We all know the benefits of eating fruits and vegetables. They contain vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other nutrients to keep our bodies running in peak condition. Study after study shows that people who consume the most fruits and veggies are less at risk for a host of illnesses, including heart disease and cancer. And so, farmers’ markets have started cropping up all over and supermarkets have begun expanding their produce sections to accommodate the increased demand.
The best fruits and vegetables to eat are the ones grown locally and seasonally. Doing this saves money, protects the planet, and pleases your palate. Crops are more bountiful during their natural harvest times, and your pocketbook benefits from the surplus. Plus, if you buy locally, you won’t incur the costs of the food being transported to your store, and the planet won’t incur the costs of fossil fuels being burned to ship that food. But even if money were no object and global warming weren’t an issue, the best reason to eat locally and seasonally is taste. The following 10 foods are reaching their seasonal peaks. They’re grown and available in most regions of the United States.
- Apples. An apple a day can keep the doctor away in more ways than one. Studies have shown that apples can help lower cholesterol, manage diabetes, and prevent several diseases, including cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, osteoporosis, and asthma. Make sure you don’t peel the apple. The peel contains quercetin, an antioxidant shown in a Finnish study to reduce heart disease and inhibit tumor growth. The skin also contains insoluble fiber; the flesh contains pectin, a soluble fiber. While apples are great on their own, they also make great crunchy additions to salads or tasty additions to baked dessert treats.
- Corn. Generally, our society eats way too much corn. It’s in almost every food we eat, especially in its most nefarious form-high fructose corn syrup. It’s easily America’s number one crop. But fall is the time when we get the harvest of the tastiest sweet corn. Besides being delicious, in its unprocessed state, it’s actually quite healthy. A food study at Cornell University showed that ferulic acid, an antioxidant produced when sweet corn is cooked, is another heart disease and cancer fighter. It’s also a good source of vitamins B1, B5, and C, folate, and fiber. Besides eating it on the cob, try corn in salads or as a colorful, crunchy addition to a salsa.
- Cucumbers. Normally, we don’t see cucumbers until they’ve been pickled and sliced and added to two all-beef patties and a sesame seed bun. Cucumbers are very low in calories (just 4 calories per ounce), a natural diuretic, and thought to help prevent pancreatic, liver, and kidney diseases. They contain potassium, which helps regulate blood pressure. The skin contains silica, which helps strengthen connective tissue. And they’re not just for eating. The juice makes a great skin lotion. Those spa ladies with cucumber slices on their eyes aren’t doing it for nothing. The juice reduces swelling not just for eye bags but also for burns and skin disorders. A tasty way to eat cucumbers is my Russian grandmother’s simple recipe of thinly sliced cucumbers, low-fat yogurt, thinly sliced onion, and chopped dill (she actually used sour cream too, but we won’t go there).
- Eggplant. Eggplants contain lots of vitamins, minerals, and fiber, and also high levels of antioxidants, including nasunin, which has been shown to protect cells from free radical damage. Eggplants also contain terpenes, which are believed to help lower cholesterol. Eggplant is a very versatile ingredient in all kinds of cooking, including Italian, Indian, and Chinese dishes. It can be baked, stewed, or sautéed, among other cooking methods. One thing to watch out for is that the flesh of the eggplant is highly absorptive, so if you fry it in oil, it will soak it all up. One cooking technique is to lightly salt sliced eggplant before cooking it; then let it sit for a half hour and rinse the salt off. This will cause the cell structure of the eggplant to contract, making it a little less “spongey.” My mom’s been dealing with a bumper crop of eggplant from her backyard garden and has been putting eggplant in everything. A recent success was replacing the pasta in her favorite lasagna recipe with thinly sliced eggplant. It absorbed the tomato sauce instead of the oil and made the dish richer and creamier.
- Grapes. There’s been much written about the benefits of wine, and the harvest for the 2009 vintages is beginning. But you don’t have to get loaded to get the benefits of grapes. In their unfermented state, they’re a great source of vitamins A, B6, and C, folate, potassium, calcium, magnesium, zinc, and fiber. Like apples, they contain the antioxidant quercitin. They also contain resveratrol, which has been shown to reduce blood clots and protect arteries from free radical damage. Generally speaking, the darker the grape, the higher the antioxidant levels. Grapes are great snacks and low in calories. They make great additions to salads, or you can freeze them for a warm-weather treat.
- Okra. This may be the most intimidating ingredient on this list. Many people are put off by okra’s bristly outside and somewhat slimy inside, but it has a lot of health benefits that should make you take a second look. It’s full of vitamins, minerals, and fiber. And it has great gastrointestinal benefits. Its high mucilage content, which thickens stews and gumbos, also helps absorb cholesterol, toxins, and bile and has a gentle laxative effect. Its seeds also contain amino acids and protein. It is also believed to be good for the skin and hair. It has been said that Cleopatra ate okra as part of her beauty regimen. Okra is great in soups and stews or lightly sautéed as a side dish.
- Pears. This is my favorite fall food. The biggest, juiciest pears start showing up in farmers’ markets right about now. Besides being a great source of stains on my shirts, they have high levels of vitamins C and K, copper, and fiber. They contain even more of the soluble fiber pectin than apples, which can play an important part in digestive health and lowering cholesterol. Pears have also been shown to reduce kidney inflammation and colitis. Asian pears, which are crunchy like an apple, are also in season now and contain the health benefits of both fruits. Pears are great plain, broiled, or poached. Asian pears can be shredded as a healthy addition to a slaw.
- Peppers. Whether you like them spicy or sweet, now is prime pepper-picking time. Fiber-rich peppers have high levels of vitamins A, C, and K, with red peppers containing the highest levels. Red peppers, like tomatoes, are also good sources of lycopene, which studies show may be linked to cancer prevention. Hot peppers contain capsaicin, which has been shown to help prevent ulcers and lower cholesterol. Plus, hot peppers can help ramp up your metabolism. I can’t think of many dishes that couldn’t be improved with a little peppery zip. Soups, stir-frys, salads . . . I even had some chocolate cayenne ice cream that was pretty good.
- Raspberries. Raspberries are some of the healthiest, but priciest, berries out there. So now when they’re in season is the most economical time to enjoy them. Raspberries contain several flavonoids called anthocyanins, believed to have antimicrobial properties, which can help prevent fungal and yeast infections and aid with irritable bowel syndrome. A Netherlands study recently showed that raspberries had 10 times as many antioxidants as tomatoes. Like apples and pears, they also contain high levels of pectin. While they’re great as snacks and desserts, think about trying them in a salad.
- Tomatoes. The big new star of the tomato nutritional profile is lycopene. This carotenoid has increasingly been shown to be a powerful antioxidant that may play a big role in preventing cancer and heart disease. They are also great sources of vitamin C. And for those of you who don’t care for raw tomatoes (as George Carlin said, they look like they’re in the larval stage), tomatoes lose very little of their nutritional value when cooked. So they can be enjoyed stewed, in sauce, and even as ketchup (although we recommend a ketchup free of high fructose corn syrup and low in sodium). This is a prime time to seek out tomatoes at the farmers’ market. Especially exotic are the heirloom varieties that come in yellows, greens, purples, browns, and reds. They can make a beautiful multicolored and antioxidant-rich salad.