Real Foods that Heal
volume 4, #2
December 3, 2008
Turnip Greens, Southern Traditional Healer
The last time this bulletin featured a cruciferous vegetable was in October, and it was a delicious cousin of broccoli with a foreign sounding name, bok choy. This week, we are introducing another green of the same family, which also may be foreign to many of you if you did not grow up in the southeastern US: turnip greens. Turnip greens were usually a fall crop in my backyard garden as a child, and I was often asked to go pick a basketful of fresh “greens” after school. My mother would then carefully wash them, before simply boiling or steaming them to be a vegetable side dish at dinner. Unlike the canned or frozen greens I was sometimes served at school, the fresh greens from the garden were always delicious, with a strong somewhat bitter flavor.
Turnip greens (Brassica rapa) are a cool weather crop for which historical records suggest a 4000 year history of cultivation, starting in central Europe. The root of course can be eaten too, but I want to focus on the greens for the moment. These greens are a great source of lutein, the type of carotenoid which is so powerful at preventing macular degeneration (the leading cause of blindness in older adults). This benefit was highlighted in a 1994 JAMA publication showing that people who ate lots of greens high in lutein had a 46% decrease in macular degeneration compared to people who ate the least greens. They are also high in folate like other green leafy vegetables (folate is heart healthy and assists in cancer prevention). Turnip greens also provide a rich amount of vitamin C and beta-carotene, important as anti-oxidants and a part of a cancer prevention diet. A cup of these cooked greens provides over 10,000 units of vitamin A precursors, about 40mg vitamin C; and for bone health almost 200 mg of calcium and a very generous 500 mcg of vitamin K.
And like other members of the Brassica family (cruciferous vegetables), turnip greens are good sources of the powerful cancer preventing compounds sulphorophane and indole-3-carbinol, especially important for breast cancer prevention.
If you have trouble finding fresh turnip greens at your local market, you can also think of collard greens in the same way, though collards have a bit milder taste than turnip greens. So I hope that even if you did not grow up in the South with turnip greens growing in your back yard, that you can expand your list of familiar foods and enjoy this very healthy green on a regular basis.
Turnip green serving suggestions:
For a very healthy inexpensive meal with its roots in the south, simply steam fresh turnip green leaves until tender and not overcooked, and serve alongside a beans and rice dish (such as red beans, brown rice). You may enjoy some hot pepper sauce on both.
To bring this old friend into the modern kitchen, try a quick sauté of turnip greens in olive oil with sliced onions, pepper, and a dash of soy sauce, being careful not to overcook. This approach leaves lots of room for experimentation with other ingredients and combinations.
Enjoy either way!
To your health,
Robert Pendergrast, MD
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