We are bombarded on a daily basis with news about the latest "super foods" and the remarkable health benefits of the Diet du Jour.

But when it comes to my health, I prefer sticking to tried and true research-based advice from respected health organizations. And most experts agree: a balanced, varied diet rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans offers the best protection from chronic diseases like cancer and heart disease.

The notion of variety is an important part of healthy eating. So in my latest book, The Essential Best Foods Cookbook, I focus on this. The recipes promote eating a wide selection of foods and providing optimal pleasure while also supporting your health.

While my book details the benefits of specific plant compounds like beta-carotene, anthocyanins and fiber, I do not encourage readers to follow one specific, carefully defined diet. To me, a rigid "diet" implies limitations and restrictions. Instead, as I like to show in this column, I encourage a food lifestyle that lets you eat well in the largest sense, by including lots of smart choices.

Important as variety is, some foods provide more health benefits than others. Since we must make the calories in every meal count, recipes in The Essential Best Foods Cookbook feature many nutrient-dense foods. A few key players: extra virgin olive oil, which is rich in mono-unsaturated fat and polyphenols; sweet bell peppers, loaded with a myriad of antioxidants and disease-fighting phytochemicals; and yogurt, which provides calcium and immune-benefits from live bacteria.

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Variety is also a way to make dishes where every bite satisfies, enticing you to eat what is good for you with enthusiasm. Small additions like the lemon zest featured in this week's pesto recipe may seem like superfluous ingredients, but they add flavor, color and additional health benefits.

Lemon Basil Pesto

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Yield: Makes 8 servings.

Ingredients

  • 1-1/2 cups packed basil leaves
  • 1/2 cup packed baby spinach leaves
  • 1/2 cup walnuts
  • 1/4 cup (1 ounce) grated Asiago cheese
  • 2 Tbsp. soft silken tofu
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 tsp. grated lemon zest
  • 1 large red bell pepper, cut into 3/4" strips
  • 1 pint small cherry tomatoes

    Directions

    1. In food processor, pulse basil and spinach until finely chopped. Add nuts and cheese. Whirl until nuts are finely chopped. Add tofu, salt and pepper. With motor running, drizzle in oil. Add lemon zest and whirl to blend. Cover and refrigerate up to 24 hours. Makes 1 cup pesto.
    2. To serve, scoop pesto into serving bowl. Set bowl in center of a plate and arrange pepper strips and tomatoes around it. Provide toothpicks so tomatoes can be neatly dipped.

    Nutritional Information Per Serving:
    140 calories
    12 g total fat
    2 g saturated fat
    4 g carbohydrates
    3 g protein
    2 g dietary fiber
    180 mg sodium