Summer's the season to keep meals light — for avoiding heat-induced drowsiness as well as bathing suit overflow.

And with produce such as zucchini and cauliflower flooding farmer's markets region-wide, there's really no better time to start playing around in the kitchen with healthy ideas. From smoky mushroom bacon to avocado-topped sweet potato toast to panfried cauliflower rice, there are many ways to get creative. Stay cool and light with these fresh veggie swaps.

Instead of rice: Cauliflower rice

Cauliflower was perhaps 2017's trendiest vegetable, subbing in for steak, buffalo wings, and pizza crusts. It's easy to see why: The low-calorie ingredient is not only packed with fiber and an array of other key nutrients (vitamins C, K, and B6, to name a few), but it's also incredibly neutral in flavor. Unlike its cruciferous cousin broccoli, cauliflower has a only mild, slightly nutty flavor once cooked, attributes that align quite closely with rice. It's yet another food that cauliflower is now superseding in kitchens across the country.

Create cauliflower rice by tossing the white crowns into a food processor and pulsing for one-second intervals. Once it reaches the consistency of couscous, the rice is ready to cook. You can also buy premade cauliflower rice at places like Trader Joe's and Whole Foods, and find it cooked up in dishes at an array of both health-minded and create-your-own-bowl-style restaurants. (For example, locally, Pure Fare serves up a chicken and Thai cauliflower rice, incorporating curry, snow peas, and peppers; Pokéspot offers the rice as a base for toppings including spicy salmon, edamame, scallions, avocado, sesame seeds, and other poke bowl ingredients.)

Veggie rice clocks in with less than one-eighth the calories of white or brown rice, and about one-ninth the carbs, making it a smart swap for those watching their weight. And one small head of cauliflower has nearly twice the vitamin C as a medium orange.

Cauliflower rice works in place of rice for most meals, though you may want to use less sauce or dressing if you're swapping in cauliflower. And the moisture content in cauliflower can change depending on the time of year, says Jon Nodler, chef and owner of Cadence. "I like a lot of crispy bits, so I press out the excess moisture before cooking," Nodler says.

Sturdy yet flexible, collard green leaves are one of the few items in the vegetable kingdom that can easily be utilized as a wrap to safely hold other savory ingredients inside.
Sturdy yet flexible, collard green leaves are one of the few items in the vegetable kingdom that can easily be utilized as a wrap to safely hold other savory ingredients inside.

Instead of pasta: Zoodles (zucchini noodles)

Sometimes there's nothing more satisfying than a bowl full of spaghetti. Yet, when the weather is blazing and the summer garden's thriving with squash, zoodles offer a lighter and healthier take on the classic.

Zoodles — thin, noodle-like strands made by taking a spiralizer, julienne peeler, or a mandoline to a zucchini — have long been trendy among the gluten-free crowd. But even if you aren't anti-gluten or sensitive to the protein composite, zoodles can make for a healthful seasonal addition to your diet, and when prepared properly, a delicious pasta swap.

While zoodles can be served raw or cooked, the most satisfying zoodle results generally come from a quick sauté in a nonstick skillet. Before sautéing, salt the zoodles to avoid a watery aftermath. Scatter the strands onto a paper towel and sprinkle with a light dusting of salt. Add another layer of paper towels on top, and gently press down on the zoodles. Let the zucchini sit for at least 10 minutes, and then give it another gentle squeeze before cooking.

As with pasta, the sauce options are endless. Basil pesto, garlic-tomato, and gingery peanut sauce all work well. At HeartBeet Kitchen in Westmont, you'll find zoodles offered both as a base for pad Thai, coated in a creamy cashew sauce, and under eggplant meatballs lathered with a fresh marinara. Center City's Mediterranean-inspired Agno pairs zoodles with proteins like braised steak and falafel, and toppings including charred broccoli, baba ganoush, and marinated artichokes. Just a few blocks away, Pure Fare places a thicker version in its lasagna, featuring a roasted pepper basil sauce that coats each layer.

Counting calories? There's no comparison. Two cups of pasta packs in more than seven times the calories of zoodles (roughly 480 vs. 65). Zucchini contains twice the fiber (four grams vs. two), along with a notable amount of potassium (16 percent of your recommended daily value per two cups), a vital electrolyte that gets depleted through the sweat. During the summer, it's likely we could all benefit from that.

Like toast, sweet potatoes make for a great platform for both sweet and savory spreads and toppings.
Like toast, sweet potatoes make for a great platform for both sweet and savory spreads and toppings.

Instead of wheat toast: Sweet potato toast

If you're looking for a new breakfast idea that's both healthy and fun, sweet potato toast has you covered. Peanut butter and jam on a thinly sliced sweet potato ranks high as a contender against plain old toast. With a smear of smashed avocado and pickled red onion, the orange tuber can easily take on a slice of classic avocado toast, too.

Sweet potato toast is a simple, one-ingredient dish made from cutting skin-on sweet potatoes lengthwise into ¼-inch slices, then cooking them until golden brown. There are two methods to achieve that latter step.

The first, and easiest, option is to use an oven, preheated to 450 degrees. If you go this route, place all sweet potato slices in a single layer across a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, and pop the pan into the oven. Then, every five minutes or so, flip the slices until they're browned on the outside and fork tender on the inside (15-20 minutes).

If you're not whipping up breakfast for a crowd, a toaster can also be utilized, calling on multiple rounds of toasting to cook two slices at a time. Crank your toaster up to its highest setting, and allow the slices to toast, cycling through several more rounds until tender. Anywhere from five to eight rounds will typically suffice, depending on the toaster.

From there, the creative process begins. Topping combinations include ricotta and honey, sesame tahini, cinnamon, and banana, and blueberry, walnut, and maple syrup. All would benefit from a sprinkle of salt on top.

On the savory side of the spectrum, hummus with roasted red peppers, olives and feta, refried beans with salsa and cheddar, and pesto with roasted veggies all make for delicious topping variations. Don't be afraid to test ideas of your own. (And yes, traditional toast safe bets like cinnamon butter, nut butters, and jams all work well, too.)

By replacing the hefty layers of white bread in traditional bahn mi, collard green leaves lighten up the sandwich and enable even more flavor to shine through.
By replacing the hefty layers of white bread in traditional bahn mi, collard green leaves lighten up the sandwich and enable even more flavor to shine through.

Instead of tortillas: Collard green wraps

Whether you believe in carb cutting or not, it's hard to argue against the merits of leafy green collards as a healthy swap for bread. The low-cal food is a rich source of all sorts of vitamins and minerals, particularly vitamin K, essential for healthy bones, with 1,045 percent of your recommended daily intake per cup.

However, what makes the veggie truly stand out, at least when it comes to the sandwich realm, is its sturdy, yet flexible composition. Few other veggies can wrap savory interiors like a collard leaf can.

While capable of creating a wrapper as is, collard greens become even more pliable after a quick steam on the stove. To do this, simply heat up a few tablespoons of water in a large pan over medium-high, and then place the leaves inside. Cover, and let cook for 45 to 60 seconds before removing with tongs and allowing the leaves to cool.

The beauty of using a collard green wrapper is that it pulls back some of the heaviness that comes from bread, allowing interior sandwich flavors to really shine. Experience this at places like Bareburger, where a collard green wrap envelopes a sweet potato, kale, and wild rice patty topped with hummus and tomatoes, all dressed with an avocado basil sauce that stands strong rather than getting lost. Or in banh mi, where leafy greens wrap marinated veggies, fresh herbs, and crispy, oven-roasted tofu combine for a lunch that's packed to the brim with flavor.

Crispy mushroom bacon creates a much lighter breakfast alternative to the classic meaty staple.
Crispy mushroom bacon creates a much lighter breakfast alternative to the classic meaty staple.

Instead of bacon: Smoky mushrooms 

Bacon may be considered by some the most brilliant of breakfast items, but greasy meat doesn't rank high on the health scale. Fear not: Tons of smoky, salty alternatives, exist, ranging from tempeh to coconut to eggplant "bacon," all perfect for pairing with a plate of eggs.

One of the best pork swaps is the mushroom. All varieties naturally encompass that savory umami flavor of bacon — without the saturated fat. Add a touch of liquid smoke or smoked paprika, and the flavor further develops into one akin to the classic breakfast staple.

Find versions locally at places like P.S. & Co, where roasted portobello bacon comes as a popular side, and at Front Street Cafe, which serves both a smoked mushroom bacon as well as a meat-free scrapple made partially from 'shrooms during brunch-time hours.

Want to achieve a crispy mushroom bacon on your own? Choose a mushroom, and take your pick between oven roasting or pan searing.

"It's all about the texture," says Vedge's Rich Landau. "Trumpet mushrooms have much less water in them than other mushrooms, so they crisp up so beautifully in the frying pan, whereas other more watery mushrooms would become soggy."

Fried cauliflower rice with summer vegetables

Serves 4 as an appetizer or 2 as an entrée

1 large head of cauliflower, cut into chunks

Olive oil

1 clove garlic, minced

1 yellow onion, diced

2 cups seasonal vegetables (try sugar snap peas, diced summer squash, and sweet corn), diced

¾ teaspoon cumin

1 scant tablespoon coriander

½ teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns

½ teaspoon red pepper flakes, plus more to taste, if desired

Salt, to taste

Fish sauce, to taste

Soy sauce, to taste

Optional toppings:

Sea scallops

Lump crab

Bacon or Chinese sausage

  1. Using a food processor with the grater attachment, grate cauliflower chunks into small, rice-size pieces. (Alternatively, use a box grater to grate the cauliflower chunks into small rice-size pieces.)
  2. Place the cauliflower rice on a towel place atop a baking rack and press the cauliflower rice to remove any excess moisture. This will allow the cauliflower rice to get browned and crispy when cooking vs. steamed.
  3. Place a wide, flat-bottomed sauté pan coated with olive oil over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, add the onion and garlic; gently sauté until onion just starts to turn a golden color. Add the 2 cups of seasonal vegetables and the spices. Drizzle soy sauce around the pan. Sauté for 6-8 minutes, until just tender, tasting as you go and adjusting soy sauce as needed. Transfer to a bowl or plate.
  4. Dry out the pan and return to the stove, turning the heat to high. Coat the pan with a thin layer of olive oil. When the oil is hot, add the cauliflower rice, being careful not to crowd the pan. Season with salt, to taste, and allow the cauliflower rice to lightly brown and get crispy before stirring. Sauté 5-8 minutes, until the cauliflower rice is cooked through; Add the sautéed vegetables to the pan, and a splash of both fish sauce and tamari, to taste.
  5. Add optional toppings, if desired, and serve.

— Jon Nodler, Cadence

Zucchini pappardelle with sausage ragú, mint, and heirloom tomatoes

Serves 4-5 as an appetizer or 2-3 as an entrée

6 large zucchini

1 pound Italian sausage

¼ cup white wine

6 heirloom tomatoes, chopped

1 onion, minced

4 cloves garlic, sliced

3 tablespoons chopped mint

Olive oil

Pinch of chili flakes

Salt and pepper, to taste


  1. Cut the zucchini in half lengthwise. With a mandolin or julienne peeler, slice the zucchini into long ribbons. Scatter across a long sheet of paper towels or a kitchen towel. Sprinkle with a scant 1 tablespoon of salt, and set aside for 15 minutes.
  2. Meanwhile, uncase the sausage and crumble it. Coat a large heavy-bottomed pot with oil and place over high heat. Sear the sausage until it's well browned, about 6-8 minutes.
  3. Stir in the onions, pinch of chili flakes, and the garlic; turn the heat down to low and lightly cook until onions are translucent. Deglaze the pan with the white wine.
  4. Add the tomatoes, and bring to a boil. Then turn off the heat and set aside. Season with salt and pepper, to taste.
  5. Season ragú to taste with salt and pepper.
  6. After finished salting, drain the released water from the zucchini ribbons. Place a large sauté pan over high heat and coat with olive oil. Sear the ribbons for 3-6 minutes, cooking them in batches so as not to overcrowd the pan. The zucchini is at its best when there is some browning on the ribbons, but they're still al dente.
  7. Divide the hot zucchini among bowls and spoon the ragú over top. Sprinkle with chopped mint and a fresh grating of Parmigiano-Reggiano.

— Andrew Wood, Russet

Trumpet mushroom “bacon”

Serves 4-6

½ pound trumpet mushrooms

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon pepper

½ teaspoon smoked paprika

2 tablespoons neutral cooking oil, like sunflower

  1. Trim the bottom inch off of the mushroom stems and discard. Using a mandoline or very sharp knife, slice the mushrooms lengthwise as thinly as possible.
  2. In a small bowl, mix the salt, pepper, and paprika together.  Heat the oil in a sauté or frying pan over high heat until it's very hot. (Look for ripples. If the oil starts to smoke, you went too far.)
  3. Place a batch of the sliced mushrooms in the pan in a single layer. Sear for about 45 seconds on each side. Remove from pan and place atop a layer of paper towels. Dust the seared mushrooms with the seasoning mix. Repeat with the remaining mushrooms, continuing the process in small batches.

— Rich Landau of Vedge

Tofu banh mi collard wraps with wasabi peanut sauce

Serves 4

For the crispy baked tofu:

1 (15 oz.) block of organic extra-firm tofu

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 tablespoon  soy sauce

1½ tablespoon  cornstarch

1-inch of ginger, peeled and sliced

For the marinated carrots and cabbage

1 garlic clove, minced

2 cups shredded carrots

¼ head red cabbage, shredded

½ cup unseasoned rice wine vinegar

1 teaspoon light brown sugar

½ teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil

1 tablespoon Sriracha

For the peanut sauce:

½ cup crunchy peanut butter

3 tablespoons lime juice (about 2 medium limes)

1 tablespoon soy sauce

2½ teaspoon light brown sugar

1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil

1 garlic clove, minced

1-2 tablespoons wasabi powder (depending on how much of a kick you desire)

Hot water, if needed to thin

For the wrap:

1 cup cilantro

2 medium cucumbers, cut into 1-inch matchsticks

4 scallions, diced

8 medium collard leaves, thick bottom stem removed

To prepare the tofu:

  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees, and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
  2. Drain and rinse the tofu. Slice lengthwise into 1/3-inch slabs. Line a large cutting board or flat surface lined with lint-free towels, and place tofu in a single layer on top. Place another layer of towels on top, and then weight down the top towel with something heavy, like a cast iron skillet. Set aside.
  3. Meanwhile, place carrots and cabbage in a large bowl. Whisk together remaining ingredients, and pour over carrots and cabbage. Toss to combine.
  4. Lay tofu on the lined baking sheet and scatter the sliced ginger across the pan. Whisk together 1 tablespoon each of olive oil and soy sauce; drizzle over the tofu. Sprinkle the cornstarch on top, using your hands to help evenly coat the tofu. Bake for 15 minutes, flip, and the bake another 15 minutes, or until tofu is golden and crispy.
  5. To make the peanut sauce, whisk together all of the sauce ingredients in a bowl. If the sauce is too stiff to drizzle, thin with a tablespoon or two of warm water.
  6. To assemble wraps, cut each slice of tofu into 3-4 long strips. In a large sauté pan, bring 2 tablespoons of water to a boil. Place collard greens in pan, cover, and steam for one minute. Use tongs to remove greens from the pan, and place leaves onto a flat surface.
  7. Taking one leaf at a time, place 2-3 strips of tofu in the center of the leaf. Scatter a generous handful of cilantro and scallions on top, and line with cucumbers and a large spoonful of the Marinated Carrots and Cabbage. Drizzle peanut sauce down the center.
  8. Fold in the short ends of the leaf, and then cross left side towards the right and begin to roll into a wrap. Give the wrap a gentle squeeze, and set on a plate. Repeat with remaining collard leaves, being generous as you spoon out each component. Once finished, serve aside remaining peanut sauce if any is left over.

— Grace Dickinson