Every year, after a month of indulging in sugar, alcohol and rich holiday meals, it’s time to clean up our act. January is like a national reckoning: Time to get healthy and change the way  — and the things — we eat and drink.

The problem is, even the mere mention of the word “diet” makes me want to eat everything in sight. “See-saw” eating habits — heavy foods, light foods, heavy foods, light foods — don’t lead to healthy eating habits. And, as with so many things, the words to look for are moderation and balance. Enjoy the foods you love. But don’t overdo it.

I am not a nutritionist, but this January when you find yourself wanting to shift your eating patterns, don’t go into severe denial mode, but rather reduce heavy fats and dairy and cook food that is full of color, texture and brightness. It’s winter; you need balance!

These recipes have nothing to do with deprivation. You’ll notice there’s no butter or cream, but lots of olive oil, garlic, vegetables, whole grains, and bright flavors and colors. Those are the elements you need to feel full, satisfied and not like you’re on a dreaded “diet.”

The first dish is ideal for vegetarians or vegans, or anyone wanting to eat more vegetable-based meals. The winter roasted vegetable and grain bowl combines slices of roasted winter squash and florets of broccoli. The roasted vegetables are served on a bed of brown rice (it could also be quinoa, couscous, whole grain pasta, or bulger) and topped with a lemon and garlic-flavored tahini sauce and then served with sesame seeds, roasted seaweed sheets, avocado slices and lemon.

The second dish combines quick-cooked polenta topped with sauteed shrimp and a roasted cherry tomato sauce. And finally, chicken meatballs are served on a bed of spiced yogurt with quick pickled cucumbers.

Winter roasted vegetable and grain bowl

Winter roasted vegetable and grain bowl. (Kathy Gunst/Here & Now)

You could substitute nearly any winter vegetable – wedges of fennel, roasted carrots, leeks, small wedges of cabbage – in this dish and also use quinoa, bulger, or any whole grain for the brown rice. Roasting brings out the natural sugars in root vegetables. All the elements of this dish can be made in advance.

Serves 2 to 4.

Ingredients

The vegetables:

  • 1 small delicata or butternut squash, peeled, cut down the center, deseeded, and cut into ½-inch moon shapes
  • 1 small head broccoli, stemmed and cut into florets
  • 2  tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper


The lemon and garlic tahini sauce:

  • 2 ½ tablespoons tahini
  • 2 tablespoons hot water
  • 1 ½ tablespoons lemon juice
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons soy sauce or tamari
  • 1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar


The rice:

  • 2 cups water
  • Pinch salt
  • 1 cup long-grain brown rice


Optional garnishes:

  • About 1 to 2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds
  • 1 almost fully ripe avocado, thinly sliced
  • 1 scallion, finely chopped
  • 8 sheets seaweed snacks (roasted seaweed sheets)
  • 1 lemon, cut into wedges


Instructions

  1. Roast the vegetables: preheat the oven to 425 degrees. In a large ovenproof skillet or rimmed baking sheet, arrange the squash slices at one end and the broccoli florets at the other. (The idea is to keep the vegetables separate in case they need to roast for different cooking times.) Gently toss the vegetables with the oil, garlic, salt and pepper. Roast on the middle shelf for about 20 to 25 minutes, or until the squash is just tender when tested with a small sharp knife and the broccoli is almost tender. Remove from the oven and keep in the baking pan.
  2. Meanwhile, make the tahini sauce: in a medium bowl gently mix the tahini and water. Whisk in the lemon juice and olive oil and then the soy sauce and vinegar. Taste for seasoning. The sauce will keep covered and refrigerated for several days.
  3. Cook the rice: bring the water to a boil in a medium pot. Season with salt. Add the rice, stir, and bring back to the boil. Reduce to low, cover and cook for about 30 to 35 minutes, or until all the water is absorbed and the rice is tender. Remove from the heat and sit for 5 minutes.
  4. To assemble the bowl: place the rice at the bottom of one large or 2 to 4 smaller bowls (it depends if you’re serving this as a main course or side dish). Top with some of the roasted vegetables and arrange the garnishes along the sides. Serve the tahini sauce on the side.

Sauteed garlic shrimp over polenta with slow-roasted cherry tomatoes

Sauteed garlic shrimp over polenta with slow-roasted cherry tomatoes. (Kathy Gunst/Here & Now)

A quick sauce is made by roasting cherry tomatoes with garlic and herbs and then adding some white wine. This sauce is poured over sauteed shrimp and served on top of a bed of polenta.

Serves 2 to 3.

Ingredients

The shrimp and cherry tomatoes:

  • 1 cup cherry tomatoes, left whole if small and cut in half if large
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • ½ cup dry white wine
  • ½ cup very thinly sliced red or white onion
  • 2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
  • 1 pound medium shrimp, deveined and peeled
  • ¼ cup finely chopped fresh parsley
  • 1 tablespoon fresh, chopped basil or oregano or 1 teaspoon dried basil or oregano, optional
  • 1 tablespoon seeded and chopped fresh chile pepper (like serrano or jalapeno), or several shakes hot pepper sauce
  • 1 lemon, cut into wedges for serving


The polenta

  • 3 cups water
  • Salt
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 cup polenta


Instructions

  1. Roast the tomatoes: Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. In a medium ovenproof skillet gently toss the tomatoes, 1 tablespoon olive oil, salt and pepper. Roast on the middle shelf for 20 minutes. Remove from the oven, increase the oven temperature to 400 degrees and add the wine. Roast another 10 minutes.
  2. Meanwhile, make the polenta: bring the water to a rolling boil in a medium saucepan. Add the salt and olive oil. Slowly stir in the polenta and reduce the heat to low. Cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally until all the water has been absorbed. Remove from the heat, cover and let sit for 5 minutes.
  3. Make the shrimp: in a large skillet, heat the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil over medium-low heat. Add the onion, salt, pepper and garlic and cook, stirring for 5 minutes. Increase the heat to medium-high; add the shrimp, half the parsley, basil or oregano, and chile pepper or sauce and saute 2 minutes. Flip the shrimp over and saute another 2 minutes, or until the shrimp are firm and just cooked through. Remove from heat.
  4. Preheat broiler and place shrimp under the broiler as close to heat as possible and broil 1 to 2 minutes, or until they begin to turn golden brown. Pour the cherry tomatoes and wine and all the sauce on top of the shrimp.
  5. To serve: divide the polenta into 2 to 3 bowls. Top with some of the shrimp, tomatoes and juices. Sprinkle with remaining parsley and serve lemon wedges on the side.

Chicken meatballs over Greek yogurt sauce with quick pickled cucumbers and pomegranate seeds

Chicken meatballs over Greek yogurt sauce with quick pickled cucumbers and pomegranate seeds. (Kathy Gunst/Here & Now)

The flavors in this deeply satisfying dish are influenced by the Middle East. A thick, spiced yogurt sauce acts as the creamy (but healthy) bed for small chicken meatballs flavored with cumin, dill and oregano. The dish is served with quick pickled cucumbers (you could also add thin slices of red onion) and topped with brilliantly colored maroon pomegranate seeds. It’s a beautiful dish, full of bright winter colors, good crunch and flavor.

Although there are a few elements to make this dish, everything can be made ahead of time, making it an ideal weeknight dinner.

Serves 2 to 3.

Ingredients

The meatballs:

  • 1 pound ground chicken
  • 1 small egg
  • 2 scallions, very finely chopped
  • ¼ cup Greek yogurt or regular plain yogurt, see tip below
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh dill, or 1 teaspoon dried
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh oregano, or 1 teaspoon dried
  • ½ teaspoon ground cumin
  • Generous amount of salt and freshly ground pepper
  • About ⅓ to ½ cup panko or regular breadcrumbs
  • About 1 to 2 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil


The quick cucumber pickles:

  • ¼ cup rice wine or apple cider vinegar
  • ¼ cup warm water
  • 1 ½ teaspoons fine salt
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 large or 2 small (Persian) cucumbers, peeled or unpeeled and fairly thinly sliced
  • Optional: ½ small red onion, very thinly sliced


The yogurt sauce and pomegranate:

  • 1 cup Greek yogurt or labneh*
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh dill
  • 1 scallion, finely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon lemon zest
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 cup pomegranate seeds, from 1 large pomegranate


*Tip: You can also use regular yogurt which you should place through a fine strainer set over a large bowl for about an hour to release the liquid and thicken. Discard the drained liquid and use the now-thickened yogurt. 

Instructions

  1. Prepare the meatballs: in a large bowl thoroughly mix the chicken, egg, scallions, yogurt, dill, oregano, cumin, and a generous amount of salt and pepper. Add only enough breadcrumbs to hold the mixture together. To test, form one small meatball with your hands; it should feel moist but also not fall apart. Add more breadcrumbs if needed. The meatball mixture can be covered and refrigerated a full day ahead of cooking.
  2. Make the pickles: in a medium bowl combine the vinegar, water, salt, and sugar. Add the cucumber slices and/or red onions and let “pickle” at room temperature for at least 30 minutes. The pickles can be covered and refrigerated for about 2 days.
  3. Make the yogurt sauce: in a medium bowl mix all the ingredients and taste for seasoning. The sauce can be covered and refrigerated for at least a day or two.
  4. Cook the meatballs: using your moistened hands form 16 meatballs. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Working in batches, brown the meatballs about 3 to 5 minutes per side. The meatballs are done when they are cooked through with no pink in the middle.
  5. To serve: use the back of a kitchen spoon and spread the yogurt onto a medium serving plate. Arrange the meatballs on top. Arrange the pickles on the side of the plate, or serve in a bowl alongside the dish. Sprinkle the pomegranate seeds on top of the meatballs and yogurt and serve while the meatballs are warm.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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