Fun with vegetables

August 15, 2008

Children and adults alike are sometimes disgusted by the thought of eating vegetables. Peter J. McDonnell, MD, explains his remedy, a grilled vegetable recipe that pleases the eyes and distracts the taste buds.

"Life expectancy would grow by leaps and bounds if green vegetables smelled as good as bacon."

-Doug Larson, American cartoonist

"Vegetables are a must on a diet. I suggest carrot cake, zucchini bread, and pumpkin pie."

So while in the grocery store recently, picking up some items to throw on the grill for dinner, I was impressed to see a little blond girl who seemed fascinated by all the vegetables. She looked to be 6 or 7 years old, and she was making happy noises and moving along the section of the store housing fresh vegetables, touching and sniffing each item in turn.

After half a minute she turned in my direction and it then was obvious that she was blind. Her lids were closed, her orbits much smaller than normal with an appearance suggesting microphthalmia or anophthalmia. She was grinning, and it brought a smile to my face to see the obvious delight she took in exploring the tactile and olfactory features of all the different veggies.

Her father, who looked about 35, was not smiling. He kept telling her to stop touching everything and stay with him. He seemed annoyed that she was slowing him down, distracting him from getting the things he needed. Maybe it's easier to enjoy children when they're not your own, but it occurred to me that young fathers tend to be in a rush, and don't always have the time to observe and enjoy children the way many grandfathers can.

Driving home from the store, I was reminded of what a gift it is to see, and how this unseeing girl seemed to appreciate features of the produce that most seeing children did not. It also occurred to me to share with Ophthalmology Times readers the secret of getting children to like vegetables.

My theory is that many kids don't like vegetables because they either don't taste good or taste like very little (bland). You probably are reading this in late summer or early autumn; in most parts of the country it is great cookout weather, and I have found a quick and easy way to prepare vegetables that many children will enjoy.

Start with a nice, chilled white wine (Pinot Grigio works well). Pour yourself (and any adult friends nearby) a glass to sip while preparing the veggies. After washing everything, slice a green and a yellow zucchini into cross-sections about 3/4-inch thick. Cut a red onion into six to eight wedges. Remove the stem and insides from bell peppers (orange, yellow, and red) and slice them into 1/2-inch wide sections. Snap off the bottoms of asparagus stalks and keep the tender top parts. Add broccoli crowns (they should be about 1-inch wide).

Put everything together in a big bowl, then add to the mix plenty of good olive oil (extra virgin, cold pressed), lots (it may not be possible to use too much) of finely diced garlic cloves, a generous amount of seasoning mixture (available in any store for seasoning chicken and other foods for grilling), and dried, ground chipotle pepper. Toss everything well and marinate for at least a couple of hours. Mix this a few times while it is marinating, and while you are working on the Pinot and preparing the rest of dinner.

Many stores sell perforated pans that you can use to cook vegetables on your grill. Get one, wipe with olive oil, and pour everything from the bowl onto the pan to grill. The vegetables will need to be flipped with tongs before they get overly cooked on the first side. I prefer to take them off the grill after about 10 or 15 minutes (when they still are fairly firm) and put them back in the bowl. All the colors and spices make for a tasty and visually attractive side dish, and one that may become a favorite of your children (as it did with mine) once they try it.

Few things are more enjoyable than sharing a delicious wine and friendly conversation with your companions while preparing and cooking dinner outdoors on the grill. If the grilled veggies are combined with grilled beer can chicken and the Pinot Grigio, the result is a nutritious and interesting meal. And the meal contains essentially no carbs (expect for the wine, but the carbs in really good wine don't count).

Prepared this way, even people who don't like to eat vegetables likely are to enjoy them. But maybe not as much as the cute little girl I saw in the store.

By Peter J. McDonnell, MDdirector of the Wilmer Eye Institute, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, and chief medical editor of Ophthalmology Times.

He can be reached at 727 Maumenee Building, 600 N. Wolfe St., Baltimore, MD 21287-9278 Phone: 443/287-1511Fax: 443/287-1514 E-mail: pmcdonn1@jhmi.edu