The Vine

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Southern Sides: A Theory of Vegetable Balancing

Although I am no longer a vegetarian, I will always love vegetables in my meals. With a Southern/Creole/Mexican culinary back ground, I was taught to love vegetables and meats well prepared with spices, and unfortunately, too many fats and even carcinogenic methods of preparation. After nearly two decades of vegetarian cooking, I was able to re-visit these favorite vegetable sides, and easily replace things like bacon fat, lard, or blackening with olive oil, better herb seasonings, and quicker cooking. Oh, but sorry, I never got rid of the butter, and I am certain that one day butter will be redeemed as a “good” fat.

One of the classic Southern meals is the three-vegetable plate (sometimes with four vegetables) or Southern Sides. With chicken, beef, and pork seasonings, the Southern way of preparation of vegetable is rarely vegetarian, but it easily could be. Even with a fish or meat entrée, the vegetable sides tradition presents an always-changing range of options that can suit any seasonal availability issues, and, if intelligently selected, bring a nutritional balance to the meal.

Back when I first became a vegetarian, we were greatly influenced by the meat industry’s propaganda and a vegetarian cookbook, Laurel’s Kitchen. Both of these polar-opposite information sources agreed on one thing: It was very difficult for vegetarians to get enough protein, and having been raised with images of starving Africans suffering from kwashiorkor, none of us wanted that! Laurel taught us that the only way for vegetarians to get enough protein was to assiduously balance the nine essential amino acids in our diet was to balance grains plus legumes (beans). So since lysine is more available in legumes, and methionine and cystine were more present in grains, EVERY meal was based on beans and rice. It is amazing so many of us stuck it out!

While it is true that legumes and grains have complementary proteins (which is why every nation has some classic recipe that is some version of beans and rice) we now know that the human body, at least a healthy one, is much more flexible in its ability to obtain and convert and combine amino acids. We also know that vegetables alone contain more than enough protein than necessary for healthy human bodies. Nobody, even the loopiest, most unbalanced diet wing-nut ever developed kwashiorkor (protein starvation) in the US. Protein starvation is difficult to arrive at without actual calorie starvation, marasmus.

Nevertheless, as I developed my recipes menus and food theories, I remained committed to the idea of balance, harmony through the combination of dissimilar ingredients. Now I was back to the basic Southern Sides but with new information. Since the protein problem was solved, the role of vitamins and antioxidants, phytochemicals (literally plant chemical) became much more important to promote optimum health and to prevent disease.

Now we strike into my own theories. I believe that the reason we evolved the ability to see colors was that it allowed us to choose and harvest fruit and vegetable foods of high phytochemical content. Green leaves, purple fruits, yellow seeds, orange roots are “beautiful” to us because they are nutritionally advantageous for us. Of course there are more than a few exceptions to this, but those lessons are easily learned. The pretty, green aloe vera leaf looks plump and juicy and even smells good, but one bite and your average primate will spit it out. The aloins would cause diarrhea if you ate too much.

If the colors of plant advertise their vitamin content, the next natural step is to balance these vitamins and phytochemicals by serving portions of contrasting colors. So I would choose to serve a green vegetable with a yellow vegetable and a white one, but I would not serve two yellow vegetable together. Hence I would not serve roasted red bell peppers next to red tomatoes. Nor carrots and butternut squash on the same menu. Instead, I would serve three vegetable sides, each prepared in their own way, each of a different color. Thus, sweet potatoes, corn, and green beans would be a perfect combination, but not yellow squash, corn and green beans.

The next level of balance-by-contrast is to serve portions of vegetables that come from different parts of the plant. While beets are red and turnips are white and carrots are orange, I would not serve them in the same menu, because they are all roots. Nutritionally, different vitamins, minerals and carbohydrates tend to occur in different parts of plants. So, I would serve orange sweet potatoes (a root) with collard greens (a leaf) and either yellow squash (a fruit) or corn (a seed). I have created a meal that is made from vegetables of three different colors AND three different parts of plants.

What if you do not know what parts of the plant your vegetable came from? This is some very basic nutritional and biological information that is pretty easy to come by, and any produce worker should be glad you asked such an interesting question!

Does it seem too complicated? Maybe while reading this article it does, but once you are in the produce aisle, it falls together pretty simply, just by seeing “what looks good today?” Although I try to choose produce that is in season in Central Texas at any given time, we are blessed by the produce of the world in any good grocery store, so there are plenty of choices.

Here is a list of different parts/colors to give you an idea how to balance the Southern Sides:

Green stem/stalk: celery, asparagus
Green leaf: spinach, kale, chard, cabbage, lettuce, bok choi, mizuna, mustard greens, Brussels sprouts
Green flower: broccoli, artichoke
Green fruit: green bell pepper, zucchini, okra
Green seeds: green beans, peas, snow peas, sugar snap peas, lima beans

Yellow root: golden beets, yellow potatoes
Yellow fruit: yellow bell pepper, yellow squash, yellow tomato, chanterelle mushrooms
Yellow seeds: corn

Orange root: sweet potatoes, yams, carrots, rutabagas
Orange fruit: Orange tomato, all types of winter squash

Red root: beets
Red fruit: tomato, red bell pepper

White root: onion, potato (even the purple ones since they lose the purple upon cooking)
White stem/stalk: kohlrabi
White flower: cauliflower
White fruit: oyster mushrooms, eggplant, yellow squash, zucchini
White seed: rice, pasta (macaroni and cheese!) okra

Brown fruit: mushrooms
Brown seed: blackeyed peas

Obviously there are some points of argument and overlap here. It is meant to be a general guideline, and the parts-of-plants is less important, for example, would I serve sauteed okra with braised yellow squash? Sure I would. These two fruits are balanced just because they are so dissimilar. If you find yourself disagreeing with these categories, you are already on your way to creating your own version of this meal plan!

Now let’s talk about the why-bother part. I will share with you a few anecdotal observations about the result of this sort of meal on myself, LoverMan and friends. First, there is an almost opiate sense of satisfaction. “I feel like my cells are all singing. Every cell in my body!” I said to LM. “And for once, they are all in harmony,” he joked. Most guests comment on how they feel afterward, a bliss factor. They also say that my vegetables taste better than their mother’s. Most boomers relate that to our parents’ fondness for canned and frozen veggies, while we prefer fresh. But I contend that it is the contrast in flavors that makes them more appealing in this context, and people end up eating much larger portions of vegetables like cauliflower, beets or greens, usually a hard sell in other meal plans. You can eat more of this kind of food than other more calorie-dense foods because veggies are by volume mostly fiber and water. This is then better for regular bowel movement.

Both LM and I, who love to drink alcoholic beverages with meals, find we don’t drink as much during or after these dinners. And he, a decided snack-a-holic, will have less craving for potato chips and cheesy puffs for at least a day after. I believe that most unhealthy cravings are really minor dietary deficiencies trying to be satisfied. The balanced Southern Sides meal puts the stop to those whiny little voices!

While you can add meat entrees to this dinner to beautiful affects amidst three colorful veggie portions, rare is the person who will eat this meal and say, “Well, dang, that would have been great if it came with some pork chops.”

I leave it to your creative genius to develop simple recipes for each of these veggies, as I have done. Enjoy the tradition, and now the health benefits of Southern Sides!


At 6:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yum. Very appetizing description.

Then there are folks like me, who like Southern Sides meals AND (a few hours later) the calorie boost of some kind of "not good for you" snack. And as for giving up lard or butter, well, I'll do that ... when elephants roost in trees!




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