Cookbook Q&A: 50 Best Plants on the Planet
We often hear about the importance of hitting our targets for daily fruit and vegetable consumption, but we don’t as often hear about the abundance of options and their ranging health benefits. In her new book titled, 50 Best Plants on the Planet, Cathy Thomas not only highlights the unique health benefits of the 50 most nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables, but she also includes more than 150 recipes to bring these foods to your plate. From simple sides and salads to main courses, soups and drinks, there is something included for everyone!
We were lucky enough to catch up with Cathy Thomas and hear details about her inspiration, her suggestions for bringing recipes to life, and her favorite ingredients.
OLDWAYS: Can you tell us about how you came to write this book? How did your passion for fruits and vegetables begin?
CATHY: My friends described my mother as a “health nut.” She wanted to be a doctor, but graduated from high school during the Great Depression. She worked as a bookkeeper to help support her family and missed the opportunity to go to college. She spent her lifetime independently studying nutrition and was a disciple of Adelle Davis, the nutritional guru of the day. Every dinner in my childhood home showcased 3 fresh vegetables, a mountain of salad and a protein. So I grew up loving fruits and vegetables, many of which were harvested from our home orchard and gardens. I know how delicious fresh produce can be. And a note here, the book isn’t a diet book per se, it is all about delicious. Easy and fast ways to enjoy the most nutrient-dense produce on the planet.
OLDWAYS: From Gai Lan to Gooseberry and Chrysanthemum Leaf to Casaba Melon, a lot of these nutrient dense fruits and vegetables are not exactly household names. How do we change this to bring these delicious and nutritious ingredients to the everyday home chef? And if they don’t have access to them how can they learn how to make substitutions for unusual things?
CATHY: First of all let me say that most of the fruits and vegetables in the book are available in almost any supermarket – broccoli, peaches, chilies, chard – yes from asparagus to zucchini, most of the 50 most nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables are easy to find. Gai lan (Chinese broccoli) is available in Asian markets, or substitute its cousin broccolini (broccolini is a cross between common broccoli and gai lan). Most melons can substitute for the casaba melon. Fresh gooseberries are difficult to find and their season is limited from March to May. But here is my advice. Get to know the produce manager in your local market. Ask him or her to get you what you want. In most cases, they are eager to help.
OLDWAYS: What is the most economical approach to cooking with these ingredients?
CATHY: Preventing waste is the best way to save money. Buy with shelf-life in mind. Buy some fruits and vegetables that need to be eaten within a couple of days and put those in the front of the crisper drawer. Buy some produce that can last one or two weeks and put that at the back of the crisper drawer. That will remind you - - hey, eat the asparagus, raspberries and watercress tonight, tomorrow or the day after that - the produce that will hold such as cabbage, apples and kumquats. And learn how to best store produce. Lettuces and cilantro, for example, can be refrigerated for a much longer time if stored properly (storage and buying tips are included in every chapter).
OLDWAYS: What fruits, vegetables and recipes do you recommend to people starting to eat healthy? Are any of the ingredients in your book particularly easy to cook for novice chefs?
CATHY: The leafy greens are fast and easy to prepare. Right now kale is the go-to vegetable, so that’s a great place to start. Whether using curly-edge kale or Tuscan kale, it can be eaten raw or cooked. If eaten raw in a salad the trick is to take out the thick central rib (see last minute prep in the book) then coarsely chop it and marinate it for 30 minutes in citrusy vinaigrette. Marinating changes the texture from leathery to malleable, and fills the kale with flavor. In the kale salad recipe in the book, I sweeten the vinaigrette with a little maple syrup and put a small amount of chopped dates in the salad. Toasted almonds make a nice optional garnish. It is delicious, and easy to prepare. And the Kale and Cannellini Beans with Crumbled Sausage is very fast and very easy. And if you want a vegetarian version of the dish, just see the “meatless alternative tip” at the bottom of the recipe. Easy, right?
OLDWAYS: You highlight the unique health benefits of each of the fruits and veggies that you write about. What are your favorite ingredients that are in season now and what are their particular benefits?
CATHY: Blackberries are so delicious and underused. They are extremely nutrient dense and have been shown to reduce defects in memory, cognition and motor function, especially as connected with aging. They are concentrated sources of the phytochemical ellagic acid, which acts as a powerful antioxidant. Quercetin, one of the main antioxidant compounds in berries and especially prevalent in blackberries, protects against cancers. It also works best in combination with vitamin C, and blackberries coincidentally are higher in vitamin C than many other fruits.
OLDWAYS: All your recipes are not only nutritious but also beautiful; do you have a favorite that we can publish for our readers?
CATHY: There are so many that I adore but with the cooler weather I might suggest my Thai Carrot Soup.
Thai-Style Carrot Soup with Chrysanthemum Leaves
Only a modest amount of dried red pepper flakes is used in this flavorful soup. Be sure to taste it after it is pureed and adjust the spice level to suit your taste, adding a little hot sauce if you like. When the chopped chrysanthemum leaves are sprinkled on the warm soup, they release their lovely floral smell.
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 pound carrots, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 large yellow onion, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped
3 tablespoons chopped unpeeled fresh ginger
3 ½ cups fat-free, low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth
1 cup light coconut milk
1/3 cup fat-free evaporated milk
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 tablespoons creamy peanut butter
2 tablespoons brown sugar or maple syrup
2 teaspoons seasoned rice vinegar
1 ½ tablespoons fish sauce
1 teaspoon Asian (roasted) sesame oil
½ teaspoon ground coriander
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
¼ teaspoon dried red pepper flakes
Freshly ground black pepper
½ cup finely chopped fresh chrysanthemum leaves
In a large pan or Dutch oven, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the carrots, onion, celery, garlic, and ginger; cook for 5 to 6 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onion is translucent. Add the broth, coconut milk, evaporated milk, lime juice, peanut butter, sugar, vinegar, fish sauce, sesame oil, coriander, turmeric, and pepper flakes; bring to a boil. Cover, reduce the heat, and simmer for 25 to 30 minutes, until the carrots are very tender. Remove from the heat.
Using a ladle, remove 1 cup of the broth and set aside. Process the remaining soup in batches in a food processor or blender until smooth; hold the lid down with a pot holder if using a blender. Taste and season with salt and pepper. If the soup is too thick, stir in all or some of the reserved broth.
If making it ahead, refrigerate, cover, for up to 24 hours. Gently simmer on low heat until reheated. Ladle into soup bowls. Garnish each with chopped chrysanthemum leaves.