Better eating begins here

Building meals around vegetables can be delicious

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It’s hard to ignore the push for healthier eating that’s dominating food news. The message is clear: We should eat more vegetables, less meat and fewer processed foods.

Meat eaters, relax. You don’t have to swear off your favorite meals, but you’ll want to learn how to build a dinner plate with vegetables at the center instead of on the side. Here are some strategies you can handle:

• Pack your pastas or rice dishes or alternative pizzas with vegetables and/or beans. Roasted peppers and onions tossed with a few cups of cooked penne might help convince you. What about orzo combined with a medley of root vegetables and shredded Brussels sprouts? Or how about primavera, that Americanized Italian tradition of mixing spring vegetables with starches? You can blend your favorite diced vegetables into a rice pilaf.

You also can kick off your new virtuous-eating plan by using whole-wheat pizza dough as the basis for creating flatbreads (trending now in restaurants). Steam or sauté your favorite vegetables, all cut into bite-size pieces, then deepen the flavor with sautéed garlic, browned onions or roasted peppers. Top small, rolled-out pizza dough circles or ovals. Sprinkle with fresh herbs and grated Parmesan or Romano cheese, and season with pepper and a sprinkle of kosher salt. Bake until beautiful. You’ll hardly miss the meat or gobs of melted cheese on a pizza.

• Transform your favorite dishes. Shepherd’s pie is perfect cold-weather fare, but it’s not something that registers in the “healthful” range. So top it with a mash of sweet potatoes instead. Make a filling out of curried chickpeas. If that’s not your thing, what about a version with a cabbage and cannellini bean filling? You might even sneak in a little pancetta (Italian unsmoked bacon) to bump up the savory-salty quotient. Take the flavors and ingredients in spanakopita, the spinach-filled Greek pastry, and work them into a pasta dish.

• And don’t forget the stir-fry, a classic vegetarian main course. It’s a method just about every vegetarian cook learns. You can stick with the ginger-soy-sesame trio of greatness or expand into Thai peanut sauces and Vietnamese lemon-grass-infused choices; the seasoning is up to you. Be sure to include something substantial, such as thick slices of mushrooms or small cubes of tofu. If you’re adding meat, a minimal amount of lean ground pork or chicken can go a long way.

Here are a handful of new recipes to get you started. Work them into your repertoire this month, and who knows? In time, you might find that your dinners are not only healthier but also a lot more delicious.

Orzo With Sweet Winter Vegetables

Makes about 7½ cups (five 1½-cup main-course servings or 8 to 9 side-dish servings)

Serve with a green salad with toasted pecans and dried cranberries, or add grilled shrimp or scallops, or serve alongside roasted poultry.

1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil

1 small sweet onion, ¼-inch dice

Salt

1 large carrot, cut into small dice

1 medium parsnip, peeled and trimmed, then cut into small dice

About ⅓ of a medium rutabaga or 1 medium white turnip, peeled and trimmed, then cut into small dice

8 ounces dried orzo pasta

1 medium Granny Smith apple, peeled, cored and cut into small dice

2 teaspoons unsalted butter

Freshly ground black pepper

¼ teaspoon fresh nutmeg

4 oz. Brussels sprouts, trimmed and cut in half, then into thin slices

2 tablespoons parmesan cheese, plus more for serving

Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a large saucepan over medium-high. Add the onion and a pinch of salt; reduce to medium and cook for 3 to 4 minutes, until the onion starts to soften. Add the carrot, parsnip and rutabaga; cook for 10 minutes, stirring so the vegetables soften but don’t brown.

Cook orzo according to the package directions. Drain.

When the vegetables are tender, add the apple, butter, pepper and nutmeg. Raise heat to medium-high; add oil if pan dries. After 2 to 3 minutes, add the Brussels sprouts. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from heat.

Combine the orzo, vegetables and parmesan in a large serving bowl; toss.

Per serving: 290 calories, 8 g protein, 51 g carbohydrates, 6 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 5 mg cholesterol, 120 mg sodium, 4 g dietary fiber, 8 g sugar

Spinach and Feta Bow Ties

4 servings

The spirit of spanakopita is captured in this quick pasta dish. It tastes great the next day as cold leftovers. To bulk up the protein, add cooked chickpeas or slices of boneless, skinless grilled lemon chicken breast.

Salt

8 ounces dried bow-tie pasta (farfalle)

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 large clove garlic, finely chopped

12 ounces baby spinach, rinsed

2 tablespoons chopped (fresh) dill

Finely grated zest of 1 lemon (about 1 tablespoon)

3 ounces (¾ cup) finely crumbled feta cheese

Black pepper

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over medium-high. Add the pasta and cook according to the package directions. Drain.

Heat the oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the garlic; cook for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring once or twice, so the garlic is soft but not browned. Add the spinach, in batches if necessary, to the pan. Cover and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, just until the spinach wilts. Uncover and increase the heat as needed to cook off/evaporate any accumulated liquid in the sauté pan.

Transfer the spinach mixture to a large bowl along with the drained bow ties, the dill, lemon zest and feta. Toss to incorporate, then season with pepper to taste.

Serve warm or at room temperature.

Per serving: 320 calories, 13 g protein, 46 g carbohydrates, 9 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 20 mg cholesterol, 380 mg sodium, 4 g dietary fiber, 3 g sugar

Cauliflower and Roasted Red Pepper Flatbreads

Makes twelve 5-to-6-inch flatbreads

Serve alongside a salad with white beans and balsamic vinaigrette, or with grilled sausages, grilled balsamic-marinated chicken breast or herb-crusted pork chops.

3 tablespoons olive oil

4 cloves garlic, finely chopped

Flour, for the work surface

1½ pounds homemade or store-bought whole-wheat pizza dough

4 ounces cauliflower florets, cut into ½-inch slices, steamed until tender

1 homemade or roasted red bell pepper, drained, peeled, seeded and cut into ½-inch dice

¼ cup freshly grated parmesan cheese

Freshly ground black pepper

¼ to ½ teaspoon kosher salt

Heat oil in a saucepan on medium-low. Add garlic; cook for 8 to 10 minutes, stirring until softened and fragrant but not brown.

Preheat the oven to 425 F. Line

3 baking sheets with parchment.

Lightly flour a work surface. Place the dough on that surface and divide it into 12 pieces. Cover with a clean dish towel.

Roll each piece into a 5- to 6-inch oval, transfer to a baking sheet. Repeat; you should be able to fit 4 comfortably on a baking sheet. Brush the surface of dough with the garlic oil, then top with some cauliflower, bell pepper, 1 teaspoon of parmesan, and salt and pepper to taste.

Bake one sheet at a time on the middle rack for 8 to 10 minutes or until the crust has browned lightly. Serve warm.

Per flatbread: 170 calories, 5 g protein, 27 g carbohydrates, 6 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 320 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 0 g sugar

Sweet Potato and Chickpea Shepherd’s Pie

6 servings

Serve with a green salad. The sweet potatoes and the chickpea filling can be prepared up to 12 hours in advance. Bring both to room temperature before assembling the dish.

2 pounds sweet potatoes, scrubbed

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 medium onion, finely chopped

Salt

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

3 to 4 teaspoons mild curry powder

Freshly ground black pepper

3 cups cooked, no-salt-added chickpeas (two 15-ounce cans)

1½ cups vegetable broth

1 tablespoon light brown sugar

1½ tablespoons cornstarch

2 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro leaves

¼ cup low-fat sour cream

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Line a baking sheet with foil.

Prick each sweet potato a few times with a fork or skewer. Place on the sheet pan and bake until the potatoes are completely soft when squeezed and juices are running out of the pierced holes; the amount of time will vary depending on the size of the sweet potatoes. Small ones will be done in 45 minutes; large ones might take up to 1 ½ hours. Transfer to a platter; keep the oven at 350 F.

Heat the oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high. Add the onion; season with salt to taste. Cook for 5 or 6 minutes, stirring occasionally, until softened, then add the butter and 3 teaspoons of the curry; season with pepper to taste.

Stir in the chickpeas, 1¼ cups of the vegetable broth and the brown sugar; once the mixture has begun to bubble at the edges, reduce the heat to medium and cook for 10 minutes. Taste, and adjust the seasonings as needed, adding some or all of the remaining curry.

Whisk together the remaining ¼ cup of the broth with the cornstarch in a measuring cup, stirring to dissolve the cornstarch. Add to the chickpea filling: increase the heat to medium-high so the broth comes to a boil. When the liquid has thickened, remove from the heat and stir in the chopped cilantro. Transfer to an 8-by-11-inch or similar-size baking dish.

Cut each sweet potato in half lengthwise. Scoop the potato flesh from the skin and transfer to a large bowl; discard the skins. Add the sour cream and season with salt and pepper to taste; use a masher or large fork to smash the potatoes until the other elements are thoroughly incorporated.

Drop dollops of the sweet potato mixture on top of the chickpea filling, spreading them with a small spatula to cover the filling completely. Bake at 350 F for 20 to 25 minutes, until the sauce is bubbling around the sides of the dish. Serve warm.

Per serving: 330 calories, 10 g protein, 59 g carbohydrates, 7 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 5 mg cholesterol, 160 mg sodium, 11 g dietary fiber, 17 g sugar

Bok Choy and Oyster Mushroom Stir-Fry

4 to 6 servings

Baby bok choy has a slightly bitter taste that works well with mushrooms, ginger and hoisin sauce. Serve over thick slices of lightly breaded and fried tofu or hoisin-glazed grilled steak or chicken, with steamed rice or mixed with lo mein noodles. To toast sesame seeds, spread them in a small, dry skillet; cook over low for 5 minutes, shaking the skillet so the seeds brown evenly.

1 tablespoon hoisin sauce

1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil

2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce

1½-inch piece peeled ginger root, finely grated

1 tablespoon bourbon (may substitute whiskey or brandy)

¼ teaspoon sugar

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons water

2 pounds baby or small bok choy, cored, then separated into ribs and well rinsed; cut each rib crosswise into 3 or 4 pieces

1 tablespoon olive oil

6 to 9 scallions, white and light-green parts, cut crosswise into thin slices (½ cup)

12 ounces oyster mushrooms, stemmed

2 tablespoons cornstarch

2 teaspoons toasted/roasted sesame seeds, for garnish

Whisk together the hoisin sauce, sesame oil, soy sauce, ginger, bourbon, sugar and 1 cup of the water in a medium bowl.

Steam the bok choy for 3 minutes in a steamer or steam basket placed over a pot of boiling water; you might need to do this in batches. As the bok choy is done, transfer it to a large plate or piece of aluminum foil.

Heat the olive oil in a large wok, shallow braising pan or skillet over medium-high heat. Add the scallions; cook for 1 minute, stirring, then add the mushrooms. Cook for 4 to 5 minutes, tossing every minute or so, until the mushrooms have softened and slightly browned.

Add the steamed bok choy and the seasoning liquid, tossing to coat evenly.

Whisk together the remaining 2 tablespoons of water with the cornstarch in a measuring cup, stirring until the cornstarch dissolves, then add to the wok, pan or skillet. Allow the liquid to come to a boil, and stir until the liquid has thickened.

Serve warm, topped with the sesame seeds.

Per serving (based on 6): 110 calories, 4 g protein, 12 g carbohydrates, 5 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 350 mg sodium, 4 g dietary fiber, 4 g sugar