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Good reasons to grow your own

Need an incentive for cultivating your garden this year? Here are three!

  • You can clip your risk of heart attack. Gardening just 30 to 45 minutes three times a week can decrease your blood pressure, increase your HDL cholesterol (the “good” kind) and help reduce your risk of type II diabetes.
  • You’ll burn calories. In fact, gardening ranks right up there with playing volleyball, brisk walking or golfing when it comes to average number of calories burned (from a low of 125 calories/hour for a 120-pound person to 328 for a 180-pound person—more if your weight exceeds 180).
  • You’ll ease stress and anxiety, sharpen your mental skills and derive satisfaction from seeing your garden grow.

The good news about fresh vegetables: You don’t have to grow them yourself to benefit from Mother Nature’s bounty. Here’s what some of summer’s most popular grow-’em-yourself crops have to offer:

  • Arugula. A deep green salad green, arugula is a good source of the antioxidants beta carotene and vitamin C. It happens to be rich in calcium, too—309 milligrams per 2 cups.
  • Bell peppers. Here’s a surprising fact: Red bell peppers provide three times as much vitamin C as oranges. Nutrient dense, they’re also good sources of vitamins A, B6 (an especially heart-healthy nutrient), beta-carotene and folate (another “heart-y” vitamin).
  • Eggplant. This vegetable’s main virtue: robust flavor and super satisfaction for very few calories and no fat—a boon to any heart-healthy diet. Caution: Eggplant absorbs more fat than any other vegetable, so choose your cooking method wisely. Try broiling, roasting, grilling or stewing rather than frying. Or give this ratatouille a try:
  • 1 unpeeled eggplant, chopped
  • 1 cup chopped bell peppers
  • 1 cup chopped tomatoes
  • 1 cup chopped summer squash
  • 1 chopped onion
  • 2 Tbs. olive oil
  • 1 tsp. each oregano, basil and thyme

In a large saucepan, sauté eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, squash and onion in olive oil until they begin to release their own juices. Add the herbs, salt and pepper to taste, cover the pan and simmer about 20 minutes or until tender. Enjoy ratatouille as a warm or cold side dish, toss with pasta or puree for soup.

  • Peas. If you want a sweet and satisfying low-calorie source of protein, think peas. About 3/4 cup of peas contains as much protein as an egg and less than a gram of fat. Try this classic preparation method:
  • 1 head Bibb or Boston lettuce
  • 2 cups shelled green peas
  • 1/4 cup broth
  • herbs, as desired

Wash but do not dry the lettuce leaves. Line a saucepan with one layer of lettuce leaves. Spread the shelled peas on the lettuce lining and season with herbs, salt and pepper to taste. Add broth. Cover peas with another layer of lettuce leaves. Cover the pan, and cook peas over medium heat for 15 minutes, or until tender. Before serving, chop lettuce and toss with the peas.

  • Romaine lettuce. Rich in vitamins A and C and folate, romaine is a more nutritious alternative to pale iceberg lettuce. A clue: the deep green outer leaves. In general, the darker green the leaves, the more nutrient-packed the salad green. Because the outer leaves are usually greenest, try to include as many as possible in your salads.
  • Snap beans. Green and wax beans are chock-full of beta-carotene and vitamin C. They are also good sources of heart-healthy folate.
  • Summer squash. Thin-skinned and light-colored, summer squashes (varieties include zucchini, pattypan and chayote) are a mild but refreshing nine-calorie-a-cup addition to many dishes. (Tip: Eat squashes with their skins to reap the beta-carotene benefit.)
  • Tomatoes. A leading source of vitamin C, tomatoes recently have been heralded as a good-for-your-heart food. That’s because they contain lycopene, an antioxidant that appears to have heart-protective powers. The only catch: To benefit from lycopene, the tomatoes must be cooked. So try this easy fresh tomato and basil sauce:
  • 1 chopped onion
  • 1 Tbs. olive oil
  • 3 cups chopped ripe tomatoes (peel and seed before chopping)
  • 1/3 cup chopped fresh basil

In a medium saucepan, sauté chopped onion in olive oil until translucent. Add chopped tomatoes and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Lower the heat, add basil and simmer the sauce for 30 minutes or until thick. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve with pasta, toss with cooked vegetables or use as a pizza topping.

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