Perryman nutrition column: Summertime Vegetable Cuisine

Note to Editors: The following column was written by Shirley Perryman, an Extension specialist in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition. The department is part of the College of Applied Human Sciences.

Summer growing season comes with plentiful choices of vegetables at the farmers’ markets and in the produce sections at the grocery stores. You can buy conventional and organic, imported and locally grown produce. Instead of being a creature of habit, which most of us are, vow to sample the flavors of vegetables unfamiliar to you, and also consider trying new ways of cooking them this summer.  Expand the vegetables you typically choose beyond iceberg lettuce, French fries and corn on the cob.   

We’re constantly encouraged to eat more vegetables more often, but only 32 percent of us eat the recommended number of servings of vegetables according to research. The dietary guidelines for Americans recommend eating three to five servings of vegetables daily, which equates to 2 1/2 cups for the average adult. There are specific recommendations based on age, gender and activity level.

Vegetables pack the health benefits of reducing the risk of stroke, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and certain forms of cancer. Vegetables are naturally low in calories and filled with fiber, vitamins and minerals, and phytonutrients. Phytonutrients work as antioxidants in the body. To get the most benefits, eat a variety of veggies. Even if you’re on a limited budget, you can make careful selections and still enjoy fresh vegetables every day. In fact, buying fresh vegetables can be less expensive than buying vegetables in other forms. According to the USDA 57 percent of vegetables are least expensive when purchased fresh and the recommended number of servings can be purchased for less than $2.50 per day.

Once you’ve selected a vegetable that you’d like to try, it’s important to know  preparation and cooking methods that preserve their best flavor, texture and nutrition. Nutrients are lost initially when vegetables are exposed to light and air. Delay washing, chopping or slicing veggies until you’re ready to use them. Swishing them in a sink full of plain water removes dirt and debris. Don’t soak vegetables because water-soluble vitamins can leach out. Use a soft brush to remove dirt that clings. Discard the outer leaves of leafy veggies to reduce pesticide residue.

Cooking vegetables properly also helps to preserve  nutrients, keeps calories low and enhances fresh flavors. Aim for preparation methods that don’t disguise the fresh flavors of veggies like heavy sauces will do.

– As a guiding principle, remember that vegetable preparation techniques that use little or no water are recommended: steaming, microwaving and pressure cooking are more desirable. The more time that veggies are exposed to heat, the more nutrients are lost.

– Most veggies should be cooked until barely tender or tender-crisp to retain their bright colors, fresh flavors and nutrients. To boost the fiber factor leave the peel on veggies when possible.

– Potatoes need to be cooked through. Baking a potato or peeling it after it is boiled will preserve nutrients, even when the skin isn’t eaten. A medium baked potato has twice the fiber of a "naked" potato when the skin is eaten. Small red smashed potatoes are a quick-to-fix fiber-filled option when you skip peeling them.

– When sauting or grilling veggies use oil sparingly-just enough to keep them moist. Onions and mushrooms can even be sauted in a small amount of broth, juice or wine.

– Oven-fries are quick and easy — and far lower in fat than those cooked in a deep fat fryer. White potatoes or sweet potatoes can be washed, peeled or left unpeeled, cut into strips and baked in the oven. To reduce the calories from added fat, spray the baking sheet with a non-stick spray before spreading the potatoes in a single layer and then spray them again. Sprinkle the strips with fresh herbs or other seasoning — or fix them plain — and bake the fries at 400 degrees until tender-crisp.

– To perk up the flavor of cooked veggies, instead of slathering them with butter, which adds a lot of calories, sprinkle them with a small amount of Parmesan, Romano or other strong-flavored cheese.

– Cubed eggplant, bell pepper squares in orange, yellow or green, cherry tomatoes and sliced zucchini can be made into colorful kabobs on the grill with or without meat. Portabella mushrooms have a meat-like texture when grilled and served like a burger on a roll. Coat veggies lightly with vegetable oil spray or brush lightly with olive oil before grilling.  

– Of the many cooking options available the one that should be avoided to preserve the most nutrients is boiling because vegetables are submerged in water. Vitamin C is destroyed by heat and water-soluble vitamins are lost in large amounts of cooking water. However, if you do choose to boil your veggies, do so quickly in a small amount of water, cover the pan and cut pieces as large as possible to minimize nutrient losses.