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This Passover, enjoy a lightened-up menu that doesn't blow your diet

Paula Shoyer For the Washington Post
Slow-cooked brisket is a Passover favorite, and this one is from cookbook author Paula Shoyer. [Contributed by Stacy Zarin Goldberg]

Everywhere I turn, someone is on a diet. My social media feeds are filled with before-and-after photos of successful dieters — and supermarket shots of 50 pounds of sugar to provide a visual of total weight lost — as well as celebrities promoting their favorite cleanses. And taking up prime real estate in my house is a huge box of meal replacements for my husband's current diet, the curse of being married to a cookbook author.

It's tough to diet during the holidays to begin with, and Passover lasts for eight full days. That's over a week of matzoh in every possible permutation, as well as those heavy meat dishes, brownies and macaroons we look forward to every year, and the family gatherings where you sit and eat for hours.

The Seder is particularly challenging as there are so many courses: matzoh and charoset, eggs and salt water, gefilte fish and matzoh ball soup — all before a main course and buffet of desserts.

This year I offer three strategies for lightening your Seder menu so you don't have to blow your diet.

Update family recipes: The family meals we grew up with tell our own food stories, so we have to include our historic recipes at our Seders. Yet many could use a modern-day makeover.

Passover food gives new meaning to "Let my People Go." It's not truly Passover without matzoh balls, and yet we all know what they do to our bodies. Mine are gluten-free, and though they are not true matzoh balls, they look legit while being better for you.

While researching the keto and Whole30 diets, I learned that onions and garlic have carbs. Given that all my holiday dishes are drowning in them, I created a brisket recipe that saves you from all that peeling and chopping, but still offers loads of flavor thanks to onion and garlic powders.

An easy way to lighten up any holiday meal is to serve a plated dessert. Surely, after all the courses, your family and guests will no longer be starving. Serve each person a small portion of dessert such as a cake, meringue, fruit tart or bar cookie with a fruit sauce. By making one dessert rather than several, you will have more energy for baking other treats to serve on other nights.

Many classic savory recipes have sugar, so definitely omit that. Your meal will be more healthful if you avoid dumping those Passover-certified packaged sauces on your chicken and meat. Instead, create your own toppings with fresh and dried spices, tomatoes or citrus. Simple is often more flavorful.

Substitute lighter dishes: Some recipes are hard to healthy-up, so you are better off swapping in something similar but more nutritious. When I was growing up, my mother always made turkey for Seder, as we all loved her matzoh stuffing. For a more healthful spin, stuff your turkey or chicken with quinoa and vegetables instead. Saute some yellow and red peppers, shallots, garlic and celery, and flavor the medley with Middle Eastern spices. This moist, flavorful stuffing substitute is gluten-free and better for you. And in place of the expected gefilte fish at the Seder, try a dry-rubbed roasted salmon. Not only will it remove calories, but it will also reduce your workload.

Kugel is always a tough one for me, as I dislike the concept of turning vegetables into cake. I would rather eat vegetables - and then cake. So, in place of kugel, I usually serve room-temperature side dishes I can make in advance, such as eggplant with capers and mint. Not having to warm up food saves time.

Focus on what you can eat: Passover is a great time to go mostly gluten-free, because you already are staying away from pasta, bread and grains, and so many diets are based on eating protein and vegetables. This holiday could be the time when you start eating more straightforward food - grilled meats, chicken or fish, omelets and salads.

Instead of using matzoh and cake meal to create crusts so we can have pizza and rolls during Passover, try nut flours, coconut flour and gluten-free starches to make the foods you miss. The flavors are better without dry matzoh ingredients.

Not-Quite Matzoh Ball Soup

These "matzoh" balls are gluten-free, made with ground chicken and almond flour. While it's awkward to call them matzoh balls when they have no matzoh in them, they look just like the real deal, plus they are tasty and better for you. The "matzoh" balls can be made ahead and refrigerated in an airtight container, for up to 1 day. Note: You can also make the soup in a pressure cooker. Place all of the soup ingredients in the pot, seal, and cook for 45 minutes at high pressure. Let the pressure release naturally, about 1 hour.

— Paula Shoyer

For the matzoh balls:

1 pound ground chicken

1/4 cup no-salt-added chicken broth

2 tablespoons ground almonds

1 tablespoon coconut flour

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1 large egg

1 tablespoon coconut oil

2 1/4 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more as needed

1/8 teaspoon white pepper

For the soup

One whole 4-pound chicken, cut into quarters (giblet packet removed)

1 large onion, quartered

2 carrots, scrubbed well and cut crosswise in half

3 ribs celery, cut crosswise in half

2 cloves garlic

1 parsnip, peeled and cut in half

1 turnip, peeled and cut into quarters

1 fennel bulb, quartered

1/2 cup sliced shiitake mushrooms (optional)

2 bay leaves

2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more as needed

8 cups water, plus more as needed

1 tablespoon black peppercorns

1/2 large bunch parsley

1/2 large bunch dill

For the "matzoh" balls: With your hands, mix together the ground chicken, broth, ground almonds, coconut flour, garlic, egg, oil, salt and pepper in a medium bowl. Cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 2 hours and up to 1 day.

Wet your hands in cold water and shape the cold batter into 1 1/2-inch balls. Place the balls on a plate, cover and refrigerate until ready to serve.

For the soup: Put the chicken pieces in a large pot. Add the onion, carrots, celery, garlic, parsnip, turnip, fennel, mushrooms, if using, bay leaves and salt. Add the water and bring to a boil. (Add more water, if needed, to make sure the chicken and vegetables are fully submerged.) Use a large spoon to skim the scum off the top of the soup. Add the peppercorns; then cover the pot. Reduce the heat to low, and let the soup barely bubble at the edges, checking after 5 minutes and skimming off any additional scum. Add the parsley and dill, cover and let the soup barely bubble at the edges, about 2 hours. Let cool; then strain the soup through a large sieve, pressing on solids. Discard the vegetables and shred the chicken to add to the soup or use elsewhere. Taste and season with more salt and pepper, as needed.

When ready to serve, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the "matzoh" balls and reduce the heat, so the water is barely bubbling at the edges. Cook for about 8 minutes until the balls are no longer pink in the center (cut one in half to make sure). Ladle the soup into bowls; then follow with the "matzoh" balls and the chicken, if using. Serves 8.

— Paula Shoyer

Traditional Brisket

Cookbook author Paula Shoyer likes to use a second cut brisket (also known as "point"), because she says the first cut (also known as "flat") does not get soft enough while cooking. You may use vegetable oil instead of coconut oil, which makes this brisket more Keto-friendly. Note that this recipe calls for coconut flour (instead of potato starch), and that is not kosher for Passover. The brisket tastes even better after a day's refrigeration. It may be made up to 2 days in advance and refrigerated; or frozen for up to 3 months. If frozen, defrost in the refrigerator overnight; reheat, covered, with its sauce in a 300-degree oven until warmed through.

— Bonnie S. Benwick

2 tablespoons plus 1/2 teaspoon coconut or other oil, or more as needed

1 tablespoon coconut flour, or more as needed (see headnote)

4 1/2 to 5 pounds second-cut brisket

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon sweet paprika

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon granulated garlic (or garlic powder)

1 tablespoon onion powder

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

4 large tomatoes, quartered, seeded and cut into 2-inch chunks

1 1/2 cups water

1 tablespoon chopped flat-leaf parsley, for garnish (optional)

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Heat the 2 tablespoons of coconut oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat.

Sprinkle the coconut flour on both sides of the meat, shaking off the excess, then place the brisket in the pan; sear for 3 to 4 minutes per side, until you see crispy bits on the meat. Transfer to a roasting pan to cool a bit. (If you are working with two brisket pieces, add 1 to 2 teaspoons coconut oil to the pan before you brown the second piece.)

Stir the paprika, garlic powder, onion powder, salt and pepper in a small bowl until well incorporated. This is your spice mix.

Reduce the heat to medium-low; add the remaining 1/2 teaspoon of oil to the skillet. Once it is hot, add the tomatoes and cook for 3 minutes, until they break down a bit, stirring often. Add a heaping tablespoon of the spice mix and all the water; increase the heat to medium-high and cook for 3 minutes, stirring occasionally, until everything is well incorporated.

Meanwhile, rub the remaining spice mixture all over the seared brisket; then pour the tomato mixture over the meat. Cover the roasting pan with heavy-duty aluminum foil (without letting it touch the sauce or meat); roast (middle rack) for about 1 hour.

Remove the pan from the oven and transfer the meat to a cutting board. Trim any fat that has not rendered, if desired. Cut the brisket against the grain into 1/3-inch thick slices. Return them to the roasting pan, tucking them in so they are covered with the sauce as much as possible. Re-cover with foil and roast for about 1 hour, or until the meat is fork-tender.

Sprinkle the parsley, if using, on top of the brisket and serve. Serves 8 to 10.

— Paula Shoyer