Spring is a time of transition and rebirth, bringing with it longer daylight hours for a.m. and p.m. runs and open-air markets full of appetizing seasonal delights. (After all, who hasn’t fatigued of flavorless fruits and vegetables trucked in from afar?) Now is the perfect time of year to focus on ramping up your diet with healthier and better-tasting food options because there is a new crop of delicious fresh options that are at their peak nutrition.
It’s indisputable that athletes need to pile their plates full of vegetables to support the nutritional needs of training, so consider this your spring superfood bucket list along with some new ways to put the cream of the crop to good use.
Although botanically a vegetable, this member of the buckwheat family is often used like a fruit and its super-tart blushed stalks are an excellent source of vitamin K. A multi-ethnic study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found adults with higher circulating vitamin K levels were less likely to die from ailments like heart disease within 13 years compared to those with inadequate levels, suggesting vitamin K may offer protective health benefits as we age. Could it be too good to be true that a slice of rhubarb pie helps with longevity? The spring stalwart is also a reliable source of vitamin C and electrolyte potassium to help athletes maintain proper fluid levels in their cells. The ruffled leaves are not edible, just in case you were wondering.
Sneak it in: Beyond pie, add chopped rhubarb to salsas and muffins, roast and toss into salads or even oatmeal, and, of course, make jam.
Make: Strawberry Rhubarb Crisp Smoothie
In a blender, puree together 1 cup milk of choice, 1/2 stalk chopped rhubarb, 1 scoop plain or vanilla protein powder, 3 tablespoons rolled oats, 2 tablespoons walnuts or almonds, 2 teaspoons maple syrup or honey, 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/4 teaspoon ginger powder, 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract and 1 cup frozen strawberries
Asparagus is one of the first signs that warmer days, and all the bountiful produce they bring with it, are finally on their way. While you can now find asparagus in stores year-round (gracias, Peru), the fresh-from-the-soil locally grown stalks have unsurpassed flavor and texture. Nutritionally, this quintessential spring vegetable is a reliable source of prebiotic fiber so eating it helps tend to your gut garden. Prebiotics, including inulin in asparagus, act as a food source for the trillions of beneficial bacteria in your digestive system so they can flourish, helping improve your digestive and immune health. What’s more, when the critters in your gut go to work on prebiotic fiber, they produce compounds like short-chain fatty acids that can benefit your health in ways such as lowering inflammation. Grab a bundle or two of these harbingers of spring and you’ll also be awarded healthy amounts of vitamin K, vitamin C, iron and folate, a B vitamin tied to lower diabetes risk in adulthood. And that whole thing about asparagus making your pee smell a bit like rotten eggs? It’s all due to a harmless sulfuric compound.
Sneak it in: Shave raw stalks for a fanciful salad, steam or grill whole stalks and serve with a drizzle of olive oil and lemon juice, puree into spring green soups and toss into any pasta dish.
Make: Asparagus Egg Loaf
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F and grease a 9 x 5 loaf pan. In a large bowl, whisk together 8 large eggs and 1/3 cup milk. Stir in 1 cup grated white cheddar or mozzarella cheese, 1 tablespoon fresh thyme, 1/2 teaspoon chili flakes, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon black pepper. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add 1 bunch of asparagus chopped into 1-inch pieces, 1 diced red pepper and 2 chopped shallots; heat until asparagus is tender, about 5 minutes. Add 2 chopped garlic cloves; heat 1 minute. Add vegetable mixture to egg mixture. Place mixture in loaf pan and bake for 30 minutes, or until center is set. Let cool for a few minutes before slicing.
Gardeners and farmers’ market veterans know that radishes are one of the first local vegetables to make an appearance. Grab a few bunches of the spicy orbs and reap the rewards of infusing your diet with an extra dose of vitamin C. As a water-soluble nutrient, your body does not store vitamin C, meaning that you need a regular source from foods such as radishes. Not only is vitamin C necessary for the formation of collagen, a type of protein used to strengthen ligaments and tendons and cartilage, research suggests getting enough is important for boosting VO2max, the maximum rate of oxygen your body can use during exercise, which can translate into performance gains. In a comprehensive review published in the journal Nutrients, researchers noted that radishes provide several types of antioxidants which may help guard against certain health concerns like cancer and may even help the body better adapt to the rigors of training. And don’t compost those edible radish tops, which, like other dark leafy greens, are dense in nutrients. So consider radishes the perfect two-for-one vegetable.
Sneak it in: Add raw slices to salads and sandwiches, shred and use in slaws, roast whole bulbs (this serves to transform their flavor from peppery to delightfully sweet) and serve with a dip, or pickle them like you would cucumbers and other veggies. Use radish leaves in pesto, salads and other recipes calling for greens.
Make: Chilled Radish Soup
Place 2 cups plain kefir, ½ pound trimmed radishes, 1 peeled cucumber, 1 chopped garlic clove, 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon black pepper in a blender container and blend until smooth. Pour into a container and stir in 2 tablespoons chopped dill. Chill for at least 2 hours before serving. Place in serving bowls and drizzle olive oil over top.
Leafy greens like arugula are the closest thing to Mother Nature’s multivitamin. Aka “rocket,” arugula’s peppery leaves are enriched with a whole slew of antioxidants and micronutrients, namely vitamin K and beta-carotene, which can be converted to vitamin A in our bodies to bolster immunity. Runners should take notice that the spring green is one of the best sources of dietary nitrates. A new study by scientists in Australia found that higher intakes of nitrates can improve muscular strength and endurance. How? When you consume nitrates from foods like arugula and beets, the body converts them into nitric oxide. That nitric oxide dilates, or opens up, your blood vessels – and that leads to better flow of oxygen-rich blood to important areas like your muscles. This same dilation effect can help lower blood pressure numbers for better heart health. It’s also a plant-based source of calcium — and unlike spinach, which also contains the bone-building nutrient, arugula is low in oxalates, compounds that can hinder calcium absorption. Arugula is not a heat-loving green, meaning now is the perfect time to get your fill.
Sneak it in: Use this “edgy” green in salads, grain bowls, sandwiches, polenta, omelets, pasta dishes and spring soups.
Make: Arugula Horseradish Pesto
Place 5 cups arugula, 3 tablespoons prepared horseradish, zest of 1 lemon, juice of 1/2 lemon, 2 chopped garlic cloves and 1/2 teaspoon salt in a food processor bowl and blend until greens are broken down. With the machine running, slowly pour 3 tablespoons olive oil in through the top feed tube.
Most of the year it’s a good idea to buy frozen peas, but now is not the time. Fresh, sweet peas are a true seasonal delicacy. A half-cup serving supplies 4 grams of each fiber and protein, making it a vegetable with the power to quell hunger. Nearly nobody eats enough dietary fiber, so peas a smart addition to any meal to reach daily needs. Other nutritional highlights include vitamin K, manganese, phosphorus, B vitamins and a payload of vitamin C. A recent study in the Journal of Nutrition suggests that higher intakes of vitamin C can help us hold onto lean body mass as we age, perhaps by working to protect muscle cells from oxidative damage. Peas can also be considered a “starchy” vegetable since they are higher in carbohydrates, which can be beneficial for runners who have an increased need for this macronutrient to support the energy needs of training.
Sneak them in: Shell and snack on them straight-up; add to cooked grains, scrambled eggs, spring soups, curries, and dips.
Make: Pea Hummus
Place 2 cups shelled green peas, 1/3 cup fresh mint, 2 tablespoons tahini, juice of 1/2 lemon, 2 chopped garlic cloves, 1 teaspoon paprika, 1/2 teaspoon cumin powder, 1/2 teaspoon salt in a food processor container and blend until you have a slightly chunky mixture.
Up your garnish game with these garlicky-flavored spring delights. In very few calories, you get useful amounts of beta-carotene, vitamin C and vitamin K. In our bodies, there are several vitamin K-dependent proteins that are involved in bone and heart health. Alliums — the scientific name for the family of plants that includes chives, scallions, and leeks — contain sulfur compounds that may offer protection from certain cancers and improve cholesterol numbers.
Chives also contain some quercetin, a bioactive compound that may help improve blood pressure numbers for better cardiovascular health. For inspiring green thumbs, chives are about the easiest crop you can grow.
Sneak them in: Scatter over roasted or mashed potatoes, soups, grilled fish, sliced heirloom tomatoes and scrambled eggs; blend into dips and dressings.
Make: Chive vinaigrette
Whisk together 1/4 cup olive oil, 1/4 cup red wine vinegar, 3 tablespoons chopped chives, 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard, 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon black pepper.