Basing meals on vegetables leads to healthier eating

May 22, 1994|By Faye Levy | Faye Levy,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

Nutritionists and doctors advise us to include more vegetables in our diet. Vegetables are not only rich in vitamins and minerals and a good source of fiber, they are also low in calories and contain no cholesterol, almost no fat and very little sodium. Some vegetables provide protein and some contain complex carbohydrates, which give us energy. In addition, some vegetables, like those in the crucifer, or cabbage, family, contain compounds that are believed to help prevent certain types of cancer.

If you eat more vegetables every day, it will naturally help you eat smaller amounts of less nutritious foods and those that contain fat. For years, home economists suggested we plan menus by deciding on a main course of meat, fish or poultry, and design the rest of the meal around it. But there are reasons to change this habit: If beautiful bunches of broccoli, snow-white mushrooms, shiny purple eggplants or brilliant sweet red peppers are featured in the market, why not start with them?

A flexible style of menu planning can result in more exciting meals as well as better nutrition. I have always liked the Chinese style of serving rice with a variety of accompanying dishes, rather than thinking in terms of a main course of meat and one or two side dishes. To expand on this idea, you can prepare one, two or three vegetable dishes and serve them with pasta, rice or another grain. With this approach, a meal is satisfying, colorful and delicious.

Vegetable dishes from around the globe can contribute to every part of the menu. For appetizers, there are colorful Middle Eastern vegetable dips, zesty Italian vegetable antipasti, Greek phyllo pastries with vegetable fillings, delicate French salads with light, aromatic dressings, and much more.

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My friend Somchit Singchalee, a Thai chef in Paris, taught me how to make this Thai mushroom and red chili curry. She used it as a basic Thai red curry recipe for all sorts of vegetables -- squash, eggplant, even potatoes. For this dish we sometimes bought tiny Thai green eggplants that looked like large peas. But our common large eggplants work just fine, too. This curry is very rich, so I like to serve it in small portions with Thai jasmine rice and another simple dish such as grilled chicken breasts or a quick spinach salad.

Most of the ingredients for this curry are available in any good supermarket. You can also buy these ingredients in most Asian specialty shops.

Thai mushroom and red chili curry

Makes 4 or 5 main-course servings

2 tablespoons oil

1/2 pound large fresh mushrooms, halved

salt, freshly ground black pepper

1 medium shallot, chopped

2 medium garlic cloves, chopped

1 tablespoon Thai red chili paste

1 (14-ounce) can coconut milk

2 teaspoons sugar

2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon Thai fish sauce (nam pla or Thai seasoning sauce)

1 small eggplant (1 pound), cut into 1-inch cubes

1 sweet red pepper, cut into strips

1/2 cup shelled fresh or frozen peas

1 (15-ounce) can baby corn, rinsed and halved

1/2 cup small Thai or Italian basil leaves, optional, plus basil sprigs for garnish

Heat 1 tablespoon oil in saute pan over medium-high heat. Add mushrooms, salt and pepper to taste and saute 4 minutes or until lightly browned. Remove to bowl. Add re- maining 1 tablespoon oil and heat over low heat.

Add shallot and garlic and saute for 1 minute. Stir in chili paste, then 1 1/4 cups coconut milk and bring to boil. Simmer over low heat for 5 minutes, stirring often. Add sugar and 2 table spoons fish sauce.

Add eggplant and red pepper strips. Bring to boil. Cover and simmer, stirring often, about 15 minutes or until tender. Add remaining coconut milk and bring to boil.

Add mushrooms, peas and corn. Cover and simmer 5 minutes or until vegetables are tender. (Curry can be kept, covered, 2 days in refrigerator. Reheat in covered pan.) If sauce is too thick, gradually stir in 1 or 2 tablespoons water. Add remaining 1 teaspoon fish sauce, or more to taste. Remove from heat and stir in basil leaves. Taste and adjust seasonings. Garnish with basil sprigs.

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I first tasted this tomato and corn tortilla soup cooked by a friend's teen-age guest from Mexico City, who knew how to cook only one thing -- tortilla soup. We thought it sounded like a strange dish, but it turned out to be delicious. The soup is made in different ways throughout Mexico. It might contain only tomatoes and onion, or might have zucchini, carrots, chilies or sweet peppers. I like to add corn for its taste and texture and because it complements the corn tortillas. I also stir raw tomatoes and cilantro into the finished soup for a fresh touch.

Many versions of this soup call for cheese, such as crumbled Mexican queso fresco or shredded Monterey Jack. You can serve cheese separately if you like, but I prefer the soup without it. You can also accompany the soup with avocado slices.

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