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How Produce Can Enhance the Flavors of Your Menu

Fool your brain by putting more fresh produce on your plate.

How Produce Can Enhance the Flavors of Your Menu

Recently I attended the Culinary Institutes “Worlds of Healthy Flavors” conference at the Greystone, CA campus. The theme of the conference was “Bringing together the best of world cooking and the latest in nutrition research.” 

Conference sessions focused on what we currently know about balancing food choices on the plate and the evidence presented continues to support the important role of produce in menu planning.

At one session, a researcher from Harvard Business School discussed how we can “fool” our brains by placing fresh produce more prominently on our plates. This technique appeals to our “slow” brain which often doesn’t respond to visual cues until after our “fast” brain has made a choice. If we can serve produce and whole grains first, or make them more eye-appealing on our plates, our “slow” brain gravitates to them first.

The old techniques of making celery and cream cheese appear to be boats by putting raisins on top is actually an appeal to the slow brain. Similarly, molding whole grains into shapes on the plate draws our brain to that food item.

Another session addressed the American preoccupation with large amounts of protein. The average American intake of protein is about 150 grams per day and the actual amount needed, by the average American, is 55 to 65 grams/day.

The reason behind this excess is not just that we like the taste of protein—it is the failure to round out the plate with produce and whole grains. Thus thinking about vegetables, fruits and whole grains as the center of the plate can make it easier to lower the protein amount.

One recipe that can help you make this shift is a Butternut Squash and Cannellini Bean Ragout by Chef Steven Petusevsky, as presented at the 2013 Worlds of Healthy Flavors conference.

Butternut Squash and Cannellini Bean Ragout 

Yield: 6 portions


  • 2 Tbsp. Extra virgin olive oil 
  • 1 onion, medium dice
  • 1 red bell pepper, medium dice  
  • 1 butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1 3/4 inch chunks
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 tsp. lemon zest
  • 1 tsp. dried oregano
  • 1/4 tsp. crushed red chili flakes
  • 3 cups vegetable stock
  • 3 cups cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
  • 4 fresh sage leaves, left whole
  • 1 bunch kale, chopped
  • 1/4 cup Parmesan or Romano cheese, shaved


  1. Heat olive oil over moderate heat in a large sauté pan with raised sides or saucepot. Sauté onion, red pepper and butternut squash for 2 to 3 minutes.
  2. Add garlic, lemon zest, oregano, and crushed red chili flakes, sauté for 12 minutes longer.
  3. Add stock, beans and sage. Bring mixture to a boil, lower to a simmer and continue to simmer for 20 minutes until squash is tender and a light sauce is formed around the vegetables.
  4. Add the kale and cook for an additional 5 minutes until kale is wilted. Serve with shaved cheese.

Nutrition Information (per servings/portion)

Calories: 271/ Protein: 13 gm./ Carbohydrates: 44 gm./ Fiber: 01.5 gm./Saturated fat: 1.5 gm./ Polyunsaturated fat: 1 gm./ Monounsaturated fat: 3.5 gm./ Cholesterol: 3 mg./ Sodium: 499 mg./ Potassium: 751 mg.

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