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Recipes for a strong, healthy heart

February—a month of hearts and love. I’m looking at you Valentine’s Day and National Heart Month. February is also my birth month, a time I use to take stock of my life and count my blessings.

One of my life’s most treasured gifts is my Running Girls™, though these days the group is made up of women who are girls in spirit only. I’ve known these women for almost 30 years. For decades we have met for lunch regularly, usually to celebrate birthdays, holidays and life events. We are all in our 60s, and though on the surface, we look like an unremarkable group of women of a certain age, we are, if you ask me, extraordinary. In this group there is a real estate agent, a musician, a professional athlete, a college professor and a practicing nurse. And a writer.

Our original bond was a passion for distance running. We approached our sport with varying degrees of intensity and success (not naming names, but one of us has an Olympic gold medal housed somewhere in the recesses of a kitchen drawer and another made it to the Olympic trials), but we all bonded over the sheer joy running brought to our lives.

As age moderates our physical abilities, we still have much that keeps our circle connected. Our commonalities bind us closer with each passing year. At every meeting, we marvel at the beauty of our lives and the place we call home. We are all committed to the health of our families, our communities and our bodies. And while we indulge in wine and dark chocolate with gusto, we share a love of preparing healthy, nutritious food that will, with luck, fuel our bodies for decades to come.

Our most recent gathering was at my new apartment, celebrating all things new—the apartment, the year, the feeling of a fresh start. In a cunning stroke of self-serving luck, I made and photographed the food for this month’s column and then served it to my squad. We nibbled on White Bean & Artichoke dip with pita chips while we caught up. Lunch was Rainbow Superfood Salad, Roasted Tomato Soup (frozen and reheated from last month’s column) and Energy Bites with Dark Chocolate for a bit of sweet to punctuate the meal.

To say my friends inspire me would only tell part of the story. We have seen each other through chemotherapy and death, the birth of grandchildren, weddings, promotions and broken hearts. We have cried and laughed and lifted each other up. We have been warriors when warriors were needed and offered a soft landing place in times of trouble.

Sometimes it takes a village to keep Wonder Women in top shape. And my Girls will tell you; healthy, delicious food is the best possible start to attain WW status.

WHITE BEAN & ARTICHOKE DIP

Photo by Candace Karu

As a food group, beans, peas, chickpeas and lentils are practically miracle food. Studies have shown that eating beans regularly is a heart-healthy choice that can reduce your LDL cholesterol (low-density lipoproteins, sometimes known as the “bad” cholesterol) levels by 5% and reduce your chances of heart disease by up to 6%. Beans are loaded with protein and fiber and are easy to add to a wide variety of recipes and cuisines. This one is a home run wherever I serve it. It has a fresh, earthy taste that makes it irresistible and it takes only minutes to prepare. I’ve been known to have this dip spread on a baguette for dinner, because Dip-for-Dinner…it’s a thing!

INGREDIENTS
1 can (15 oz.) white beans (cannellini, navy) drained and rinsed
1 can (7 oz.) quartered artichokes, drained
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1 teaspoon fresh rosemary, choppe
Salt and pepper to taste (don’t skimp on the salt)
2 tablespoons olive oil

INSTRUCTIONS

Place first 6 ingredients in food processor and pulse several times to combine.

As you process, add olive oil and mix until you reach the desired consistency.

Taste and add more salt and pepper if needed.

Place in a shallow bowl, drizzle with extra virgin olive oil, garnish with a sprig of fresh rosemary.

Serve with mixed raw vegetables, pita chips or sliced baguette.

Use leftover dip as a sandwich spread with deli meats.

PICK-ME-UP ENERGY BITES

Photo by Candace Karu

These tiny energy-boosting bites can get your mojo back during an afternoon slump. They’re great to make with and for kids, and a sweet addition to lunch boxes and snack plates. And they couldn’t be easier to make.

INGREDIENTS
1 cup pitted dates, packed
1 cup raw almonds
1 cup dried fruit (I like a mix of dried cranberries and apricots)
Dark chocolate chips, shredded coconut (optional)

INSTRUCTIONS

Combine all ingredients in a food processor and process until a ball forms, about 1–2 minutes.

For energy balls, pinch off a small piece to form a bite-sized ball (or bigger for bigger appetites. Place on a baking tray covered with parchment paper. Sprinkle with shredded coconut.

For energy bites, place the processed ball on a baking tray covered with parchment paper and roll flat, forming a rectangle about 1/3 inch thick. You can then cut them into bite-sized squares or larger bars. Or use a cookie cutter to cut into fun shapes.

If you want to get fancy, microwave a half-cup of dark chocolate chips until they are soft but still formed. Place a chip or two under each energy bite and press so the bottom of the bite is chocolate-covered. A little oozing is perfectly acceptable.

Chill the balls or bites in the refrigerator for an hour to firm up (or, if you’ve gone down the chocolate road, until that adheres). Store in a covered container.

RAINBOW SUPERFOOD SALAD

Photo by Candace Karu

INGREDIENTS & INSTRUCTIONS

There are no real rules or magic for this recipe. All you have to do is combine fresh, wholesome vegetables, proteins, whole grains, nuts, beans and seeds. Pull it all together with a flavorful dressing and you’ll be ready to conquer the world.

Here are my go-to Superfood Salad ingredients and what they’ve got in them:

  • Baby arugula: folate, Vitamins A and C, and K, calcium, magnesium and manganese
  • Red cabbage: Vitamins A, C, K, and B6, as well as antioxidants
  • Green beans: Vitamins A, C, and K, as well as folic acid and fiber
  • Edamame (frozen and out of the shell, cook first according to package directions): Protein as well as Vitamin K, folate, manganese, copper, iron, riboflavin, and thiamin
  • Grape tomatoes: Lycopene, an antioxidant which has been linked to health benefits, including reduced risk of heart disease and cancer
  • Raw nuts and seeds: Protein, healthy fats, fiber, minerals such as magnesium, potassium, calcium, plant iron and zinc, and Vitamins B1, B2, B3 and E
  • Quinoa: Fiber, protein, and a wide range of amino acids vital for supporting muscle development
  • Aged cheese: Spoiler Alert—cheese aged naturally for more than 6 months contain no lactose, so if you’re lactose intolerant you can enjoy a nice aged cheddar with impunity. Cheese is also a great source of calcium and protein.
  • Hard boiled eggs: An excellent source of protein with a complete range of amino acids, plus vitamin D, riboflavin, zinc, calcium and all of the B vitamins.

The sky’s the limit with a Superfood Salad. Add any kind of greens, veggies, nuts, seeds, and proteins (tofu, tempeh, tuna, chicken, shrimp, steak). Make and dress it any way that tickles your fancy.

I like to combine a half cup of plain Greek yogurt, 1 tablespoon of lemon juice, 1 tablespoon of orange juice and 1 tablespoon of olive oil for a super simple, creamy dressing, but a simple vinaigrette or just a drizzle of balsamic vinegar and olive oil works just as well.

Candace Karu makes her living writing about food, fitness and travel. Follow her on Instagram: @candacekaru or at candacekaru.com

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