I brought home a bag of groceries, and I had a thought. I talk a lot about eating healthy food, but I don’t really do it in detail. What if I just went over a typical bag of groceries and how I plan meals?
Then I realized that if I wanted a good picture, I’d have to take everything out of the produce bags and put it back in again before I could finish putting the groceries away. It was tedious. What will I not do to get people to eat cruciferous vegetables??
We don’t have a car anymore, so our groceries all get carried from the Whole Foods Market, our closest store at half a mile away. This means we typically make three trips a week. Two will be mostly produce (basically one for fruit and one for vegetables), and one will be mostly frozen foods. Our kitchen is really small, so even if we still had a car, we can’t really stock up or keep a lot of extra food in the pantry. In a weird way, the lack of these two typical resources - transportation and living space - results in our eating fresher food.
I want to pause to talk about cost. We live in a 680-square-foot apartment with a micro-kitchen and we have no car. Line by line, every vegetable represented on this receipt is in the price range of a bag of chips or a case of soda. (Except the cabbage, but I challenge you to eat a cabbage that size in one meal). I will stand toe to toe with anyone who wants to talk about elitism and social justice with me, because that is my motivation. Everyone has the right to eat vegetables that grow in the ground. It’s not fair that most people don’t know how. I’m not here to judge; I’m here to teach, to teach what I learned over such a long time and with such great difficulty.
This picture represents a produce run. There are a few items in it that are 1. Not produce and 2. Not items a typical American household would buy. I’ve included the receipt (totaling $35.47), but I’m excluding the soy milk, two packages of plant-based cold cuts, and a bag of bulk peanuts from both the total and the discussion. My position on vegetables is that they are relevant to all diets, regardless of philosophy or culture, and whatever entree you want to put them next to is up to your personal preference.
Clockwise from upper left, you’re seeing: the biggest green cabbage we’ve ever had; collard greens; broccoli; chard; dino kale; scallions; carrots; red bell pepper; a bundle of bok choy; cauliflower. Occasionally I get Brussels sprouts, but they’ve been looking too small lately.
The scallions, carrots, and bell pepper are representative of what I call “decorations” or “sprinkles.” They’re there because they’re pretty and fun to eat, not because I think they count for nutrition. Although it’s worth mentioning that bell pepper has more vitamin C than an orange.
Our basic plan is to eat cruciferous vegetables every night. Chard is not cruciferous, but it’s a power vegetable nonetheless, and we eat it a lot. The idea is to rotate through these power vegetables, with the entree as something of an afterthought. It’s more like “what goes with collard greens?” rather than “what is a good side vegetable for barbecue?”
Neither of us ate this way when we met. As a matter of cold fact, the first time I got a farm box delivery that included kale, collard greens, and chard, I had to Google all three of them to figure out which was which. I had no idea how to wash or chop this stuff, whether you eat the stems, how to make them not taste bad, or any of that. I had a hundred cookbooks, but very few of them had recipes for these vegetables - especially not cabbage, the poor step-cousin of the veg world. Other uncommon vegetables like kohlrabi? Good luck with that.
One of the biggest surprises of my life has been how awesome cabbage is. I think it has a reputation problem, and part of it is the name. We pronounce it with a spurious French accent: cabauge. I would try out a new recipe, everyone would eat it, and then both my husband and my stepdaughter would mention it weeks later. It turned out that every single one of the favorite recipes included cabbage! I was like WHAT???? That’s why I get excited now when I find a cabbage that’s bigger than my head. We might get two or even three dinners out of it.
The second biggest surprise for me about preparing vegetables is that they all take about 5 minutes to cook.
I can wash and chop half a cabbage for dinner in about one minute, and I sauté it in oil for 4-5 minutes, although often I put it in soup and it doesn’t need the oil. We microwave broccoli for 4 minutes, and cauliflower goes in for 8. (Trying to cook broccoli and cauliflower together for the same length of time is a tragic mistake that results either in bitter, undercooked cauliflower or soggy, tasteless broccoli). Collard greens, kale, chard, and bok choy all take about two minutes to wash and chop and 3-4 minutes to sauté.
My working hypothesis is that standard Americans don’t eat these vegetables for two reasons. Either they gag on unfamiliar textures and bitter tastes, or they simply have no idea how to cook them and feel overwhelmed at the prospect of learning how. My heart absolutely breaks for adult picky eaters, because I used to be one, and it correlates with weight problems and major health issues. I feel pretty terrible at the lack of cultural information available on how to have a real vegetable party. Sure, I can look at a new vegetable-free recipe, figure out exactly which crucifer belongs in it, and adapt on the spot. How are neophytes supposed to learn to do this? How are people going to get over the first speed bumps of poor execution and unfamiliar tastes and textures?
It’s possible, maybe inevitable, that eating more power vegetables will captivate you. It happened to us. We’ve both found ourselves staring at a gleaming vat of steamed kale, transfixed, wondering if it’s possible to just buy it all and eat two gallons at one sitting. Most people never know that such a deep and visceral food craving is possible. How could they, if they’ve never eaten the vegetable in question in their entire lives? How could they, if they’ve had it once or twice and didn’t immediately like it? How could they, when our culture makes such a mockery of this stuff? Cruciferous vegetables are like the earnest, obnoxious door-to-door missionaries of the food world.
Do you have a few moments to talk about kale?
No? I guess I’ll go bother your neighbor then.
I took the picture of these vegetables, and then I bagged up everything except the chard. The chard went into the sink. I washed it, chopped it, cooked it, and we had eaten every bite of it within forty minutes of it coming home from the store. The kale went into our green smoothies. We got into a minor quarrel over which one of us got to cook the broccoli, because we take turns cooking, and we both mentally claimed it as soon as it entered the kitchen. I made the cauliflower with a frozen Indian vindaloo because the sauce is amazing with cauliflower. A week later, all that was left was a few scallions, a couple of carrots, and about two-thirds of the cabbage.
Most of the rest of what we eat is “processed foods.” This is heresy in the healthy eating community. Apparently the only way to reach salvation is to hand-process everything. Okay, I make my own stocks and jam and pickles and sauerkraut. That does not mean I’m going to spend 90 minutes every night cooking from scratch! We eat all sorts of ridiculous processed foods, like frozen sliders and pizza pockets. We just do it off a plate that is filled at least half by these gorgeous, fresh, organic vegetables.
Believe me, I recognize that the way we eat is based on privilege. I know this because I’ve gone hungry. I also know this because I refused to eat broccoli or cauliflower as a child, and I never had the kale or the chard or the collard greens. I don’t think I tasted bok choy until I was 19. I share about the elite way we eat now because I think it’s within reach of many people who would benefit from it if they only knew they could.
What goes with what?
Broccoli usually goes with sliders and potatoes, or in a stir-fry with frozen Szechuan and sundry leftover vegetables
Cauliflower usually goes with frozen Indian food, or just anything because we love it
Cabbage usually goes with something in katsu sauce, peanut sauce, soup, veggie sausage and potatoes, or anything Chinese
Collard greens usually go with anything BBQ, anything Southern like Hoppin’ John, or sautéed with some kind of Gardein
Kale usually goes in smoothies but we’ll eat it with anything
Chard is the fancy one
Bok choy we usually do with Asian food or tofu
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.