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A Vegetable Side Dish You Should Be Thankful For

By Janet Helm, MS, RD

Maybe it’s time you reconsider your Thanksgiving side dishes.  Sure, it’s hard to forgo the standard stuffing and even the gravy-soaked mashed potatoes.  But consider trading in your traditional green bean casserole or marshmallow-smothered yams for another vegetable side dish that deserves bigger real estate on your holiday plate: Brussels sprouts.

These little cabbage heads may have been the nightmare of your youth, but now roasted Brussels sprouts have become a hot trend on restaurant menus and a whole new generation is changing its tune about thismuch- maligned veggie.

Brussels sprouts, named after the capital of Belgium, are a cruciferous vegetable, along with broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and bok choy.  These vegetables get their “crucifer” name because they all have flowers with four petals that form the shape of a cross.  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.

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. 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.  Roasting is the ideal cooking method to preserve the nutrients and bring out the natural sweetness of Brussels sprouts.

Simply cut off the brown end of fresh Brussels sprouts and pull off any yellow outer leaves.  I like to cut them in half, although you can roast them whole.  Mix the sprouts with olive oil, kosher salt and pepper.  Roast in a single layer in a 400-degree oven for 30 to 45 minutes.

Maybe some of these recipes from one of my favorite food blogs, Kalyn’s Kitchen, will entice you to add Brussels sprouts to your holiday table this year:

Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Balsamic, Parmesan and Pine Nuts

Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Pecans and Gorgonzola Cheese

Shredded and Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Toasted Almonds and Parmesan

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