One of the most humbling discoveries I have made in my quest for natural health is the way in which the Earth itself provides what we need to be healthy and thrive. Between the vast array of fruits and vegetables which grow around the world and the medicinal herbs that have been used for millennia by wise cultures, we are blessed with plants that support our health. The most amazing part of this nurturing planet is the way in which it produces seasonal vegetables and fruits just at the time of year when our bodies actually need those nutrients the most! The tender vegetables of spring are rich in B-vitamins that bolster our energy and mood as we move out of a dark and sedentary winter season; summer fruits and vegetables are water-heavy for hydration and electrolyte replenishment; autumn produce is hearty and warming for the coming chill, filled with anti-inflammatory agents to negate sugary holiday treats we are indulging in! Produce that grows in the same season that you eat them tend to be higher in nutrients since they are allowed to ripen or mature where they grow and travel less distances to arrive at your grocery store or farmer’s market.
Winter vegetables and fruits are the focus of this article as we enter some of the coldest and most viral-prone months of the year. To set the mood, let me take you on a quick hike through the coastal woods of Northern California to introduce you to my favorite cold-weather food… MUSHROOMS! Last weekend, we bundled our toddler up, grabbed cloth bags and our trusty mushroom guide, and went in search of the season’s most powerful anti-viral food that magically emerges after the first rainstorms on the Pacific coast. Crouching under bushes and skirting the branches of Redwoods and oaks, large and small caps of all colors were pushing through the damp leaves. “Moo ma!” (translation: a most amazing mushroom!) shrieked my son every time we found one. We left with over 16 pounds of Hedgehog, Pig’s Ear, and Chanterelle mushrooms that made their way into soups, scrambles, and stews.
You don’t have to forage for these powerhouse foods though… even well-known medicinal mushrooms like Shitake can be found at most grocery stores. These humble fungi are rich in iron, minerals, and most importantly, phytonutrients that powerfully support your immune system. They contain B-vitamins for adrenal support and mood and vitamin D that is crucial for bone health and immunity and often low in those of us living in dark winter climates. If you are interested in taking medicinal mushrooms as supplements, Four Sigmatic and Health Ranger are reliable sources of powdered mushrooms that can be mixed into coffee or tea. I have enjoyed reading the book Healing Mushrooms by Tero Isokauppila (founder of Four Sigmatic) which describes the most powerful mushrooms in depth and offers some recipes to try.
Another well-known winter vegetable family are the cruciferous vegetables. This includes cabbage, kale, collards, broccoli, cauliflower, and brussels sprouts. For many people, these vegetables aren’t very popular because they require a bit more creativity and preparation in the kitchen. But cruciferous vegetables are perhaps the healthiest vegetables you can eat! Loaded with fiber and vitamin C, they prevent constipation that can come with less physically active winter days and boost our immune system to fight infections. Since other good summer sources of vitamin C are harder to find (think anemic-looking tomatoes and expensive bell peppers), cruciferous veggies are a powerful substitute. They are also excellent sources of antioxidant vitamin A and vitamin K for healthy bones and blood clotting if you fall victim to winter accidents on the road, ice, or sled! Most importantly, this family of vegetables contain phytonutrients and sulfur which support your liver in detoxification and help prevent cancer according to research. I think we could all use a little detoxification for the New Year!
Winter squash such as pumpkins, butternut squash, kabocha, and acorn squash first appear in the fall and have nourishing qualities to take us through the winter. I love how their bright orange colors reflect the changing autumn leaves. As excellent sources of the anti-oxidant beta-carotene (pro-vitamin A), vitamin C, and fiber, they support our bodies in similar ways as the cruciferous vegetables do. The bright orange colors testify to the richness of their antioxidant content. They are filling and starchy, providing concentrated energy sources when you need them the most for cold days and nights. Crinkle cut squash fries baked with coconut oil and cinnamon are a favorite at my house, and I keep frozen batches of puree available all winter to whip up quick soups.
Onions and garlic are available all year round, but are considered a cold season crop and often planted in the fall. Because of the high sulfur content, these vegetables support liver health, blood sugar and cholesterol regulation (hello, Christmas treats!) and quercetin which is a powerful anti-inflammatory and has shown benefits in treating COVID-19 illness . They are also great sources of vitamin C, again important for immune system health.
Seasonal fruits are harder to come by if you don’t live in a tropical zone. But during the winter season when vitamin C is so crucial to staying healthy, citrus fruits come to the rescue. In states like Florida and California, citrus fruits ripen in the early winter months of the year. Grapefruits, oranges, and lemons are rich in flavonoids that provide antioxidant protection while brightening up your meals and moods in dreary months. According to studies, lemon essential oil may relieve depression and anxiety. I remember boxes of citrus being delivered to our house as a child, fresh from Florida, through a food co-op my mother was part of. Keeping the fruit from freezing in our New England garage was always a challenge, but grapefruits and oranges were a part of our daily breakfast rituals in the winter when I was growing up.
Wondering how to prepare these nutrient-packed winter plants? Here is a recipe for a filling winter meal that celebrates all of the above-mentioned foods. All of these ingredients can be found at your local supermarket. This meal is delicious cold too and can be prepared as a jar salad for lunches as well; just add some raw leafy greens and cherry tomatoes. Light the fire, fill up your bowl, and enjoy the comforting warmth and nutrition the winter season has to offer.
LENTIL AND ROASTED WINTER VEGETABLE MEDLEY (serves 4)
1 red onion, quartered and broken apart
5 cloves of crushed garlic
2 cups of halved brussels sprouts (trim off any brown spots or leaves first)
2 cups of cubed butternut squash (or any squash of your choice; most require skin and seeds removed)
2 pints whole mushrooms (use one type, or a mix of shitake, button, and baby portabella)
2-3 cups broccoli florets
Juice of 1 lemon
1-2 Tbs. avocado oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Dry herbs to taste (I like basil, sage, and tarragon)
1 package (about 2 cups) precooked brown lentils
4 cups precooked brown rice
1 block of Feta cheese (optional, for topping)
Toss the vegetables with avocado oil, lemon juice, garlic, dry herbs of your choice, and salt and pepper. Roast in the oven at 375 F for 30 minutes or until hard vegetables are tender. Serve over a bed of warm rice and lentils, and top with feta cheese.
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