The Goodness of green

Let me confess-I’m a lazy layman when it comes to science. I find research results fascinating, but I have no aptitude for complex math and formulations. That’s why I get my science predigested, either by the New York Times’ brilliant staff of Tuesday journalists or in Discover magazine, a People-like journal for folks who find the mysteries of life more interesting than the lives of mystery celebrities.

Each January, Discover publishes their Top 100 Science Stories for the year gone by. In 2004, numbers one and 93 were written for women.

A University of Illinois researcher, Keith Singletary, discovered that swarming breast cancer cells halted in mid-division when confronted by a single broccoli floret. Those master-metabolizers not only stopped when faced with green, they recombined. Although the über-enzyme has been isolated for years, no one, until Singletary, was really able to unlock its potency. His trick? Heat the broccoli just long enough to release the hidden anti-carcinogen, sulforaphane.

It seems that the defensive nutrients in broccoli and its brassica-family relatives -Brussels sprouts, cabbage, mustard greens and kale-are blocked by big sulfur compounds that are released during cooking. That’s why cooked cabbage permeates wallpaper. However, if you heat the vegetables just long enough to melt away the initial chemical resistance, cruciferous vegetables release potent disease-fighters. Cook them too long and you intensify the basic bitterness of the greens and destroy all the benefits. Fork-tender is perfect.

Still, for cancer fighting, slowing down the cells that are already trying to metastasize is only half the battle. First, you have to keep the cells from even thinking about rampant cell division. Here’s where broccoli’s natural pairing comes in: garlic and onions do just that. They inhibit the action of enzymes that stimulate a cell’s errant replication.

Which brings me to Discover’s headline story about metabolism: all calories are not created equal. Scientists at the SUNY Downstate Medical Center in New York think they understand why the medical platitude-a calorie is just a calorie-doesn’t seem to hold true for millions of dieters. The reasoning about calories comes from doctors applying the first law of thermodynamics to food: although the form of energy may change, the total amount of energy in a system is constant and a calorie is, by definition, a measure of energy.

Not so quick, say doctors Feinman and Fine. What about the second law, the law of dissipation-in any irreversible process, energy tends to dissipate into heat over time. Calories measure the energy in food, but the body has to use energy to digest it. The body is very efficient at turning simple carbs into glucose-that’s why those cookies sit in a pouch around your waist, but it is less efficient at metabolizing bigger molecules such as protein, and complex carbohydrates like broccoli take extra calories to convert. Those calories dissipate as heat and are thus sloughed from the body. So count calories if that’s your diet of choice, but make your body work for them. Eat green!

Broccoli Breakaway

Serves 4

This oh-so easy preparation combines sulforaphanes with the immune protection of garlic in a tasty everyday side dish that everyone asks for more.

3 pounds young broccoli

2 Tbs. olive oil

4 large cloves garlic, smashed

1/2 cup scallions, chopped

2 Tbs. butter

1/2 cup chicken broth

4 Tbs. freshly shaved Parmesan

1. Discard the broccoli’s woody stems and break up the florets into bite-sized pieces.

2. Heat the olive oil to sizzling and toss the garlic until it colors.

3. Stir in the broccoli, scallions and butter until glistening.

4. Add the broth. Cover and cook five minutes-until fork tender. Boil off any excess broth. Add salt and pepper to taste and toss with cheese.

Broccoli Bombay

Serves 4

Another mélange of antioxidants, this works as well at room temperature as a salad as it does hot as a side dish with soy-glazed fish or spicy pork tenderloin.

2 pounds broccoli

1 Tbs. peanut oil

1 Tbs. soy sauce

1 Tbs. honey

1 Tbs. grated orange zest

3 Tbs. orange juice

2 peeled garlic cloves

1-inch peeled fresh ginger

3 scallions, minced

1/2 cup pine nuts or peanuts, toasted in a dry skillet

1. Trim and lightly salt the broccoli. Steam for three to four minutes, until just tender.

2. Meanwhile, puree the oil, soy sauce, honey, zest, juice, garlic and ginger.

3. Toss ingredients together. Adjust seasoning and serve.