1 June 2017


It’s hard to imagine a dinner time when the spotlight wasn’t on “eat your veggies”. But it wasn’t long ago – a bit over 100 years. The discovery of vitamins and minerals in the early years of the twentieth century was the wakeup call, and “Dr Vitamin” (Elmer Verner McCollum, 1879–1967) was a key player. He claimed veggies were “protective foods” because “they were so constituted to make good the deficiencies of whatever else we liked to eat”. He wasn’t wrong because, as Harvard’s Professor Walter Willett says, “so far, no one has found a magic bullet that works against heart disease, cancer and a host of other chronic diseases as well as fruits and vegetables seem to do”.

Today, we are spoiled for choice. This is perhaps because “vegetable” is a culinary term, not a botanical one. So, we can take our pick from fruits such as avocado, cucumber, marrow, tomato, capsicum (peppers) and green beans; bulbs such as onion and globe artichoke; stalks such as celery and asparagus; flower stalks and buds such as broccoli and cauliflower; roots and tubers such as carrot, potato and sweet potato; as well as the proverbial leafy greens, including spinach, bok choy, lettuce and cabbage. And there’s more. There are the edible dried seeds from the legume family: beans, peas and lentils.

In the Sapiens story, cooking was the game changer. Cooking starchy roots, tubers, and legumes was central to the dietary change that triggered and sustained the growth of the human brain for our ancestors. “It’s hard to imagine the leap to Homo erectus without cooking’s nutritional benefits,” says primatologist Prof. Richard Wrangham, author of Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. He believes we have been cooking for a long time because about 1.8 million years ago our teeth and our gut became small, a change that can only be explained, he says, by our ancestors getting softer foods and more nutrition, and “this could only have happened because they were cooking. It’s what made our human diet ‘human’ and is the most logical explanation for our advances in brain and body size over our ape ancestors.”

Sweet potato and fig

Our ancestors weren’t boiling their veg. they were roasting the roots and tubers the women and children gathered over the day on the embers of the fire to soften them. Anyone who has tried Yotam Ottolenghi’s Roasted Sweet Potatoes and Fresh Figs (GI News, September 1914) will certainly agree that roasting does a lot more than mere softening. It transforms. The dry oven heat caramelises any natural sugars on the surface, evaporates some of the water and concentrates the flavour. There is an art to roasting if you want veg crisp on the outside, hot and steamy on the inside and with deep, delicious sweetness says chef and food writer Kate McGhie.

  • Cut potatoes, and sweet potato into pieces of about the same size. Roast for 15 minutes or so before adding quicker cooking carrots, parsnips, pumpkin, turnips or beetroot (whole or halved). 
  • Make sure veggies are dry before roasting. 
  • Lightly brush them with a thin layer of oil. 
  • Arrange in a roasting pan in a single layer. No cramming, they need good airflow. 
  • Season lightly to taste.