Butternut Basil “Fries”

French fries are delicious! But the effect they have on our bodies (inside and out)…not quite so. We catch of whiff of the buttery smell as we drive by the local McDonald’s, gaze longingly across the table when our skinny friends order them on ladies’ night dinner. And when we give in to our primal need to fatty foods and relish in one crispy salty bite… we immediately hate ourselves and feel a little dirty, as if we cheated on our waistline or clean-green diet plan or what have you in the worst way possible. I have never been the type to feel guilty about what I ate. “Everything in moderation” means I am allowed to eat one French fry at ladies’ night dinner with one hand without promptly slapping myself with the other.

Aren’t I?

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A few months ago I posted a recipe on Sweet Potato Satay, and this recipe is in that same ilk: taking unhealthy foods that I crave and love, but transforming them into something wholesome, with more taste and pep than my original favorite (better still, it comes without the side dish of guilt and self-loathing). It’s the flavor you want to focus on, not the name. While “Satay” makes us think of chicken, we can have the flavor without the mean. While “fries” brings to mind fat and dangerous hydrogenated oils, we can have even better flavor and nutrition without losing the salty crisp we love.

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Why I love Butternut Squash:
I developed this recipe while making one of my favorite comfort foods: butternut squash mac and cheese! Traditional macaroni and cheese packs a lot of butter and multiple varieties of cheese, and is consequently fantastically rich and creamy and perhaps the most glorious dinner ever. However by using stronger cheese, like a sharp white cheddar or Swiss or even blue cheese, we can use less than if we used a mild cheddar. And replacing half the cheese with butternut squash (and adding plenty of fresh herbs and spices like basil, scallions, chives and nutmeg) not only eliminates a lot of the fat, but also adds a lot of nutrition and flavor! Recipes for this are to be found in most cooking website and women’s health magazines, and is usually suggested as a way to get children to eat vegetables (however unknowingly). But it’s also great for adults who love this classic casserole and would like to enjoy it without hating themselves for it. While Butternut Squash is aptly named for it’s (you guessed it) buttery texture and flavor, it also have a unique taste of its own, very like pumpkin but much less powerful. It’s also loaded with fiber and Vitamin A, and herein lines the beauty of swapping this delectable ingredient into classic macaroni and cheese. Butternut squash is also really easy to find these day, and you can buy it already peeled and cut and cored.

It’s the same story with French fries: while potatoes my themselves are healthy, any inkling of nutrition is lost from them once they hit the fryer. Sure, if you make fries at home you are welcome to bake them. But while you revamp the nutrition, why not also transform the flavor?!

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Like other squashes and potatoes, it is hard to get butternut squash to mimic the crispy-crunchy (yet soft in the middle) texture of the average fast-food fry unless it is deep fried in oil. Scrumptious, but quite contrary to my purposes. By roasting, and then sauteing the “fries”using canola oil (much heart-healthier than hydrogenated oils used at fast food chains) I came as close as ever to the soft-center/crunchy-outside combo that I wanted by. It takes a little longer, yes. But I promise the few extra minutes will be well-worth the wait!

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Recipe:
1 bulb butternut squash, peeled and cored
3 cloves fresh garlic, minced
Fresh basil
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons olive oil (not extra virgin)
2 tablespoons canola oil
salt and pepper
fresh lemon

Instructions:
1. Slice the butternut squash into strips, about the size of steak fries. Thinner fries will cook faster, but may also fall apart due to the softness of the squash, so aim for a good 1/2-3/4 inch thickness.

2. Toss the slices with 2 cloves of minced garlic and 2 tablespoons olive oil (use pure, not extra virgin). If you don’t have pure olive oil, Canola is fine.

3. Bake the slices until soft at the edges, about 15-20 minutes. While they bake shred your Parmesan cheese and finely chop a few basil leaves. Go crazy with your herbs! If you don’t have basil, go ahead and try scallions, rosemary, parsley, oregano…and FRESH Italian herb you have. Do not use the dehydrated kind unless you have nothing else.

4. In a skillet, heat 2 tablespoons canola oil over medium-high heat. Carefully add the fries and cook until the sides are browned and crispy, about 5-10 minutes.

5. Remove from heat. Toss with Parmesan cheese, basil, salt, freshly cracked black better, and a spritz of fresh lemon juice.

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This is such an easy, heart-warming, and flavorful treat. It’s not only a great alternative to regular fried snacks, but it tastes a lot better too. The combination of creamy squash, sharp cheese, and fresh herbs and spices make make it a perfect appetizer for football games, dinner parties of just a night in with friends (no more envying the skinny girl!). These tastes great by themselves, but also pair well with your favorite pasta sauce (red or white), a pumkpin-flavored beer or a refreshing glass of chilled white wine.

Enjoy!

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Blueberry Bliss Tea

Lately, I have been eating my feelings…and am not even ashamed to admit it. Work has been a bit stressful, we have company over the house almost every week, and a restful sleep has been exceptionally hard to come by.

A little TLC is surely in order, but I am tired of feeling guilty for eating comfort foods. Yes, I may have a very tempting pint of chocolate ice cream in the freezer…but I want a comfort food that will elevate my mood, not my weight and feelings of shame. Which brings to me the humble blueberry:

Blueberries are a summer favorite of mine. I add them to my breakfast smoothies, sprinkle them in my yogurt, and pop them like candy during the afternoon stretch at the office. They are sweet and tangy and perfectly juicy, not to mention they are packed with glorious free radical-fighting antioxidants that keep our cells healthy. As if we didn’t need another reason to love this jewel of a fruit, there is increasing evidence that blueberries actually increase feelings of well-being and improve our mood. If this isn’t Super-food, I don’t know what is!

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As incredible as these fruits are, though, I felt as if eating them raw at my cubicle with a plastic fork was not allowing me to get the full physical and emotional benefit as possible. How could I prepare blueberries in a way that would boost my mood while also being healthy enough to prevent regret and shamefulness and obligatory comfort food-burning exercise later? Blueberry pie was a no go. Blueberries and yogurt was not inspired enough, and I was in the mood for something warm…of course! My go-too comfort-and-happiness-boosting tool: tea!

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The soothing warmth of tea already boosts the blues-busting power of this recipe: add sweet cancer-fighting blueberries, and you get something physically, mentally, and emotionally healing. Exactly what I needed. I have never been a been fan of tea bags. Growing up in an Indian house, we made Chai from robust loose black tea, fresh herbs and spices, and milk, and rarely used ready-made flavored tea from the supermarket. Now I use my wonderful loose tea brewer from Teavana to make herbal brews at home, but I have never before created a new flavor, or bothered to think too much about the flavored tea industry (apart from how awful mass-produced flavored tea is).

I wanted this to be more than blueberry-flavored hot water. With the heart-warming flavors of blueberry cobbler in mind, I added vanilla and spice to this recipe to give it a calming, therapeutic aroma as well as a dessert-like taste.

Recipe: Blueberry Bliss Tea
1 cup water
1/2 cup blueberries, fresh or frozen
Cinnamon stick
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon honey
Fresh lemon to taste

Start by tasting your blueberries (fresh or frozen will work). There are so many varieties, and each batch will taste different so it’s important to get an idea of how sweet or sour your pick is.

Next combine 1/2 cup of blueberries and 1 cup water in a small saucepan over medium heat. With a fork, mash the blueberries until the water is a violet color (see above). You don’t need to totally pulverize them because once the water starts boiling it will work on the punctures you make.

Add a splinter of a cinnamon stick (about the size of a paper clip) and the vanilla.

Once the water reached a boil, reduce heat to medium-low and let simmer until the tea is a dark purple color, almost like red wine.

Strain and tea with a small tea or pasta strainer (note: the fiber of the blueberry pulp may get caught in the strainer slow down the process.

Stir in a spoon of honey, and if you’re blueberries aren’t too sour feel free to add some fresh lemon or orange juice. If the tea is too strong or potent, just dilute it with some plain hot water.

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This tea has everything the best comfort food needs: nutrition, sweetness, an aroma that will make you think it’s Christmas morning, and of course…SCIENCE. While it is unsure whether blueberries themselves will be replacing Valium any time soon, the creamy vanilla scent and the zest of cinnamon enhance all the beautiful happiness juices of the berries.

I hope this recipe brightens your day and your mind!

Daily Chocolate

I am slowly realizing why working 40 hours a week in a cubicle is the most tiring job I’ve ever had: in this lifestyle, everything is certain.

With reasonable certainty, I can predict my schedule from how many hours out of the day I will have no work to do (usually around 5), how my cube-neighbor will greet me when I sit at my desk, and how cold it will be in my office. More than at my own job, I came to appreciate this two weeks ago when I went to visit one of my college roommates in New York City. This particular friend works in finance. She has a comfortable one-bedroom apartment in the Upper East Side, earns triple what I do in a given year, and has all the latest gadgets and handbags (not to mention, she doesn’t have to live with her parents!). But her life is predictable. She knows that she has to come in on Saturdays to fix mistakes made by VP’s, and that a few times a month she will have to come home after midnight. Finally, when she got her curveball (a roommate reunion after eight months apart) all she could talk about was how, after working upwards of 60, even 70, hours a week, she was just too tired to enjoy the Big Apple. In the city that never sleeps, her greatest desire was her bed.

This is alien to the human spirit. People, human beings with thoughts and emotions and beliefs, need to have more mystery in their lives that “What will I eat for lunch today?” When the biggest challenge of the day is something so dispassionate and impersonal, it is easy to lose your sense of purpose and, worse still, yourself.

I know I need this job, and that being unemployed was far worse (as, unfortunately, many people in this country can attest to). But I needed something to look forward to everyday besides leaving work (because that’s honestly quite sad). I decided to carve out a little bit of every day for what I like to call “Daily Chocolate”, something that draws warmth and light from the mundane grey day at the office and makes it special, however briefly.

It started out quite literally being a daily piece of chocolate. Every afternoon at around 2pm, when the workload was either oppressively stressful or oppressively boring, I would put on my headphones, listen to a little smooth jazz, and eat one square of dark chocolate . For 5 blissful minutes, all was chocolate, and chocolate was all (general sweetness, indeed).

It wasn’t much, but it was a moment of peace and happiness amidst an otherwise dreary period. Before I knew it I was adding more milestones throughout the week: an afternoon cup of tea, a 5 minute walk outside, or even a planned activity for when I got home, as opposed to flopping on the sofa and feeling sorry for myself. And before I knew it, these little sparks of joy during the work day became bursts of light everywhere else in my life. It became easy to look for happiness and meaning if I was actively seeking it.

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A few days ago, I came across this quote that seemed to speak to my newfound daily chocolate:

“The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, nor to worry about the future, but to live the present moment wisely and earnestly.”
― Gautama Buddha

Living the present, truly engaging with now…years of yoga have taught me this, but I was so focused on the negative, on the future I desired, and the past I regretted, that I neglected the power and potential of the present off the yoga mat.

Each moment is a gift, an opportunity to feel something, regardless of how cold my office was, or how unenlightening the glare from my computer screen seemed. I still had my mind, my imagination, and the knowledge that with every breath in the opportunity for growth, for insight, and, of course, for sweetness.

I encourage you all to find at least one moment in your busy day to truly appreciate yourself, your mind, and the Now. For that moment is unique, is impermanent, and will pass by uncherished if you let it.

I would love to hear about your day-to-day struggles, and what you do to make each moment more meaningful. Whether it be an afternoon chocolate break, or a five-minute meditation, nothing is too small.

What do you do to stay positive and live presently? What is your daily chocolate?