In 2014, the CDC released a list of the 41 most nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables and called their list “powerhouse fruits and vegetables.” It was a science-based response to the term “superfood,” which gets thrown around without a lot of evidence to back it up. (For instance, conspicuously missing on the CDC’s list: blueberries.) The 41 foods designated as powerhouses by the CDC are so nutritious that they are associated with reduced risk of chronic disease—and some of them are also very affordable.
According to that report, the number one most-nutrient-dense vegetable is watercress—a peppery green that’s very delicious in salads or wilted in olive oil. But watercress isn’t particularly convenient (it’s quite delicate) or affordable. So, if we made a Venn diagram of cheap foods and powerhouse foods, where’s the overlap? Right this way for the five most affordable powerhouse foods and how to use them.
1. Napa (or Chinese) Cabbage
Napa cabbage is the number-two most nutrient dense food on this list, just behind watercress—and it’s often a bargain, especially if you have an Asian grocery near you. Napa cabbage is oblong with green, crinkly leaves fading to a white stem. Eaten raw, like in this slaw, it’s crisp and very refreshing. And it gets even sweeter and mellower when cooked, making it a great choice for a stir-fry. Salted and fermented, it’s often the main ingredient in kimchi—that fermentation results in natural probiotics, making the cabbage even more nutritious.
2. Beet and Turnip Greens
Beet and turnip greens are cheap because…they come with beets and turnips! That’s two vegetables for the price of one—so don’t throw them away! In fact, if you ask around at your farmers’ market, you might be able to score a bag for free, because non-thrifty people ask for the greens to be cut off. Both beet and turnip greens are very high in vitamins and minerals (both are more nutrient-dense than kale), and they’re super easy to cook. You can simply wilt them in olive oil with garlic and chile flakes. Or, serve them with their roots, like in this golden beet and beet green soup, this salad of roasted beets and beet greens, or this buttery sauté of turnips and their greens.
Red and green cabbages don’t quite have the frilly good looks of Napa cabbage, or the trendy appeal of their relatives in the cruciferous family, like Brussels sprouts and kale. But cabbage is so overlooked: It’s delicious, versatile and often very cheap. You can grill it; you can make it into a slaw topping for tacos; you can roast it until it’s sweet, you can even pretend it’s a steak.
Fresh tomatoes—wonderful as they are when in season—aren’t all that cheap. But canned tomatoes can be a terrific bargain. And not only are good-quality canned tomatoes relatively affordable, extremely convenient, and tasty, they also offer something that fresh tomatoes don’t: lycopene. That’s a pigment with antioxidant effects that are only activated when heated, as tomatoes are when they are canned. Canned tomatoes are money in the bank (or pantry). Use them to make thrifty and fast dinners like eggs poached in tomato sauce, a sausage, bean and tomato ragout, or spaghetti with tomato and spinach.
5. Turnips and Rutabagas
Right now at my grocery store, both turnips and rutabagas are 99 cents a pound. That’s a lot of root vegetable for your buck. Both turnips and rutabagas are in the cruciferous family, and have a sharp, radish-y flavor when raw, but turn sweet and mellow when cooked. (Rutabagas are slightly sweeter than turnips.) You can make them into crispy fries, roast them with maple syrup, or smash them with potatoes to make a healthier mash.