Amazingly Healthy Festive Dessert

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December is typically a month of festive indulgence, but this year, why not make an amazingly healthy dessert that no one has to pass up? Nor will they want to! Start with a simple sugar-free tart shell, which can be baked or eaten raw by the way, and fill it with a creamy custard that has been sweetened using whole dates. There are no added refined sugars anywhere in this ensemble. Add a few of your favourite fresh fruits and you’ve got one heck of a festive dessert! Best of all, these tarts are so scrumptious that no one will even know they are eating healthy. I promise!

Both the shells and the filling can be prepared a few days ahead which is an even bigger reason to include them on your holiday menu. I love recipes that I can make ahead at this time of year because it means that I can spend less time in the kitchen and more time with family and friends on the big day!

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INGREDIENTS

For the Tart Shells 

This recipe makes enough to fill 8, 4 1/2-inch individual tartlet pans but the quantity of ingredients for both the crust and filling can easily be doubled to fill more tart pans to feed a larger crowd. Both the tart shells and the filling can be made ahead and refrigerated for a few days. The tart shells can also be frozen. (If you decide to freeze the shells or store them for a day or so in the refrigerator, keep them in their pans to maintain the shape and protect them from breakage. Defrost in the refrigerator overnight before filling). 

  • 1 cup pecans
  • 1 cup almonds
  • 1 cup dried coconut, shredded, raw and unsweetened
  • 8 Medjool dates, seeded, chopped
  • 2 tbsp. date syrup (homemade or store bought)
  • 2 tbsp. water
  • Seeds from a 4-inch vanilla bean, scraped
  • ¼ tsp. salt

Place nuts, coconut, salt, dates, water, date syrup and vanilla bean seeds in a food processor and process until quite fine and mixture is sticky. Divide between pans. use wet hands if you need to. At this point the tartlets can be refrigerated overnight but refrigerate for 30 minutes before baking, regardless.

Remove tart pans from refrigerator and poke a couple holes in the base with the tines of a fork to prevent the crusts form rising during baking. Bake the tartlets at 350°F for about 14-16 minutes or until crusts begin to darken around the edges and the base seems done. (In my oven, this is exactly 14 minutes). If your oven bakes a little unevenly or has hot spots, spin the baking sheet around halfway through total baking time. When done, remove from the oven and cool the shells in their pans on the baking sheet. Cover the shells in their pans with saran wrap and freeze or refrigerate. 

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For the Custard

  • 2 cups water
  • 1 cup chopped dates
  • ½ cup cashews or blanched almonds
  • 3 tbsp. cornstarch or arrowroot
  • 2 tsp. vanilla
  • Pinch salt
  • Selection of fresh fruits such as assorted berries, pomegranates, cherries, apricot, peach or peach slices, etc.
  • Pistachios or hazelnuts; roasted and coarsely chopped.

Process everything except the fruit and pistachios or hazelnuts (first 6 ingredients) in a high-powered blender until smooth. Transfer the mixture to a saucepan and cook, stirring constantly, until thickened. This should only take a few minutes. Pour the thickened custard into a clean bowl and place saran wrap or sheet of parchment cut to size directly on the surface of the filling. Refrigerate until completely cool and set. 

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ASSEMBLY

When ready to serve, place one tart shell on each of 8 plates. (If you have made the custard ahead, you will need to whisk it again before using). Spoon or pipe some of the custard into each tart shell and decoratively arrange fruits and chopped nuts on top. Serve at once. (In the photos, the tarts are topped with fresh blackberries, a couple of satsuma orange wedges, pomegranate seeds and roasted chopped pistachios)

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Want in on a secret? This is a great “switch-up” dessert – just do away with the tart shells and layer the custard, fruits and nuts in a large wine glass and you’ve got a dessert parfait! 

It’s hard to believe that this year is almost over. I wish all of my readers the happiest of holidays and a big thank you for your support this year! I can’t wait to develop a fresh new batch of great, healthy recipes for you in 2017! 

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Souper Monday Vegetable Chowder

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Baby it’s cold outside!! It was souper-cold in Calgary last week and the forecast for this week is pretty darned cold too! Fortunately, my fridge is stocked with enough food for a couple more days because I really don’t feel like leaving the house to buy groceries! Here’s a really nourishing soup you can make with the vegetables you likely have on hand. This recipe is typical of the way I tend to cook these days. I simply check my fridge to see what needs to be used up and turn it onto a soup or some kind of sauté. I find this works well for me because I really don’t like wasting food and I do like one-pan meals!  

Dice as many or as few vegetables as you have, throw them all into a pot with water, a few staple spices and seasonings and voila! You don’t even need stock for this, although a nice vegetable stock would certainly nudge the flavour up a notch if you do use it. Either way, you’ll end up with a delicious and filling soup in short order! You aren’t limited to the list of ingredients below –  I constantly adapt the recipe to whatever is in my fridge on any particular day, which means that the chowder turns out different every time! Outside of the potatoes, which I would say are a must, feel free to add as many or as few of your own favourites instead. The potatoes help to thicken the soup and give it the creamy consistency of chowder.

No less tasty and satisfying than chowders containing cream or milk, this is a lusciously  thick soup – just healthier and lower in calories. And there’s nothing wrong with that, is there?

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Fresh herbs make this soup pop with flavour, so if you have them, don’t be afraid to use them. Fresh basil would be a nice addition if you have it, as would fresh a little fresh thyme. Dried spices will work too but I use fresh herbs in just about everything so I tend to  have a variety of different ones in my refrigerator at all times. Add the herbs right before serving to maximize the flavours and aromas.

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INGREDIENTS

  • 1½ cups diced potatoes
  • 2 medium carrots, diced
  • 1 medium stalk celery, thinly sliced
  • 3 cups frozen corn
  • 1 cup chopped cauliflower
  • 1/3 cup fennel, thinly sliced or diced
  • ½ medium red pepper, diced
  • ½ small purple topped turnip, diced
  • ½ cup red onion, diced
  • ½ small leek, diced
  • 5-6 oil-free sundried tomatoes, coarsely chopped
  • 2 medium-large cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tsp. cumin
  • 1 tsp. chilli powder
  • 1 tsp. blackstrap molasses (could substitute maple syrup)
  • 2 ½ tsp. salt
  • ½ tsp. chipotle chilli powder
  • ½ tsp. smoked paprika
  • ¼ cup each: fresh parsley, fresh dill, fresh cilantro
  • 6 cups water

DIRECTIONS

Bring everything except fresh parsley, dill and cilantro to a boil in a large pot. Reduce the heat to a gentle simmer and cook for 25-30 minutes. Remove about a cup of the mixture to a blender (vegetables and liquid) and puree. Return puree to the soup pot and stir to blend.

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Alternatively, you can use an immersion blender to puree a little of the soup right in the pot. This is my preferred method so that I don’t dirty another dish or tool. Admittedly, it is a bit harder to gage the amount of soup you are pureeing this way, but if you are careful and puree the soup in small increments, blending the puree into the rest of the soup in between each go with the immersion blender, you should be able to reach the “chowder” consistency without any trouble. Ultimately, you want a soup that is fairly thick but still contains plenty of the whole vegetables for texture and visual appeal.

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Adjust seasonings and salt, garnish with fresh herbs and serve.

Notes: This chowder is quite rich and creamy as it but you can whiten the colour and make it even more rich by adding pureed cashews. Simply blend 1/4 cup of cashews with 1/4 cup of water in a high-speed blender until completely smooth. Stir into the soup at the end of cooking.  

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Mixed Greens with Grapefruit, Beets, Roasted Pistachios and Sumac

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Brilliantly vibrant with colour and taste, this salad is as refreshing and nourishing as it is beautiful! You may have to purchase sumac from a Middle eastern grocer but it can often be found with other ethnic spices in the aisles of a big box grocer such as Superstore.

You can’t go wrong with this salad. Tossed in a delicate, oil-free vinaigrette (recipe below), and sprinkled with a nut-based Parmesan,  it is loaded with wonderful contrasting textures and bold flavours! It is sophisticated enough to impress the most demanding foodie you know and simple enough to be enjoyed on busy week nights with family. 

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This recipe was inspired by a salad I tried at Planta in Toronto a few weeks ago when I was there visiting family and friends. I knew I wanted to replicate something similar when I got home and this recipe is the result of my efforts, though there are a few differences. The salad at Planta was adorned with a few dried cranberries and a smidgeon of nut-based krema. My version omits the cranberries and is finished off with a dusting of almond-based grated Parmesan. Both salads are delicious! 

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INGREDIENTS

  • Selection of mixed greens, enough for 4 servings
  • 2 small-medium sized cooked beets, one red one golden*
  • 1 pink grapefruit
  • ¼ cup shelled pistachios, oven roasted
  • 1 tsp. sumac

DIRECTIONS

Wash and spin-dry the salad greens and place in a large bowl.

Remove the peel, seeds and pith from the grapefruit and slice the flesh into bite-size pieces.

Slice the beets, separately into bite-sized pieces.

Add the golden beet, grapefruit and 1/2 the sumac to the bowl with the salad leaves and toss with a little dressing.

In a separate bowl toss the red beet with a little of the dressing and carefully add to the salad. Toss the whole salad very gently – just once or twice, to distribute the red beets. Add the roasted pistachios and serve the salad at once, sprinkled with the grated AlmondParmesan. Sprinkle the remaining sumac on top of the salad and the perimeter of the plate for effect. 

Oil-free Vinaigrette

  • ½ cup water
  • 1/3 cup apple cider vinegar
  • 1/8 cup (2 tbsp.) golden (sultana) raisins
  • 1 large clove of garlic, peeled
  • 2 teaspoons ground flax or Chia seeds*
  • 1 teaspoon chickpea miso paste* (or salt to taste)
  • Fresh basil, 2 or 3 large leaves

Combine all ingredients in a blender and process on high speed until emulsified. I used a VitaMix to get the dressing completely smooth. Pour dressing into a bottle and refrigerate. Dressing will thicken a little more on standing. Shake well before using. (You won’t need all of the dressing for this amount of salad so save the rest for other salads). 

*I buy Chickpea miso paste, whole flax seeds and chia seeds at my local health food store. Using a coffee grinder, I pulse flax seeds and chia seeds individually until they reach a powdery texture. Any extra ground seeds can be stored separately, in the refrigerator in tightly sealed containers if they can be used within a few weeks. (Alternatively, they can be frozen, as can the whole seeds,  until ready to use – this helps to prolong their freshness). 

This dressing can be made with different vinegars, such as balsamic, red or white wine, and it can be sweetened with currants or dark raisins instead of sultanas. Be aware though, that using darker coloured vinegars and raisins will result in a darker dressing. You can also increase or decrease the amount of raisins for a sweeter or less sweet vinaigrette and you can use different herbs, such as fresh dill, oregano or cilantro instead of basil. There are many ways you can play around with this basic recipe to make it your own. 

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Almond Parmesan

  • ¼ cup almond meal
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • ½ tsp. lemon juice

Place everything in a small nut grinder and pulse a few times until the mixture is well blended. Refrigerate until ready to use.

Notes

*To cook the beets, preheat the oven to 350°F. Wash the beets and place them in an oven-proof dish, and bake them, covered for about an hour, or until cooked. Remove the dish from the oven and allow the beets to cool for a 5-10 minutes, still covered. When cool enough to handle, remove the skins from the beets, top and tail, and store separately. I wear nitrile gloves for this. The skins should slip off easily as long as you do this while they are still fairly hot. If they cool for too long, the skins will be more difficult to remove. The beets need to be stored separately or or the colour from the red beet will bleed into the golden beet.

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