Seeded vanilla date bars (Recipe Redux)

It's time for Recipe Redux again! This month's theme is "Bars and Bites for Brown Bags," and bloggers were asked to share their favorite healthy granola bars or balls to jazz up a portable lunch. This theme was right up my alley: I recently went full-time at work, so I've been packing up my lunch on a daily basis, and brown bag meals get boring pretty quickly. I've been tucking one or two of these seeded vanilla date bars in my lunch bag each day, and they have surely done their job of spicing up my lunch hour.

This is one of my favorite recipes to date (pun totally intended). These bars are chewy - my preference when it comes to bars - and a perfect contrast of sweet and salty flavors. I've kept my fridge stocked with them for the past two weeks, and I see this trend continuing for quite some time. They're that good.
I must admit, I was not on the date bandwagon from the start. They look like oversized raisins and remind me a little of huge, terrifying beetles you might find in the Amazon. But after seeing a few recipes for date bars circulating around the internet, I was intrigued and decided to give them a try. No regrets - dates have indulgent sweetness and a creamy texture that make for perfect on-the-go snack bars.

What's so great about dates?

Dates are high in a type of fiber called beta-D-glucan. Beta-D-glucan is a soluble fiber, meaning it dissolves in water. This type of fiber has been shown to help lower "bad" LDL cholesterol and raise "good" HDL cholesterol. Because of its ability to absorb and retain water, soluble fiber slows down digestion and the rate of stomach-emptying. Slower gastric emptying means your stomach is kept feeling satiated longer, thus aiding in weight loss. Beta-glucan may also improve immune function by activating white blood cells which seek out and destroy harmful organisms within the body while repairing damaged tissues. Researchers at the University of California, Davis found that Deglet Noor dates have the highest antioxidant capacity of all date varieties. Antioxidants help protect against a myriad of chronic diseases such as heart disease and a variety of cancers.

I love it when delicious things are also healthy.


Spicy black bean patties with chipotle barbeque sauce

I know what you're thinking.
Who actually enjoys veggie burgers?

But this is no generic, tasteless veggie burger. Actually, I don't even like to refer to these as veggie burgers because of the bad reputation that comes with that name. Instead, let's call them patties. These spicy black bean patties are packed with flavor, particularly when slathered with chipotle barbeque sauce. They're dense and delicious enough to satisfy meat lovers and vegetarians alike. Guaranteed.
Legumes are a great source of several nutrients including fiber, folate, copper, manganese, protein, iron, and B-vitamins. Because they are so loaded with nutrition, they are an excellent meat substitute for vegetarians or those simply looking to lower their intake of animal proteins.

Black beans are digested slowly because of their high fiber content, making them a great blood sugar stabilizer. This is beneficial to people with diabetes and those prone to blood sugar swings. Fiber also keeps food moving steadily through the digestive system and can help lower blood cholesterol, thus reducing risk of heart disease.

It is a good idea to soak dried beans overnight before using them. Not only will soaking speed up cooking time, but it also makes the beans more easily digestible and rids them of some of the phytates that tend to bind to other nutrients like calcium.


Southwest quinoa salad

Several weeks ago, Mike and I joined some friends at the Missouri Botanical Garden for their Whitaker Music Festival: an outdoor concert series within the rose gardens where picnics are encouraged. Now, one important fact about me is that I love laying on grassy lawns more than any person probably should. So naturally, I go hard at picnics. I'd choose a blanket on the grass and some homemade portable goodies over a fancy restaurant meal any day. They're even better with good company and some live music. I'm all about that.

A fun event called for a fun, packable menu: spicy black bean and corn patties with chipotle barbeque sauce, strawberry-rhubarb crumble bars, and southwest quinoa salad. I've been thinking about this quinoa salad ever since. It's incredibly quick and easy to assemble, and the fresh lime juice and cilantro give intense fresh flavor that can't be beat. This is a dish that is fantastic for packing and taking to-go since it can be served at room temperature, so you better believe I'll be munching on this at work this week. (P.S.: Check back next week for the black bean patties and barbeque sauce recipes - you've never had a meatless meal this good before.)
Quinoa is an awesome grain (although it's actually a seed) to include in your diet. Unlike many grains, it is rich in vitamins and minerals including manganese, magnesium, copper, and phosphorus. It provides 8 grams of protein per cooked cup, making it a valuable addition to many vegetarian and vegan diets. It is also high in fiber, which helps keep your belly feeling full and satisfied.

All the quinoa recipes I reference recommend using a 1:2 ratio of quinoa to liquid, but I think my quinoa turns out a bit too soft when I abide by that. I find that bit less liquid is better: 1 cup quinoa to 1 3/4 cups liquid works well for me.


Spicy dill refrigerator pickles

Lately, I've been super into cucumbers.

I've always liked cucumbers. They add fantastic fresh flavor to my Tzatziki on some creamy-crunchy Black-Eyed Pea Falafel. A few slices of cucumber and a squeeze of lemon juice transforms ordinary water into sippable spa heaven. Sushi isn't really sushi without some cucumber strips inside. But lately I can't get enough crispy cukes. I'm totally intrigued by Joy the Baker's Cucumber Gin Salt and Pepper Cups. I keep dreaming of cucumber salads and cucumber with red onion and cucumber with radishes and it's getting weird.

Here's hoping some homemade pickles cure this strange craving.

Homemade pickles are crazy simple to make and their flavor is unmatched by grocery store brands. Kirby cucumbers are classic for pickling, but Persian cucumbers also work well. I used mini snacking cucumbers and they were excellent. No matter what type you choose, just make sure they are firm and unwrinkled - fresh cucumbers will make crisper pickles.
Cucumbers don't pack in as much nutrition as other green vegetables, but they still have some great qualities. One cup of cucumber has only 16 calories and they are about 95% water, making them a hydration-promoting food. They contain sterols, a compound that competes with dietary cholesterol for absorption in the gut and may help lower blood cholesterol as a result. Cucumbers also make great breath fresheners! Enjoy tossed in salads, shaken into infused water, or dipped in yogurt sauce for a healthy snack. Mix with fresh dill and you can't possibly go wrong.


Crispy kale salad with avocado and strawberries

I dreamed up this dish last summer when all I wanted was vegetable-rich salads every day. The farmer's markets in Denver were fantastic, and I was constantly inspired to eat all the veggies I could get my hands on. Honestly, I prefer this salad without dressing - the crunchy kale, sweet strawberries, and creamy avocado all provide so much flavor on their own that a dressing is not necessary. But salads always have dressings, so I felt the need to provide one. Feel free to try it dressing-less or simply drizzled with a bit of balsamic vinegar.
Summer is the time to get your fill of berries while the prices are low and the flavor is unbeatable. Strawberries - the heart-shaped members of the rose family - make the list of top 20 antioxidant foods and are known for helping to improve cholesterol, lower blood pressure, and fight against cancer. One cup of strawberries provides 112% of your daily free-radical fighting vitamin C, and they are high in phytonutrients that help lower C-reactive protein, an inflammatory marker raised by stress. Additionally, their high fiber content helps give them a low glycemic index, so they won't cause a spike in blood sugar.

Not to mention they're delicious.

Eat up!