A couple years ago, Keith and I were in my hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania at a local grocery store. A true "southern boy," he suggested we have okra with dinner. I looked around for a bit, then walked up to the produce manager and asked where I could find the okra. He looked at me quizzically and said, "Well, is it a fruit or a vegetable?" I thought Keith was going to pass out! My southern friends are equally as incredulous when they hear this story, but my northern friends just don't understand what the fuss is all about.
Since publishing my main courses, customers and fans continue to ask me what they should have "for the rest of the meal." My advice stays the same -- The Svelte Gourmet Signature Salad and a vegetable (and no, potatoes don't count!). About once a week, I'll make something that includes a whole grain like brown rice or whole wheat pasta. This is what works for us, and I rarely deviate. But in these cold winter months, finding a new and exciting vegetable to cook each night can be difficult (which is why I'm already working on the next cookbook, featuring sides, soups and salads!). In the meantime, here are my thoughts...
In Charleston, 'tis the season for greens! Though we eat spinach daily, other greens -- like collard greens, turnip greens and kale -- have been daunting to me. Collards, in particular, round out cozy, home cooked meals across the Low Country. Until recently, I've never been much of a fan. As you can probably imagine, I stick to steaming or roasting my vegetables -- it keeps their vitamins intact and requires little or no added fat. Perfect for svelte living! However, I very rarely see vegetables around here that are not cooked with some sort of pork product. I understand that this is to give the vegetables flavor, but my mission is to prove to you that vegetables are already loaded with flavor! Salt, pepper, maybe a little garlic or squirt of lemon juice and we're good to go. Anyway, back to my previous aversion to collards....
Collards, I will admit, do benefit from flavor enhancement. However, many recipes use a cut of pork that makes me shake my head every time. "Fat back." Just saying it makes me laugh. Talk about defeating the purpose! Often, collards are boiled for hours, stripping them of their precious nutrients. Then to top it off, they're flavored with "fat back." I'm not superstitious, but I steer clear of things and places named after obesity. For example, you will not find me eating at Blimpie, Fatz Cafe or Potbelly Deli. "Fat back" is avoided for the same reason! If I eat it, I'll get it.
So at the brilliant suggestion of my father-in-law, who dropped off some fresh collards here the other day, I opted to cook them with smoked turkey instead of "fat back" and I only boiled them for a short time. And I must say, thanks to his tutelage, these were the best collards I've ever had. And svelte!
Now for all of you non-southerners who are asking "what are collards?," I'll get back to the point. You, too, can eat local seasonal vegetables, even in winter! Check out this tool from the Natural Resources Defense Council to see what's in season in your area. Even in January, most states have some seasonal options. But if you're in one of those states that doesn't, rest assured. We'll send you some! Here's a tip, though -- many experts say that frozen vegetables are better for you than fresh vegetables from other states or countries. Fresh veggies are often picked before they reach their nutritional peak, then shipped thousands of miles before they reach your grocer. Frozen veggies, on the other hand, are picked and frozen quickly, often within a day of harvest. And as a general rule, try to stay away from canned vegetables, which lose most of their vitamins during the canning process (tomatoes being an interesting exception!).
To steam your vegetables, simply put about an inch of water into the bottom of a pot, insert the steamer basket of your choice, cover, heat to a boil and steam the veggies until crisp-tender (about 5-8 minutes, depending on what you're cooking).
To roast your vegetables, preheat the oven to 400 degrees, mist vegetables with olive oil, place them in a single layer on a baking sheet, sprinkle with salt and pepper and other seasonings of your choice, and roast for 30 minutes, stirring or flipping every 10 minutes for even browning. (The picture shows The Svelte Gourmet Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Browned Butter & Pecans -- healthy with just a little glaze! Coming in the next cookbook!)
Each month, this blog has readers not only from across the United States, but also from countries around the world -- the UK, Australia, Italy, The Netherlands, Ireland, Brazil, Turkey, Philippines, Germany and Switzerland, to name a few! I am honored to have reached so many fans, and though I don't know who you are, I'd like to hear from you! Please leave a comment and let your fellow readers know what's in season where you live and how you cook it. I'm always looking for new ideas to keep meals healthy and interesting!
I will be donating a portion of all cookbook sales through February to the relief effort in Haiti. The Svelte Gourmet: A Month of Main Courses is available at www.thesveltegourmet.com/products.html.