In one of my recent weekly visits to the blog Gluten Free Girl and the Chef I stumbled across an excellent review of a new book, Eating on the Wild Side by Jo Robinson. Shauna writes about Robinson’s dedication, research and passion for both wild plants and modern cultivars, and discusses the connection between plants of the past and our diets of the present. That was enough to pique my interest, and as soon as I could get to the library I picked up my own copy.
Early into the first chapter I knew this was going to be a great read. I started keeping a pen and a notebook with me while I read it to jot down interesting tidbits about vegetable varieties and how to make them more nutritious. With recipes, historical anecdotes (with one involving the nuclear bomb tests on Bikini Atoll, no less!), gardening advice and shopping tips, Robinson combines all of her knowledge, in a pleasant way, her gentle voice shining through the academic citations.
Robinson breaks the book down into two parts – fruits and vegetables – and from there divides the categories into chapters for individual varieties. There is a chapter devoted to lettuces, to berries, to apples, to corn. She describes to history of each plant, tracing the modern lineage back to its ancient ancestor, and details how the varieties have developed through science or by accident.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the book is how Robinson ensures the reader comes away with an appreciation for a plant’s nutrition – it’s not all about color and flavor, although these usually play a key role in tapping into the nutrients. From this she offers ingenious ideas on ensuring we as consumers can choose the most nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables, and then learn how to enhance those nutrients through cooking and storage techniques.
The tip I’ve been remembering the most has to do with garlic. Studies crop up like weeds about the anti-cancer properties of garlic nowadays, and traditional remedies recommend choking down pungent concoctions with the stuff to stave off colds and the flu. Robinson reveals, however, that the disease-fighting properties of garlic are not so easily accessed as to swallow a clove whole. There are two enzymes contained in a clove of garlic, and it is only after the whole garlic has been processed somehow – by chopping, pressing, smashing – that the two enzymes can combine to create the cancer-fighting enzyme that is so often lauded in scientific studies. It is important, as Robinson reveals, to process the garlic and let it rest for 10 minutes to activate the production of the helpful and healthful enzyme before cooking. Through this, and only through this, will you extract the most nutrition and the most disease-fighting properties from your common garlic clove.
This is just one of many amazing kitchen-nutrition tips that Robinson offers, like the fact that cooking beets with the skins on retains more of the nutrients, or cooking and then chilling potatoes overnight before serving reduces the glycemic load of the starchy tuber. Fascinating!
I kept a running list of interesting varieties of fruits and vegetables to plant in my someday garden, thanks to Robinson’s recommendations at the end of each chapter. From Carolina Ruby Sweet Potatoes to Brigadier broccoli, to Tuscan Kale and Hawaiian Currant Tomatoes, to French Gray Shallots and Merlot lettuce, to Spanish Roja Garlic and Detroit Dark Red Beets, I am inspired to reap the benefits of nutrition and flavor in my own plot of land someday.
Eating on the Wild Side also inspired me to try some new produce at the grocery store. Instead of my typical kale and spinach, I purchased two bundles of delicate watercress. Instead of apples or berries, I chose a handful of translucent-skinned pluots. With a homemade vinaigrette and some gently toasted pistachios, all I needed was that new and vibrant produce to create a new salad. I made this twice I liked it so much – something about the bitter greens, the sweet fruit, the crunch of the nuts and the acidic spice of the vinaigrette combined perfectly.
Truly, as Robinson writes, when the fruits and vegetables are fresh and nutritious, they need but a little dressing up to turn them into a good meal.
1 bunch fresh watercress, washed and trimmed
1 c. raw pistachios
1 lime, juiced
1/4 c. olive oil
1 egg yolk
1 tsp. nutmeg
1 tsp. sea salt
Arrange the washed and trimmed watercress in a large salad bowl, Slice and pit the pluots and arrange on the greens. Heat a large skillet over medium heat and toast pistachios with a pinch of sea salt and a splash of olive oil until fragrant, about 5 minutes, before sprinkling over salad.
Meanwhile, whisk together the ingredients for the vinaigrette in a bowl or in a food processor. Combine the lime juice with the olive oil, salt and nutmeg, and briskly stir in the egg yolk until the dressing emulsifies. Drizzle over salad and serve immediately.
The salad does not keep well dressed — if you are making this ahead of time or in a large batch, dress only what you’ll be eating immediately, and store the greens, fruit, nuts and vinaigrette in separate containers in the refrigerator to keep everything crisp.