Natural sweeteners you will never regret: Fruits and vegetables

Collard greens sweetened with onions.
Collard greens sweetened with onions. PHOTO: WASHINGTON POST

(WASHINGTON POST) - If you have a sweet tooth, you are in trouble. The news has finally caught up with the facts: Refined sugar is not good for you, and Americans eat too much of it. It is hidden in all sorts of prepared foods where you would never expect to find it. Check the ingredients lists on cans, boxes, bottles and bags, and you will see.

Substituting unrefined natural sweeteners such as honey and maple syrup - in sensible quantities - is a good step, as these have not, one hopes, been stripped of their nutritive value. But even "natural" products are hard to judge unless you are a food scientist.

Is agave syrup highly refined? And where is the logic in removing dark, mineral-rich molasses during the refinement of cane sugar and then re-adding it to make "brown sugar"?

When thinking about sweetness in food, try to look at the basics. Human breast milk is sweet, sweeter than cows' milk, so we must come by our sweet tooth naturally and put it to use way past the time of weaning. As young children, we quickly learn that the bright red strawberry, at its sweet, nutritious best, is the one to pick. We did not get this far by eating sour, unripe fruit.

So it makes sense to carry an apple for a snack, slice a pear to go on top of your salad, and introduce fruit into desserts as often as possible, with little or no sweetening needed. Summer fruits can be enjoyed year-round if frozen and used in cobblers, crisps and tarts, with a little honey stirred in.

Fruit cookery is not limited to the end of the meal. Think of apricot-stuffed chicken, prune-stuffed pork roast and the handful of raisins that elevates a pan of sauteed spinach, a casserole of rice pilaf, or a pot of couscous with pine nuts and brown butter. Those raisins might make the meal just sweet enough to forestall the stabbing need for Ben & Jerry's.

I look for sweetness in the vegetable garden as well, and I am not talking about acidic stems of rhubarb, which are so sour they require their weight in sugar to be edible and whose appeal I have never understood. Parsnips, fresh-dug in spring, are so sweet by themselves that people make desserts out of them.

Sweet peppers, sweet corn and sugar snap peas are vegetable lollipops. So are cherry tomatoes, which would not be out of place in a dish of mixed grapes and melon cubes, splashed with Cointreau, or topped with yogurt and mint.

Oddly enough, the cold of autumn and winter can have an equally sweetening effect, not on fruits but on roots and leaves. Parsnips are not the only roots that sweeten remarkably in cold soil. Carrots that experience a few frosts are wonderfully sweet and juicy. Keep them in the ground, with protection if needed, and feast on them until late January or early February, when they start to sprout new foliage and their eating quality declines. Beets, too, are notoriously sweet for winter eating. Baking makes them even sweeter by concentrating their sugar.

As for leafy crops, your lettuce will be less bitter, your arugula less sharp and your spinach deliciously mild for as long as you can keep them going into the fall and winter months. If you find the taste of brassicas such as kale a bit too strong to love, try eating them in cool weather, which tames that mustardy bite. In general, the Brassica napus varieties of kale we have grown, such as Western Front, are sweeter than the Brassica oleracea ones such as Winterbor. We are feasting almost daily on a particularly tasty collard variety called Blue Max.

I'll end with the onion, the most secretly sweet vegetable of all. Some types, such as Vidalia, Walla Walla and Sweet Spanish, may be bred for sweetness, but any onion can be cooked to sweeten a dish. Cooking onions not only kills their pungent heat but also concentrates the sweetness that hides beneath it. Put sauteed onions on a burger, and you will not need sweet relish. Slowly caramelise a few onions and add them to your cooking greens, and it is as if you had sprinkled them with caramel candies - not ones from a bag, but from the good earth.

Barbara Damrosch is the author of The Four Season Farm Gardener's Cookbook. Her website is