Eat your veggies

A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit my son in Washington state and spend some time with him and take in the sights that are unique to that part of the country. I’ve been out there a couple of times now and so I am more familiar with the area and some of the local attractions. One of my very favorite attractions in the Seattle area is the popular Pike Place Market. It is the ultimate farmers market experience and so much fun to visit. It has a wide variety of locally sourced products, including fruits, vegetables, fish, flowers, crafts, etc. Of course, my favorite part is the food and I enjoy talking to the vendors about their products and learning more about what and how they produce the items that they bring to the market.

Of course Washington is known for its cherries; they are in season now and I sampled my way through them and bought some. I enjoy the hazelnuts that are grown in Washington. The salmon is exceptional; it’s local and fresh and I enjoyed sampling the various types of that as well. Those are some things that are unique to Washington, but they also have products very similar to what we see at our local Minnesota farmers markets too, namely vegetables and fruits. I am a big fan of locally sourced produce and you can’t beat the flavor and nutritional quality of just-picked fruits and vegetables. I also like knowing where my food comes from and getting a chance to meet the grower is a big plus, if you can get that opportunity.

At one of the booths at the Pike Place Market, they had taken the concept of fresh produce to the next step and were selling the fresh vegetables that they grew as a dehydrated vegetable mix. They had dehydrated a variety of fresh vegetables, such as onions, beets, carrots, green beans and others and then brushed them lightly with canola oil, lightly salted them and then roasted them until they were crispy. They were marketing them as a healthier alternative to crackers and chips. Dehydrated vegetables would keep the nutrients that the original vegetables would have and would be a lower calorie and lower fat option. I was surprised at how tasty and flavorful those vegetables were and, of course, had to buy a couple bags of them to bring home too!

As we approach the time when our gardens and farmers markets have a bounty of fresh produce it got me to thinking that maybe I should try my hand at making these vegetable chips. I had asked the vendor who was selling these how she had done it and she had used a food dehydrator. I have not used one of those and wondered if I could accomplish the same results from a low setting on my oven. It turns out that this isn’t a very good way to dehydrate food and is more likely to bake the food than dry the food.

I consulted the University of Minnesota Extension Service website for more information on how to dry foods at home and found some interesting tips. To dry food successfully at home, you need a low humidity, a source of low heat — 120 degrees F to 150 degrees F and air circulation. Minnesota is not known for our low humidity and standard ovens don’t circulate the air in them, so those are the problems with using our own kitchen oven to dehydrate food.

The Extension Service notes that a food dehydrator produces the best quality of product as compared to other methods of drying. Most food dehydrators have an electric element for heat and a fan and vents for air circulation. These features are designed to dry foods uniformly and to retain food quality.

Oven drying takes two to three times longer to dry food than in a dehydrator; the oven is not as efficient and uses a great deal more energy than a dehydrator. If you do want to use your oven, you need to check the oven dial to see if it has a reading as low as 140 degrees F. If the thermostat does not go this low, your food will cook instead of dry. If you do use your oven, you need to leave the door open 2 to 4 inches and place a fan near the outside of the oven door to improve circulation. This is certainly not an energy efficient way to fix something!

The Extension Service notes that sun-drying is also an option, but requires constant exposure to sunlight during the day and a relative humidity of less than 20 percent. These conditions are not usually found in Minnesota and more likely found in sunny and dry parts of the country like Arizona or California. Foods dried in the sun can take three to four days to dry; if the humidity is high, the food will mold before it dries.

Air drying is also an option for some foods. Herbs, hot peppers, and mushrooms can be air-dried by simply hanging them on a string or tied in bundles and suspended until they are dry. While they are drying, they need to be protected from dust, pollution and other contaminants.

Now that I’ve had a tasty sample and know a little bit more about this process, I think I am in the market for new kitchen gadget! I’m going to get a dehydrator and try it out on the vegetables that are soon to be ready from my dad’s garden. More to come!

Cheryl Rude is a registered dietitian at Avera Marshall Regional Medical Center.