d3e349f53d612d362e23131edbd71dd2-2Holidays are defined by gatherings of family and friends. The joy of celebra-tion is not complete without a feast. Unfortunately, holiday foods are often laden with unhealthy fats and sweeteners. My cooking classes, which emphasize nutritional balance in vegetarian cuisine, fill up quickly in January. Prospective students often report that they have made a resolution to eat healthier and lighter.

Health practitioners agree that a diet high in refined sugars and fats can contribute to tooth decay, heart disease, and other illnesses. Recent health surveys conducted among Indian Americans indicate that middle-aged and elderly Indian immigrants are more vulnerable to diet-related ailments than their peers living in India. Sweet and fatty ingredients such as butter, cream, and sugar, while still somewhat of a luxury in India, are easily available in America. This fact, combined with the sedentary lifestyle here may contribute to the problem.

During the holiday season it is particularly difficult to avoid over-consumption of desserts with refined sweeteners and fats (somehow they go together). So how can we celebrate without overindulging in unhealthy sweets? One way is to modify your recipes so that you can eat your sweets and keep your health too.

I usually serve fruits for dessert. However, in response to popular demands by those who have a sweet tooth I use half the quantities of sweeteners and fats or substitute healthier alternatives that will maintain the characteristic texture of the dish. When substituting ingredients in a traditional recipe you may have to compromise or be happy with an entirely new recipe. After trying the following recipe, experiment with your own dessert favorites, substituting some of the healthier ingredients discussed below.

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Healthier Ingredients
for Desserts

Sweeteners: (1) Unrefined sugar such as the Indian jaggery which contains a bit of iron and does not have bleach present in white sugar is difficult to find. The American brown sugar, which is just white sugar with caramel coloring, is not any better. (2) Date sugar is less sweet than refined sugar and has a considerable amount of iron. (3) Unrefined honey has an edge over sugar in that it contains some iron and vitamins not found in sugar. Honey should not be cooked, otherwise it turns toxic. (2) Agave is a honey-like liquid sweetener obtained from a cactus plant. It is low in glucose and thus better for people with blood-sugar problems. Both agave and honey work well in desserts with moist textures. (3) Stevia is a newly popularized natural sweetener. It is much sweeter than sugar and low in calories. It is sold in liquid and powder form at health food stores. It is tricky to use in desserts since it lacks volume and has a strong after-taste.

Health-promoting fats: In moderation, vegetable oils are good for you because they contain linoleic acid, an essential fatty acid for your health. Most vegetable oils such as olive oil, safflower oil, soy oil, sunflower seed oil, and corn oil are unsaturated and good for you; whereas saturated animal fats such as butter or ghee contain cholesterol and saturated fats, both of which are linked to heart disease. Ghee is liquid butter without the milk solids. It is not a healthier option if you are looking for an unsaturated fat. Margarine and other trans-fats are altered from liquid oils to solids through a hydrogenation process. They work well in making sweets but they are not healthy; their altered fat acts like the saturated fat in our bodies. Currently, there is a healthy oil product in markets called “buttery” spread. This unhydrogenated product works well for making sweets and for baking.

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Carrot Halva

Traditionally, liquid milk and carrots are cooked while stirring for a very long time until they form a solid mass. In this version the stirring time and the fat have been reduced by using more almonds and by adding nonfat powdered milk. You will get a bright orange final product instead of a glazy traditional halva because no butter or ghee has been used. The sweetener you use will change the texture; sugar will make the halva more solid, honey or agave will make it more like a pudding.

2 cups grated carrots (using large holes of a cheese grater)
2 cups nonfat or low-fat milk, or soy milk
½ teaspoon saffron threads, crumbled
½ cup blanched and chopped almonds
1 teaspoon oil
½ cup nonfat powdered milk or powdered soy milk
¼ teaspoon ground cardamom
¼ cup or less sugar, honey, agave or any healthy sweetener of your choice to taste

First boil the milk in a wide saucepan or a wok and add the carrots. Cook over a moderate heat, stirring the mixture in a steady circular motion for 15 minutes. Lower the heat, and add the saffron. Prepare the almonds while still stirring the carrots frequently. To blanch the nuts, boil them for seven minutes, cool, and remove the skins by rubbing with your hands. Chop the nuts finely, using a food processor or a blender. Heat the oil and stir-fry the nuts until they turn golden. Add them to the carrots and stir again vigorously for five more minutes, collecting solids from the sides of the pan. Then carefully add the powdered milk one spoonful at a time, using one hand while stirring the halva with the other hand to prevent it from forming lumps. Next, stir in the ground cardamom.

Now add your choice of sweetener. If using sugar, stir it in and cook for few more minutes until the halva forms a solid mass. Transfer the halva to a platter and spread it out, patting its surface with a spoon. Then cut into squares or diamonds to serve.

If you are using honey or agave turn off the heat and add the sweetener after the halva has cooled off a bit. Then serve it in small individual pudding cups. Carrot halva can be served warm or chilled.

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Vegan Pumpkin Pie

For pie crust:
1 cup unbleached white flour
5 to 6 tablespoons vegan “butter” spread or chilled vegetable oil
a few tablespoons cold water

For filling:
2 cups freshly made or canned pumpkin puree
1 cup creamy original soy milk
½ cup soft tofu
2/3 cup turbinado (unbleached cane sugar) or other sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
a few pinches of cloves

A vegetarian diet that excludes dairy is called vegan. Many people follow this diet because they don’t want to exploit animals. For other vegans it is a healthier choice. The addition of soy products in the diet is also healthier, particularly for older women.

First make the pie crust by combining the ingredients by hand or using a food processor. Collect the dough into a mass without overworking it, and chill it for half an hour.

To make the fresh pumpkin puree, cut the pumpkin into four pieces and remove all seeds and fibers. Steam the pieces for 15 to 20 minutes till the pulp is soft. Allow to cool and then peel the pieces. Cut them into small chunks and puree using a blender or food processor. Combine the pumpkin puree with the rest of the filling ingredients. Mix well and set the filling aside.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Roll out a 10” pie crust. Place the crust carefully onto a 9” pie plate and crimp the edges. Pour the filling and bake for 15 minutes. Then reduce the heat to 350 degrees. Bake it for an additional 45 minutes or a bit longer. Insert a knife, and if it comes out clean it is done. Cool before serving or refrigerate until ready to serve.

Shanta Nimbark Sacharoff, author of Flavors of India: Vegetarian Indian Cuisine lives in San Francisco where she is a manager of a health food store, Other Avenues. Her daughter Serena Sacharoff is an illustrator and art student.

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