Eat for the Health of It Recipe Contest – We Have a Winner!

As part of our Eat for the Health of It nutrition challenge, WellMASS sponsored a recipe contest for all state employees, contractors, and temporary workers.  Employees were challenged to create an original recipe, or adapt one from an outside source, that contained at least one fruit, vegetable, or whole grain.  Recipes were judged by the WellMASS team and a group of Wellness Champions from various agencies on four criteria:  originality, nutritional value, skill level, and most importantly, taste.  We received over 40 entries to this contest, all of which looked just as delicious as they were nutritious. At the end of the day, however, there could only be one winner, and that honor went to Theresa Harkin of EHS and her recipe for Baked Nectarines with Pistachios.

Baked Nectarines with Pistachios
Recipe by Theresa Harkin, EHS

Ingredients
4 tablespoons shelled pistachios
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
¼ cup confectioners’ sugar
2 drops (less than ⅛ teaspoon) almond extract (optional)
⅛ teaspoon salt
2 nectarines, halved and pitted
½ cup vanilla Greek yogurt
1 tablespoon granulated sugar

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 400° F.
  2. Chop 3 tablespoons pistachios in a food processor until finely ground. Add butter, confectioners’ sugar, almond extract, and salt. Process until combined.
  3. Place nectarines, cut side up, on a baking sheet.
  4. Place a generous tablespoon of pistachio mixture on each nectarine half.
  5. Chop remaining tablespoon pistachios, and sprinkle on top of nectarines. Bake until fruit is tender and topping is crisp, 10 to 15 minutes. Let cool for 5 minutes. Transfer to four plates.
  6. Whisk together yogurt and granulated sugar. Spoon over nectarines, and serve.

Theresa first saw this recipe, which originally appeared on the WellMASS blog, in the Executive Office of Health and Human Services’ TGIF newsletter.  It caught her attention because, “In all honesty, I’m not much of a cook.  When I saw this recipe in TGIF it looked easy enough to prepare and I liked most of the ingredients.  I just tweaked it a bit to better suit my tastes.  I have made it several times for various functions and it is always a big hit.  You can even store the leftovers and enjoy the next day.”

Theresa, like many other home cooks out there, believes it’s important to prepare healthy meals and snacks, especially ones that have staying power:  “Now that I’m getting older, eating healthy is more of a commitment; the pounds don’t come off as easily as they used to.  This recipe is nutritious, delicious and repetitious!”

Our Wellness Champion judges chose Theresa’s Baked Nectarines with Pistachios recipe as the overwhelming winner of the contest due to a number of factors, most notably how great it tasted.   When asked to comment on the dish, tasters shared the following remarks:

“Delicious!  Great to bring to a party.”

“Hands-down winner!”  I like that the Greek yogurt adds protein value.”

“Very nice flavors and textures.”

“Would bring as a dessert to a party.”

“Impressively yummy dessert!  I would totally make this for a special treat.”

If you’re looking for a great healthy treat to bring to a party, or indulge in on your own, I’d encourage you to try these Baked Nectarines with Pistachios.  Theresa’s recipe, along with our other contest submissions, will be published in a forthcoming e-cookbook; be sure to ask your agency’s Wellness Champion for a copy!

Healthy Ingredient of the Week – Red Onions

Red onions are a flavorful way to add some color to your meals.  In general, fruits and vegetables that are darkly- and deeply-colored contain more nutrients than their neutral-toned counterparts.  This means that red onions have a greater variety of nutrients than the more traditional white onions, although the two can be used interchangeably in many recipes.  Like white onions, red onions are an excellent source of Vitamin C and a good source of several B vitamins and fiber.  Red onions’ vibrant hue gives them a leg up, however, as their color signals that they are high in antioxidant flavonoids, particularly quercetin, which may offer protection against allergies, heart disease, and certain cancers.  Red onions are extremely versatile, as they can both serve as the star of a dish and brighten up the flavor profile of any dish to which they are added.

Red Onion Soup with Cheese Toasts

Olive oil
3 pounds red onions, peeled and sliced ⅛-inch thick
Black pepper, to taste
9 cups water, divided
1 cup dry red wine
2 bay leaves
1 small bunch thyme, tied with string
8 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
6 slices day-old whole wheat bread, lightly toasted
6 ounces grated Gruyère or Swiss cheese
1 teaspoon chopped thyme
1 tablespoon chopped sage


Instructions
1.  Set 2 large, wide skillets over medium-high heat. When pans are hot, add 1 tablespoon oil and a large handful of sliced onions to each pan. Season onions with pepper, then sauté, stirring occasionally, until they are a ruddy dark brown, about 10 minutes.
2.  Transfer onions to soup pot and return pans to stove. Pour ½ cup water into each pan to deglaze it, scraping with a wooden spoon to dissolve any brown bits. Pour deglazing liquid into soup pot.
3.  Wipe pans clean with paper towel and begin again with more oil and sliced onions. Continue until all onions are used. Don’t crowd pans or onions won’t brown sufficiently.
4.  Place soup pot over high heat. Add wine, bay leaves, thyme bunch, and garlic. Simmer rapidly for 5 minutes, then add 8 cups water and return to boil. Turn heat down to maintain a gentle simmer. Cook for 45 minutes. Skim off any surface fat, taste and adjust seasoning.
5.  To serve, remove the thyme. Make the cheese toasts: Heat broiler. Place toasted bread on baking sheet. Mix grated cheese with chopped thyme and sage, along with a generous amount of pepper. Heap about 1 ounce of cheese mixture on each toast. Broil until cheese bubbles and browns slightly.
6.  Ladle soup into wide bowls and top with toast.  Serves 6.

Recipe adapted from The New York Times

Radish, Arugula, and Red Onion Salad with Tangerines

2 tangerines
2 tablespoons finely chopped radishes plus 12 large radishes, trimmed and very thinly sliced on diagonal
1 tablespoon chopped red onion plus ½ cup thinly sliced
1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons fresh Meyer lemon juice or regular lemon juice
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 medium fennel bulb, quartered lengthwise with core intact, very thinly sliced lengthwise
3 cups (packed) arugula
¼ cup coarsely chopped fresh mint
Instructions
1.  Finely grate enough peel from tangerines to measure 1 teaspoon; place in small bowl and reserve for dressing.
2.  Using sharp knife, cut off top and bottom of each tangerine, then cut off all peel and white pith, following contour of fruit. Cut tangerines vertically in half, then crosswise into ¼ inch-thick slices; set aside.
3.  Combine finely chopped radishes, chopped red onion, lemon juice, and grated tangerine peel in small bowl; let stand 5 minutes. Whisk in extra-virgin olive oil. Season salad dressing to taste with coarse freshly ground black pepper.
4.  Combine tangerine slices, radish slices, onion slices, fennel slices, arugula leaves, and chopped fresh mint in large bowl.  Drizzle dressing over salad and toss to coat thoroughly. Transfer salad to large shallow bowl and serve.  Serves 6.

Recipe from Bon Appetit 

Fish Oil and Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Chances are, if you have high cholesterol, are at high risk of developing heart disease, have inflammatory issues, or are concerned about brain health, you have probably talked with your doctor about taking fish oil pills, which have been shown to help with all of these conditions. The reason fish oil has such beneficial effects on a number of conditions is that it’s high in omega-3 fatty acids, particularly eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), two types of fat that are crucial for optimal health.  EPA and DHA are also known as essential fatty acids, meaning your body can’t produce them on its own, so the only way you can meet your needs for these nutrients is through food or supplementation.  Many people turn to fish oil supplements as a convenient way to meet their essential fatty acid needs, but there are actually other, tastier ways to do so.

Fish oil is made from, obviously, fish, which means that eating the “real thing” will provide you with the same nutrients as a pill.  The bonus of eating fish that contain omega-3s is that your body will absorb more of these fatty acids than if you were to take a pill, plus the fish will provide other beneficial nutrients like protein. The best sources of omega-3s are oily fish like salmon, tuna, sardines, and anchovies, although most types of fish contain EPA or DHA in varying amounts.  You can meet your body’s needs for omega-3s through food alone if you eat two servings of oily fish each week; a serving of fish is generally considered 3.5 ounces.

Some people, myself included, are not fans of oily fish, but there’s hope for us yet, as other healthy foods, like flaxseeds and walnuts, also contain omega-3 fatty acids.  The type of omega-3 found in foods other than fish is of a slightly different variety, however, which is not as well-absorbed as the omega-3s found in fish.  The omega-3 fatty acid found in flaxseeds and walnuts is called alpha-linolenic acid, or ALA.  Although ALA on its own doesn’t confer the same nutritional benefits as EPA and DHA, your body is able to partially convert it to its more beneficial omega-3 counterparts.  What this means is that, when you eat a food that contains ALA, an extra step has to occur in order for your body to use it in the same way it uses EPA and DHA.  Therefore, ALA is not used as efficiently or absorbed as well as EPA and DHA, although it’s a still a great way to increase omega-3 intake without eating oily fish or taking fish oil supplements.

If you prefer to take a supplement to ensure adequate omega-3 intake, know that fish oil has been proven to be more effective (and safer) than up-and-coming “designer” counterparts like krill oil.  Flaxseed oil is a good vegetarian alternative to fish oil, but like flaxseeds themselves, the omega-3s it contains will not be as well-absorbed.  Although fish oil supplementation is generally safe, research shows that consuming greater than 3,000 mg (or 3 grams) of fish oil a day increases the risk of serious side effects like stroke.  As always, make sure to talk to your doctor before starting any supplementation routine, and aim to get your intake of omega-3 fatty acids, and most other nutrients, the natural way – through food!

Healthy Ingredient of the Week – Collard Greens

Collard greens, a staple of Southern cuisine, are a close cousin to kale, and just as healthy.  Collards are an excellent source of Vitamins A, C, and K.  They are also a good source of folate and calcium and, thanks to their dark green color, rich in antioxidants.  Collard greens can be served raw, although eating them raw may hinder the absorption of the dietary calcium they contain.  In order to maximize their nutritional potential, try them cooked, as in the dish below.

Sauteed Collard Greens and Garlic

Ingredients
½ teaspoon black pepper
3 bunches collard greens, stems discarded and leaves cut into 1-inch strips
¼ cup olive oil
3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
½ teaspoon black pepper

Instructions

  1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the collard greens in batches and cook until just tender, about 10 minutes.
  2. Drain the greens in a colander and rinse under cold water to cool; squeeze to remove any excess water.
  3. Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, for 1 minute.
  4. Add the greens and black pepper. Cook, tossing often, until wilted and tender, 3 to 4 minutes.

Recipe adapted from Real Simple

The Good News About High-Cholesterol Foods

We all know that having too much cholesterol in our bloodstream can be a bad thing.  Abnormal cholesterol levels (generally defined as total cholesterol greater than 200 mg/dL; LDL, or “bad” cholesterol greater than 130 mg/dL; and/or HDL, or “good” cholesterol less than 40 mg/dL) can lead to an increased risk of developing heart disease or stroke.  This is due to the fact that many people with abnormal cholesterol often have high levels of LDL, which clings to artery walls and leads to the buildup of fatty plaques, and low levels of HDL, which normally helps remove excess LDL (but cannot do so efficiently if present in low quantities).

What we’re often unaware of, however, is just what causes abnormal cholesterol levels in the first place.  For some people, it’s a genetic issue in which their bodies are unable to properly remove LDL from the bloodstream.  For many others, however, the issue lies in the foods that they eat.   Just which foods are these?  The answer may be surprising.

It was long thought that foods that were high in cholesterol (like eggs and shellfish) raised cholesterol levels (particularly LDL) in the bloodstream.  Thus, foods like the extremely nutritious egg received a bad reputation, and many people refrained from eating them.  However, research has shown, and the recommendations from the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee reaffirm, that the cholesterol found in foods has little or no effect on blood levels of cholesterol.  This means that eating eggs or other high-cholesterol foods in moderate amounts won’t cause you to have high or abnormal cholesterol levels.

The real culprits when it comes to abnormal cholesterol levels are saturated and trans fats, which are found in animal products and margarine and baked and processed foods, respectively.  Excessive consumption of foods that contain these nutrients has been shown to raise blood cholesterol levels, particularly levels of heart-unhealthy LDL.  So what does this mean for your diet?  Moderate consumption of high-cholesterol foods like eggs and shellfish is okay, especially since these foods are rich in other beneficial nutrients like iron.  Regular consumption of high-saturated and –trans fat foods like red meat and pastries, on the other hand, is not recommended, as eating too many of these types of foods is likely to cause an increase in LDL cholesterol levels.  If you’ve been avoiding consuming foods that contain cholesterol because of what was previously believed, there’s no time like the present to start adding these foods back into your diet, preferably as a substitute for some of their higher-saturated fat counterparts!

Healthy Ingredient of the Week – Potatoes

Potatoes, despite what you may have heard, are good for you!  The reason potatoes get such a bad reputation is that they are often consumed in less-than-nutritious forms such as chips and French fries.  Frying a food instantly decreases that food’s nutritional value by adding unnecessary calories from fat, as does removing its skin (and, as a result, the fiber, vitamins, and minerals the skin contains).  It’s a shame that we don’t make more of an effort to eat our potatoes in whole form, as they are naturally high in fiber, Vitamin C, most B vitamins, iron, potassium, and a host of other nutrients.  The recipe below features potatoes as they are meant to be eaten – un-fried, with the skin on.

Special Baked Potatoes

Ingredients
4 medium baking potatoes
2 teaspoons Italian seasoning
2 tablespoons olive oil
¼ cup finely shredded cheddar cheese
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley or 2 teaspoons dried parsley flakes

Instructions

  1. With a sharp knife, slice potatoes thinly but not all the way through, leaving slices attached at bottom. Fan potatoes slightly. Place in an ungreased 13-in. x 9-in. baking dish.
  2. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with Italian seasoning.
  3. Bake, uncovered, at 425° for 50 minutes.
  4. Sprinkle with cheeses and parsley; bake 10-15 minutes longer or until lightly browned.

Recipe adapted from Taste of Home 

The Benefits of Being a Part-Time Vegetarian

A vegetarian diet, which excludes all meat, poultry, and fish (and in some cases, eggs and dairy products) has many health benefits, including a reduced risk of developing heart disease; hypertension; type 2 diabetes; and colon, ovarian, and breast cancers.  In addition, people who follow vegetarian diets usually have an easier time controlling their weight.  Many animal products are high in fat (particularly heart-unhealthy saturated fat), which is higher in calories than carbohydrates and protein, making it safe to assume that a diet that does not include animal products tends to be lower in calories.

You may be tempted to stop reading this post because, no matter how many calories or how much saturated fat it contains, you love meat and will never give it up.  Well, I hope you’ll keep on reading, because I’m not telling you to give up meat, or any animal product, completely.  You can still reap the benefits of following a vegetarian diet by doing so part-time.

“Flexible vegetarians,” or flexitarians, still eat meat, but only a few times a week.  Although they aren’t completely meat-free, studies show that flexitarians still reap all of the benefits of full-time vegetarians, probably due to two factors:  they are still significantly reducing their intake of meat, and the calories and saturated fat that come along with it; and they’re benefitting from the healthy foods they add to their diet in place of meat.

If you’re still hesitant to partially cut meat out of your diet, rest assured that flexitarianism isn’t a diet of exclusion; rather, it emphasizes including a variety of healthy foods that can take the place of the meat you might typically eat as part of a meal.  These healthy additions include:

  • High-protein meat alternatives (tofu, beans, lentils, peas, nuts and seeds, and eggs)
  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Whole grains
  • Low-fat and fat-free dairy
  • Herbs, spices, and other seasonings to enhance the flavor of your meals

Being a part-time vegetarian doesn’t sound so bad, now does it?  If you’d like to give this style of eating a try, Dawn Jackson Blatner, a Chicago-based dietitian, has written a book all about it that includes guidelines and recipes.  If you would prefer to ease into flexitarianism on your own, without a formal guide, all you have to do is start swapping out one meat-based dish at a time for a plant-based one.  Instead of a beef burrito, try a bean burrito.  Cook a Portobello mushroom cap instead of a hamburger the next time you fire up the grill.  The possibilities – and the health benefits – of being a flexible vegetarian are seemingly endless!

Healthy Ingredient of the Week – Celery

Although celery isn’t the most glamorous of vegetables, it has a lot going for it.  Celery is a good source of fiber and Vitamin A and an excellent source of Vitamin K.  Celery is also extremely low in calories and is sometimes considered a “negative-calorie food.”  Although it does contain calories (16 per cup), most people end up burning more calories digesting celery’s fibrous coating than they consume from the actual celery.  Most often, celery is served alongside other foods, so you won’t experience a calorie deficit every time you eat it.  You can, however, ensure that you’re supplementing celery’s health benefits by serving it alongside other nutritious foods, like in the recipe below.

Tuna with Celery and Walnuts 

Ingredients
4 ounces tuna packed in water, drained
2 tablespoons very finely diced celery
2 tablespoons chopped toasted walnuts
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 teaspoon finely minced olives
1 teaspoon finely minced fresh parsley
½ teaspoon lemon juice
Freshly cracked black pepper, to taste
12 whole wheat crackers

Instructions

  1. Combine the tuna, celery, walnuts, olive oil, olives, parsley and lemon juice in a medium bowl and season with pepper.
  2. Top the crackers with the tuna mixture and serve.

Recipe adapted from Food Network

Healthy Baking Swaps

I love to bake, and I do it quite often.  While I occasionally bake specifically for other people, I mostly bake for myself, as I really enjoy homemade “treat” foods such as brownies and cookies.  As a nutritionist, however, I can’t justify gorging myself on high-sugar and high-saturated fat goodies every single day, so I try to make my baked goods as healthy as possible while still ensuring that they taste good.  Through much trial and error, I’ve added several healthy baking swaps to my repertoire; these swaps help cut fat, calories, or sugar and increase fiber content without sacrificing flavor.  The next time you decide to bake a new or favorite recipe, consider trying one of these swaps to instantly make that recipe a little healthier, yet every bit as delicious as the original.

 

  • Applesauce.  Applesauce was my first foray into baking swaps, and it has remained my go-to swap for the past seven or eight years.  Applesauce can be used in place of two different types of ingredients:  eggs and fats.  If you’re using it as a substitute for eggs, 3 tablespoons of applesauce equals one egg.  This substitution works best in cakes and cookies; I’d stick with real eggs or EggBeaters if you’re making brownies.  Applesauce is also more commonly used as a substitute for butter, margarine, and oils.  It can be used in a 1:1 ratio, so ¼ cup of applesauce can substitute for ¼ cup butter in most recipes.  Using applesauce in place of butter or oil may change the consistency of your dish, so if you are new to this substitution, I’d recommend substituting only half the oil/butter with applesauce to start.  I have found that using applesauce in place of butter and oil works best when making sweet breads (like banana bread) and homemade pancakes.
  • Mashed or Pureed Fruit. Most baking recipes call for some sort of sweetener, usually in the form of sugar, which can add a lot of calories and zero beneficial nutrients.  While you may be tempted to turn to zero-calorie sweeteners like Splenda or Stevia to cut calories, you’re better off using a more nutritious substitute in the form of mashed or pureed fruit, which contains natural sugars, as well as filling fiber.  Choose soft, ripe fruits like bananas or dried fruits like dates or prunes, and experiment with the ratio of fruit to sugar called for in the recipe.  Oftentimes, you will need to use some sugar in order for your dish to achieve proper consistency, but you can reduce the added sugar count drastically by swapping some of this sugar for real fruit.
  • Whole Wheat Flour.  When baking from scratch, I try to substitute at least half of the white flour called for in a recipe for the whole wheat variety.  Whole wheat flour adds fiber and results in a more filling, less processed dish.  Whole wheat flour is denser than white flour, which means it can alter the consistency of a dish, so it’s best to start out with a 1:1 ratio of white to whole wheat flour and add a little more whole wheat flour to a dish each time you make it until you reach your desired taste and consistency.

 

There are many more healthy baking swaps, and I’m sure all of you other home bakers out there have a few favorites.  Feel free to post a comment on your favorite healthy swap, and it may be featured in an upcoming blog post.

Healthy Ingredient of the Week – Grapefruit

Grapefruits, like oranges, are citrus fruits, which means they’re high in Vitamin C.  Thanks to their vibrant hue, grapefruits are also high in Vitamin A, which sets them apart from their other citrus counterparts.  Grapefruits are also a good source of fiber and potassium, and they contain a host of other vitamins and minerals.  They may not be so healthy, however, for people who are on certain prescription drugs such as cholesterol-lowering statins.  Grapefruit can interact with these medications and cause them to reach dangerous levels in the bloodstream.  If you’re on a statin or any other medication, make sure to read the medication facts sheet provided by your pharmacy to ensure grapefruit isn’t off-limits.  If it’s not, then you’re free to enjoy grapefruit and all of the nutrition it provides.

Broiled Grapefruit with Cinnamon Sugar

Ingredients

1 large ruby red grapefruit
2 tablespoons cinnamon sugar

Instructions

  1. Heat the oven to broil.
  2. Cut the grapefruit in half across its equator. Use a sharp knife to carefully cut around the inside edge of the grapefruit half. Then make small, deep cuts next to each segment’s membrane, to loosen the fruit from the membrane
  3. Sprinkle each half with cinnamon sugar and put in an oven-safe dish, sugar-side up. Broil for 15 minutes, or until the top turns quite brown and caramelized.
  4. Let cool for 5 minutes and eat while warm.  Serves 2.

Recipe from the Kitchn 

 

Roasted Salmon with Shallot-Grapefruit Sauce

Ingredients
4 skinless salmon fillets (5 to 6 oz. each)\
Black pepper, to taste
2 ruby red grapefruits
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 tablespoon minced shallots
1 teaspoons peeled and grated fresh ginger
2 ½ teaspoons honey
Pinch of cayenne pepper
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons thinly sliced fresh basil

Instructions

  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F.
  2. Season the salmon with black pepper, place in a baking dish, and roast until just cooked through, about 18 minutes.
  3. While the salmon is cooking, prepare the sauce. Cut one of the grapefruits into sections by cutting off the top and bottom of the fruit, then standing it on one end and cutting down the skin to remove the woolly white pith and peel. Then, with a paring knife, remove each segment of fruit from its membrane and cut the segments in half. Set the segments aside. Juice the other grapefruit and set the juice aside.
  4. In a medium skillet, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the shallot and cook, stirring, until softened, about 2 minutes.
  5. Add the ginger, grapefruit juice, honey, and cayenne and bring to a simmer. Cook until the sauce is reduced by about half, about 10 minutes.
  6. Add the lemon juice. Right before serving, toss the grapefruit pieces and basil into the sauce.
  7. Place the salmon on a serving dish, spoon the sauce over it, and serve.

Recipe from Fine Cooking 

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