THE QUESTION: “I was intrigued by your “Dark Days” post but… could you expand on the color section?”
This is a follow-up question to my Dark Days Light Meals post from last month, which reminds me to remind all you readers that you can submit any question at any time via Twitter, Facebook, or email.
THE ANSWER: My pleasure! There are lots of ways to think about adding color which will add joy AND nutrients to any meal. Bonus: colorful meals are the most fun to take pictures of so I have concrete examples with colorful photos.
Starting with the basics of healthy colors, focus on having whole grains and herbs on hand in your pantry and fridge. In the picture above I prepared wheat berries in the style of risotto with green apples, lots of dill, and crispy pancetta. If I have just made risotto it would have been a stolidly white dish, instead it was brown and pink and two kinds of green. The wheat berries are the same size and shape as arborio rice but the former has more protein and since it is relatively unprocessed, it has more of other nutrients too. Risotto always starts by sauteeing shallots, which I did, but I also added some green apples to the mix (at the beginning and halfway through for some texture variation). While the flesh of the apples is largely sugar and water, there are vitamins and fiber in the skin. Then at the end, instead of stirring in some parmesan (nothing inherently wrong with that of course) I stirred in a bunch of dill and a bit of pancetta.
The pancetta was just for a well-rounded and satisfying flavor, but herbs are so much more. They brighten what you’re eating for both tongue and eye and also have high concentrations of vitamins, especially C. But more importantly, herbs contain anti-inflammatory and antioxidant compounds called polyphenols. This makes herbs great to have on hand and add them to anything/everything, especially in the winter. For more on herb basics, check out this article from the Washington Post. I want to stress again, there’s no such thing as a dish that you can’t add herbs to.
This second dish is a Pork Chop Salad I made for some clients in early December which embodies the concept of vibrant and textural garnishes. It includes baby spinach, seared pork chop pieces, roasted cabbage, toasted pistachios and pomegranate pips. Of course it isn’t too hard to make a salad look virtuous, but starting with two different colors of veggie gives you a colorful base, meaning variation in vitamins, minerals etc. Then on top of that are two types of lean protein, the pork chop and the nuts.And last but not least the nutritional and antioxidant powerhouse of pomegranate pips (which you can now buy pre-extracted from the membranes of the pomegranate itself in little plastic cups!). The combination of the pistachios and pomegranate give a rich juicy and tangy garnish, that as you eat it acts as a dressing, replacing any need for a high-calorie salad dressing with tons of high fructose corn-syrup. Pro Tip: to get this almost fluorescent color of pistachio: buy them raw, shell them, roll them around inside a dish towel on the counter to remove any additional papery bits, then toast them until bright in a dry frying pan over medium heat.
And finally, there’s added color that is just for the enjoyment of the cook. Above I’m assembling layers of sweet potatoes and radishes for a gratin. After adding a bechamel sauce and baking, the dish became a muted, light orange color but I had so much fun making patterns and shapes with the bright pink and orange colors during assembly. Something as simple as this can make the act of cooking more fun,leading to more cooking at home. Plus, this colorful variation on potatoes au gratin adds beta-carotene and several kinds of B-vitamins in addition to the potassium and other things in white potatoes. Which leads me to a final point; even something as villified as the white potato has viatmins and minerals in it; the healthful-ness of most food depends on how processed it is.
The objective of adding colors is that this is an easy way to add variety to your diet. And as the saying goes: variety is the spice of life.