As the fall moves into winter in California, the chilly weather has not gone unnoticed. We tend to crave hot and comforting foods as we nestle indoors seeking the cozy, so I find it nice to have several go-to options that can still bring some good nutrition to the table, along with the warm and fuzzies.
I consider Polenta pretty much a piping hot hug-in-a-bowl, and it’s perfectly in season during the crisp fall. One of my long-standing favorite dishes has been polenta with basil pesto and veggies, but basil being a summer harvest, I thought it better to find a more seasonally-appropriate ingredient...enter the carrot.
It’s commonly understood that eating carrots are good for eye health because of their particularly high amounts of alpha and beta-carotene (which our body then converts to vitamin A). Yet eye health is only a scratch on the surface of what this humble root can do for you. The carrot’s carotenoids, vitamins, minerals, and polyphenols are being recognized for their antioxidant, anticancer, anti-diabetic, anti-hypertensive, anti-fungal, and anti-inflammatory properties, as well as improving heart disease, cholesterol levels, immune system functions, liver and kidney health.
In the last episode of Buy Any Greens Necessary newsletter, the In a Curry Tacos recipe was all about how colorful foods offer us massive health benefits, and our orange carrots are no exception. Carrots actually come in a variety of colors, including white, black, yellow, red and purple (read more about the anthocyanins in red and purple foods), but it’s the carotenoids in the orange carrots that stood out in a study on coronary heart disease. After following the dietary patterns of over 20,000 people for 10 years, the researchers discovered that the more deep orange fruits and vegetables a person ate, the lower the risk for heart disease. But get this, “Each 25 grams [or about ½ cup] per day increase in the intake of carrots was associated with a 32% lower risk of CHD!” (...ok, so maybe I added the exclamation point to that statement, but hey, that’s exciting news!)
Another place I would like to shine the light on this underground marvel is it’s impacts on blood sugar management. Back in 1981 outdated science determined that the sugars in carrots made it a food to be eaten moderately, although since then studies have shown otherwise, now with an adjusted Glycemic Index of ~39. They’re actually a fiber-rich food with only 7% carbohydrate, and are 88% water, although it's the multiple types of carotenoids in carrots that scientists believe actually make them anti-diabetic. Turns out it looks like they work to help regulate blood glucose levels via insulin sensitivity. A study in Australia found that the higher the levels of carotenoids in your bloodstream, the lower a person’s blood glucose levels. Look's like maybe its a carrot a day that keeps the doctor away.
The carrots in this recipe are brimming with fat-soluble vitamins (meaning fat molecules must be present during digestion to help absorb the vitamins) and along with molybdenum, a trace mineral that aids in carbohydrate and fat metabolism. Which is why inviting Pine Nuts to this party is so important. This wee nut steps up in a big way all by itself, but pairing them with carrots boosts the nutrition to another level, and we’re not just talking about the complementary flavors of the mellow, richness of the nut with the sweet, earthy carrot. The carrot helps metabolize the fatty acids in the nut, which are simultaneously transporting tons of vitamins from the carrots to your body in the process, talk about a dynamic duo!
Along with carrots, pine nuts also show your heart some love, as research is highlighting the valuable effects they can have on cholesterol and triglyceride levels. One study found that pine nuts actually reduced VLDL (very low-density lipoproteins) in the blood steam, which are considered to be the most harmful of all of the circulating fat molecules. A similar study documented the possible relationship between the two more closely, showing that as people added higher amounts of pine nuts to the diet, the lower the cholesterol levels dropped. Moreover they noticed that appetite also incrementally dropped along with the cholesterol.
If you have heard that eating fat helps curb appetite, you have heard correctly, but the type of fats you choose to eat makes a difference for what happens to your body, not just to your hunger. Animal fats are generally known to directly increase your circulating blood lipids, but in doing so they can also do damage to your blood vessels, tissues and organs like your liver (which is responsible for cleaning up the fats in your blood). Pine nuts on the other hand contain a special fatty acid, pinoleic acid, which looks to have an opposite, healing, effect on your body, yet still gives you the fullness you’re looking for.
Another study on pine nuts and our hunger hormones found that appetite was lowered by a whopping 36% after eating pine nuts. The scientists explain that the hunger-quenching hormone, cholecystokinin (CCK-8) is triggered by long-chain fatty acids that have carbon chains longer than 12 molecules. Animal fats don’t make the best hunger-helpers because they primarily consist of short-chained saturated fats. More importantly, pine nuts were the super performers in the researcher's tests, way outshining other the fatty acid sources that they were compared against.
I hope I’ve convinced you that eating comfort foods doesn’t have to be something you turn into a New Years resolution to burn off later. Instead it can be a healing hug in your tummy, that both you and your body appreciates.
AUTUMN HARVEST PESTO POLENTA RECIPE
Gluten Free, Plant-Based
Time: about 40 mins
3 cups arugula or watercress, roughly chopped
1 tube prepared polenta (or make ½ cup polenta from scratch, see Step 1)
1 cup sliced carrot
4 cups chopped mushrooms of your choice (approximately 1 pound)
1 small clove fresh garlic *optional for a zesty kick
¼ cup marinated or canned artichoke hearts loosely packed (about 5 quartered hearts)
⅓ cup pine nuts
2-3 Tbsp olive oil
1 lemon, juiced (5 tsp lemon juice)
⅛+ tsp each of salt, tsp pepper, dried garlic
Go The Distance (optional step):
If you want to make Polenta from scratch follow package instructions for cooking ½ cup dried polenta. Transfer to a small baking dish and let cool for 15+ minutes to set. Cut into desired sized servings (usually about 9 squares) and then follow the instructions for the tube polenta.
Warm It Up:
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Slice carrots into coins (about ¼ inch), and move to a medium bowl.
Drizzle with 1 tsp oil, and a pinch or two of salt, pepper, and dried garlic, mix to coat.
Transfer to a baking sheet covered with parchment paper, spreading evenly in a small section to one side of the sheet (leaving the other side for the mushrooms).
Chop mushrooms into small pieces and transfer to the same medium bowl you used for the carrots. Add 2 tsp oil, ⅛ tsp of salt, pepper, and dried garlic, each. Mix gently. Add 1 more tsp oil, mixing one last time.
Spread the mushrooms evenly across the remaining side of the baking sheet. Bake on top rack for 15 mins.
Once veggies are in the oven, slice polenta tube into 1-3 inch slices and space out well on a second parchment-lined baking sheet, then bake on the lower rack for 15-20 mins, until the polenta develops a slightly thickened skin.
*Optional step: add a small pile of 1+ Tbsp pine nuts to the polenta baking sheet to roast as garnish during the last 3-5 mins of baking, when you remove the carrots and mushrooms from the oven.
Add ⅓ cup pine nuts, 1 small clove fresh garlic (*optional), 1 Tbsp lemon juice, ⅓ cup artichokes *if using marinated artichokes and you won’t have to add any oil to the pesto, and 2-3 tsp oil. Process well, scraping the sides as needed. Salt and pepper to taste.
Add 4 cups of arugula to the same previously-used medium bowl. Toss with 2 tsp lemon juice and 1-2 tsp olive oil and set aside.
Once carrots are able to be pierced through by a fork (although they will still be firm) remove from the oven. Let cool 1-2 mins, then carefully add to the processor and process well, scraping side frequently, until a creamy-ish consistency forms. (3-4 mins).
Remove polenta from the oven and plate as desired: Divide carrot pesto between 4 plates, spreading a thin layer (about 1-2 Tbsp) to form a circle. Top with a small handful of arugula, polenta, and pile on the mushrooms. Sprinkle polenta with roasted pine nuts for garnish. Or put it together however you like, you're the boss!