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Feasting sensibly — favorite holiday side dishes get healthy makeover

Chef Alia Dalal prepares a green bean casserole at The Chopping Block. | Max Herman/For the Sun-Times

The holidays are a blur of buffets and booze. Just when you’ve recovered from the carb high of Thanksgiving, there’s the office party, Hanukkah, your roommate’s friend’s Festivus potluck, Christmas and New Year’s Eve to look forward to.

It’s hard to avoid the festivities — or the culinary indulgences that come with them. “For better or worse, American cooking is really reliant on fat, salt and sugar,” says chef Alia Dalal, an instructor at the Chopping Block cooking school in Chicago.

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Healthy holiday side dish recipes for stuffing, green bean casserole

So is healthier holiday cooking an oxymoron? Will a lighter approach in the kitchen make you or your guests miss the sugar and spice and everything nice? Not if Dalal’s sold-out “Healthy at the Holidays” cooking classes are any indication.

“Food should nourish and support you. What I try to do in my classes is show people how to do both. It’s understanding how to build flavors,” she says. (Hint: lemon juice and fresh herbs go a long way.)

We asked Dalal and chef Joe Lessard of Kitchfix, a healthy meal delivery service based in West Town, for ways to give traditional dishes a nutritious makeover without sacrificing flavor.

Consider cauliflower
It’s easy to mess up mashed potatoes by over-mashing (though let’s be honest, they won’t taste bad with loads of butter). But you can’t really ruin mashed cauliflower.

At KitchFix, cauliflower mash “is one of our bestsellers week in and week out,” says Chef Joe Lessard. At home, you could do a 50-50 mix of potato and cauliflower, but if you go all in with cauliflower, you’ll amp up the vitamin and fiber content. | Michelle Kanaar/For the Sun-Times

At KitchFix, cauliflower mash “is one of our bestsellers week in and week out,” says Lessard. At home, you could do a 50-50 mix of potato and cauliflower, but if you go all in with cauliflower, you’ll amp up the vitamin and fiber content.

Cook cauliflower until tender in water or, for more flavor, chicken stock or milk, then drain, setting aside some liquid. “The trick is draining the liquid from the cooking process to get a thicker, fluffier product,” says Lessard.

Meanwhile — and this is optional but game-changing, says Lessard — heat whole, peeled garlic cloves in a small pan of oil until golden brown. Mash or puree the cauliflower with the garlic-infused oil and cloves, salt and pepper, add a splash of the reserved liquid if needed and see if the crowd notices what’s missing.

Turn cashews into gravy…
You need gravy for mashed “potatoes,” but you don’t need the usual roux of flour and butter, says Lessard.

Enter the cashew. Toast plain cashews in a pan with garlic, onions, and thyme, then add chicken stock (homemade if you’ve got it) and simmer until the vegetables and nuts soften. Puree in a blender, adding more stock to adjust the texture. “Cashews are where all the thickness comes from,” says Lessard.

… Or into cream
Soup, so fitting for a holiday fete, is often cream-based. Cashews to the rescue again!

“Cashew cream is my go-to,” Lessard says. Soak raw, unsalted cashews in water overnight. Drain and blend the nuts on your blender’s highest setting with more water — Lessard suggests 2 parts water to 1 part cashews to start — for about 30 seconds until smooth.

Cashew cream is neutral in flavor and “acts just like cream,” says Lessard. “If you heat it, it’ll thicken.” Use it not only to fortify soups but as a sauce base—mac ‘n’ cheese with cashew sauce is possible and delicious — or to add creaminess to desserts.

For a healthier green bean casserole, start with fresh, not frozen, green beans, use cashew cream to bind the casserole, or forgo the cream element altogether. | The Chopping Block, via Max Herman/For the Sun-Times

21st-century green beans
The old-school sodium-bomb of a casserole came about in the 1950s golden era of convenience foods, hence the “can of this, can of that,” says Dalal. It’s 2017. Time to be kinder to your cholesterol.

Start with fresh, not frozen, green beans; skinny haricots verts are ideal, says Dalal. You could use cashew cream to bind the casserole, or forgo the cream element altogether as Dalal does and toss the beans with vinaigrette to keep them snappy.

Instead of canned fried onions, try quick-pickled shallots “which sounds complicated, but you just heat vinegar, add shallots, then take them off the stove to cool down. That’s it,” she says.

Save the stuffing
Is stuffing without bread stuffing? Save that for your next dinner-table debate. KitchFix’s paleo stuffing is bread-free and loaded with vegetables, nuts, turkey sausage, apples and herbs. The crucial binding agent? Almond flour, sometimes called almond meal, which most supermarkets sell.

If bread is non-negotiable in your stuffing, Lessard suggests a whole- or sprouted grain bread in place of white.

Sweet endings
Another in the canon of over-the-top dishes, the sweet potato casserole can still satisfy without all the sugar. The trick, says Dalal, is in the technique: roast, don’t boil, the potatoes to intensify the sweetness. “When you [boil], you’re adding water, so that dilutes the sweetness, flavor and nutrition,” she says.

Pumpkin pie spices and toasted nuts drizzled with maple syrup — a good alternative sweetener in general, along with honey and coconut sugar — round out the dish.

Janet Rausa Fuller is a local freelance writer.

Joe Lessard, the chef at KitchFix, prepares stuffing at KitchFix on Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017. | Michelle Kanaar/For the Sun-Times