The Immune-Boosting Meal Plan

It’s not much different than how you should be eating — but here’s how to get started

Photo: Aya Brackett

In times of crisis, it’s natural to seek guidance on how to stay healthy. As the coronavirus spreads throughout the U.S., I couldn’t help but wonder if there were specific immune-boosting foods we should stock up on.

I reached out to my friend and collaborator Dr. David L. Katz for advice, and then compiled a few recipes to make it easy to follow the doctor’s orders.

How to eat if you’re worried about the potential of a pandemic is not that much different than how to eat normally: Katz noted that most of us have a pro-inflammatory diet, and the immune system is best prepared to defend us against pathogens when in its optimal balance. Nutrients that help us move toward that balance include antioxidants (notably carotenoids and flavanoids) in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains; and whole produce in a rainbow of colors, which signify the presence of important nutrients (berries are standouts).

Soluble fiber, which stabilizes blood sugar, insulin, and a range of inflammatory compounds, is another important building block of an immune-boosting diet, Katz said. It’s found in beans, lentils, whole oats, quinoa, apples, and berries, among others.

Zinc is important to lymphocyte function — and lymphocytes fight viruses — and is found in seafood, mushrooms, nuts, seeds, beans, meat/poultry, and whole grains. Katz recommended using healthy oils that also optimize immune function, including extra virgin olive oil and avocado oil, and seeking out omega-3 fats, found in fish, seafood, walnuts, flaxseeds, some canola oils.

With all that in mind, here are a few of my adaptable clean-out-the-fridge favorites to get you started on an immune-boosting meal plan.

Greens with fruit, cheese, and nuts

Makes: 4 servings
Time: 20 to 30 minutes

Think of this as a healthy cheese course, which is a nice idea, but I stand by translating the concept into a salad, which is lighter, less fussy, and more versatile.

Ingredients

  • About 1 pound any fresh fruit, or 1 cup any dried fruit, cut into bite-size pieces
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • 4 ounces Gorgonzola or other blue cheese
  • ¾ cup walnuts or other nuts
  • 6 cups lightly packed mixed greens (like mesclun) torn into bite-sized pieces
  • About cup vinaigrette (recipe below)

Instructions

Peel and core the fruit if necessary and remove any seeds or pits. If large, cut the fruit into ½-inch chunks. Toss the fruit with the lemon juice. Cover and refrigerate for up to 2 hours.

Crumble or chop the cheese into small bits; cover and refrigerate until needed. Put the nuts in a dry skillet, turn the heat to medium, and toast them, shaking the pan frequently until they are aromatic and beginning to darken in color, 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer to a small bowl.

When you’re ready to serve, toss together the fruit, cheese, and greens with as much of the dressing as you like. Chop the nuts coarsely, sprinkle them over all, and serve.

10 combos

  1. Grapes, Parmesan, pine nuts
  2. Oranges, manchego, almonds
  3. Apricots, goat cheese, pecans
  4. Dried apricots, blue cheese, walnuts
  5. Cantaloupe or honeydew, cotija, pepitas
  6. Blueberries, Asiago, pistachios
  7. Dried plums, feta, hazelnuts
  8. Dried pineapple, brie, cashews
  9. Peaches, ricotta salata, pecans
  10. Plums, fontina, almonds

Vinaigrette

Makes: About ¾ cup
Time: 5 minutes

Ingredients

  • ½ cup extra virgin olive oil. (You’re also welcome to replace 2 tablespoons of the olive oil with walnut oil for an added immune boost.)
  • 3 tablespoons good wine vinegar, or more to taste
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 tablespoon chopped shallot (optional)

Instructions

Put the oil, vinegar, and a pinch each of salt and pepper in a blender and turn the machine on; a creamy emulsion will form within 30 seconds. Taste and add more vinegar a teaspoon at a time until the balance tastes right to you.

Add the shallot if you’re using it, and turn the machine on and off a few times until the shallot is minced within the dressing. Taste, adjust the seasoning and serve. This is best made fresh but will keep, refrigerated, for a few days. (Bring it back to room temperature and whisk briefly before using.)

— From “How to Cook Everything Vegetarian

Beans and Greens

Makes: 4 servings
Time: 1 to 3 hours, depending on the bean

I never tire of this combination, especially since there are so many possible variations. The beans should be somewhat creamy and the greens silky without disintegrating. The secret is to add the greens — and lots of garlic and oil — when the beans are almost done.

Ingredients

  • 8 ounces (1 cup) dried chickpeas, rinsed and picked over
  • Salt
  • 1 medium onion, unpeeled
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 whole clove
  • 1 bunch broccoli raab (about 1½ pounds), stems trimmed, coarsely chopped
  • Pepper
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic (or more to taste)
  • 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon olive oil (or more to taste)
  • ½ cup fried breadcrumbs (for garnish)

Instructions

Put the chickpeas in a large saucepan with water to cover and a large pinch salt. Turn the heat to high and bring to a boil.

Cut a slit in the onion and insert the bay leaf; insert the clove into the onion and add the onion to the chickpeas. Turn the heat down to medium-low so the mixture bubbles gently, cover partially, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the chickpeas are tender but still intact, about 2 hours. Add water if necessary.

Add the broccoli raab and cook till it’s tender, 10 to 30 minutes, depending on the thickness of the stems. If you want a soupy mixture, add more water.

Remove the onion. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper. Stir in the garlic and the oil and cook for about 3 minutes. Spoon the chickpeas and greens into individual bowls and garnish with breadcrumbs.

10 combos

  1. Adzuki beans with bok choy and sesame oil with soy sauce, minced fresh chile, and red chile flakes for garnish.
  2. Black beans with kale, extra virgin olive oil, and chopped Brazil nuts
  3. Cannellini beans with escarole, extra virgin olive oil, and Parmesan
  4. Chickpeas with chard, extra virgin olive oil, and chopped toasted almonds
  5. Gigantes with Romaine, extra virgin olive oil, and crumbled feta
  6. Brown lentils with cabbage, extra virgin olive oil, and whole grain mustard
  7. Green lentils with fennel, extra virgin olive oil, and golden raisins
  8. Navy beans with broccoli, extra virgin olive oil, and grated cheddar cheese
  9. Pinto beans with spinach, extra virgin olive oil, and fresh salsa
  10. Soybeans with mustard greens, sesame oil, soy sauce, and sesame seeds

— From “How to Cook Everything Vegetarian

Minestrone

Makes: 4 to 6 servings
Time: 45 to 60 minutes

Ingredients

  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1 carrot, chopped
  • 1 celery stalk, peeled and chopped
  • ½ cup chopped prosciutto or other ham (optional)
  • 1½ to 2 cups hard vegetables like potatoes, winter squash, parsnips, or turnips, peeled if necessary and chopped
  • Salt and pepper
  • 6 cups vegetable stock or water
  • 1 cup peeled, seeded, and chopped tomato (canned is fine; include the juices)
  • 1½ to 2 cups soft vegetables like green beans, cooked beans, zucchini or summer squash, or dark leafy greens like kale or collards, chopped
  • 1 cup chopped fresh parsley
  • Grated Parmesan cheese for garnish

Instructions

Put 3 tablespoons of oil into a large pot over medium heat. When it’s hot, add the onion, carrot, and celery. Cook, stirring, until the vegetables soften, about 5 minutes. Add the ham if you’re using it and cook, stirring, until golden, about 3 minutes more.

Add the hard vegetables and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring, for a minute or 2, then add the stock and the tomato; bring to a boil, then lower the heat so the mixture bubbles gently. Cook, stirring until the vegetables are fairly soft and the tomato is broken up, about 15 minutes. (At this point, you can refrigerate the soup, covered, for up to 2 days; proceed to Step 3 and add the tender vegetables as the soup reheats.)

Add the soft vegetables and parsley and adjust the heat again so the mixture bubbles steadily. Cook until all the vegetables are very tender, 5 to 10 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning, add the remaining tablespoon oil, and serve right away. Pass the cheese at the table if you’re using it.

More takes on minestrone

The tomato is a given, but other vegetables are completely flexible.

  1. Summer Minestrone: Use fresh corn kernels, zucchini or summer squash, and garnish with chopped fresh basil, mint, or thyme.
  2. Autumn Minestrone: Use mostly cubes of butternut or other winter squash, and garnish with chopped fresh sage and chopped toasted hazelnuts.
  3. Green Minestrone: Use peas, asparagus, green beans, and ¾ cup mixed chopped fresh herbs like parsley, basil, dill, mint, chervil, and chives.
  4. Spicy Chile Minestrone: Use roasted, cleaned, and chopped poblanos, minced jalapeño, a mix of potato, corn, and chayote or any summer squash, and cilantro. Garnish with crumbled queso fresco.
  5. Sausage and Lentil Minestrone: Replace the prosciutto with 8 ounces hot or sweet Italian sausage, casings removed and crumbled; in place of the hard vegetables, add 1 cup brown or green lentils, rinsed and picked over.

Frozen vegetables in soup

Yes you can — and should. Especially when they’re going to cook for a long time. The frozen vegetables that work best in soups are artichokes, broccoli, butternut squash, cauliflower, collards and kale, corn, peas, and spinach. Stock a few bags in your freezer, complement them with fresh vegetables if possible, and you can put together a meal with little time and effort.

There are two good ways to use them in soup: Straight from the bag; you’ll need to increase the cooking time to compensate for their chilling effect. Or to heighten the flavor you can cook the vegetables lightly in oil to thaw them before adding to the liquid.

— From “How to Cook Everything

Has published 30 books, including How to Cook Everything and VB6: The Case for Part-Time Veganism. Newsletter at markbittman.com.

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