If there is anything you gain from this website, we hope it is an appreciation for fresh vegetables. They are the centerpiece of your new lifestyle. With only small amounts of naturally occurring sodium, no fat, no artificial ingredients and a wide array of colors and flavors, they are probably the most underappreciated foods on the planet.
Thanks to earlier food lifestyle changes, we were already cooking almost exclusively with fresh vegetables before Wayne’s diagnosis of congestive heart failure. But our go-to strategy was to steam our vegetables, then toss them in a pan with some ghee and Penzey’s Fox Point seasoning. After the heart disease diagnosis, we had to find a way to create great flavor without salt or butter. We want to share some options with you.
First some general comments about vegetables. Some of us (we won’t mention names) were used to preparing canned vegetables, or those that come in a bag with cheese sauce. We thought of cheese sauce as a reward for eating vegetables.
Why fresh? First, they taste much better. Second, most canned vegetables and almost anything frozen with sauce have a ton of sodium. There are much more fun things to “spend” your sodium on than that.
If your last experience with fresh vegetables left you with a mold-growing science experiment in the back of your produce drawer, or if your produce drawer is actually filled up with cheese (we might or might not have personal experience with that), here are a few things you might want to know:
Freshness: Grocery stores vary in how fresh their produce is. Fresher produce lasts longer and tastes better, so you’ll want to shop around. Some vegetables (like lettuce and spinach) last only a few days, even if you buy the freshest available, so you’ll want to buy only what you will use soon. If time allows, it’s great if you can replenish your supply mid-week, but if not, you’ll want to plan your meals so that you use up the most perishable items first. As a general rule, things that will last longest include carrots, broccoli, onions, cauliflower, cabbage, brussels sprouts, squash and iceberg lettuce. Among the things you’ll need to use within a few days of buying them are asparagus, spinach, other lettuces (Romaine, arugula, etc.), and tomatoes. Somewhere in between are cucumbers, zucchini and other forms of squash.
Bagged vegetables are an option if you absolutely cannot find time to do a little trimming, but we’ve had plenty of disappointing experiences with bagged vegetables that required additional trimming to remove brown spots or dried up sections. If you’re going to have to trim anyway, you might as well have the freshest option available. But that’s a matter of your preference and the quality of goods your store offers.
There are some products that offer a little extra help maintaining freshness.
BluApple is a product you put in your vegetable drawer that absorbs the ethylene gas that is put off by vegetables as they ripen. This gas accumulates in your refrigerator drawer, so having the gas absorbed means the produce matures more slowly and does not deteriorate as quickly. The packet inside the BluApple has to be changed about every 2 months. You can sign up to receive a reminder every couple of months via email, so you’ll want to have refills on hand.
Debbie Meyer Green Bags are said to contain zeolite that also absorbs ethylene gas, potentially prolonging the life of produce in the same manner. Bear in mind that not all spoilage is from ethylene gas, so storage is important as well. Most vegetables will last longer refrigerated, but some need to stay at room temperature, such as tomatoes.
If planning for a week of meals, plan to use the vegetables that spoil most quickly early in the week, or soon after you replenish groceries.
Frozen vegetables: So long as the vegetables are frozen without added sauces or seasonings, frozen can be a good backup in a pinch. They won’t usually taste as great as fresh, but they can at least bridge the gap between your last grocery trip and the next, without resorting to carry out or fast food. Depending on how well-done you like them, any of the cooking methods other than roasting should work.
There are lots of ways to prepare vegetables. Individual preferences can vary widely; some people love their vegetables with a lot of crunch (you won’t get that from a can!) and some want them very soft. Most methods can be adjusted to fit your preference.
Steamed: a double boiler or steamer insert can be used for this purpose, but if you end up making steamed vegetables almost every night, as we do, you might want a countertop steamer. Not only does it allow you to set a timer and keep an eye on them, but it will also free up your stovetop for other things.
Sautéed: Sautéing is a gentle frying process that does not use breading. We think of it as a more closely-watched process than frying, where the food might be coated with flour or crumbs, and where timing might be less sensitive. Sautéing is the process used to caramelize onions; caramelizing can give vegetables a deep, rich flavor.
Sautéing is an important step for almost any dish using cooked onions, carrots, celery or mushrooms, especially if you’re creating toppers or adding them to soup. Sautéing these vegetables seals in flavor and can add a nice sear if you prefer. “Duxelles,” a mix of finely chopped and sautéed mushrooms, onions, shallots and herbs, made famous by Julia Child, can become a delicious topper, omelette filling, stuffing, or other ingredient.
Stir-fried: As a side dish, stir-fried vegetables are a great option, especially for busy weeknights. For vegetables that take longer to cook, like carrots, parsnips, brussels sprouts and green beans, you might want to very lightly steam them first. Others, like broccoli, zucchini, onions, sweet peppers and snap peas can be cooked more quickly, then mixed with your cooked meat. One-pot meals make for an easy clean-up.
Slow cooker: The slow cooker does a great job with one-pot meals, like lean roast beef with some carrots, celery, onions and a little potato. Heart patients will probably want to limit themselves to the leanest beef and avoid broth that is high in sodium. (Homemade broth will come in handy.) In addition, diabetic patients will need to limit their servings of potatoes. When making slow cooker meals, we have learned to include only small amounts of potato for this reason. The slow cooker can also be helpful for vegetable soup, but the long cooking time will make most vegetables a bit mushy (for some, that is a good thing).
Instant pot: The pressure cooker feature of your Instant Pot is perfect for vegetables that might require long cooking times to become soft (like Kale, or green beans). Once the Instant Pot has worked its magic, you can put the vegetables (minus most of the liquid) in a frying pan to finish them with a great seasoning combination (like a bit of olive oil with some sautéed onion and garlic, and a little concentrated broth). Kale is great with some balsamic vinegar added as well, based on your taste preferences.
Roasting: Another option for fresh vegetables is roasting, particularly as a weeknight solution that does not require a lot of attention. We prefer a high temperature and quick roasting time so the vegetables get a touch of browning but still have some firmness. Toss the vegetables with a little olive oil and your favorite salt-free seasoning. They don’t need to be cut up much. Roasting times will vary widely (minimal for asparagus, much longer for cauliflower, for example). You’ll want to Google your vegetable and choose based on the degree of doneness you prefer.
Toppers, meaning things you can put on top of other food, can make foods interesting, delicious and satisfying. With a topper made from mushrooms and shallots, green peppers and onions, or another favorite combination, you can make an otherwise-boring sautéed meat or steamed vegetable into something new and interesting. Green onions make great toppers, and you can’t really go wrong with fresh herbs, like chives, basil, etc. (However, fresh herbs have a short shelf life, so plan to use them up promptly.) Mushrooms and onions go well with green beans.
On top of a well-prepared turkey burger, a topper can make you forget that you are replacing your hamburger, along with the bun and cheese that used to accompany it!
You can use any combination of onions, green peppers, mushrooms, scallions, herbs, celery, carrots, or pretty much any fresh leftover vegetable you have on hand. Everything gets chopped finely and put into a sauté pan that is hot with a little olive oil. You can add your favorite salt-free seasonings, and cook quickly to combine flavors or cook longer to get a light sear and even a bit of caramelizing.
Here are some of our favorites for topping turkey burgers:
- Onions and mushrooms, both finely chopped and sautéed in olive oil until there’s a little browning. The mushrooms will cook down a great deal, so don’t be surprised if it looks like you have too many when you put them in the pan.
- Onions and green pepper, lightly sautéed over high heat to just a light doneness. This keeps the flavor and crunch of the peppers.
- Onions, celery and carrots chopped finely and sautéed until they are soft. This can be a topper, but is also an essential step when putting these vegetables into soup or other dishes.
Tomatoes have become a staple at our house. This is especially true in the summer, when our farmer’s market is brimming with sweet, luscious locally grown ones you can just pop in your mouth. But even in the winter, we’ve found some ways to make the color and flavor part of our routine.
For instance, we added Julia Child’s recipe for stuffed tomatoes to our weekly lineup. While this uses a small amount of bread crumbs (we use Panko that is low in sodium and so convenient), it is only ½ cup divided between several servings.
Another option for including some color and flavor is a mix of a little tomato, cucumber and red onion. Drizzled with a little olive oil and balsamic vinegar, this is a delicious meal accompaniment.
Canned tomatoes can be a great shortcut when you want to make homemade tomato soup, or a quick sauce, but be careful to watch for “no salt added” on the label. Such a thing might be hard to find, but it does exist and will make a big difference.
Keeping it interesting
Mixing a little of several fresh vegetables into a medley can make what would otherwise be just some boring steamed broccoli into a more interesting side dish. Aromatic vegetables (e.g., carrots, onions, celery, shallots, leeks) are great for broth, so if you have some you can’t use up, put them in the freezer to use with roasted chicken (or other meat) and trimmings when you make broth.
You can also keep vegetables more interesting by varying the way you present them:
- Brussels sprouts can be run through the food processor into a fine chop before steaming;
- Cauliflower can be chopped in the food processor and steamed as a rice substitute, or can be mashed, like potatoes;
- Making shish-kebabs out of several vegetables can make them more fun and interesting;
- Even just cutting vegetables at an angle or in long strips can make a dish more visually appealing.