How to cook fruits and vegetables to get the best health benefit

aweigl@newsobserver.comSeptember 17, 2013 

Author and food activist Jo Robinson has spent the past 20 years connecting the dots between nutrition research and how home cooks should be preparing food.

Among the many things she’s discovered are:

• If you let minced garlic sit for 10 minutes before cooking it, you will get the maximum benefit of allicin, a cancer-fighting compound.

• If you cook dried beans but don’t plan to use the cooking water, let the beans sit for an hour in that liquid so they will reabsorb some of the nutrients.

• If you eat potatoes with the skins, with some type of fat and vinegar and chill them for 24 hours after they have been cooked, you can lower the potatoes’ glycemic index.

Of course, Robinson has just the potato salad recipe that does all of those things in her latest book.

“Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health” offers practical guidance on what types of fruits and vegetables are the healthiest at the grocery store and how to prepare them to take advantage of the maximum health benefit. Robinson, who has written or co-authored about 14 books, culled that information from about 6,000 scientific studies.

Robinson makes the argument that we’ve been breeding nutrition out of our fruits and vegetables. Plant breeders have instead been more concerned with produce’s appearance and how well it ships. She reveals that the closer the fruit or vegetable is to its wild ancestor, often the more nutritious it is.

The book has gained a lot of traction since it was released in June. It was a New York Times best-seller, reaching No. 6 on the nonfiction list. The book is now in its seventh printing with more than 57,000 copies.

In an interview last week, Robinson, 66, who lives on Vashon Island in Washington state’s Puget Sound, chatted about her nutrition activist grandmother, what led to this book project and the evolution of her own garden.

Q: Has food and nutrition always been an interest of yours?

A: When I look back on my life, I’ve been interested in food and nutrition definitely since high school and probably earlier than that. I published my first cookbook when I was in high school. I was trying to make bread on my own when I was 4.

Our grandmother lived with us. She was a nutritional activist starting in 1910. She was fighting the sale of Coca-Cola and trying to get the USDA to recommend whole wheat bread rather than white bread, which she believed to be more nutritious. … We were raised on whole wheat bread, nuts, green tea and buttermilk. … All of that combined turned me into a food activist who writes about the science of nutrition for lay people.

Q: What led to this book?

A: I was finding out important information about food that had not been conveyed to the public in any form. I considered that almost criminal. It takes such a long time for academic research to be repackaged in a responsible way for lay people. Most of what I’ve written about is still only in my book. It has just not gotten out there yet.

I found just important, practical information: People can go to the grocery store and choose this onion over that one, or this lettuce over that one and potentially have an important difference in their health. It’s easy to do. You aren’t spending more time or money. You have this scientifically vetted list of which things to choose. That’s why I thought it needed to be written because I didn’t want to be the only person to know all of this.

Q: What did you learn during this research that really surprised you?

A: I was surprised every day. I would find something that was new to me and surprising in a wonderful way. Like the thing about the garlic that you have to press and rest it before you cook with it or you don’t get the health benefits. That study was in 2001. This is 10 years later, and why doesn’t anybody know this? I’m surprised to know this, but I’m doubly surprised that this hasn’t gotten out yet.

Q: How did this change your own garden?

A: Completely. Now, it’s really a demonstration garden. It’s a beautiful garden because I’m interested in esthetics as well the nutrition. It’s a blend of landscape and food. ... All the varieties are chosen because I found that they are nutritious, and I’m growing them to see if they are really delicious. People are always going to choose their food based on how it tastes. I do too.

To see printable recipes, click on links below:

Potato Salad with Sun-Dried Tomatoes and Kalamata Olives

Sauteed Leeks with Cumin and Mustard

Potato Salad With Sun-Dried Tomatoes and Kalamata Olives From “Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health,” by Jo Robinson (Little Brown, 2013). 2 pounds unpeeled new potatoes or unpeeled baking potatoes, preferably with red, blue or purple flesh 1/2 cup oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes, drained and chopped or julienned 1/2 cup thinly sliced red onions or chopped scallions (including white and green parts) 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil, preferably unfiltered 3 tablespoons red or white wine vinegar 1 tablespoon sugar 1-2 garlic cloves, pushed through a garlic press 1/2 teaspoon powdered mustard or 1 teaspoon prepared mustard 1/2 cup pitted and chopped kalamata olives 1/2 cup chopped prosciutto or diced cooked bacon (optional)

STEAM or microwave potatoes in their skin until they are tender. Cool and store in the refrigerator for 24 hours. Quarter the potatoes, then cut into 1/4-inch slices and place in a large mixing bowl. Do not remove skins.

COMBINE tomatoes, red onions, olive oil, vinegar, sugar, garlic, mustard, olives and bacon, if using, in a small bowl. Pour over potatoes. Toss to coat evenly. Serve cold or a room temperature.

Yield: 4-5 servings Sauteed Leeks With Mustard and Cumin Most of a leek’s nutrients are in the leaves and the green portions of the stalk, which are usually discarded. This recipe takes advantage of those parts. From “Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health,” by Jo Robinson (Little Brown, 2013). 2 medium-sized leeks 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, preferably unfiltered 1 teaspoon cumin seeds 2 tablespoons prepared mustard 1 teaspoon honey

TRIM bulb ends of the leeks to remove the tiny rootlets. Trim the top of the leaves, leaving three inches dark green above the white. Cut leeks into quarters lengthwise, then rinse well to remove any dirt. Beginning at root end, slice white part of the leeks crosswise into 1/4-inch slices, then slice the green portion into narrower 1/8-inch slices.

COMBINE oil, cumin seeds and green portions of the leeks in a medium frying pan. Saute over medium-low heat for 2 minutes, then add white portions of the leeks and cook for another 8 minutes. Stir frequently. Add mustard and honey and saute over low heat for another 2 minutes. Serve hot, cold or room temperature.

Yield: 2 cups

Weigl: 919-829-4848; Twitter: @andreaweigl

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