THE VIOLET END OF THE SPECTRUM is the most powerful wavelength of all the visible colors, so scientifically and psychologically it’s not surprising that the color has developed quite a coveted aura throughout history, in addition to its association with wealth and royalty. Its allure hasn’t been lost on vegetables, either. At the end of last year, consumer trend advisors from the regional food market giant Whole Foods designated 2017 “The Year of Purple Foods.” Putting aside the marketing hype, at least this is one trend that can benefit your health, as well.
Purple vegetables contain powerful antioxidants called anthocyanins, the compounds that give them their color. “The darker the food, the more antioxidants it contains,” explains Jahnavi Foster, registered nutritionist and health educator at Mother Earth’s Storehouse in Kingston. “Antioxidants are key to fighting disease and inflammation, and can also help lower blood pressure and reduce ulcers.” Further, Foster notes, “There’s evidence that [purple vegetables] can help inhibit the growth of cancer and induce cancer cell death in patients with liver, prostate and breast cancers.”
Local chefs are swapping purple vegetables into recipes, too, for a colorful change from traditional favorites.
While many regard purple vegetables as modern hybrids or genetically modified varieties, historic evidence suggests that purple produce is by no means a new phenomenon. Carrots, for example, originally were purple or white and much thinner. A sixteenth-century mutation created a race of yellow carrots, and from that, Dutch growers developed the familiar, thick orange carrots we know today. Hardy and reliable purple potatoes, native to Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia, have been cultivated by indigenous farmers for millennia. Purple may be making a comeback, in fact: In 2003, Cornell University potato breeders Robert Plaisted, Ken Paddockand Walter De Jong released ‘Adirondack Blue,’ a potato variety with both blueish-purple skin and flesh.
While the purple varieties are generally more healthful than their paler cousins, they can be prepared the same. They’re best eaten raw; if cooked, they’re better steamed or roasted as opposed to boiled because anthocyanins are water soluble.
Local chefs are swapping purple vegetables into recipes, too, for a colorful change from traditional favorites. At Gigi Trattoria in Rhinebeck, owner and registered dietician Laura Pensiero incorporates purple vegetables in multiple places on her menus, including a Mediterranean purple potato salad on the catering menu and a traditional Sicilian cauliflower pasta at the restaurant.
Coating curly cavatappi pasta, the thick, vibrant sauce dresses up the usually subtle-looking dish. “The cauliflower sauce is traditionally made with white cauliflower,” Pensiero notes. “When you use purple instead, it looks beautiful on the plate and there’s so much more there that makes it healthy, too. It’s definitely a special dish.”
Joana Herrera, chef at Mariachi Mexico in Armonk, grows her own Japanese eggplant in the restaurant’s garden for use in several dishes, including one of her fall favorites: grilled eggplant, lentil and buttered Swiss chard tacos. (Japanese eggplant has thinner skin and a more delicate flavor than American eggplant—and it has fewer seeds, which is what can make American eggplants bitter). The skin color ranges from a light violet to a rich, dark purple—making for a beautiful and healthful vegetarian dish. “My main squeeze will always be a taco!” Herrera admits. “The grilled eggplant, chard and lentils topped with heirloom tomato and cowhorn chile salsa gives you that familiar comfort food taste with each bite.”
There’s little doubt that the chemistry behind purple vegetables is good. Eggplants are chock full of chlorogenic acid; purple grapes feature high amounts of resveratrol; and compared to its green cousins, purple broccoli has higher levels of just about everything beneficial. But don’t party just yet—there’s a downside: Eggplants, tomatoes, potatoes (not sweet potatoes) and all peppers are members of the nightshade family (Solanaceae). Other than the fruits, most parts of the plants in this family, including the leaves, stems, roots and flowers, contain toxins that can be dangerous if ingested. The crown member of the family—Atropa belladonna, or deadly nightshade—is the source of the powerful drug belladonna. Some of the alkaloids present in nightshade vegetables (including solanine, nicotine and capsaicin) may have inflammatory effects in some people. Many nutritionists suggest that those with autoimmune diseases, psoriasis, gout, arthritis or osteoporosis should try to steer clear of the nightshade vegetables.