Seasonal superfoods for a healthy winter
Winter has well and truly arrived, as has the desire for heartier, richer meals that warm your bones. With many of us spending a lot more time at home lately, this also means more time to spend in the kitchen, whipping up appetising and nourishing home-cooked versions of our favourite comfort foods. So, if you’re looking for a little bit of inspiration when it comes to your winter cooking, here are some of the best “superfoods” in season at the moment, to help guide your menu planning over the next couple of months.
The rich, bright colour of beetroot should give you some idea of how chock-full of nutrients this vegetable is. Beetroot contains a number of extremely powerful antioxidants known to support cell health, and with minimal calories per serve, it’s a daily must-include in your diet over winter. Roast your beetroot and add it to salads, juice it up for a tasty mixed vegetable juice or grate some and keep it handy as an addition to sandwiches, or to go with crackers, dips and pates. Recent research also found that the high levels of nitric oxide in beetroot helps to improve blood flow, and shots of concentrated beetroot juice have even been shown to improve cycling performance in sprint events.
We might have turned our noses up at them when we were kids, but most of us have learned by now that – if cooked the right way (ie, not boiled to oblivion) – they can be a tasty way to get some essential nutrients. As well as being high in fibre, Brussels sprouts are also rich in antioxidants and are loaded with vitamins C and K. Studies have also found that Brussels sprouts can help protect against disease, thanks to their anti-inflammatory properties, and they also contain detoxifying compounds. They’re also super-high in glucosinolates – phytonutrients which can help to fight disease – and contain alpha-lipoic acid, which can help to lower blood sugar levels. All that in a nifty green package. Try pan-frying them with some Aussie bacon for a next level vegie experience.
While it’s not one that many of us would consider when it comes to superfoods, the humble pumpkin is actually a champion nutritional choice. The thing that’s not commonly known about pumpkin is that it’s exceptionally low in carbohydrates and calories, making it the perfect vegetable to include in soups, salads and roasts. And because it’s also a good source of beta carotene, vitamin C, fibre and potassium, pumpkin is one vegetable you can literally eat to your heart’s content. If you’re looking for a lighter alternative to pasta, try using a spiralizer to make pumpkin noodles, which can be teamed with your favourite spaghetti sauce for a low-carb alternative to pasta.
One of most versatile leafy greens, fresh baby spinach leaves make a fresh salad base or can be added to green juices for a nutrient kick. They’re also delicious stir-fried with a little olive oil and some nutrient-rich garlic, teamed with light fish or as a vegie base for omelettes. The dark green colour of the leaves give some insight into this food’s rich nutrient content: spinach leaves are a rich source of vitamins C, E and K, as well as beta carotene and folate. Handy health tip: cooking your spinach leaves in a little olive oil will help to enhance nutrient absorption. You also might not know that spinach freezes exceptionally well, so freeze some and you can reach for it when you need ingredients for savoury baking, omelettes or vegie smoothies.
Bananas are nature’s number one on-the-go snack, thanks to the fact that they come in their own packaging. They’re naturally energy-rich, contain three grams of fibre apiece, and are also a great source of potassium, vitamin B6, folate and magnesium. Bananas can also be used to add natural sweetness to smoothies, baked goods and yoghurt, as a topping on your morning muesli or simply eaten alone as a nutrient-rich snack. And if you’re partial to winter baking, using overripe bananas in banana bread, muffins and pancakes will mean you’ll be able to add a lot less sugar to sweeten your recipe. Plus you’ll be using up some fruit that would have otherwise gone to waste.
The bright colour of red capsicum is indicative of its rich vitamin and antioxidant content. Red capsicums are especially rich in carotenoids, a group of antioxidants known to play a powerful role in helping to regulate a number of inflammatory pathways in the body. People who’ve had a higher intake of carotenoids during their lives have been associated with lower risks of common diseases, including heart disease, cancer and stroke. Whether you munch on capsicum through the afternoon or use it as a flavour base for your favourite winter soup or stir fry, you’ll be doing your body a favour if you include more red capsicum in your diet.
Extra virgin olive oil
Forget coconut oil. When it comes to potential health benefits associated with oils, you can’t go past extra virgin olive oil. Great for the skin and as an addition to any meal to help you feel fuller and more satisfied, olive oil has exceptionally high levels of powerful antioxidants that help to protect cells from damage, and one of the highest proportions of monounsaturated fat and lowest proportions of saturated fat of all the cooking oils. Often considered a poor choice for cooking at high temps, the truth is that the high quality of olive oil means it can be used in most dishes (with the exception of deep frying) and as a flavoursome salad dressing. Olive oil will also provide a tasty base to casseroles, stir fries and roasts. Just remember: the fresher the olive oil, the higher the antioxidant content, so replace your olive oil every two to three months. Also keep in mind that “light” varieties aren’t lighter in fat or calories, and spray varieties lack the nutrient quality of fresh oil.
It is hard to fault Australia’s favourite toast topping – avocados are rich in a range of vitamins and minerals and are a good source of dietary fibre. But it’s their high natural vitamin E content that takes them into the superfood category. They’re also high in potassium, which can help to reduce blood pressure. Linked to everything from heart health and good skin to acting as a natural anti-inflammatory, you can’t go wrong if you include a quarter or a half of an avocado in your diet each day. And don’t be scared of the fat content – avocado contains “good” monounsaturated fats, which can help to lower “bad” LDL cholesterol and increase “good” HDL cholesterol.
Soups, particularly vegie-based soups, are a great winter meal option because they combine high nutrient density with low energy density – this means you get lots of key nutrients, including vitamins and minerals, for relatively few calories. In fact, studies have shown that eating a bowl of vegetable-based soup as part of a meal can reduce your total intake by up to 100 calories. You’ll find an enticing roasted vegie soup recipe below, which features some of the season’s star players. Even better are soups made using a bone broth, as a molecule in the bones – carnosine – is associated with improved immune function.
Roast vegie soup
2 carrots, chopped roughly
1 parsnip, chopped roughly
500g pumpkin, chopped roughly
350g sweet potato, chopped roughly
1 capsicum, chopped roughly
2 onions, halved
4 cloves of garlic
750ml vegetable stock
1 cup light sour cream
1. Preheat oven to 180°C. On a large baking tray, assemble the veg and brush with olive oil.
2. Bake for an hour, turning occasionally.
3. Remove the capsicum, but continue to bake other vegetables for a further 30 minutes.
4. Once the capsicum is cooled, remove the skin (this should rub off easily) and blend with the carrot, parsnip and onion.
5. Add in the pumpkin, sweet potato, garlic and half the stock – puree until smooth.
6. Place in a pan with the remaining stock and heat through, serving with sour cream on top and sprinkled with fresh thyme.
Susie Burrell is one of Australia’s leading dietitians, with an extensive background in nutrition and psychology.