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India Currents gave me a voice in days I was very lost. Having my articles selected for publishing was very validating – Shailaja Dixit, Executive Director, Narika, Fremont

The tradition of making New Year’s resolutions started some 4000 years ago in Babylonia, and the new year is always considered a good time for a new start.
This year, let us resolve to cook more, and to share food with our loved ones. Why does cooking at home and sharing food lead to better health? Most packaged foods contain too much salt, fat and sugar, and time spent with loved ones to prepare healthy food can add to the quality of life.

Today, our busy lifestyles require many of us to work long hours. We often grab prepared fast foods to get through the day, and choose from the deli to feed our family dinner!

Many Indians follow a vegetarian diet, which would suggest that they select healthy foods, but this is not always true. I have met many vegetarians who don’t eat vegetables. They live on starchy, sugary, and fried food; some out of economic necessity, and others out of lack of knowledge regarding food and nutrition.

Recent health surveys show that Indian-Americans are more prone to coronary heart disease than other groups, despite the lack of other risk factors such as smoking and drinking. So how can Indian-Americans break the habit of buying tantalizing fried chips, sweet gulab jamun, or savory pizza? The two areas of our diet that need the most modification are appetizers and desserts. Indian appetizers such as samosas and pakoras are deep fried and therefore calorie-laden and devoid of nutrients. Oftentimes. desserts such as ladoos, and jalebis are laden with excessive fat and sugar, and some are deep-fried as well.
In this column, I share recipes for desserts which are vegan, and gluten-free containing less sweetener than most desserts.

Refined and bleached cane sugar raises blood sugar levels, increases heart rate, and impairs the immune system. Honey and maple syrup, also high in calories, contain only micro-nutrients. Agave, once touted as a good alternative natural sweetener is now also considered unhealthy. Stevia, a natural sugar substitute has an unpleasant after-taste. Date sugar and coconut sugar have the lowest glycemic index, but they are high in calories as well. So instead of looking for a perfect sweetener, I suggest using less sugar whenever possible.

Try cutting down the amount of butter or ghee, or use a vegan spread sparingly.Instead of using milk or cream, use coconut milk, or almond milk, both of which are lower in saturated fat. Nut meals are valuable ingredients for preparing gluten-free desserts.

Fruit Salad Boat

Illustration credit: Serena Sacharoff

California is blessed with fresh fruit year-round. Fresh fruit is packed with nutrients and antioxidants that prevent us from getting sick. A fruit salad boat is an attractive centerpiece for any party. Fruit boats can be made using papaya, cantaloupe, or watermelon, depending on what is in season. For fall and winter, this recipe includes berries and chunks of fuyu persimmon, fuji apples, grapes and pineapple.
1 large ripe pineapple, to make two fruit boats
2 fuyu persimmons peeled and cut into chunks or 1 fuji apple, cut into chunks
½ cup seasonal berries, washed, hulled and sliced if they are large (such as strawberries)
½ cup peeled and sliced banana
½ cup peeled and sliced kiwi fruit
Juice of ½ lime, freshly squeezed
Juice of 1 orange, freshly squeezed
¼ cup sliced, raw almonds
1 teaspoon honey or maple syrup to offset the tartness of some fruit (optional)

Cut the whole pineapple, leaves and all, lengthwise using a sharp serrated knife. Cut and discard the thick middle stem. (For papaya or cantaloupe, slice the fruit in half and remove seeds.) Next, using a paring knife, scoop out the pineapple pulp in chunks, leaving the outer rind intact and strong enough to make a fruit boat.
Cut the pineapple chunks into smaller pieces and place them in a large mixing bowl. Add other fruits to the bowl. Sprinkle with lime and orange juices and toss gently. Fill the two empty halves of pineapple generously with fruit and decorate the top with nuts. Left-over fruit can be used to refill the boats. Chill until ready to serve.
Makes six to eight servings.

Halva Sweetened with Date Sugar
½ cup raw, unsalted cashew pieces
3 tablespoons soy-based butter spread
1 cup cream of rice or cream of wheat cereal
3 cups hot water
1/3 cup date sugar/coconut sugar/ turbanado sugar (available in health food stores)
¼–½ teaspoon ground cardamom
¼ cup finely shredded dry coconut for topping
½ cup blueberries, raspberries or sliced strawberries
Heat a heavy skillet and roast cashew pieces until they start to turn color and smell fragrant. Transfer to a platter to cool. Wipe the skillet clean and heat the vegan spread gently over low heat. Add the cream of wheat and stir-fry at moderate heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon for about 10 minutes. Lower the heat and continue to cook while stirring often. Place cashews in an electric blender or food processor and crush them into a meal. Add the cashew meal to the cooking cream of rice and continue to stir the ingredients while cooking for an additional 5 minutes.

Add hot water, date sugar and cardamom. Continue to stir and cook for a few more minutes until the ingredients solidify. Turn off the heat, and allow the halwa to settle for a few minutes. Then transfer to a platter and shape the halwa as desired, into a round mold, heart or a rectangular cake-like shape. Sprinkle the shredded coconut over the surface leaving some edges uncovered. Spread the berries decoratively on top. It can be served at room temperature or chilled.
Makes eight to ten servings.

This healthy, gluten-free and vegan rice pudding is made with coconut milk. You can also use soymilk, almond milk or low-fat dairy milk (for a non-vegan version).
1 cup short grain white rice/jasmine rice
2 cups water for cooking rice
4 cups low fat coconut milk
½ teaspoon finely ground cardamom seeds
¼ teaspoon saffron threads soaked
in 3 tablespoons warm milk, soymilk,or coconut milk
2 tablespoons oil
½ cup unbleached sugar or honey
½ cup sultana (yellow) raisins
½ cup shelled and chopped pistachios
or slivered or chopped almonds
Rinse and drain the rice. In a large pot (3-4 quart size) bring the water to a boil and add rice. Bring the rice to a second boil, reduce the heat, cover, and simmer for 15 minutes. Then add the coconut milk and oil. Then raise the heat to a moderate flame and cook the rice uncovered for approximately 15 minutes, stirring frequently; stir the rice to prevent it from sticking to the bottom of the pot.

While the rice is cooking, grind the cardamom using a mortar and pestle and soak the saffron as described.

When most of the liquid seems to have evaporated from the rice, add the raisin, cardamom, saffron and the sweetener. Stir thoroughly until the mixture takes on a pudding-like consistency. Turn off the heat and keep covered for a few minutes. Transfer into a serving bowl and top with the chopped nuts. Kheer can be served hot, at room temperature or chilled. 
Makes eight to ten servings.

Few books that have information about how to nutritionally balance a vegetarian and vegan diet and menu.

1) Robertson, Laurel, Carol Flinders, and Brian Ruppenthal. Laurel’s Kitchen: A Handbook for vegetarian Cookery and Nutrition. Berkeley, Ca. Ten Speed Press, 1986.

2) Vesanto Melina MS RD, and Brenda Davis. The New Becoming Vegetarian: The Essential Guide to A Healthy Vegetarian diet, Healthy Living Publications, imprint of Book Publishing Company, Summertown TN, Book Publishing Company, 2003

3) Sacharoff, Shanta Nimbark, Flavors of India, revised edition, Summertown TN, Book Publishing Company, 1996
Shanta Nimbark Sacharoff , author of Flavors of India: Vegetarian Cuisine, and an upcoming book Cooking Together: A Vegetarian Co-op Cookbook lives in San Francisco. Serena Sacharoff, the illustrator is a chef and a freelance artist.