Have a healthy Halloween

Eating well - October 2005


Virginia Van Vynckt

Halloween, which is steadily catching up to Christmas as the major American holiday, is around the corner, which means the Halloween recipes have come out of hiding. Gnarled witches’ fingers. Edible eyeballs. Cat litter for dessert. No doubt about it, Halloween recipes are fun. When else can you serve "bloody fingers" or "wormy" apples and get by with it?

One problem with so many of these recipes is that they’re sweet. That’s not a big deal if you’re hosting a Halloween party and serving desserts instead of candy, but if your kids are lugging around pounds of candy from another party or a trick-or-treating jaunt, the last things you need to serve them are cookies and gooey treats.

Children have good imaginations, so making savory, "spooky" treats is easy, especially for younger kids. Here are some ideas to get you started.

- Drained pear halves are naturally skull-shaped. Add raisins for eyes and teeth (actually, the spaces between the teeth) and a couple of thin crossed celery stalks (the pale inside stalks work best) for "crossbones."

- Anything round and topped with orange Cheddar cheese—an English muffin, a cracker, a hamburger patty—can portray a jack-o-lantern. Use a bit of green pepper for the stem and red peppers and olives for the face.

- Fold about four feet of foil lengthwise into thirds. Shape the folded foil into a ghost shape, crimping the ends together. Place on a cookie sheet and pour popped popcorn into the foil "pan" to make a ghost. For the eyes and mouth, use black olives, drained and patted dry, pieces of chocolate cookie, or unwrapped chocolate kisses (upside down).

- Pimiento-stuffed olives cut in half make natural "eyeballs." Put them in deviled eggs (the yolk part is the "iris"), or insert them into turkey or lean beef meatballs, then bake the meatballs, "eyes" sides up.

- Ants on a log? Make spiders instead. Fill celery sticks with cream cheese or peanut butter. Place two or three dark raisins on the filling in each piece of celery and make legs with skinny black licorice cut into short bits, or with black icing gel if you can’t abide the idea of licorice and peanut butter in such close proximity.

- Blood? That’s easy. Ketchup, tomato sauce, salsa, strawberry jam—anything red will work.

Don’t ignore Halloween dinner. One of the best ways to cut candy consumption is to fill your kids up with something more substantial and nutritious before they go partying or trick-or-treating.

The recipe my kids associate with Halloween isn’t spooky at all. I "invented" mashed potato beef stew one Halloween when the stew wasn’t quite ready for an early dinner. I left it on low heat, told my husband to stir it once in a while, and took the kids trick-or-treating on one of those all-too-typical cold, rainy, windswept Halloween nights. By the time we got back, the kids were cold and famished. By then, the potatoes in the stew had softened enough to fall apart when I stirred it. My kids loved the stew, and ever since then, mashed potato beef stew is a Halloween standard.

You can use any kind of potatoes in the stew, but baking potatoes fall apart better. The mashed potatoes help thicken the gravy.

This is a great crock pot dish. You can skip the oil and browning of the beef (though it does boost the flavor), and just toss all the ingredients in the crock pot. Cook on high for 6 hours or low for 10 to 12 hours, or until the beef is tender.

Virginia Van Vynckt, mother of two, has written extensively about food and nutrition, and is the author of Feed Your Kids Right the Lazy Way.

Makes 4 to 5 servings

1½ pounds lean beef stew meat, cut into chunks

1 tablespoon flour

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 (13-ounce) can beef broth (preferably reduced sodium)

1 cup water, or as needed

2 to 3 cloves garlic, minced

1 medium onion, chopped

4 carrots, peeled and cut into chunks

3 small baking potatoes (about 6 ounces each), peeled and cubed

1 teaspoon Italian seasoning, herbes de Provence or other herb blend of your choice

Salt (optional) and pepper to taste

Heat the beef in the olive oil until browned. Sprinkle the flour over the beef and stir, tossing to coat. Stir in the broth, scraping up any bits from the bottom of the pan. Add the remaining ingredients except the salt and the pepper. Partially cover and cook over low heat for 2 to 3 hours, adding more water if necessary to keep stew from sticking, or until the beef is tender and the potatoes are soft enough to be mashed into the gravy. Season with salt and pepper. Ladle into bowls and serve hot.


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