Heart healthy (and palate pleasing) for Valentine's Day

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This African stew is loaded with good-for-your-heart veggies and just enough spice to jump-start your metabolism. (Karen Schneider photo)

Although I don’t follow a vegan diet, I do explore vegan cooking and have discovered that, more and more, I really do like making and eating this type of food. As I fill up on more veggies and indulge in fewer breads and sweets, I’m convinced I feel lighter, more energetic and even sleep better.

Because February is American Heart Month and Valentine’s Day will be celebrated this Wednesday, this is the perfect opportunity to remind everyone to care for your heart. Preparing a warming, heart-healthy meal for ourselves and our loved ones is a wonderful way to say, “You matter to me. I want you to be around a long time.”

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Whether you’re a die-hard vegan or have thought there’s no way you’ll ever give up meat and dairy, this trio of recipes is definitely delicious. Ever since I first sampled this vegan African stew at my daughter’s home a few years ago, I sometimes get intense cravings for it. It seems that my body just needs these warming nutrients. I feel great after eating it too, which is how you should feel after a meal.

A big plus is that this stew is incredibly easy to put together and is lovely enough to serve for company or to have on hand for weekday lunches. Almost all of these ingredients can be kept in the pantry at all times so you’re ready when that craving strikes, and once you’ve tasted this stew, it will happen!

I don’t consider this heart-warming African stew to be spicy. Even though it contains jalapeno and cayenne, the sweet potato and cooling cilantro balance out the subtle spiciness perfectly.

If you’re a fan of really spicy foods, you have my permission to kick up the heat by adding more cayenne or experimenting with different varieties of peppers. If you’re concerned about the heat, however, simply adjust the recipe by backing off on the amount of jalapeno and cayenne you use or just leave those ingredients out entirely. It really is OK; no one will judge you.

There’s a lot of versatility here. If you want to serve this as a soup, simply add more broth. This dish can also be stretched by stirring cooked rice right into the pot at the end of the cooking time or even increasing the amount of sweet potatoes and/or chickpeas used.

Another delicious way to get in your daily amount of veggies is to use your best sharp knife and cutting board for the preparation of Rainbow Salad. We need lots of color to chase away the winter doldrums and, besides, greens can look so lackluster this time of year. Cauliflower and broccoli always seem to be fresh and perky no matter what the season!

I like to add a package of Cal-organic brand Colorshred Carrots because these orange, yellow, and purple matchsticks give the dish even more of a color burst. For an extra boost of protein, throw in some walnuts, pecans, slivered almonds, sunflower seeds or a combination. With this salad, it’s all about the crunch!

To finish off the meal in style, I found a delicious vegan, gluten-free dessert that is too easy to even be real, plus it won’t negate the healthy meal you just enjoyed. Not really a mousse or a pudding, this light, airy dessert “fluff” is crazy good and so refreshing.

For this recipe, I want to be really specific. Purchase canned coconut milk found in the Asian section of any grocery store. Don’t get the coconut milk in the box because it’s more diluted and won’t fluff up when beaten.

Coconut cream, also sold in a can, is yummy and will work, but the consistency will be much denser. Another canned product is “cream of coconut” that is often used for pina coladas. Found in the liquor section, it has a lot of added sugar and is over-the-top sweet. I must stress that canned coconut milk is the one you want.

Add berries to the coconut milk and whip up this concoction into a lovely pink cloud. If you want to go all out, make both the chocolate and the berry flavors, chill each for a bit in separate containers then layer into your best wine goblets or martini glasses. If you wish, swirl the flavors together with a chopstick. Believe me, it will be love at first bite.

Happy Valentine’s Day to one and all. May your heart overflow with good health and lots of love!

Karen Schneider, a writer and editor, has been a regular contributor to the Lewiston Sun Journal for over 20 years. Contact her at iwrite33@comcast.net with your ideas and comments.

Canned coconut milk and berries are blended into an edible pink cloud. Layer and swirl in chocolate and you’ve just whipped up the perfect vegan, gluten-free V-Day dessert. What’s not to love? (Karen Schneider photo)

Heartwarming African stew

Serves 6-8

2 teaspoons olive oil

1 large onion, diced

4 cloves garlic, minced

1 red pepper, diced

1 jalapeno pepper, diced

1 medium sweet potato, peeled and chopped into 1-inch pieces

1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes

1/3 cup peanut butter

1 to 1 1/2 boxes vegetable broth (4-6 cups)

Salt and pepper to taste

2 teaspoons chili powder

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 15-ounce can chickpeas, drained and rinsed

3 cups baby spinach or baby kale, torn and destemmed

1 1/2 cups roasted peanuts, unsalted or lightly salted

Fresh cilantro for garnish

6 cups cooked rice (optional)

In a stock pot, heat oil over medium heat. Add onion and garlic and saute until soft. Add peppers, sweet potato and tomatoes. Simmer for 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

In small bowl, combine peanut butter and 1 cup broth until smooth. Add to the vegetables along with remaining broth, chili powder and cayenne.

Cover and reduce the heat to simmer for approximately 15 minutes or until the potatoes are tender. Stir in chickpeas and greens. Cover and continue cooking until the greens are wilted. Serve in soup bowls or over rice. Garnish with peanuts and cilantro before serving.

Crunchy rainbow salad

Serves 8-10

1 head cauliflower, purple or white, or a combination

1 large head broccoli

10 ounces of carrots cut into matchstick pieces or 1 10-ounce bag matchstick carrots 

1/4 cup red onion, finely chopped

1 cup raisins

1 cup apple, chopped

1/8 to 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar

1 to 2 tablespoons maple syrup or other sweetener

1 cup walnuts, coarsely chopped

Break cauliflower and broccoli into small florets and place in a large bowl. Add carrots, onion, raisins and apple.

Combine vinegar and maple syrup. Pour over vegetables and gently stir. Best if refrigerated overnight to allow time for flavors to blend.

Stir in walnuts just before serving or offer as a garnish in a separate bowl.

Dessert fluff

Serves 4

1 13.5-ounce can coconut milk

1 cup chopped fresh or thawed frozen berries, or 2 tablespoons cocoa powder

Maple syrup or other sweetener if desired

Extra berries, coconut or chocolate curls for garnish

Chill the coconut milk for a few hours. When ready to prepare, open the can but do not stir the contents. Discard the liquid, then spoon the remaining solid coconut milk into a blender or mixing bowl if you are using a mixer. Add the berries or chocolate. Blend the ingredients until completely smooth. Taste, then stir in sweetener if desired — but you shouldn’t need it! Spoon into dessert dishes or glasses and chill until ready to garnish and serve.

Rainbow salad is brimming with the needed nutrients for a healthy heart. (Karen Schneider photo)

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