance of thousands of constituents, many of which are crucial to health. Even the balance in which they occur may be important." So...don't eat pills, eat salads and a huge variety of them!
Unfortunately, I don't know how to credit the great chart above, as I found it in Pinterest and it was taken from, but I hope the author gets credit for it.

And before I bid you farewell for today, let me share with you this roasted vegetable winter salad that I made. I know the cold season might be discouraging, but explore new fruits and vegetables. Have you eaten persimmons, pomelos or celeriac? Citrus, roots, dark leaves and members of the brassica family (cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kohlirabi, etc) are amazing this time of the year and many just need to be roasted in olive oil and sea salt, while others are great eaten raw. You can also take advantage of the frozen produce section, and try the magic of turmeric and/or saffron in whole grains, or use some forbidden rice or multicolored beans. You might come up with something delicious, surprising and packed with nutrients.
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Instead of giving you a recipe, let me tell you what I did, so you can use any ingredients you like. This time I used purple cauliflower, blood oranges and pomegranates, sweet potato, golden beets, fresh mint and roasted pistachios, but dare to use bok choy, red cabbage, bell peppers, artichokes, squash, corn and anything else you find that looks good.

  • First of all, I made a BALSAMIC REDUCTION:
Just cook 2 cups of balsamic vinegar (don't waste money on a fancy kind, an inexpensive one works well in this case) in a medium saucepan over medium heat (you don't want it to boil, but just simmer) until the total liquid is reduced to 1/2 cup. It will take about 40 minutes. Keep an eye, but don't touch it!
Let cool.
It will thicken into a deliciously intense sweet and sour syrup. You will use only a little bit, but keep the rest covered in your fridge and use with other salads, vegetables, or as a glaze for meat or fish.

  • While balsamic reduces, preheat oven to 425 F. and prep your veggies: wash, pat-dry, peel (if needed) and slice, keeping each color separate, so the colors don't combine. I use a mandoline for hard roots, but you can use a sharp knife too.

  • Line 2 rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper. Place one of the vegetables on the prepared sheet and drizzle with extra virgin olive oil. Mix well and spread out all the pieces on one layer. Sprinkle with coarse sea salt and freshly ground pepper. Bake until slightly browned. Set aside on a plate and work with the next vegetable. You can work with 2 sheets at a time.

  • Plate vegetables, fruits and nuts taking advantage of their colors and shapes. Use leafy greens if you have them and drizzle all with more extra virgin olive oil and the balsamic reduction. Sprinkle with seeds or nuts for texture and enjoy!