Eating the Best Plants on the Planet

By Sandy Hu
The latest from Inside Special Fork

After Labor Day, I’m done with casual summer eating and begin to spend more time in the kitchen cooking. This fall, I’m making Melissa’s 50 Best Plants on the Planet, written by Cathy Thomas, my guide to eating better. The colorful produce bible from Melissa’s, the largest supplier of specialty produce in the U.S., features 50 of the most nutrient dense fruits and vegetables. As Cathy explains in her introduction, “’Nutrient dense’ means that the vitamin and mineral content of these foods are high when compared with total calories.”

Even if the subject of nutrition is a yawner to you, do check out this book. It’s bright and colorful and filled with beautiful photos and recipes so appealing that, yes, you WILL want to eat Brussels sprouts, chard and dandelion greens.

Published by Chronicle Books this year, 50 Best Plants on the Planet provides user-friendly information made easily accessible by an author who knows her audience. Cathy is a food writer and was for many years, food editor of the Orange County Register in Southern California, where she continues to produce weekly food sections and a wellness column on Thursdays. “I know the kind of questions people ask because I answer phone calls,” she said in a recent phone interview. “They don’t want nutrition information in language that’s scientific so I don’t use scientific jargon. Words in the book are easy to understand and recipes are highly approachable. “Readers get a kick out of learning about the unique benefits of produce,” Cathy added. “But if it’s not delicious, then what’s the point?”

Most of the recipes are perfect for Special Fork. “If any recipes take more than 30 minutes, that’s an exception,” Cathy said. “The goal is to enjoy nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables in delectable, uncomplicated ways.”

The book features a photo of each plant, along with detailed nutrition information and why the nutrients are important to your health. It includes purchase and storage tips, easy recipes and quick usage tips so you can incorporate each of the plants in your current cooking repertoire.

Cathy expects readers to use the book in different ways. Some may peruse the pages for what’s appealing and what’s in season, decide what they want to make, and go to the market to purchase the produce. Others might take the book to the market, see what looks good and look up appropriate recipes.

Cathy is thrilled at how vegetables are becoming stars in their own right in trendy restaurants. “You didn’t see kale, chard and Brussels sprouts on the menu even a decade ago,” she observed. “Now chefs are competing to have the best Brussels sprouts, chard and kale. You can find kale salad at Costco and Trader Joe’s. Who would think kale would capture the hearts and minds of consumers?”

On a side note about kale, Cathy said, “Chefs found out that if you chopped kale coarsely and marinated it in a lemony vinaigrette for a half hour, you could change the texture, making the kale more malleable, absorbing the vinaigrette and changing the leaves from leathery to luscious.”

Cathy and I go on to discuss how Americans have come to embrace bitter flavors. “In order to attain balance in dishes, oftentimes bitter is what’s missing but the American palate didn’t accept bitter,” Cathy said. “Rapini in a rich pasta dish or bitter melon in soup brought balance. We’ve come a long way about accepting the edge of bitterness.”

According to Cathy, don’t blame the vegetable if it goes untouched at the table; blame the cooking. She gives us an example: “An interesting thing is that so many people hated Brussels sprouts and of course, now they love them, cooked properly to bring out sweetness and flavor; not killed by boiling them and getting them stinky. “

Cathy uses a method she calls sear-steaming, where she cooks Brussels sprout halves in a single layer in melted butter and olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat until they are caramelized on the bottom. Then she covers the skillet and turns the heat low, cooking the Brussels sprouts until just fork tender.

“The tops are a bright, beautiful green but the bottoms are caramelized so they have sweetness. Toss with pistachios and dried cherries or chop up Marcona almonds for more crunch. It’s easy and foolproof. They’re delicious that way.”

Win Cathy’s Book
Check out our Special Fork Facebook page for a chance to win a signed copy of Melissa’s 50 Best Plants on the Planet (suggested retail: $35), courtesy of Melissa’s/World Variety Produce, Inc.

Pan-Caramelized Brussels Sprouts with Pistachios and Dried Cranberries

“If you buy roasted and salted pistachios, be cautious about adding salt to the dish. If you wish to make this dish vegan, leave out the butter and double the amount of oil in step 3.” – Cathy Thomas

1/4 cup coarsely chopped dried cherries
3-1/2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
14 ounces (about 25) small, tightly closed Brussels sprouts, trimmed, halved top to bottom
1-1/2 teaspoons butter
Coarse salt (kosher or sea)
1/4 cup coarsely chopped roasted pistachios

  1. In a small bowl, combine 1/3 cup warm water and the cherries. Set aside.
  2. Put the sprouts in a bowl; drizzle with 2 teaspoons of the oil and gently toss to lightly coat them.
  3. Heat the butter and the remaining 1-1/2 teaspoons oil in a large skillet on medium heat. When the butter melts, shake the handle of the skillet to swirl the butter with the oil. Place the sprouts cut-side down in a single layer (the pan shouldn’t be sizzling hot, or the exteriors will overbrown before the interiors are cooked). When they begin to brown, sprinkle them with salt and cover; cook until the bottoms are nicely browned and the interiors are tender-crisp, about 5 minutes, reducing heat if needed.
  4. Add the water and cherries to the pan; increase the heat to high. Cook until the water evaporates and the sprouts are nicely caramelized. Transfer to a platter. Scatter the pistachios on top and serve.

Yields 4 to 6 side-dish servings.

Recipe by Cathy Thomas, from the book, Melissa’s 50 Best Plants on the Planet, Chronicle Books, (c. 2013). Photo by Angie Cao courtesy of Melissa’s/World Variety Produce, Inc.

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Posted: Sep 15th by Sandy_Hu