Plates: Incorporating more vegetables during winter months

By : 
Iris Clark Neumann

It's this time of year when I'm reminded to eat more vegetables and fruits and less sweets.

There's something about post-Christmas eating and winter inactivity that tips my scale higher and gets me rethinking what I've been eating — probably too much chocolate and holiday sweets.

I love dark chocolate in just about any form. With nuts, with caramel, or by itself, but maybe as a light glaze on popcorn would be better for me. Remember the popcorn with dark chocolate in an earlier column?

If you don't, well, it's simple to make. Air pop a big bowlful of popcorn, melt dark chocolate chips in the microwave, then drizzle the popcorn with the chocolate. Spread on parchment paper, sprinkle it lightly with sea salt, and cool. It will be a great treat anytime.

One of my favorite winter vegetables to eat is cauliflower. It might play second to chocolate, but I am amazed at how this vegetable went from something to serve with veggie dip or in creamy cheese sauce to something very hip.

Suddenly it stars in odd forms like pizza crust, as cauliflower rice, or disguised in mac 'n cheese. When Michele Obama was the first lady, she became a champion of healthier eating, which featured more fruits and vegetables, along with whole grains.

I found her recipe for cauliflower macaroni and cheese in an online cookbook back when I was compiling a small recipe booklet called Vegetable ABC for the Eyota Farmers Market. I included it under “C” for cauliflower.

Her mac 'n cheese included a puree of cooked cauliflower with a whole wheat penne pasta and a cheese sauce using cheddar cheese instead of the process cheese, typical in boxed macaroni and cheese.

When I'm dipping fresh cauliflower florets, my favorite dip is humus, which I usually purchase at the store. But what is humus? It's a blended mixture that starts with cooked chickpeas; it is not really that difficult to make, except that one needs some tahini (ground sesame seed) on hand.

Because I have a jar of it in my fridge, I can make my own dip. When I purchase this dip my favorite flavor is roasted red pepper. A close second is roasted garlic.

I feel like I'm making a doubly healthy choice by dipping my fresh cauliflower in humus, which adds vegetable protein and more fiber.

I've been teaching my husband to understand food labels. On his own, he's normally a very healthy eater, choosing green salads with lots of great toppings including fresh mushrooms, sunflower seeds, and sliced red onions. Or he dips pre-cut fresh broccoli and cauliflower in Jimmy's dip and spreads sardines on whole wheat crackers.

When he's up north working on his remodeling project at the cabin, he picks up things he can toss in the microwave and eat. One was a bowl of noodles he planned to add water, then heat.

Looking at the label I said, well there's a lot of sodium in that, nearly 1,500 milligrams. This is the maximum he should consume in a single day.

I did not bother to check the amount of fiber in his entree, but I am pretty sure it was a marginal number. Men need at least 30 grams of fiber daily. Women should eat 21 to 25 grams.

Plain old cauliflower has only a few calories, but adds vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and yes, fiber to one's diet. Dip them in humus and add more fiber, plus vegetable protein.

We were up at the cabin recently, the first time in a month. I made simple meals, relaxed, slept in, fit a few more pieces into a 1,000-piece puzzle, and feel better all around.

In the last two weeks, I found myself fighting winter weather on the road to attend the annual farmers market association meeting and a cottage foods meeting too.

Both were about local foods, but in different ways — either growing or creating them in a home kitchen.

The farmers market conference closed early because a big storm was creeping across Minnesota and we were in St. Cloud. The cottage food event was held in Minneapolis the following week. It was starting to snow as I left home early in the morning and slowed my progress until reaching Cannon Falls, where it was as if I crossed a line and everything was better.

But on the way home it was a different story, and a very slow trip home, first through drizzle, then snow. Since then, I've thought a lot about the people I met and talked to through breaks and during meals. They were special people who grow apples or sweet corn or create candy from maple syrup.

Local foods were the connection between all of us. We were strategizing on better ways to market homegrown and home-produced foods. As our world has gotten bigger and more complex, we are taking a step back and looking at ways to be more productive and creative with foods from closer to home.

I know the fresh cauliflower I like eating in the middle of winter is not grown locally. I am grateful that I have the option of getting fresh items like mango, pineapple, and cauliflower during the winter at a grocery store.

My husband and I are anticipating our annual winter get-away to California, where we can visit markets and find their locally grown produce. Right now, I'm imagining avocados, oranges, and strawberries. 

But until then, I'm going to mash up some canned chickpeas in my food processor to make a healthy dip, and in it I'll dip fresh cauliflower, grown far from home. To add another way to sneak vegetables onto my plate, I'm trying Michele Obama's Mac & Cheese.


Hummus Dip

2 garlic cloves

1 lemon (or 3 tablespoons bottled lemon juice)

1 15-ounce can chickpeas (garbanzo beans)

½ cup tahini

¼ cup olive oil

2 teaspoons cumin or paprika

Salt and pepper

Optional: a roasted red pepper with seeds and skin removed (directions below)

Peel and chop garlic cloves and put them in a food processor. Half the lemon and squeeze the juice into the blender. Add drained chickpeas (reserve the liquid), tahini, olive oil, and seasonings.

Let the machine run, covered, until the puree is smooth. Add a bit more olive oil or reserved liquid, if necessary, to create a smooth puree. Adjust seasonings before serving.

Change up the flavor by roasting a red pepper and adding it (minus seeds and skin) to the food processor before pureeing.


Roasted Red Peppers

1 or 2 fresh red peppers

Choose thick-skinned peppers. Lay the peppers in a broiler pan. Broil until the skins blister, about 2 to 3 minutes. With tongs, rotate the peppers slightly and broil again. Continue turning and broiling until they are completely charred. Place them in a paper bag. Close the bag and let them sit in it for 15 to 20 minutes. The charred skin will steam loose from the flesh. Then, holding each pepper over a bowl, slit down one side. Open the pepper and discard the seeds, ribs and stem. Then cut the pepper into 2 to 3 pieces, pull off the loosened skin with a paring knife.

Chop or slice as needed for a recipe.

An alternative method with a gas stove is to spear the pepper with a long fork. Hold the pepper over the flame to char the skin. Rotate until charred all around pepper. 


Cauliflower Mac & Cheese

(adapted from “Healthy Recipes from the White House to You”)

1 pound whole wheat penne pasta

1 cup milk

1 pound shredded cheddar cheese

½ head cauliflower, washed and cut into florets

¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese

1 tablespoon fresh parsley, chopped (or 1 teaspoon dried)

Salt and pepper to taste

Fill a large soup kettle with water and sprinkle with salt. Bring it to a boil, then add the pasta and cook until it is al dente (tender, but not mushy). Drain and return to pan. Meanwhile, cook the cauliflower until soft, drain, then transfer to a food processor and puree.

Pour cauliflower puree over pasta. Add milk and cheeses; stir until cheese is melted. Season with salt and pepper. Sprinkle with parsley and serve immediately.