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Secrets to eating healthy
It seems to be a never-ending challenge to find new, healthy and interesting dinners all year long. Another added consideration with our current economy and higher food prices is to find cost-effective meals.
The tried and true method of using leftovers to create new dishes is always one good way to save money. Another approach is to make pots of soups and stews that can be stretched for a few meals. Soup freezes well and is nice to have ready to serve at a later date. Preparing and freezing is also a way to save time and energy, especially with those recipes that are more labor intensive.
One of my favorite dinners to eat all year long is soup with a salad and warm crusty bread. Food is meant to be nurturing to the body and the soul. I find a delicious soup to be satisfying on both those levels. I learned from my mother that chicken broth had the healing power to kill just about any germ. Eighty-degree weather didn’t deter her from cooking homemade chicken soup if I caught a summer cold. In my opinion, even when soup is served chilled, it is still one of the best comfort foods of all.
I discovered a uniquely delicious soup recipe with an exotic taste that comes from East Indian spices, the flavors of which I find to be exquisitely fragrant and complex. The soup’s spiciness can vary from not spicy at all to very hot; the controls to this decision are completely in your hands.
This is a recipe I have played around with a lot. For example, the original recipe called for yellow split peas, which I switched out with red lentils instead; it received such rave reviews that I decided to keep it that way. Feel free to delete any spices that don’t appeal to you.
My individual spin on this recipe includes shallots, garlic, ground coriander and chopped fresh tomato. This recipe is one with which you have the freedom to be creative and the end product will still come out fabulous. If possible, make it easy on yourself and prepare the soup a day or two ahead of time. After it has been refrigerated, it has a tendency to thicken. Just add some extra water to thin.
Salads are fun to play around with, surprising the taste buds with different combinations of flavors and textures. As the weather gets warmer, I enjoy incorporating fresh fruit more often into my green salads. Because mango is used so often in Southeast Asian cooking, a nice complement to this particular lentil soup is a salad with fresh mango.
Once again, this is an area to express your creativity by adding or substituting your favorite ingredients. For instance, fresh nectarine, peach or plum would substitute nicely for the mango. If you feel the need for more protein to complete this meal, add some leftover chopped chicken, other meat or even seafood to the salad. Don’t forget to include warm, crusty bread. A favorite flavored ice cream or sorbet ends this meal perfectly, which I serve with cookies like chocolate chip and pistachio biscotti. If you’re feeling a creative urge to bake, these cookies freeze really well. The challenge, of course, is to not eat them all ahead of time!
RED LENTIL (OR YELLOW SPLIT PEA) AND COCONUT MILK SOUP
(Makes about 10 servings)
2 cups red lentils or yellow split peas
1½ teaspoons sea salt
4 tablespoons butter, olive oil or a mixture of the two
1 entire shallot, finely chopped
3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1½ teaspoons ground turmeric
1 teaspoon cardamom
½ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ or ½ teaspoon ground chili powder or more if you prefer it hotter (optional)
2 bay leaves
1 15-ounce can of coconut milk (I use the light version)
The juice of one large fresh lime
4 medium-sized fresh tomatoes, chopped (optional)
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
2 cups cooked rice (I prefer Arborio rice that is used for risotto)
2 cups fresh baby spinach leaves
1. Rinse the lentils or peas under cold water, add to 2 ½ quarts of boiling water, then reduce heat to a simmer. Add bay leaves and stir in 1 ½ teaspoon salt.
2. Melt the butter and oil in a medium skillet over medium to low heat, add the onion, shallot and garlic; cook, stirring frequently until these begin to soften and color slightly. Add the spices and ½ cup of water from the simmering lentils or peas; cook until the water has cooked away, then add this mixture to the simmering lentils or peas. Continue cooking the soup on low until everything is very soft, about 45 minutes to an hour. If it gets too thick, add more water or chicken broth to thin.
3. Remove the bay leaves, then puree in small batches in a blender, careful not to burn yourself from overfilling, pouring each pureed batch into a large bowl. Rinse out soup pot when you’re finished, then return pureed soup to the rinsed pot, stir in the coconut milk and chopped fresh tomatoes, if desired.
4. Add the lime juice, then taste to season with salt (if needed) and fresh ground pepper.
5. To finish, plunge the baby spinach leaves quickly into hot water just to slightly wilt. Drain well.
6. To serve, place a desired quantity of the cooked rice and spinach in each bowl, then ladle the soup on top.
(Serves four or five)
3 cups broken up romaine lettuce
3 cups mixed baby greens
¾ cup fresh basil, chopped
1 whole mango, chopped into bite-sized pieces
1 whole avocado, chopped into bite-sized pieces
½ cup spiced nuts, broken up (I find good spiced pecans at Trader Joe’s)
¼ cup shaved reggiano parmesan cheese
1½ cup chopped cooked chicken or other protein (optional)
1/3 cup virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar (I like to use fruit-infused versions, like a dark cherry)
½ teaspoon salt
Whisk the olive oil, balsamic vinegar and salt until well-incorporated. Toss all the salad ingredients with the dressing. Add fresh ground pepper if you like.
CHOCOLATE CHIP AND PISTACHIO BISCOTTI
¾ cup pistachio nuts, chopped (I find good ones at Trader Joe’s)
1 stick butter, softened
½ cup sugar
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1½ teaspoons baking powder (be sure to check the date on the bottom for freshness)
½ teaspoon salt
¾ cup dark chocolate mini chocolate chips
1 beaten egg white for glaze (optional for a shiny top)
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Place softened butter, sugar, eggs and extracts in a bowl and beat with an electric mixer on medium for about one minute.
3. In another bowl, stir flour, baking powder and salt together well, then beat into butter, sugar and egg mixture just until the dough forms. Stir in nuts and chocolate chips. The dough will be stiff.
4. Divide the dough in half and pat each half into a 3” x 9” flat log. Brush with egg glaze if desired.
5. Bake logs on a greased or parchment paper-lined heavy duty baking sheet for 30 to 35 minutes, until golden brown and just beginning to crack on top. Reduce oven temperature to 300 degrees.
6. Let cookie logs cool on a wire rack for 15 minutes or longer, then slice in ½ inch-slices with a large serrated knife.
7. Lay slices on their sides on the baking sheet and bake for 15 minutes, then flip slices over and bake for an additional 15 to 20 minutes, until cookies are dry and crisp. They will crisp up more as they cool.
8. Store in an airtight container up to several days or freeze.
Islander Cynthia Shifrin is an avid cook, devoted mother and professional psychotherapist.