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Consume those leafy greens for a healthy body

One of the first vegetables that can be harvested in the spring is greens. Greens are very nutrient-dense, meaning they are filled with lots of vitamins, minerals and fiber with relatively low calories. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends that adults consume a minimum of three cups of leafy greens per week. While lettuce-based salads are a great place to start, there are a wide variety of greens readily available in the local supermarket. I find greens to be versatile as they can be consumed raw or cooked into a variety of dishes.

Leafy greens are a rich source of vitamin K, which helps your blood clot properly. If you are taking a blood-thinning medication such as Coumadin, you need to be mindful of your vitamin K intake. It is important to maintain a consistent intake of vitamin K, but it does not mean you need to restrict vitamin K-containing foods. Vitamin K also helps keep bones strong; osteoporosis has been associated with low levels of vitamin K.

Speaking of keeping bones strong, leafy greens are also a good source of calcium. Leafy greens are rich in vitamin A, particularly a carotenoid called zeaxanthin, which helps maintain eyesight. Leafy greens are also rich in folate. Folate is required for DNA synthesis, thus making it extremely critical for women of childbearing age to get adequate levels of folate.

While I touched on a few specific nutrients found in leafy greens, increased leafy-green consumption has been linked to better colon health and lower rates of heart disease and cancer.

Lettuces include varietals such as romaine, butter lettuce and loose-leaf lettuce. Lettuces are probably the most consumed leafy green because they are a common base for salads. Keep salads light with other vegetables such as peas, carrots, tomatoes, onions, sprouts, radishes and cucumbers. Fruits such as berries, peaches or pineapple can also be a tasty salad topping, but make sure to limit dried fruit to no more than a palm full. Also limit fried meats, cheeses and creamy dressings. When selecting a dressing, pick a vinaigrette or even try salsa.

Spinach and swiss chard come from a different vegetable family called amaranthaceae. These greens are very versatile. Spinach and chard both wilt easily, which allows them to be easily incorporated into your favorite cooked dishes. At breakfast, toss a handful of leaves into your scrambled eggs or smoothie. At lunch, stir some into your soup. At dinner, incorporate some leaves into your pasta sauce or throw some leaves onto the top of your pizza.

Another group of leafy greens is the cruciferous family, which includes cabbage, bok choy, radish greens, mustard greens and kale. These greens can be consumed raw, but often taste best when cooked. Lightly sauté them with some garlic and serve as a side dish. Or sauté them with additional vegetables and meat for a main dish stir fry. These greens also work well cooked into soups, or try roasting to give them a nutty flavor and crispy texture.

Roasted Cabbage with Chive-Mustard Vinaigrette

½ medium green cabbage (1-1½ pounds), outer leaves removed

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

¼ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

2 teaspoons white balsamic or white-wine vinegar

1 teaspoon lemon juice

¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper

⅛ teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons minced fresh chives

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Preheat oven to 450. Coat a large baking sheet with cooking spray.

To prepare cabbage: Cut cabbage half into four wedges and cut out any thick core, leaving the wedges as intact as possible. Drizzle the cut sides with 1 tablespoon oil and sprinkle with ¼ teaspoon each salt and pepper. Place the wedges flat-side down on the prepared baking sheet.

Roast the cabbage for 12 minutes. Carefully flip over (it's OK if it falls apart a little) and roast until browned on both sides, about 8 minutes more.

To prepare vinaigrette: Combine mustard, vinegar, lemon juice, pepper and ⅛ teaspoon salt in a small bowl. Add chives and oil; stir until well-combined.

Transfer the cabbage to a serving plate (or plates) and drizzle with the vinaigrette while still hot. Serve hot or at room temperature.

Source: Kathy Gunst, Eating Well Magazine