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Versatile veggies make a good plate great

Here are some healthy tips to help make the most of your veggie prep this summer

(Note: This article was originally submitted to run in the month of June.)

June marks a wonderful time of the year, with the start of the summer season, long days, starry nights and National Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Month. Being a dietitian and nutritionist, I can tell you I’m a bit of a fruit and veggie nerd. But, I like to think that I enjoy eating them for more than just their nutritional value. They add color, flavor, texture and excitement to any meal and can be enjoyed in so many ways.

It’s easy to like fruit. It’s sweet, delicious and easy to eat, requiring minimal preparation beyond a good rinse.

Vegetables, on the other hand, can pose a challenge, since their flavors can vary from the sweetness of a red bell pepper to the peppery bite of arugula. Then, there’s the issue of requiring additional preparation beyond simple washing, such as peeling, chopping and cooking. But I’d like to defend vegetables and ask you to give them a chance.

I’ll start by reiterating that vegetables are nutritious, containing fiber, phytochemicals, vitamins and minerals. I’d like to highlight three fresh vegetables that are easy to prepare and can be used in place of other common ingredients. These are my top picks for versatile vegetables:

Spaghetti squash. This hard-shelled yellow oval-shaped vegetable is a squash that cooks up to yield a bounty of spaghetti-like strands.

Spaghetti squash noodles have only about 7 grams of carbohydrates and 30 calories per cup, compared to 45 grams of carbohydrates and 200 calories per cup of regular spaghetti pasta. They’re a great alternative when trying to save calories, reduce the amount of carbohydrates in a meal, or avoid processed foods.

To prepare, cut the squash in half lengthwise, scoop out the seeds with a spoon, and microwave for 7-10 minutes, cut side down, in a glass dish with ¼ cup water, covered with plastic wrap. The hardest part is cutting the squash in half, but the most fun is using a fork to scrape the inside of the cooked squash (careful, it will be very hot!) to yield about 6-8 cups of squash “noodles.” Although they have a different texture, you can use them in place of spaghetti or other noodles.

Cauliflower. Cauliflower seems to becoming a favorite at all the trendy restaurants, and for good reason. It’s very versatile, tasty and nutritious.

There are 25 calories and 5 grams of carbohydrates in 1 cup of cauliflower, making cauliflower rice a great low-calorie, low-carbohydrate, non-processed alternative to regular rice. It contains a variety of nutrients and is an excellent source of vitamin C, which helps protect our body’s cells from damage caused by free radicals resulting from the foods we eat or exposure to environmental toxins, such as cigarette smoke and air pollution.

To prepare cauliflower rice, take a large head of cauliflower, rinse it and remove the green leaves. Cut into 2-inch chunks, including the core, place in a food processor, and pulse until the pieces resemble rice. If you don’t have a food processor, you can cut the cauliflower into larger pieces and use a grater to make the rice. Cauliflower already “riced” is also available in some supermarket produce or frozen sections. Sauté the cauliflower rice in 1 tablespoon of oil in a large pan, then let it steam by covering the pan and cooking for about 5 minutes more or until tender. It’s really not that difficult to prepare, and with a little seasoning, it is very tasty!

Portabella mushrooms. These large fungi aren’t actually a vegetable, but the USDA considers them one in their MyPlate food groups. Their meaty flavor makes them a delicious, lower-fat substitute for red meat, and they’re so much easier to grill!

Not only are portabellas low in fat and calories, but if growers expose the mushrooms to ultraviolet light, it increases their vitamin D content, making them one of the few food sources of vitamin D. Vitamin D helps our bodies absorb calcium, which can help build and maintain strong bones.

To prepare a portabella mushroom burger, wipe the mushroom cap with a damp paper towel to clean it, trim off the stem, brush with olive oil, and season with salt and pepper. Grill until tender, or about 6-8 minutes, turning if desired. Add your favorite cheese for some extra flavor and if you want to make it a bit more hardy. Serve on a bun with your favorite condiments.

Of course, there are many other versatile vegetables out there, but these are tried and proven to be winners in my home. No matter what time of the year, there’s always a fresh fruit or vegetable in season that will make a delightful addition to your plate, making it go from good to great. Enjoy!

Aurora Buffington photo
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