Find out why gently cooked veggies are a great food for digestion and how to incorporate them into your salads.
For a favorite winter meal, Cynthia Copple tosses cooked dark greens with golden roasted squash and drizzles it all with a slightly tangy dressing. As much as Copple, dean of Mount Madonna Institute's College of Ayurveda in Watsonville, California, loves vegetables and salad, when the weather turns cold, she opts for cooked vegetables. "After 26 years of working with clients, I've found that eating raw foods can increase the tendency toward getting colds and having congestion. Warm cooked food in the winter makes you feel warm and nurtured," she says.
When the weather turns cold, you may find yourself less interested in raw, light salads, and craving something warm and hearty instead. That's good intuition on your part, says Devendra Triguna, president of the All India Ayurvedic Congress, an organization based in Delhi and made up of 40,000 Ayurvedic practitioners, because eating raw produce in the cooler months can strain your digestive system. Those who practice Ayurveda, the traditional holistic medicine of India, believe that raw fruits and vegetables cause your agni (digestive fire) to work harder as it breaks down food so that your body can assimilate the nutrients.
"Uncooked vegetables deplete the metabolic fire in each cell and especially in the digestive system," Triguna says. "They produce heaviness in the stomach. Unable to process these cold foods completely, the agni is forced to leave behind ama, a toxic residue that wreaks havoc in the form of gas, bloating, and stomachache."
I learned this the hard way. I munched for years on big leafy salads during the winter and later felt uneasy and bloated. It wasn't until I learned more about Ayurveda and agni that I began to see the pattern in my body and learned to enjoy cooked salads during the cold season. "Our stomach is not made for raw things," says Triguna. "In cold weather, everything should be eaten in the cooked form." It's a simple enough idea: By breaking down rough, fibrous veggies with a little roasting, steaming, or sautéing, I give my agni a head start so it can digest everything more easily and completely. A robust agni means a happy tummy and a greater sense of overall well-being. With that information in hand, I found myself becoming a connoisseur of warm or room-temperature salads that include a diversity of cooked vegetables and grains.
Build a Better Salad for Digestion
Salads have long been a darling among nutritionists and health nuts alike, who find them a good way to get the recommended nine daily servings of fruits and vegetables. I generally make composed salads with separately prepared ingredients bound together by a delicious dressing. Some favorites include cooked carrots and yams tossed with lemon juice and olive oil and arranged over warm brown rice that wilts the bed of greens underneath; or a roasted beet salad whose soothing yogurt-based dressing turns pink from the beet juice.
Copple and Triguna suggest skipping the raw lettuce and roasting, sautéing, wilting, baking, steaming, or blanching the components of your salad. Think sautéed red cabbage with toasted hazelnuts in a ginger-yogurt dressing. If you're concerned that cooked veggies have fewer nutrients than fresh ones, take note: In a study published this year in the Journal of Food Science, researchers showed that some vegetables, including carrots and green beans, actually have higher levels of antioxidants after they've been cooked.
Like Copple, I'm partial to the flavorful dark, leafy greens that prosper in cold weather. Rich in vitamins, mature greens like beet, chard, collards, and mustard are too fibrous and bitter to be eaten raw, so I begin by sautéing or steaming them until they wilt and turn bright emerald. Soft and fragrant, the greens make a beautiful bed for many winter salads. I like to stir-fry spinach, top it with roasted spaghetti squash and carrots, and give it a drizzle of lemon juice and oil to finish it off. White beans and roasted tomatoes make another delicious topping for wilted spinach.
Of course, there are endless possibilities for combining ingredients, but I generally build my salads with only two or three vegetables so that my digestive system isn't overwhelmed. However, if I'm feeling hungry and my agni is healthy and strong, I'll add cooked grains or legumes like millet, chickpeas, or lentils to steamed winter greens.
For me, no salad is complete without a little crunch, so I often add toasted nuts. Copple sometimes tops her cooked greens with a handful of lightly toasted sesame seeds. Packed with protein, fiber, minerals, and vitamins, nuts and seeds, in general, insulate your nerves and organs in cold weather, thanks to the healthy fat they contain, according to Copple.
Dressing Up the Salad
One of my favorite salads is made of beets sautéed in ghee, tender green beans, steamed cracked wheat, and a few toasted almonds, spooned over warm greens and dressed with a squeeze of fresh lime juice. While Ayurvedic practitioners like Triguna would suggest that all parts of a salad this time of year be cooked for optimal digestion, I also like to toss hot sautéed carrots with raw tender greens like arugula, letting the greens wilt but still preserving most of their nutrients and texture.
Finally, what makes a salad a salad is a flavorful dressing that coats the components and brings them together. Most use oil as a base, the simplest of all dressings being olive oil mixed with fresh lemon juice. Adding a little bit of fat to a salad may help the body absorb cancer-fighting nutrients such as lycopene and alpha- and beta-carotene, according to a 2006 survey published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association. Copple recommends olive oil mixed with Bragg Liquid Aminos as an alternative to vinegar. "Vinegar is a fermented food that aggravates stomach acidity," she says, so you might want to avoid it in your dressing. For example, try a creamy yogurt-based dressing, flavored with citrus, herbs, or spices.
Often I will simply trickle hot oil over arugula and roasted vegetables. If I'm feeling creative, I'll dress my salad with a fresh chutney, or mix up a sesame-ginger dressing for quinoa and sweet potatoes. Compose your cooked salads with the rapture of an artist loading fresh paint onto her palette, and you'll be rewarded with a melding of the hot and tepid, tender and crunchy, sweet and salty—an explosion of flavors and textures in each bite.