Seven helpings of fruits and vegetables every day.
That's the magic number for researchers who recently found that happiness and mental health peak in people who eat seven portions of produce daily.
That seems like a tall order, especially if you were already struggling to meet the more traditional recommendation of five. But we feel your pain – and we're here to help.
Enter Makadu Labeet, the unofficial caretaker of Vermont Square Community Garden. He sets up shop in the space on the 4700 block of Vermont Avenue every other day, from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., selling trinkets and keeping the plots tidy. He views his connection with the garden as spiritual, and says if it weren't for the garden, he'd "be going crazy."
We asked Labeet for recommendations on simple meals people could make with items grown in their backyards or in a plot at a community garden. Here's what he came up with:
What it is: Callaloo
What it needs to grow: "You're not going to find this in a store," said Labeet. "They grow like weeds." Hundreds of small seeds grow on the plant in clusters, so just find some of those and plant them in the spring, when they're in season. It doesn't need to be watered often – about once a week, if that, he said. You can plant callaloo in a large pot (one that's about two feet tall) or in the ground.
How to cook it: "We eat it with fish, in fish soup," said Labeet. Just pick the leaves off, then boil or steam them. Or, he said, you can mix it with zucchini, tomatoes, onions and garlic to make a sort of gravy, then mix in some rice or noodles.
How it tastes: Like spinach.
What they are: Green bananas
What it needs to grow: Take a shoot from an existing banana tree and plant it in the ground – a pot won't work for this plant. It stops growing in the winter, but it won't die, said Labeet. The bigger the plant's leaves, the more water it needs – plan on watering a green banana tree about once or twice a week.
How to cook it: Don't eat green bananas raw, said Labeet, because then it tastes "bitter and terrible." Cut up the green bananas, boil them until they're soft, and peel them. Cut up some onions and garlic and throw it in with some fish. Another option: Mix it up with some cornmeal and okra.
How it tastes: "All bananas taste about the same," said Labeet. The only difference is size and color. "We cook it while it's green," he said – and while it's smaller than ones you'd eat raw. Green bananas will eventually turn a more familiar yellow, but you can't really cook with those, he said.
What they are: Pigeon peas
What it needs to grow: Plant the peas in the ground, then be patient – it'll take about a year to grow. But it's perennial, and only needs to be watered around once a week.
How to cook it: "You boil them, and it's good, man," said Labeet, laughing. "This is good with [flavored] rice. It's really good."
How it tastes: "Like regular peas," said Labeet. "Well – no, a little different. It gives the food taste." And it gives dishes a certain texture, he added.
What it is: Cabbage
What it needs to grow: You can buy cabbage seeds, said Labeet, or use seeds from the cabbage itself. "Those come up quicker than the ones you buy at the store," he said. Cabbage needs water – about two times a week should do it. The only trouble? Snails, which Labeet described as "not having a brain" – which is to say that it won't be too hard to protect your plants. You'll know it's ready when the cabbage "becomes a hard ball."
How to cook it: Labeet uses cabbage to make coleslaw. "You grate the cabbage – one half, not the whole thing," he said. "Take three carrots, grate them down. Then mix in some mayonnaise and put it between the bread." Don't put salt on it, said Labeet – but some will add some black pepper or raisins.
How it tastes: To quote Labeet: "Great."
What it is: Garlic
What it needs to grow: Not a whole lot, said Labeet. "You can grow garlic anytime," he said – in a pot, in the ground, even in a box. Just plant a clove and keep it moist; it doesn't need constant watering. It grows beneath the ground, but it's ready to eat when the above-ground leaves turn yellow – which will take about six weeks.
How to cook it: What can't you cook with garlic? It's a great accent to any number of dishes, and as Labeet rightly notes, it's good for your blood pressure.
How it tastes: "If you don't want any friends, just eat some garlic," laughed Labeet.
What it is: Dasheen
What it needs to grow: "It's easy to grow," said Labeet. It looks like a plant you'd put around your house, too – "So if somebody wants to grow those, they'll have a beautiful plant, plus some food." Plant some of the seeds you find on the lower part of a dasheen plant in a pot or in the ground, and water it about once a week – it doesn't need too much. "It grows quick," he said, adding you'll know it's ready when the leaves start browning.
How to cook it: At the base of the dasheen plant are starchy bulbs that you can use in soup, as well as fish or meat dishes. The plant's large leaves can be steamed and then used as a wrap. But note that eating it raw can contribute to kidney stones – so boil it first, or steep it in cold water overnight.
How it tastes: The bulbs taste like potatoes, and the leaves taste like spinach, said Labeet.
If you're having trouble finding any of these seeds, you'll be able to find some at Vermont Square Community Garden, which is located on South Vermont Avenue between West 47th and 48th streets. And remember: Wash your produce.
All photos by José Martinez.