Food & Drink » Glenda Bartosh on Food

Orange you glad it's Halloween?

All things golden glow in the health department



Just as the grey dame of winter starts to niggle around, raising her wet and windy head, it seems more than serendipitous that some of the healthiest things to eat also come into season at the same time.

Colour yourself healthy, goes the simple adage for good eating, meaning look for deeply coloured fruits and veggies — the crimson red blood oranges and cranberries, the darkly delicious black kale, the blackberries, the amazing purple beets.

And marching in lock step this time of year with the deep gold and orange leaves flitting about our heads come the deep gold and orange veggies packed with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fibre — and deep flavour.

The key to all this healthy orange-ness (and here I'm quoting food scientist Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking) are yellow, red and, yes, of course, orange carotenoids — an "extended family" of chemicals so-named as the first such chemically isolated ones came from carrots. These interesting pigments absorb blue and green wavelengths, and as a result produce most of the yellow and orange colours in fruits and veggies, as well as the red of other favourites such as tomatoes, watermelons and chillis.

In plant cells, writes McGee, carotenoids are found in two different locations. One spot is special pigment bodies called chromoplasts, which signal to animals that a "flower is open for business or a fruit is ripe." The other location is in certain membranes where carotenoids protect chlorophyll and other plant parts involved in photosynthesis.

I'm no scientist, but it seems quite logical to my Spockian self that carrots and other orange veggies (and, surprisingly, green ones too) loaded with carotenoids are linked to protective, antioxidant–type functions, including reducing DNA damage and the development of cancer (that's where beta-carotene comes into play), as well as the slowing of cataracts and macular degeneration.

Those bright orange carotenoid-laden yams we all tend to cook at Thanksgiving and Christmas then quickly forget about the rest of the year should be on the dinner table once a week. They're super-delicious, and quick and easy to prepare. Try peeling them then cutting them up into chunks and cooking them much like you would regular potatoes on the stove top, except they will be done in about half the time. When soft, mash them with a bit of the pot liquor, a dab of concentrated frozen orange juice right from the tin, salt, butter and a pinch of nutmeg — delicious!

You can also add some small chunks of carrots and carry on as above. Either way, your kids will surprise you by how fast they scarf down this newly discovered "treat" that tricks them into some pretty healthy eating.

But here's the bonus with yams. Besides all the carotenoids, they're filled with more awesome goodness. One serving delivers about a quarter of your daily vitamin C and your manganese and potassium needs, as well as lots of vitamins B6 and thiamin and some pretty decent iron, magnesium, phosphorus and zinc. You'll also get about one fifth of your daily fibre needs.

All these gorgeous orange squashes filling the tables at our winter farmers' markets also make it onto those "world's healthiest foods" lists for a reason.

Who says you need a bottle of vitamin A on your shelf? One serving of butternut squash alone delivers about a quarter of your vitamin C and fibre needs plus 450 per cent of your daily requirement for vitamin A, a brilliant way to beat the dull light this time of year (vitamin A is so good for your eyesight).

Squashes are loaded with antioxidants as well, and if you're reluctant to add carbs to your diet, rest assured the kinds of carbs in squash are quite good for you. They're loaded with pectins, antioxidants, and anti-inflammatory properties as well, perfect for soothing those achy joints of storm season. Those antioxidants may also help reduce wrinkles in your skin, if you care about that sort of thing.

Don't forget to scrape out the seeds and roast them lightly on a cookie sheet for about 20 minutes in a very slow oven (about 200 degrees), much as you would pumpkin seeds. They're loaded with nutrition, too: magnesium that's so beneficial for your heart and countering asthma, diabetes and osteoporosis; zinc for your immune system; plant-based omega 3s; and phytosterols, which have been shown in some research to reduce so-called "bad" cholesterol.

And here's some news — pumpkin seeds are also rich in tryptophan, that nice relaxing amino acid also found in turkey that everyone got so excited about a few years back.

Speaking of pumpkins, no one has knock-knocked and I know it's a groaner, but I have to say it: Orange you glad it's Halloween? Really.

My mom is the queen of all things pumpkin, and she doesn't even wait for autumn to celebrate. "Pumpkin's wonderful," she says, and you can quote her on that. It's good in muffins, loaves, pumpkin cookies, pumpkin bread — the list goes on.

It seems all those rejected orphan pumpkins no one carries home to carve in a few days get smooshed into the tinned stuff this time of year, for a big can of pumpkin will cost you next to a song as all the producers try to unload it. The Americans are very clever in this regard, having their Thanksgiving after Halloween when prices really lighten up, especially for a fresh pumpkin you can easily cook up yourself.

My fave are pumpkin pies, which I can never get enough of. If you keep in mind the filling is mostly a veg (the fruit of cucumbers and their relatives — squash, pumpkins, gourds, cantaloupes, and watermelon — are all modified berries with hard outer rinds called pepoes) you can quite rightly consider pumpkin pie as health food.

Try and cut yourself a slice of pie that's got about a cup of pumpkin filling in it and you're getting more vitamin A (about twice your daily requirement); tons of fibre and vitamin C; more potassium than the legendary banana that's so good for topping up with after a workout; and, if you're looking at the pumpkin alone, only about 50 calories.

As for reconciling the rest of the pie and the dollop of whipped cream on top, well, that's entirely up to you. Orange you glad you're an adult?

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who always looks forward to the golden season.