Nurture Your Vegetables . . . So They Can Nurture You

Yesterday’s post reviewed the basics of vegetable storage.  Make sense of those rules by understanding how vegetables continue breathing, even after they’re cut or plucked from the earth.

We hear a lot about how vegetables nurture us.  But did you know that it works the other way, too?  Nurture vegetables and they can do a better job of nurturing and nourishing us.

Baby Spinach from Farmers Market

Baby Spinach from Farmers Market Don't let it from cannibalize itself!

This discovery came while researching how to store spinach.  It seemed like a pretty cut and dried topic until I ran across this statement, buried in some technical research document:  “Despite having been detached from the plant, fruits and vegetables remain as living organs after harvest.”

That statement took a minute to wrap my head around.  Subconsciously I’d always lumped vegetables with all the other inanimate objects in my shopping cart.  Being severed from the ground seemed like pretty good evidence that they were dead.  What’s more, in any megamarket vegetables are lined up for sale under bright fluorescent lights right alongside aisles of kid toys, lawn chairs, socks and razors.  So who would think of produce being in a class of its own, one of living organisms as opposed to inanimate objects?

Seeing vegetables in the light of the living put a whole new spin on the topic of storage.  All of a sudden, it didn’t seem quite right to just throw them in my shopping basket and then throw them in the frig at home.  My veggies deserve more.

So back to my technical article I went.  “Like all living tissues,” it continued, “harvested produce continues to respire throughout its postharvest life.”  So quite unlike all the other packaged, bottled and canned food in my shopping basket, the fresh vegetables are still breathing.

In the simplest of terms, vegetable breathing is a process where “oxygen is consumed and water, carbon dioxide, and energy are released.”  The point of this process is to break down carbohydrates into “their constituent parts to produce energy to run cellular processes.”

Here’s the kicker, though:  When we’re talking about harvested produce, the carbohydrates being broken down to run a plant’s cellular processes are its own carbohydrates! You could say that a harvested vegetable is essentially cannibalizing itself in a valiant attempt to remain as alive as it can be.   Hour by hour, day by day, with each breath, “compounds that affect plant flavor, sweetness, weight, turgor (water content), and nutritional value are lost.”

What does all this mean for ordinary vegetable shoppers? It means that to reap the amazing flavor and essential nutrients that vegetables offer, we must handle them as depleting assets.  In other words, our job as vegetable purchasers is one of emergency triage:  What can we do to staunch the flood of flavor, sweetness, water content and nutrients streaming from our carefully selected produce?

Buying at Farmers Markets is a good first step.  It automatically puts you ahead in the depleting assets game, since produce is generally harvested either the night before or morning of the market.  (Many thanks to the farmers who are up picking at 4:00 a.m. to get us the freshest produce possible.)  This means you have at least a two to three day flavor advantage over produce picked a thousand miles away, shipped to a warehouse, delivered to the grocery store, then displayed for a while in the produce aisle.

This kind of flavor and nutrition advantage is not something you want to squander:

  1. Get your produce home as quickly as possible (skip the temptation to run errands on the way home, especially as the weather turns hot.)
  2. On hot days, bring a cooler and icepack so your veggies can ride home in air conditioned comfort.  If you forget, buy something frozen (e.g., meat)  to pack with your most delicate greens and keep them in the shadiest part of the car.  Scrounge up a cardboard box and you’ll even get a little insulative benefit.
  3. Finally, once home,  get your veggies into plastic bags, close loosely and pop into the frig immediately.

How can such simple steps be so important?  Each helps slow the respiration process, either by chilling or limiting exposure to air, so your veggies don’t expire any more of their flavor and nutrition than they have to.  It’s easy to take our incredible produce for granted, but it deserves better!

Find out more about how to reap delicious delight from vegetables with Vegetable a Month online magazine.

Don’t Blame the Vegetables!

They’re Not at Fault for Rotting in the Frig

‘Tis the season of vegetable abundance, and with it comes worry about refrigerator rot as we begin loading up  (and over-loading ) on the fabulous produce coming to market.  As some people joke, don’t let your produce become expensive compost.

Anytime I talk about buying and eating more vegetables, the subject of refrigerator rot surfaces.  Seems there are a lot of dollars going down the garbage disposal, right along with the vegetables they bought.

While people always ask for tips on how to prevent this, one participant at a recent Whole Kitchen class worded the question in a way that got me stirred up.  “How do I keep vegetables from going bad in my frig?” she asked.

Do your vegetables end up as expensive compost?

The good side of me acknowledged this as a completely reasonable question and gave a considered response about the fundamentals of vegetable storage.  Meanwhile,  however, my devilish side was jockeying for a chance to mouth off:  “What?  Are vegetables supposed to last forever?” it fumed.  ” They’re called ‘fresh’ for a reason!  Maybe the problem isn’t that vegetables don’t last long enough.  Maybe the problem is that people don’t eat them up fast enough!”

While I kept that inconsiderate imp in check at the time, I had to admit there was something to its rants.  People faced with a case of vegetable rot are often taken aback.  In a world where most foods have shelf lives measured in half-lives, it can seem surprising if not rude that vegetables would go bad on us.   Surely there must be something wrong with the vegetables or the way they are packaged, right?

No, there is nothing wrong with the vegetables.  They are living, breathing life forms, not processed and packaged products from factories.  As life forms, they experience both a beginning and an end of life, and on the way to the end, they undergo a transformation from vibrant to rotted, just like all living things, including those on the top of the food chain.  (More on this in tomorrow’s post.)

Which brings me back to the snippy conclusion reached by my devilish side :  What if the problem isn’t with vegetables, but with vegetable buyers who neglect their veggies?”

Statistically, only one in ten of us come close to achieving the daily produce recommendations, and that’s only because potatoes are counted as a vegetable!  So it’s not hard to imagine vegetables rotting in vegetable drawers due to simple neglect.  That’s why my vegetable rot prevention advice begins here:  Plan ahead.

  1. Plan Grab a piece of paper, sketch a rough weekly plan and then plop one (or two or three!) vegetables on each day.  At a minimum, simply steam or saute them as side dishes.  For more fun, weave them into pasta dishes, soups, salads or entrees.  Either way, planning makes it 85% more likely that those vegetables will actually make their way out of the frig and onto your plate.
  2. Store Right With that said, we can move on to storage, which is also important.  As a general rule, leave vegetables unwashed, place in loosely closed plastic bags and get them into the frig as soon as possible.  For different vegetables, there are variations on this general rule which can be found in Vegetable a Month online magazine.
  3. Don’t Cave in to Throw Away Mentality After a few days in the frig, you might assume a vegetable is no longer fresh and must be pitched.  Not so fast.  It’s easy to get sucked into our “throw away” mentality, but vegetables last a lot longer than you’d think, especially when purchased very fresh (an automatic advantage of buying local.)  Even though I routinely overbuy vegetables, I rarely pitch anything since they generally last a week to ten days.*  With just a little planning, that’s plenty of time to use them all up.
  4. Stage Usage from Less to More Sturdy Improve your chances of success even more by planning to use the less sturdy  vegetables in your crisper drawers (e.g., spinach, lettuce, zucchini, green beans and eggplant) before the sturdier ones (e.g., cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and peppers.)
  5. Dig Deep for Vegetable Beauty Finally, even if a vegetable escapes notice until past its prime, no need to pitch it.  Simply cut off any bad spots or pull away any wilted leaves and wash well.  Taste to make sure the vegetable hasn’t gone bitter before adding to a dish.  Cooking thoroughly can generally eliminate any possible contamination, but if you have any concern, go ahead and pitch a vegetable.  Health and safety  always trump vegetable conservation.

But what do I make with all those vegetables? Lack of vegetable comfort may be the real culprit to blame for refrigerator rot.  We tend to lack the basic vegetable knowledge that will have us reaching into the vegetable drawer each day with confidence.  That’s where Vegetable A Month comes in.  Each month, learn about a different, seasonal vegetable so you can weave it seamlessly into your everyday life–with all the good energy and wellness that comes with a vegetable rich diet.

Tomorrow:  More on vegetable storage. . .

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