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Keeping it healthy in season of gingerbread

Hold cream, butter, pass unique spices, fruits, vegetables when possible
/ Source: The Associated Press

In our increasingly low-carb, fat-free and sugarless world, creating a holiday party menu isn’t simple. Prime rib, asparagus with Hollandaise sauce, buttery mashed potatoes and chocolate layer cake? Many Americans are wary of sacrificing wellness or waistlines for calorie-packed holiday meals.

So in a season of gingerbread and candy canes, how can you craft a menu that will let you and your guests celebrate in style without ruining a year’s worth of health-conscious eating?

It begins with balance: Keep some dishes decadent while easing up on others.

“If someone else is bringing a traditional dish, let them,” says nutritionist Audrey Cross of Columbia University in New York. “But if Aunt Mary is bringing her mashed potatoes with cream and butter, you can make sweet potatoes without butter.” She suggests roasting them with nutmeg and tarragon and jettisoning the marshmallows.

Fine-tuning can make a dish noticeably healthier. Linda Abbey, vice president of the New York catering firm Great Performances, advises curtailing salt and adding spice. “Use a scented broth to give flavor, like a lemongrass or saffron broth,” she says.

“We have been cooking a lot more with spice as opposed to sodium,” she says. “If you read recipes today, even for consumers, there’s a lot of emphasis on ... Middle Eastern spices, that kind of thing.”

She also recommends swapping out sour cream for yogurt, especially in sauces for meat or fish.

Cross takes a similar approach to green-bean casserole, which is often made with sodium-heavy canned mushrooms and fried onions. “Toss sauteed onions with green beans and almonds, so you’re getting the onion flavor without the salt or the fat that you would if you used the Durkee canned onion,” she says.

Bring on the fruits and vegetablesInclude a variety of fruits and vegetables, too. Pureed cauliflower is a creamy alternative to mashed potatoes, offering vitamins and antioxidants. Miami caterer Barton G. also recommends serving vegetable soups.

“Spinach soup is fabulous with a dollop of fat-free cream,” he says. For added color, he lines soup bowls with slices of beet, then pours the green soup on top.

“I’m all about color this year,” he says. “Using color — that’s what the holidays are about. ... If they’re not getting the calories, you’ve got to give them the visuals and the taste.”

He also recommends skipping red meat in favor of fish, such as snapper, and wrapping it in parchment “like a little Christmas package.” Another suggestion: sauces like mango chutney. “They’re clean, pureed, no oils, organic. But as far as the presentation, it’s still over the top.”

Eggplant, squash and even poached pears can bring vivid hues to the table. Cross, who owns a vineyard, suggests cutting pears in half, coring them, then sautéing them slowly in port or sherry. “Turn them over and you’ll see it’s a beautiful red,” she says. For an added treat, place a bit of ice cream in the center of each pear half: “Think of the ice cream as a dressing for a food item, rather than alone.”

Additional display tips that may help liven things up:

  • Dice red and green peppers to sprinkle over dishes like confetti. This also works with chives.
  • Line platters of food with fresh purple kale.
  • Decorate the table or dining room with a variety of gourds or pinecones and sprigs of juniper, adding to the feeling of abundance.
  • As both a centerpiece and a dessert option, stack fresh fruit high on a footed cake plate or pedestal.

For another beautiful but healthy dessert, fill champagne flutes with a variety of sorbets in various shades. “Fruit does have a high sugar content, but it’s not processed sugar,” says Abbey. She also recommends baked apples with walnuts and cinnamon for “a pretty yummy dessert.”

If you can’t imagine a holiday meal without cake, substitute white flour with wheat and replace sugar with apple sauce. And the protein in cheeses and nuts appeals to Atkins fans, though those foods are high in fat.

Worth keeping in mind: The season of gluttony is finite, and more normal eating patterns will soon prevail.

That’s how Cross and Barton G. see it.

“Get off the diet and eat,” says Barton. “It’s just one day, so go for it!”