Thanksgiving is without a doubt my favorite holiday of the year. It’s uncluttered by modern commercialism; simple in its reminder to be thankful; flexible when it comes to faith and religion; and unencumbered by obligatory gifts, costumes, ceremonies, services or Hallmark guilt. All you have to do is cook and/or show up and eat.
The planning is one of my favorite parts. I’m lucky enough to celebrate Thanksgiving most years with people who consider the meal a collaboration. No one person is responsible for the whole meal, so there isn’t a great deal of pressure on anyone. If one dish doesn’t work out, there is enough other food to pick up the slack (unless, of course, that one dish is the actual turkey-but if you get a good bird, it’s really hard to go wrong with the main course).
Now, one decadent meal once a year is not going to be a major problem for most people’s health, but it is worth considering the merits of the food you’ll be serving when planning your contributions to the meal. If it’s possible to do without the processed foods or gratuitous sodium, sugar or saturated fats, you could make not only Thanksgiving dinner more enjoyable, but also all those leftovers (who doesn’t prefer food without the guilt?).
The Internet is full of ideas for making Thanksgiving food healthier than the fare that’s traditionally served (Google “healthy Thanksgiving” and you’ll get almost 43 million results!), but I think the trick is to avoid making big changes to the usual menu. Instead, make adjustments to just one or two dishes. That way, if something doesn’t go over well, the rest of the meal is still familiar and delicious.
A deserving first target is the potatoes. There’s no doubt that they’re great mashed, au gratin or baked and loaded, but they have a high glycemic load. And since they don’t have a whole lot of flavor of their own, they’re usually dependent on fatty foods such as butter, cheese and sour cream to make them tasty. I think of them in the same category as foods like white bread and rice: They’re not necessarily all that bad, but they also might generally be avoided because there are so many better alternatives.
This makes potatoes a good candidate for substitution. White potatoes just don’t pack the nutrition or flavor of alternatives like sweet potatoes, turnips or celery root. And mashed potatoes are a classic on most Thanksgiving tables, since they go so well with the turkey gravy. But if they’re going to be smothered in gravy anyway, there’s no reason to go out of your way to add flavor in the form of saturated fats. Further, a lot of the nutrition in a potato is in the skin, and most recipes call for peeling the potatoes and tossing the skin when making mashed potatoes.
I experimented this week with a version of mashed potatoes that uses cauliflower instead of potatoes. Gram for gram, cauliflower is quite a bit lower in calories and carbs than potatoes, but slightly higher in protein and equally low in fat. I consulted a simple recipe and ended up using nothing more than cauliflower, just a bit of fat (a dollop of butter and a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese) with some salt and pepper, and I was impressed with the results. The cauliflower version had more flavor than I’m used to in mashed potatoes; however, my batch wasn’t quite as thick and creamy as the best mashed potatoes I’ve had in the past (but it was certainly as good or better than any that had been made from flakes!).
For a number of years, my family’s Thanksgiving included mashed potatoes made with Camembert cheese, and so I’m wondering if the mashed cauliflower would have turned out creamier if I had used Camembert instead of the butter and Parmesan combo. It’s certainly an idea that’s worth exploring!
In the meantime, do you have any plans to make a traditional Thanksgiving dish healthier?
Alice O’Dea has lived in Chattanooga for over 20 years, but was raised among the mucks and dairy farms in rural western New York. She didn’t really learn to cook until midlife. When she’s not puttering around in the kitchen, she enjoys running, cycling, traveling, photography and trying to get food to grow in the backyard of her Highland Park home. You can email her with questions, suggestions or comments at [email protected]. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.