Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Food Lovers' Guide to Health(ier) Holiday Dining

For many of us, the holiday season is like an overwhelming obstacle course. Every gathering has the potential to send us crashing and burning even as we do our best to stay away from high fat or otherwise problematic foods. The challenge may be weight control, diabetes, or heart issues. It may be celiac disease. Or it may be that we're vegetarian or vegan.

Of course, it is the holidays and even some of the most health-conscious people I know in the food world say it's a time for indulgence--balanced by exercise and eating smart when not at a holiday gathering. And, for most of the population they are probably right. But there are those of us who fear going off the wagon of a successful but challenging diet or have health issues that don't allow for a holiday vacation.

Few of us choose to be problem guests and my feeling is that, while it would be nice, hosts are under no obligation to cater to the dietary needs of all their guests, which can be varied. I don't expect it of people who invite me to their parties. Of course, if it's a potluck, it means I can bring something that ensures there's at least one dish I can enjoy whole heartedly.

But the problem remains. How do we keep a semblance of sanity around the food we eat over the holidays--whether we are the host or the guest?

I think there are four approaches to choose from (of course, a menu!):

1. Portion control. For the guest, this can be simply reining yourself in and taking limited small bites or tastes of what's offered, if you have the willpower. For the host, this can mean offering small bites of dishes. Say, tartlets instead of pies or mini cupcakes instead of cake.

2. Switching out ingredients. Instead of ham, how about lean but flavorful pork tenderloin? Everyone loves mashed potatoes but you don't have to use a lot of cream and butter. Chef Jeff Rossman of Terra suggests non-fat yogurt or milk. You could also up it to low fat. Or, instead of potatoes, consider celery root. Instead of serving white rice as a side dish, select some delicious whole grains like quinoa or wheat berries. Robin Asbell, author of Big Vegan, says that wild rice is a perfect native food, has some gourmet cache, and is healthy. Use these grains to create pilafs, stuffings, soups, and casseroles to create a substantial, nutty, and chewy dish.

Wheat Berry Salad
This also is a strategy for vegetarian or vegan guests. Chef Ron Oliver of The Marine Room will frequently substitute a meaty vegetable like a Portobello mushroom or eggplant to create a dish that calls for an animal protein like salmon.

For Hanukah, frying potato pancakes is a beloved tradition. But you can rotate out starchy potatoes and use vegetables like zucchini or add bits of apple to your potatoes. And instead of frying, spray the pancakes with oil and bake on a baking sheet. You still get that hint of crispiness but without all the grease.

Zucchini pancakes
3. Create new classics. This is particularly key for vegetarians and vegans. In addition to serving turkey, ham, brisket, or other animal proteins, consider creating alternate main courses using eggplant, squash, Portobello mushrooms, seitan (a flavored wheat meal derived from the protein portion of meat), tofu, or tempeh (cooked and slightly fermented soybeans formed into a patty).

4. Whatever you do, be sure to have some fresh or lightly cooked vegetables and fruit as part of the menu. As a host, go ahead and offer a fat- and carb-laden feast. But if you could have a beautiful salad mixed in with it or a platter of crudites served with hummus or a yogurt-based dip, that would make many guests a lot more relaxed. Yes, serve the pies and cookies--and also a fruit salad.

And, guests, if you really are concerned about the hazards ahead at a party, have a snack ahead of time so that if it turns out there isn't much on the menu that you can eat you won't starve or go off the deep end indulging. If you have allergies or specific ingredient issues, be sure to ask the host or caterer if those ingredients are in any of the dishes so you can avoid them.

I asked several chefs for their input, since they deal with fussy customers and clients all the time (yes, we are fussy; we want what we want). Here are some of their suggestions:

Robin Asbell: "For vegans, you can makes sides more substantial. Great vegan mains that everyone will want are things like sweet little dumpling squashes stuffed with grains, herbs, and nuts, or roasted veggies tucked into phyllo and baked.

Wilted Winter Greens Phyllo Rolls
"I'm fond of bringing big, pretty salads with a base of greens covered with things like pears, pecans, avocado, freshly cooked artichoke hearts, pomegranate seeds, and maybe a pile of marinated beans or a quinoa salad piled in the middle. Just pile up the plant foods and make a good vinaigrette and you won't be able to keep people away."

She also suggests lightening up side dishes with extra virgin olive oil instead of butter, where appropriate, and to lower the fat in dairy.

Trey Foshee: "Instead of adding bacon to your Brussels sprouts, put some small onions in aluminum foil with wood chips and put on the stove. When they start smoking, put in a 375-degree oven and roast for 45 minutes to an hour. You get the roasted onion and smoke flavor that's a good substitute for bacon.

"Salt roast sweet potatoes. Smash up star anise, black pepper, and ginger. Mix with kosher salt and enough egg white to make a paste. Put a layer of salt down, then the sweet sweet potatoes, then cover with the rest of the salt. Bake at 375-degrees for about an hour and 15 minutes. Crack and remove the potatoes and peel if you want. They'll be perfumed with the spices.

"Serve a shaved raw Brussels sprouts salad with walnuts, pecorino, lemon juice, and olive oil."

Jeff Rossman: "Make stocks and soups from scratch to avoid the sodium and preservatives. Chefs are always making stocks. Call me and I can sell you some for home use. Try and use whole grain flours, pastas, and breads. Make your own dressings and watch what you're putting into them. Use citrus zest and toasted nuts for added flavor. For healthier mashed potatoes, use Yukon gold or Red potatoes for a better flavor than russets, keep the skin on, and use flavoring additions like roasted garlic, sun-dried tomatoes, caramelized onions, sauteed mushrooms, and fresh herbs. For vegans, try a dish like Toasted Quinoa-stuffed Acorn Squash with caramelized onion, kalamata olives, and golden raisins."

Jenn Felmley: "I like to play off of traditional meat dishes. One of the ways I differentiate side dishes from main dishes is to make side dishes entirely vegetable and the main containing some kind of starch or meat substitute. Some menu ideas would be Roasted Vegetable Terrine filled with Garlicky Goat Cheese, French Onion Soup with Cheesy Croutons, Pumpkin and Black-Eyed Pea Salad, Vegetarian Shepards Pie (using quinoa, seitan, or smoked tofu) Topped with Parsnip Mash, and Almond Pear Galette with Caramel Sauce."

Felmley also like to made stuffed roasted poblano peppers as a main dish--treated like enchiladas or stuffed with lentils, dried fruit, nuts, and squash.

Ron Oliver: "I want to try to reproduce the ceremonial--the carving of the ham or turkey or the presentation--when I substitute traditional dishes."

Here's a beloved Jewish holiday dish traditionally laden with fat and carbs--noodle kugle--that Oliver switched up to create a much healthier version using spaghetti squash and fromage blanc, a fresh cheese made with milk instead of cream, and cottage cheese.

Spaghetti Squash Kugel
by Ron Oliver

1 large spaghetti squash
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 ½ cups finely diced white onions
1 cup finely diced sun-dried apples
¼ cup sherry wine
4 large cage-free eggs, beaten
2 cups grated gruyere cheese
1 cup fromage blanc cheese (can substitute 1/2 sour cream and 1/2 nonfat yogurt)
½ cup cottage cheese
2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves, lightly chopped
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Remove stem from spaghetti squash. Split in half lengthwise. Using a metal spoon, remove seeds.  Place one half cut side down on large plate. Add some water to the plate. Microwave on high for six minutes. Remove. Repeat with other half. Allow to cool, then extract the strands of flesh by scraping with tines of a dinner fork. Add to large mixing bowl. Set aside. 

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.   

Add oil to ovenproof skillet over medium high heat. Add diced onions. Cook until golden brown, stirring often. Add apples and sherry wine. Continue cooking until wine is evaporated. Add to spaghetti squash.  

Combine remaining ingredients thoroughly with spaghetti squash. Transfer back to skillet or add to a casserole dish. Place in oven. Bake for 45 minutes or until set.   

Serve immediately or chill overnight and cut into slices. Reheat slices gently in oven or microwave.  Serve with a drizzle of olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.  

Serves 8

Photo by Ron Oliver

Happy--and Healthy--Holidays!

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