Recently, I was fortunate enough to soak up the January sunshine in Yuma County, Ariz., and observe the harvesting of winter produce. Yuma County proudly proclaims itself as the winter lettuce capital of the world, and it supplies 90 percent of our country's salad greens from November through March. I was surprised to learn that not all the leafy greens grown would be harvested this year. Orders for the crops are down, thought to be due in part to the harsh winter conditions throughout much of our country. It seems that salads are simply not in high demand when temperatures plummet.
Maybe it's a good time of year to think outside of the box (or salad bowl) when it comes to leafy greens. After all, they provide a ton of nutrition for very few calories. For one, leafy greens are packed with fiber, which helps satisfy hunger. They also fight cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes and help prevent constipation. Leafy greens are also full of water, helping to hydrate us -- something we don't think much about in the winter. They provide potassium, folate and vitamins A and C, as well as various phytochemicals that help protect us from environmental damage.
If you can't bear the thought of a salad while it's snowy outside, here are some different ways to get your greens:
Soups, Stews and Chili: The ultimate winter foods offering warmth and comfort in a bowl can be made even better with some leafy greens added. Stir some into any soup in the last twenty minutes or so of simmering to add more nutrition. Or top chili with shredded greens and onions to add some texture.
Lettuce Wraps: Try serving lettuce leaves alongside some shredded pulled pork or tuna salad instead of rolls or bread. They add an element of fun to the meal by giving additional texture and flavor, and they help you save some of those starchy bread calories.
Fried Rice: Turn leftover rice into dinner by sauteing it in some sesame oil with scrambled eggs and diced leftover chicken or pork (optional). Throw in shredded leafy greens near the end for added crunch and nutrition.
Braised Lettuce: This method will create a nice warm side dish. Cut your lettuce into quarters, and then simply heat it with some olive oil and minced garlic until slightly browned. Add some broth, bring it to a boil, and then cover and simmer until the lettuce is softened. The lettuce will soak up the flavors of garlic and broth as it cooks.
[Read: Four Veggies That Deserve More Love.]
Roasted Lettuce: Another method of cooking lettuce as a side dish, roasting can help bring out some of the green's natural sweetness. Try roasting with romaine lettuce. Split the hearts in half, drizzle it with olive oil and sprinkle on garlic, salt and pepper Pop the lettuce in a 450-degree oven for about 10 minutes, until the edges get brown and crispy and the lettuce has wilted.
Stir-Fry: The beauty of stir-fry is that you can use up leftover veggies quite well, and leafy greens can be a nice addition. Simply heat sliced chicken, beef, pork or tofu in some hot oil and throw in heartier vegetables such as carrots and broccoli. Then add leafy greens toward the end to wilt them down before serving.
Pesto: While this is traditionally made with basil, you can substitute other leafy greens for a different taste and to add more bulk if you are low on fresh basil. Blend lettuce, pine nuts, garlic, fresh basil, olive oil and Parmesan cheese in a food processor until smooth. Serve the pesto over a cut of steak, fish or even with a baked potato.
[Read: Best Diets for Healthy Eating.]
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Melinda Johnson, MS, RD, is the Director of the Didactic Program in Dietetics and lecturer for the Nutrition Program at Arizona State University, and a Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Follow her on Twitter @MelindaRD.