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A meal with meaning: African-influenced dishes go into Kwanzaa feast

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The word Kwanzaa is derived from a Swahili phrase meaning "first fruits of the harvest," so it's only fitting that food should play a central role in the Kwanzaa holiday, which begins Sunday and celebrates African heritage and culture. The Kwanzaa table is decorated fruits and vegetables, particularly those important in African-American history -- bananas, plantains, peanuts, corn, yams and rice. The karamu, the big Kwanzaa feast, occurs Dec. 31, the next to last night of the seven-day holiday. Appropriate foods for this meal come from all parts of Africa, as well as the southern United States, the Caribbean Islands, South America, the Middle East, India and everywhere else people of African origin have lived.

Dr. Maulana Karenga, professor and chair of the black studies center at California State Long Beach, sees the holiday as a synthesis of many African harvest festivals. A multifaceted celebration, it urges self-understanding, commitment to family and community, creativity and pride. When Dr. Karenga started Kwanzaa in 1966, only a few people joined him. Today, millions join the celebration throughout the United States and around the world.

Because it's such a new holiday, it has no fixed traditions. Some celebrants suggest a meal from a different country in the African diaspora on each of the seven nights to acknowledge cultural unity. Others invite people to a potluck karamu.

During the holidays, when so many traditional dishes are embraced, health concerns are often put on the back burner, but it's not necessary. We put together a delicious Kwanzaa feast to adapt old favorites to keep fat, cholesterol, calories and salt to a minimum.

Black-eyed pea hummus

Makes 4 cups

2 15-ounce cans black-eyed peas

3 cloves garlic

1 teaspoon salt

1/3 cup tahini paste

juice of 2 lemons, about 1/2 cup

1 teaspoon cumin

1/2 teaspoon paprika

Drain black-eyed peas, saving the liquid. Place peas, garlic and salt in food processor bowl. Process briefly. Add tahini, lemon juice, cumin and paprika. Process until smooth. Check consistency. If too thick, add some of the liquid saved from the peas. Process again.

Serve as a dip with a platter of fresh vegetables.

Per tablespoon: 23 calories; 1g protein; 3g carbohydrate; 1g fat; 0mg cholesterol; 45mg sodium; 37 percent of total calories comes from fat.

Spicy squash soup

Makes 9 cups

6 cups nonfat vegetable or chicken stock

1 1/2 cups onion, chopped

1 teaspoon crushed red pepper, or to taste

3 cups pumpkin, butternut or acorn squash peeled and cubed

1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste

1/3 cup raw white rice

1/2 cup natural, chunky peanut butter, optional

chopped parsley for garnish

Place 1/2 cup stock in a medium saucepan. Add onions and crushed red peppers. Cook, covered, until onions wilt, about 5 minutes. Add remaining stock, cubed squash and salt. Bring to a boil, covered, then reduce heat and cook 20 minutes. Add rice (and more stock, if necessary) and continue cooking until squash and rice are tender, about 20 minutes. Puree or mash. Stir in peanut butter, if desired.

To serve, ladle into bowls. Sprinkle with parsley.

Per 1-cup serving without peanut butter: 72 calories; 5g protein; 15g carbohydrate; 0.4g fat; 1mg cholesterol; 122mg sodium; 4 percent of total calories comes from fat.

Per 1-cup serving with peanut butter: 156 calories; 8g protein; 18g carbohydrate; 7.5g fat; 1mg cholesterol; 192mg sodium; 39 percent of total calories comes from fat.

Chicken grilled with onions

Makes 8 servings

4 large onions, thinly sliced

L 8 boneless and skinless chicken breasts, about 6 ounces each

1 teaspoon salt, or to taste

freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon crushed red pepper, or to taste

6 cloves garlic, chopped

3/4 cup fresh lime or lemon juice

4 cups cooked white rice

Place half the onions on the bottom of a 9-by-13-inch shallow glass dish. Place the chicken breasts on top of the onions in a single layer. Season with salt, pepper, crushed pepper and chopped garlic. Cover with the remaining onions. Sprinkle the lime juice over everything. Cover and refrigerate, turning occasionally, for at least 6 hours or overnight.

Heat grill or broiler. Remove cooking racks and spray with vegetable oil spray.

Remove chicken from marinade. Place on prepared racks with onions. Cook about 20 minutes, turning every 5 minutes, until the chicken is cooked through. Brush with remaining marinade if the chicken starts to look dry. The onions will cook faster than the chicken so remove them as they finish cooking.

To serve, place hot, cooked rice on serving platter. Arrange chicken on rice. Place cooked onions on top of the chicken.

Per serving with 1/2 cup cooked white rice: 335 calories; 42g protein; 34g carbohydrate; 2.3g fat; 99mg cholesterol; 383mg sodium; 7 percent of total calories come from fat.

Low-fat greens

2 cups nonfat chicken or vegetable stock

4 cloves garlic, finely chopped

8 cups greens (collards, mustard or spinach), thoroughly washed, stems removed and chopped

salt to taste

, crushed red pepper, optional

Heat 1/2 cup stock in a large wok or fry pan with a nonstick coating. Add garlic and cook briefly. Add greens, and more stock, as necessary. Toss greens in stock, they will wilt as they cook, making room for more greens in pan. Toss and cook until all greens have wilted, about 10 minutes. Season with salt and crushed red pepper, if desired. Serve hot.

Per serving: 31 calories; 3g protein; 6g carbohydrate; 0.3g fat; 0.12mg cholesterol; 303mg sodium; 8 percent of total calories come from fat.

Sweet potato pudding

Makes 8 servings

1 1/2 cups cooked mashed sweet potato or yam

1/2 cup no-fat egg substitute

3/4 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

1 1/2 cups nonfat evaporated milk

1 teaspoon grated orange rind (no white)

Heat oven to 375 degrees. Spray 8 4-ounce glass baking cups with vegetable oil spray.

Place the prepared sweet potatoes in a medium mixing bowl. Beat in the egg substitute. Add the sugar, salt and spices. Mix well. Stir in the nonfat evaporated milk and orange rind. Pour into the prepared baking cups.

Bake for 40 minutes, or until a sharp knife inserted in the center comes out clean.

Per serving: 142 calories; 5g protein; 31g carbohydrate; 0.2g fat; 2mg cholesterol; 211mg sodium; 1 percent of total calories comes from fat.

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