Maximum Nutrition

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One of the best ways to capture maximum nutrition (and taste) is to harvest, prep and cook immediately, as I'm doing here with ratatouille.

One of the best ways to capture maximum nutrition (and taste) is to harvest, prep and cook immediately, as I’m doing here with ratatouille.

If you’re going to take the time to search out organic foods or grow your own, I figure you also care to know about maximum nutrition from said foods (and if you don’t, you should!). When you pick, how you store and other variables are all important in this game.
When you pick a fruit or veggie, you haven’t killed it yet. It’s going to go right on breathing for a while, absorbing oxygen, releasing carbon dioxide and using up its stores of sugars and antioxidants to perform these functions. Take-home message: better to grow it, then pick and eat ASAP. But if you can’t, remember that some foods are heavy breathers (they may have something funny in mind, although so far I haven’t heard any obscene comments from the broccoli). Artichokes, arugula, asparagus, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cherries, corn, kale, lettuce, mushrooms, okra, parsley, raspberries, scallions, snap beans, spinach and strawberries are all foods you want to eat or preserve as quickly as possible. And by the way, for maximum nutrition, pick it ripe. Not only does it taste better, it has more nutrients.

This home-grown celery is a bit stronger-flavored than the store-bought stuff, but that deep green color means more nutrients.

This home-grown celery is a bit stronger-flavored than the store-bought stuff, but that deep green color means more nutrients.

Color matters — and so does size. Many of our modern veggies are a lot less colorful than their ancestors. Purple cauliflower was once the norm. The less colorful versions, however, have fewer anthocyanins, which means fewer antioxidants (and we need all we can get nowadays). Leaf lettuce, which comes in a lot more colors, is healthier than the light green iceberg version. So try some blue potatoes, deep red carrots or Indian corn. On the other hand, small is more nutritious — and often better tasting — than large. Cherry tomatoes often have more flavor than the beefsteaks, although they are a bit harder to slice for sandwiches. Cherry tomatoes also have more lycopene – which may help prevent prostate and some other forms of cancer. Our unwatered apples, which are about half the size of their supermarket cousins, are also much sweeter.
Keep ‘em cold and don’t overcook. With a couple of exceptions — tomatoes are one — refrigerate foods as soon as you pick them. Take a cooler with ice to the store, especially in the summer, and put your produce in immediately. Remember, the produce you buy may not have been handled for maximum nutrition. A 30-minute ride home in a hot car may put your veggies over the edge. When you harvest that head of lettuce, bring it right in, wash in cold water, spin the water out and chill it in the fridge.
Cooking methods matter. Asparagus and cruciferous veggies — broccoli and such — should be cooked until slightly crunchy for best taste and maximum nutrition. Overcook and they’ll have a bitter, sulfurous edge. Alliums such as onions and garlic have lots of health benefits. After you chop or otherwise prep your garlic, let it sit for about 10 minutes so it will produce the maximum amount of allicin, its main healing ingredient. Red onions have more antioxidants, but many people prefer sweet onions when eating them raw. Cook the stronger onions for about five minutes over medium heat. Round or oval onions, by the way, tend to be hotter than wide, flat onions. Green onions and leeks give you more nutrition, because you also eat all or some of the green parts.

Snow Peas make great in-the-garden snacks, as do...

Snow Peas make great in-the-garden snacks, as do…


... Rattlesnake pole beans.

… Rattlesnake pole beans.


The absolute best method, of course, is to stalk the garden rows with hose in hand. Pick something ripe, sluice it off and chow down. A few exceptions: spinach and chard tend to be high in oxalic acid, and are better cooked. Potatoes contain solanum, which is mildly toxic when eaten raw. A few peelings won’t hurt (my husband loves ‘em) but don’t eat a lot of raw potatoes.

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Think for Yourself

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Jam and Jelly made without a water bath.

Jam and Jelly made without a water bath.


Can you think for yourself? Or do you rely on experts to tell you what to do?
Clear back in 2011, shortly after this blog began, I wrote a post on making jams and jellies without a water bath. You can read it here: http://www.jeffersonsdaughters.com/2011/10/14/jam-and-jelly-without-a-water-bath/ but in summary, I said that after a careful review of the latest research, it was clear to me that a water bath didn’t gain you anything except (maybe) a tighter seal. Therefore, I wrote, you could safely disregard the latest recommendations, which say water baths of at least five minutes are required for jams and jellies. That post has generated more than 10 times the comments of anything else on the blog. Most recently, a reader commented that she had been practically assaulted for saying she didn’t water bath jams and jellies in an online cooking forum.
I think this is a great example of two important concepts. The first is the concept that A: the latest science is always the best stuff and B: science is always accurate, honest and without bias. The second concept is that we should always take the opinions of “experts” over our own, even when our experience contradicts the experts. The thing is, neither of those concepts is true.
Let’s take point A. Science supposedly progresses over time, with the most recent research building on previous research, like steps in a staircase. In reality, the latest science often rests on previous findings that in many cases were flawed. Today, perhaps more than at any time in history, much of our science is also tremendously biased in the form of political correctness or swayed by what the funders want it to say. Which leads us to B. Research results can be swayed by bias, the desire for job security, advancement or scientific prestige, political correctness and money. Research is expensive, and in many if not most cases, the people funding it have a vested interest. They don’t want to pour money down a rat hole, they want the researchers to find something that lets them sell more medicine, herbicides, pesticides or increase the prestige of the university so it can get more grants or charge higher tuition, etc. The number of drug researchers, for example, who perform studies funded by drug companies and who are also paid by those same drug companies before, after or while performing the research is quite high.
John P Ionnadis is a Professor of Medicine and of Health Research and Policy at Stanford University School of Medicine and a Professor of Statistics at Stanford University School of Humanities and Science. About 10 years ago, he wrote a paper titled, ‘Why Most Published Research Findings Are False.’ Here’s what he says in the abstract: “There is increasing concern that most current published research findings are false. Simulations show that for most study designs and settings, it is more likely for a research claim to be false than true. Moreover, for many current scientific fields, claimed research findings may often be simply accurate measures of the prevailing bias.”
Don’t take his or my word for it; if you want to know about flat-out falsified data, you can look up H. Zhong, T. Liu, and their co-workers at Jinggangshan University, Joachim Boldt, Malcolm Pearce, Teruji Cho, Yoshitaka Fujii (fabricated data in a record of 172 papers!), Kazunari Taira, Jens Förster, Dong-Pyou Han, Eric Poehlman, Anil Potti, Karen M. Ruggiero, Weishui Weiser. By the way, despite the names, many of these researchers are Americans, so don’t blame bad research on foreigners. Or check out the drug Vioxx; manufacturer Merck hid data on heart disease risks for years after the drug came on the market, resulting in between 88,000 and 144,000 new cases of heart disease in the US.
Now, let’s move on to the second concept. Take the jam and jelly issue. I’ve been making jams and jellies for at least 40 years. I have never used a water bath. Nor did my mother, nor did my mother-in-law. In fact, when they started out, the standard way to make jam and jelly was to seal the jar with paraffin. Between the three of us that’s well over 100 years of empirical experience. Empirical, for those unfamiliar with the term, means “based on, concerned with, or verifiable by observation or experience rather than theory or pure logic.” No one ever got sick from our efforts. When I cleaned out the cellar 30 years after my mother died, the seals on most of the jars were still good and the foods had no signs of spoilage (I did not, however, eat any of them). I think I can make a reasonable deduction that a water bath isn’t going to gain me anything.
Please note the date! This picture was taken in 2015.

Please note the date! This picture was taken in 2015.


Robert Heinlein once said, “What are the facts? Again and again and again – what are the facts? Shun wishful thinking, ignore divine revelation, forget what “the stars foretell,” avoid opinion, care not what the neighbors think, never mind the unguessable “verdict of history” – what are the facts, and to how many decimal places? You pilot always into an unknown future; facts are your single clue. Get the facts!”
Notice that he doesn’t even include the option of listening to the experts…

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Seed-Saving Time!

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Mammoth Melting Snow Peas going to seed and drying on the vine.

Mammoth Melting Snow Peas going to seed and drying on the vine.


The tail end of the summer is a good time to think about saving seeds from annual plants. I think many people are afraid to make the attempt because they think it’s complicated and you need to be an expert. If that’s the case, why do you think your garden has so many volunteer plants each spring? Remember, plants were reproducing themselves long before humans came on the scene. All we’re doing is making sure we have next year’s crop in the bag.
If you want to become a seed-saver, I think the absolute easiest plant to start with is beans. First, they’re self-pollinating. You can be reasonably assured that the seed you’re saving for next year is really Blue Lake. Second, beans are very productive, so there will be plenty for the table as well as the seed jar. Third, to save seeds, you simply let the last set of beans sit on the vines until the pods dry and turn yellow. Pick the dry pods before they get rained on, take the beans out of the pods and put them in storage containers, label and store. Peppers are another real easy one: take a fully ripe pepper, cut it open and gently scrape seeds onto a plate. When fully dry, package, label and store. Wear gloves for hot peppers or be very, very careful to wash your hands the minute you’re done – you don’t want pepper juice in your eyes.
Rattlesnake pole bean; the dried seeds look a lot like a pinto bean.

Rattlesnake pole bean; the dried seeds look a lot like a pinto bean.


Lettuce is another crop that readily goes to seed (which is why it’s hard to grow summer lettuce; the stuff bolts to seed in a New York minute when temperatures are high). I particularly like to save seeds from lettuce plants that will germinate and grow in my hot summers, even if they don’t get too big. That way, I’m selecting for heat resistance, and in a cool spring, the plants will still do fine. Lettuce flowers look like tiny dandelions, and are followed by the same sort of puffball seeds. Since they’re tiny, it’s a little hard to tell when the seeds are ripe. When the puffball starts to look a little ragged, it means some of the seeds have let go because they’re ripe. That’s when I cut off the seed stalk. Put the seed puffs in a shallow bowl indoors and let them dry for a week or so, then gently pull the seeds out while holding them over the bowl. Package, label and store.
Mixed lettuce in the shady bed. Lettuce reseeds so readily, you can just toss the plants down in the next spot where you want to grow lettuce and let them have at it.

Mixed lettuce in the shady bed. Lettuce reseeds so readily, you can just toss the plants down in the next spot where you want to grow lettuce and let them have at it.


Tomatoes take a little more effort. Choose a fully ripe, ready to eat tomato. Scoop out the pulp, juice and seeds from the inside of the tomato and put them in a jar or glass with a lid (don’t add water; dilution slows fermentation). Let them sit for about three days so the seeds begin to ferment. This removes the sprouting inhibitors contained in the gelatinous material inside the tomato. Store in a warm (70 degrees) place and stir several times a day. Pour the seeds into a larger container and add water; stir to separate the viable seeds from pulp and bad seeds. Generally speaking, viable seeds will sink. Dump out the water and glop; repeat at least twice. Pour the seeds into a strainer, shake off as much water as possible, then dump onto a paper plate or some paper towels. Let dry for five or six days at room temperature, stirring several times a day to prevent clumping. Treat eggplants much like tomatoes, with two exceptions: you want over-ripe post-mature fruits, and you don’t need to ferment the seeds. Package, label and store.
There you go – next year’s garden is on the shelf.

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