The humble vegetable side dishes often get overlooked among all the showier Thanksgiving staples, such as gravy-soaked mashed potatoes and sausage-studded stuffing. But the real star of the holiday meal should be the nonstarchy vegetables, particularly cruciferous vegetables.
These often unpopular vegetables not only can be served up in enticing ways, but they can have the added punch of helping to fight cancer.
The cruciferous are veggies that belong to the cabbage family: broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts and bok choy. Some greens fall into this category, such as kale, collard greens, arugula and watercress. Even some root vegetables are classified as cruciferous: turnips, rutabagas and parsnips.
These vegetables get their "crucifer" name because they all have flowers with four petals that form the shape of a cross.
So why should you make room for cruciferous vegetables on your already overstuffed Thanksgiving table? These vegetables are truly like no other.
Vegetables You Should Be Thankful for
Cruciferous vegetables are unique because they contain several natural substances called glucosinolates that may help lower your risk of getting cancer. These disease-fighting phytonutrients are the same sulfur-containing compounds that give cruciferous vegetables their pungent aromas -- and, you might say, bitter taste.
Glucosinolates break down in the body to form indoles, isothiocyanates and other compounds that appear to fight off cancer in several ways.
For starters, they regulate a complex system of enzymes in our bodies that defend against cancer. These cruciferous compounds seem to slow down certain enzymes that activate carcinogenic substances and speed up other enzymes that help detoxify and eliminate carcinogens before they can do damage.
Additionally, some studies suggest these compounds have the ability to stop the development of cancer by turning on tumor suppressor genes. Other research indicates that these protective compounds may change the metabolism and activity of estrogens in the body -- potentially decreasing the risk of hormone-related cancer, such as breast or prostate cancer.
The protective effect of cruciferous vegetables appears to be the strongest for cancers of the lung and digestive tract (such as colon cancer), but studies have also linked these veggies to a lower risk of breast, ovarian, uterine, cervix, liver and prostate cancer.
In a study funded by the National Cancer Institute, men who ate three or more half-cup servings of cruciferous vegetables per week had a 41 percent decreased risk for prostate cancer, compared to men who ate fewer than one serving per week.
A University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute study found that cruciferous vegetables appear to not only stop human prostate cancer cells from growing in mice but also may cut off the formation of blood vessels that "feed" tumors.
Giving These Veggies Star Treatment
Maybe memories of mushy, smelly and bitter Brussels sprouts or other cruciferous vegetables have kept them off your shopping list. But most likely it's your preparation method that needs updating.
It's critical not to overcook cruciferous vegetables. That's a double whammy of a mistake. Overcooking brings out the strong sulfur odor, and you'll have the entire family turning up their noses when you pass the veggies.
Plus, by overcooking, you've not simply created an unappealing side dish, you've probably destroyed a bulk of the disease-fighting compounds inside. Glucosinolates can easily be lost in cooking, especially during boiling. So use cooking methods that use less water, such as steaming or microwaving.
Here are other ways you can maximize the cruciferous vegetables at your Thanksgiving meal -- and year-round:
Mix it up. Serve a combination of cruciferous vegetables, such as steamed broccoli and cauliflower, or a medley of roasted root vegetables. Some research suggests there is a beneficial synergy between the various compounds in cruciferous vegetables.
Swap out your salad. Instead of iceberg lettuce (or your aunt's favorite Jell-O salad with minimarshmallows), make a cruciferous-rich salad. Try a mixture of arugula and watercress topped with sliced radishes. Or add broccoli sprouts; they contain about 50 times the amount of cancer-fighting compounds as mature broccoli.
Take a fresh look. Give Brussels sprouts a second chance. Try sautéing or roasting them with a little olive oil. Farm-fresh Brussels sprouts are less pungent, and sautéing and roasting actually bring out their sweetness.
Start off raw. Before the big meal, serve a raw veggie platter with broccoli and cauliflower florets. Cruciferous vegetables in their raw form contain more of the anti-cancer compounds.
Spice it up. Cook cruciferous vegetables with garlic and lots of spices. Garlic offers heart health benefits, and spices are rich in antioxidants. Some research suggests spices help maximize the antioxidant content of the final dish.
Banish the bitterness. If you're sensitive to the bitterness of cruciferous vegetables, a salty, sweet or sour flavor can reduce the bitter taste. Try adding a dash of soy sauce, lemon juice or vinegar. Or glaze them with a little honey, syrup or marmalade.
Janet Helm, MS, RD, is a Chicago-based registered dietitian and nutrition consultant.