YOU Magazine - November 2006 - Cooking at Home for the Holidays By Kirk Leins
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Cooking at Home for the Holidays
By Kirk Leins

Cooking at Home for the Holidays - By Kirk Leins

You've been good all year. You've stuck to that ever-popular high-protein/low-carb lifestyle, and it's worked! You, along with many others, have lost weight and, even better, you feel great. I'll bet at some point you've even sworn (on the memory of the late Dr. Atkins) to never go back to your old life of meat and potatoes… and more potatoes. But guess what? The holidays are here and carbs are everywhere. Now what are you going to do?

If you noticed a tinge of sarcasm in my opening words, it's because I've never been a huge fan of any diet. Personally, I believe that balanced eating along with portion control and exercise is the way to go. Nonetheless, I'm here to say that we can all get along. Besides, my job is not to judge your lifestyle, especially if it works for you. Rather, it's about showing you that home cooking is the key ingredient (pun intended) to any diet or lifestyle.

Cooking at home allows you to control the process. In a day and age when nothing seems to be under our control, it's somewhat of a refreshing thought. Whether you're going low-carb or low-fat, Atkins or South Beach, Weight Watchers or The Zone – cooking at home is the insurance policy you need to stick to your plan. So let's explore some diet-friendly recipes you can make which will have your guests asking for seconds.

For starters, let's talk turkey. Whether you're trying to boost your protein or lower your fat and cholesterol, turkey is the way to go. Not only is it a Thanksgiving mainstay, but turkey makes for a wonderful Christmas or Hanukkah dinner. It also happens to be extremely diet friendly. According to, 3 ounces of skinless white meat turkey has only 1 gram of fat, 0 grams of carbohydrates, and a whopping 26 grams of protein. Not too shabby, no matter what diet you're on. Did you know that keeping the skin on or eating dark meat pieces will raise the fat content, but that's it? The protein and carbs stay the same.

Most of you who are reading this probably have some experience with roasting a turkey. And most have probably done something like the following: smear a room temperature bird with butter, season it with salt and pepper, plop it in a roasting pan and bake in the oven at 325 degrees for 10 minutes per pound. It's pretty much the basic way to cook a bird. But how do you feel about doing something a little different this year? What if I told you that by adding one extra step to the aforementioned recipe, you could end up with a most excellent holiday turkey? Now that I've gotten your attention, I'm talking about brining.

For anyone who's unfamiliar with the process, brining is nothing more than marinating meat in a solution of water, salt, sugar, and various spices. It usually takes a couple of days to brine a bird, but the end product is a flavorful, succulent turkey. Here's what you need to do:

Turkey & Gravy

Start by bringing 4 cups of water to a boil. Add 1 cup of kosher salt, 1 cup of sugar, 1/4 cup of either yellow or black mustard seeds, 2 tbsp of roughly cracked black peppercorns, 20 juniper berries, 3 tbsp dried chopped onion, and 1 tbsp caraway seed. Once the sugar and salt have dissolved, remove pot from heat. Line a stock pot or bucket with a large, sturdy plastic bag. Remove the giblets from the turkey, rinse well, and then place it inside the bag, neck-end down. Add the brining liquid, half a bottle of dry white wine, and cover with cold water. Tie off the bag, and, if possible, cover the container with a lid. Refrigerate for up to two days.

On the morning of preparation, remove the bird from the bag, pat dry, and place the breast up on a rack inside a large roasting pan. Allow the bird to come to room temperature. Trust me when I say this will take a while, so be sure to do it first thing. When it's ready to roast, preheat the oven to 325 degrees for twenty minutes. Brush the bird with melted butter, and season liberally with salt and pepper. Add one onion (quartered), several whole cloves of garlic, and a cup of water to the roasting pan. Place the pan on the lowest rack in the oven, and roast the turkey for 10 minutes per pound. To prevent the skin from burning, loosely cover the turkey breast with aluminum foil for the last hour of cooking. Also at that time, add an additional cup of water to the roasting pan.

To check if your bird is done, remove the pan from the oven and pull on the drumstick. It should pull away from the bird with ease and exude nothing but clear juice. The inner thigh should register between 165 and 170 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. Allow the bird to rest for twenty minutes before carving.

While allowing your bird to rest, use your time wisely and make a little gravy. Most gravy starts with a roux made of flour and butter, but that's only going to add carbs and fat to your dinner. To make a healthier version, start by straining the juices from your roaster (provided there are any) into a bowl. Tilt the bowl on its side, and, using a large spoon, remove as much fat as possible. In a sauce pot, combine any de-fatted juice, 1 to 2 cups of canned chicken stock (fat free) and a half cup of dry white wine. Bring the mixture to a boil over a medium-high flame and allow it to reduce for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, in a separate bowl, combine 1 part corn starch with 2 parts water. Once the pan juices have slightly reduced, slowly whisk in the corn starch mixture until the gravy has properly thickened. Season the gravy with salt and pepper, turn off the heat, and cover until ready to use.

You may have noticed that I opted not to stuff the bird. My reason is two-fold. For starters, turkey stuffing is already full of carbs; and if you cook it inside your bird, it will also be full of fat. My suggestion is to make your regular stuffing recipe but bake it in a casserole dish alongside your turkey. Make sure to substitute any whole eggs with double egg whites, and add extra chicken stock. The result will be a moist dressing with a crispy top. Low carbers can avoid it more easily, and everyone else can enjoy a low-fat stuffing.

Mashed potatoes are also going to be an issue. Once again, low-carbers will avoid these like the plague, but a healthy alternative for everyone else can be made. Here's what you do:

Mashed Potatoes

Peel a desired amount of either Russet or Yukon Gold potatoes and cut into equal-sized pieces. Place the potatoes in a large pot, and cover with water by at least two inches. Place over a medium-high flame, allowing the water to come to a boil. Once it boils, reduce to a slow simmer and cook until potatoes are fork tender.

Drain the cooked potatoes in a colander, return them to the pot, and place over a low flame. Mash the spuds using a potato masher. Slowly add hot chicken stock to the potatoes (while mixing with a wooden spoon), until the desired consistency of the mash is achieved. Season with salt, pepper, and freshly grated nutmeg, and turn off the heat. Add 2 tbsp of unsalted butter to the potatoes, and mix until fully incorporated. Serve immediately.

So now that we've gotten our healthy versions of meat and potatoes out of the way, we need a few more side dishes that everyone can enjoy. In the spirit of the holidays, there's no better way to accommodate every lifestyle than with vegetables… and lots of ‘em! Everyone from vegetarians to Zone dieters will love you for it.

Traditional veggie side dishes for a holiday meal would either be a string bean casserole or candied yams with marshmallows. In both cases, you will be alienating somebody. The beans are loaded with fat, and as for the yams, carb city. I'm not a huge fan of either of these dishes to begin with, but the low-fat/low-carb versions are really pretty hideous. Instead, I'd keep it simple. For a green veggie I'd go with something like a green bean almondine. Here's a simple way to make a healthy version of this classic dish.

Green Bean Almondine

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees. Spread a half cup of sliced almonds onto a cookie sheet and roast until golden brown – about 5 minutes. Remove from oven and transfer almonds to a plate and reserve.

Instead of using domestic "Blue Lake" green beans, try to find the French version known as "haricot vert". They are more expensive, but they're definitely a better green bean. Start by bringing a large pot of salted water to a boil. Trim the woody stem off the one end of the beans, and blanch in boiling water for 2 1/2 minutes. Pull the blanched beans out of the water, and immediately plunge them into a bowl of ice water.

Prior to serving, heat 1 tbsp of olive oil in a large skillet until shimmering. Add blanched beans, and season liberally with salt and pepper. Sautee long enough for the beans to heat through. Add one tablespoon of butter to the pan, and stir to incorporate. Transfer the beans to a serving bowl and garnish with the toasted almonds.

So now that you've got your veggie, how about a salad? I know it's not something typically found at a holiday dinner table, but why not? Turkey with dressing, mashed potatoes and gravy, green bean almondine, and a salad. Sounds great to me!

If you've got a great green salad, serve that. If you don't want to add a lot of work to your day, toss baby greens in a little olive oil and your favorite vinegar. Whatever the case may be, salads are very easy to conform to both low-carb and low-fat diets. Salads are also short on calories, so they're a great way to add food to the table without adding inches to your waistline.

Now that we've gotten our holiday dinner out of the way, let's talk about a few things that make up the periphery of a holiday gathering.

I love egg nog, but darn if it isn't loaded with fat, carbs, and calories. My suggestion is to use only the low-fat egg nog mix, and limit yourself to just one cup. Quality vodka mixed with diet tonic and a squirt of lime served on the rocks isn't a worthy replacement, but it's a lovely pre-dinner cocktail, nonetheless. The best part is it's got zero carbs.

Dessert is one of the best parts about holiday food and an obvious killer for any diet. I have two schools of thought on how to handle this subject. One way is to eat the real deal but to do so with temperance and self-control. The other is to completely keep that stuff out of your house. Only you know which one is right for you.

If you decide to go with option number two, my suggestion is to keep a selection of low fat/low-carb sweets on hand, as well as a selection of fresh fruit. My guess is that at some point you and your guests will want something sweet - so be prepared!

Good luck and happy holidays!

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