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Lighten Up: Recipes To Help Shed Those Pesky Pandemic Pounds

Lamb köfte with Greek-style spring salad. (Kathy Gunst)
Lamb köfte with Greek-style spring salad. (Kathy Gunst)

As gyms shuttered and anxiety rose during the pandemic, people started gaining weight. Recent research shows that many Americans gained more than 20 pounds during their time in isolation. We took to eating comfort food and whatever we could find in our pantries. For a nation already battling obesity, this has been a dangerous trend.

As spring arrives and more of the country (and the world) receives COVID-19 vaccines, and tight pandemic guidelines slowly lift, it’s a good time to start thinking about eating lighter, healthier food.

This segment is not about dieting or depriving ourselves of our favorite foods, but simply a way of redirecting food cravings if you want to lighten up your diet. Look at it as a temporary goodbye to mac and cheese, fried chicken, pizza, cookies and cakes. Focus instead on spring vegetables, fresh fish and lighter fare.

The key to feeling satisfied without heavy carbs and classic comfort food is to use fresh, seasonal food and bold flavors. Think about umami-rich foods like mushrooms, miso and tomatoes, and bold flavors like fresh ginger, chilies, cumin, turmeric, spices, lemon, lime juice and zest.

Here are three seasonal recipes that focus on spring vegetables and a lighter touch with meat and fish.

Spring Vegetable Couscous

Couscous is made from semolina wheat and is nutty and slightly sweet, but it’s also a great canvas for other flavors. In this recipe, I top couscous with a spring vegetable mixture simmered in a cumin, turmeric and ginger vegetable broth. I use leeks, onions, asparagus, mushrooms, carrots, chickpeas and sweet red peppers. But feel free to use any or all of these ingredients or substitute with other favorites.

The whole dish takes less than 30 minutes to put together and is a colorful satisfying meal without a whole lot of work — or calories.

Serves 4.

Ingredients

The spring vegetables and broth:

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, cut into thick slices
  • 1 large leek, dark green section discarded, and pale green and white section cut lengthwise and into 2-inch pieces
  • 2 medium carrots, peeled and cut into 2-inch pieces
  • 8 ounces asparagus, ends trimmed and discarded, and remaining asparagus cut into 2-inch pieces
  • 1 small to medium sweet red pepper, cored and cut into 6 thick slices
  • 1 cup mushrooms, preferably shiitakes, ends trimmed, cut into thick slices
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/4 teaspoon turmeric
  • About 1/2 to 1 teaspoon harissa, chile paste, dried red chile flakes or hot pepper sauce to taste*
  • One 15.5 ounce can cooked chickpeas or garbanzos, drained, rinsed in cold water, and drained again
  • 2 cups vegetable or chicken stock
  • About 1/3 cup raisins or golden raisins, optional


The couscous:

  • 2 ½ cups boiling water
  • Salt to taste
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil, optional
  • 1 cup instant or quick-cooking couscous
  • 1/4 teaspoon turmeric


*Harissa is a spicy chili paste used in Tunisian cooking made from chili peppers, sweet red peppers, spices and herbs. You can substitute dried chili flakes or hot pepper sauce.

Instructions

  1. Make the vegetables and broth: In a large skillet heat the oil over moderate heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring, for 5 minutes. Add the leek, carrots, asparagus, pepper and mushrooms, salt, pepper, cumin, ginger, turmeric and about ¼ to ½ teaspoon of the harissa or hot sauce and stir well; cook for 5 minutes. Raise the heat to high, add the chickpeas and stock, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to moderately low, cover and cook for 8 minutes. Taste for seasoning and add the remaining harissa or hot sauce, and salt and pepper, as needed.
  2. Make the couscous: While the vegetables are cooking, bring the water, and salt to a boil in a medium pot over high heat. Then stir in the couscous, olive oil if using, and turmeric. Remove from the heat and cover. After about 5 minutes the couscous will have absorbed all the water (if not place over very low heat for a few minutes). Fluff with a fork.
  3. To serve: Divide the couscous into four deep bowls. Top with the vegetables and broth and sprinkle on a few raisins.

Roasted Salmon With Cherry Tomatoes, Scallions And Green Sauce

A salmon filet is surrounded with cherry tomatoes and chopped scallions and roasted until just tender. A gorgeous spring green sauce is made by pureeing arugula, parsley, scallions, garlic and green chili.

The Spring Green Sauce will keep, covered and refrigerated, for several days. It’s delicious on top of grilled fish, meats, pasta, or served with roasted or steamed vegetables.

Serves 4.

Ingredients

The green sauce:

  • 2 packed cups arugula leaves
  • 1/2 packed cup parsley with stems
  • 1 scallion, white and green section, chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, peeled and chopped
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons green chili (jalapeno), cored and chopped, seeded if you want a mild sauce or seeds added for spice
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • About ⅓ cup olive oil


The salmon:

  • 1 1/2 pounds fresh salmon filet*
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1/4 cup chopped scallions
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1 cup cherry tomatoes
  • 1 lemon, cut into wedges for garnish


*Click here to learn more about sustainable salmon choice.

Instructions

  1. Make the green sauce: In the bowl of a food processor or blender, whirl the arugula, parsley, scallion, garlic, 1 tablespoon of the chili, salt and pepper. Slowly add the oil until well-blended, but not necessarily perfectly smooth. Taste for seasoning. The sauce should be thick but if you want it thinner blend in another tablespoon of oil.
  2. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
  3. Spread half the oil on a baking tray or shallow roasting pan. Place salmon on top, surround with tomatoes and scatter the fish and the tomatoes with the scallions, salt, pepper, remaining oil and lemon juice.
  4. Bake the salmon on the middle shelf for 12 to 20 minutes, depending on thickness (about 4 to 6 minutes per half-inch thickness of your salmon filet). The fish is ready when it flakes easily when gently prodded with a fork.
  5. Spread a thin line of the green sauce down the middle of the fish and serve the remaining sauce on the side.

Lamb Köfte With Greek-Style Spring Salad

Köfte is a popular Turkish and Middle Eastern dish, like a cross between a meatball, a burger and a free form sausage that comes in dozens of variations, flavors and sizes. This version is made with ground lamb (you can also use ground beef or a mixture), seasoned with garlic, oregano and allspice.

You can grill the köfte outdoors over charcoal or gas or broil them in the oven. Serve with a Greek-style spring salad (made with feta, sweet peppers, tomatoes and cucumber) and toasted pita bread if you like. You can also round the meal out further with Greek-style yogurt (mixed with finely chopped scallions, lemon juice and fresh dill, mint and/or oregano) and hummus.

Serves 2 to 4.

Ingredients

The köfte:

  • 4 12-inch skewers, soaked in cold water for 30 minutes if wooden
  • 1 pound ground lamb, or ground beef, or a mixture
  • 1 clove garlic, very finely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano or mint
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper


The Greek-style salad:

  • 1 to 1 1/2 cups arugula
  • 1 medium cucumber, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch thick pieces and cut in half
  • 1 small sweet red, green or yellow pepper, cored, and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
  • 1 cup cherry tomatoes, cut in half
  • 1/2 cup feta cheese, cut into 1/2-inch size cubes
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons fresh mint leaves, stemmed and left whole, or coarsely chopped, optional
  • 1/4 cup toasted pine nuts, optional*


*Toast pine nuts on a cookie sheet in a 300-degree oven for about 8 to 10 minutes, or until just toasted and beginning to turn color.

Instructions

  1. Make the köfte: If using wooden skewers, soak in a bowl of cold water for 30 minutes. In a bowl thoroughly mix the meat, garlic, oregano, allspice, salt and pepper. Wet your hands in cold water and form the mixture into four long sausage-like shapes. Slide the prepared skewers lengthwise through the meat mixture. Refrigerate for about 15 minutes or up to several hours. (This will firm the mixture up.)
  2. Meanwhile, make the salad: On a large plate or shallow serving bowl, arrange arugula, cucumber, tomato and feta in small piles around the plate. Just before serving, sprinkle on the lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper. Top with the mint leaves and toasted pine nuts, if using.
  3. Cook the köfte: Preheat a charcoal or gas grill until hot, about 400 degrees, or preheat the broiler and set the rack about 4 inches from the flame. Grill or broil the meat for about 6 minutes per side or until no longer pink in the center.
  4. Place the köfte on top of the salad or serve alongside.


More Recipe Ideas For Lighter Spring Foods:

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.