Handling Holidays: Side Dishes

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“But it’s mostly Korean food.”

The first time anyone came to my house for Thanksgiving, it never failed that someone would make the above exclamation. Being a half Korean-half white family, our Thanksgiving dinner would consist of the traditional turkey but surrounded by mostly Korean side dishes with a couple of American ones thrown in for good measure. In many ways, the turkey was simply there as a centerpiece to accent the foods we actually wanted to eat: chop chay (Korean noodle and vegetable dish), kimbop (essentially Korean sushi), kimchee (fermented vegetables of all types), mandu (sort of a Korean dumpling), chemi (a Korean melon), gogoma (Korean sweet potatoes), chigay (a hot Korean soup), mashed potatoes, and green bean casserole.

As I’ve had the opportunity to attend other families’ Thanksgiving dinners, I’ve learned that it’s not just my half and half family, though, that thinks Thanksgiving is really about the side dishes and not the hailed turkey. The question being asked all around the U.S. this week is, “What are we going to serve with the turkey?” Families will have long Facebook, email, and phone conversations about who will bring what and in what quantity.

As wonderfully-tasting as the many side dishes are to our palates, they are also usually loaded with fat and calories and wheat and dairy which a lot of folks can’t have for one reason or another.  This doesn’t mean, though, that side dishes needed to be relegated to, well, the side, for us.  There are many ways to revamp traditional dishes.

For Healthier and/or Allergy Friendly Side Dishes:

1.  Roast the vegetables: Roasting intensifies the natural flavors of the vegetables so you don’t need to accent them with heavy cream or butter or cheese. Simply use just enough heart healthy oil to coat the vegetables for cooking. Then drizzle the vegetables with some freshly chopped herbs or a little balsamic vinegar or a light glaze. The other advantage of roasting is that you can roast the vegetables the day before and then just reheat them on Thanksgiving by popping them into the oven at the end of the turkey’s cooking time.

For glazes, work with flavors you like. Start with a liquid, add spices, and heat until it’s thickened down to a glaze. Maybe mix a little soy sauce with ground ginger, garlic, agave, and rice wine vinegar. Or take 100% unsweetened orange juice and add cumin and black pepper. Kids tend to like maple syrup mixed with a little balsamic vinegar and black pepper. Experiment and see what you can create.

Roasting tips: Make sure all your vegetables are the same size and shape, so they’ll cook evenly. Only put the vegetables into a pan just large enough to hold them. Cook similar textures of vegetable together. For example, don’t cook broccoli which roasts very quickly with carrots which take longer. Cook at a very high temperature for a shorter period of time for the best flavor.  I usually cook at 475 to 500 degrees and check them every ten minutes, turning them over as needed to cook all sides well.

2. Revamp your potatoes: Use reduced sodium, fat free chicken or vegetable broth for your mashed potatoes instead of milk.  Or make your potatoes with half potatoes and half cauliflower. If you cook the cauliflower with the potatoes until they’re very soft, they’ll mash up with the potatoes, providing moisture which means you don’t need to add any milk or butter at all. You can also cut back on the fat by reducing the butter and increasing the spices. Cooking the potatoes with garlic, onions, chives, or thyme adds a nice flavor that my kids particularly like. Or you can roast garlic, smash it and add it to the mashed potatoes for a more intense flavor. If you’re making twice baked potatoes, use a fat free regular or Toffuti sour cream or cream cheese and try Cabot’s 50% reduced fat shredded cheese.

3. Try a different style of stuffing: Instead of letting the bread dominate your stuffing, imagine it as the “glue” that holds better things together. Saute a variety of finely chopped vegetables and add it to the stuffing for added flavor as well as healthier eating. Use your food processor to finely chop dried fruit, coconut flakes or roasted chestnuts to add to the stuffing. Crumble cooked turkey or tofu sausage into the stuffing for protein. Swap out the bread for brown or wild rice. Use a heart healthy oil instead of butter. Use chicken or vegetable broth instead of butter.

4. Remake that green bean casserole: Instead of using canned soup, make your own sauce. Saute garlic, onions, mushrooms, and some finely chopped vegetables like carrots, peppers, zucchini and/or yellow squash in a little bit of olive oil, about two to three teaspoons. Add 2 to 4 tbsp of a flour of your choice, depending on how thick you want your sauce, (I like garbanzo bean flour) and stir. Add flavoring of your choice: thyme, oregano, basil, tarragon, chives, marjoram, etc…. Slowly add 2 cups of milk of your choice. Stir constantly and heat until it thickens.  Pour the sauce over partially cooked green beans and put into a casserole dish. Caramelize some onions by slowly cooking onions in a little bit of olive oil for 15 to 20 minutes until they thicken and become brown and sweet. Mix the caramelized onions with about 1/4 to 1/3 cup home made bread crumbs and top the green beans. (I make bread crumbs in my food processor with Udi’s gluten free millet chai bread.) Bake in the a 350 degree oven for until warm and bubbly, about 20 minutes.

5. Rethink that sweet potato/yam casserole: Instead of using heavy cream as the liquid, think about using chicken or vegetable broth or a nondairy fat free “milk”. You can even leave the liquid out entirely if you’ve cooked your sweet potatoes or yams soft enough. Instead of using butter for flavor,  ponder spices like cinnamon and nutmeg and a dollop of maple syrup. Or roast the sweet potatoes before mashing them, which will intensify their flavor. Instead of using a lot of large marshmallows and nuts, consider using a smaller amount of mini marshmallow and finely chopping a smaller quantity of nuts.

6. Get the sugar out of your cranberry sauce: Because cranberries are so tart, most recipes call for an awful lot of sugar. But making cranberry sauce without sugar is relatively easy. You can substitute agave or stevia or coconut sugar which would mean you could use half the amount of granulate white sugar. You can also use 100% fruit juices like pineapple or orange. You can also use unsweetened applesauce.

7. Consider soups: I personally like a nice soup at Thanksgiving. Butternut squash is my favorite. Recently I tried making it in a way a friend suggested, and I was very happy with the results. Roast chunks of peeled, fresh butternut squash with a couple of sliced apples until they’re soft. Take a hand blender and puree the squash and the apples. Add enough chicken or vegetable broth to make it the consistency you like. Add the herbs you like. I used thyme, onion powder and black pepper, but ginger and nutmeg would probably be great, too. Heat until the soup is warm. Simple, fat free, and delicious. And you could do this with anything. Roast some potatoes for a potato soup. Try carrots and parsnips. Let your imagination go wild.

8. Think outside the box: Create your own food tradition with side dishes that fit your dietary needs and which you like. As you’ve seen with my family, just about anything goes with turkey.

Korean Chop Chay


Bean Thread Noodles

Assorted Thinly Sliced Vegetables (carrots, peppers, zucchini, yellow squash, onions, etc…)

Sesame Oil

Soy Sauce

Baby Spinach

Minced Garlic Ground Ginger

Black pepper

Toasted Sesame Seeds

Cooking Instructions:

1. Cook the bean thread noodles according to instruction. Rinse with cold water and let it drain in a colander. Use scissors to cut the noodles into shorter threads and put them into a large bowl. Mix the noodles with soy sauce to taste.

2. Saute the thinly sliced vegetables over medium heat in a little bit of sesame oil until the vegetables are softer and becoming a brighter color. Remove from the heat and mix in soy sauce to taste. Drain the vegetables of all liquid. Add to the bowl with the noodles.

3. Saute the spinach in sesame oil just until it begins to slightly wilt, just a couple of minutes. Add to the bowl with the noodles and other vegetables.

4. Mix the noodles, vegetables and spinach with ground ginger, minced garlic, black pepper and sesame seeds to taste.

5. If you’re not eating the chop chay immediately, refrigerate it until you need it. Then reheat on the stovetop in a pan until the noodles are nice and brown and everything is warm.


“Herb”ivore: Using Herbs for Flavor

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“You can’t kill this.  It’s a succulent.”

True Confessions:  I am a plant killer.  Since I have no malicious intent and do not deliberately intend to kill my plants, I am, however, only guilty of involuntary plant-slaughter at most and not actual murder or even voluntary plant-slaughter.

And since I know this about myself, I don’t ever buy plants to have in my house; and friends and family who know me well don’t buy plants for me as gifts.  One day, however, a friend arrived for brunch with a plant in hand called a succulent.  (If you’re not familiar with a succulent, as I was not, it’s what a cactus is, though there are other varieties of succulents which are not cacti.)

My friend, who is absolutely marvelous with plants, assured me that she had brought me a plant that even I could not kill.  As you can imagine, with my track record, I was skeptical.  But my friend was right.  It’s a year and a half later, and the little succulent is still going strong.

It’s probably because you can basically ignore it, and it will still thrive on its own. As long as I remember to water it at least once a month, it’s good to go. Essentially it’s my type of plant, and if my friend had not given me the succulent I would never had learned that I could be free of my identity as a plant killer.

Why use herbs

For some people, they feel similarly about herbs and spices.  They don’t know exactly what to do with them and haven’t used them a lot, so they don’t.  They stick with salt and pepper and bottles of Mrs. Dash which just combine many herbs and spices together for use with anything.

Herbs and spices, however, are wonderful to use in cooking, because they can bring nuanced flavors to your food and allow you to cut back on your sodium use. Today, the variety you can find at the grocery store is remarkable.  You can buy it dried, freeze-dried, frozen, packaged in refrigerator tubes, ground, pureed, as leaves, and of course, fresh.

Fortunately for me, my husband has a green thumb, and he grows wonderful herbs for me in small planters we keep on the back porch which I can just snip as I want. When I don’t have fresh herbs available, though, I freely use the dried, freeze-dried, and refrigerator tube versions as well.  And I always have a variety of ground spices in my pantry for my use.

Tips for using herbs and spices

There are a few things to always keep in mind when using herbs and spices.

1.  Fresh herbs are usually added near the end of your cooking time, because they lose their flavor if cooked for too long, while dried herbs and spices are added at the beginning because they need the heat to bring out their flavor.

2.  Dried herbs have a more concentrated flavor so you use less than you would  of fresh herbs.  1/2 to 1 tsp of a dried herb is usually equal to a tablespoon or two of a fresh herb.

3.  Since the oils in a dried herbs are essentially “trapped” inside, before you add dried herbs to your dish, you should “crush” them a bit between your fingers to release their flavor.

4. Spices such as cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger are usually associated with baking and fruit dishes, but they add wonderful flavor to meat and seafood dishes and even to soups, beans, and macaroni and cheese.

5. Most herbs go well with just about anything from meat to vegetables to even fruit.  Experiment to see what flavors you like with what.

6. When you really want to bring out the flavors in a recipe, creating a base aromatic is the best way to go.  Simply put a little bit of oil in your pot and add dried herbs or spices, along with chopped onions or peppers or garlic, and slowly cook them over low heat for a little while before adding your meat or vegetables or fish or soup or whatever.

7. If you’re making something like a soup or stew or roast which needs a long time to cook, dried herbs are really better to use than fresh.  If you want to use fresh herbs, you can add those at the end as a garnish.

8. If you buy fresh herbs in a package from the store and don’t use it all up immediately, wrap the leftover herbs in a slightly damp towel and put it in sandwich baggie to keep it fresh a little longer in the fridge.

9. If you buy dried herbs and spices, they will lose their potency after a while, but the length of time varies.  Essentially, the rule of thumb is that if you can’t smell anything when you gently rub the spice or herb and/or they’ve completely lost all their color, most likely they should be tossed.

10. When using dried herbs, you should shake the herbs into your hands and then add them carefully to your dish.  If you shake the container over the dish itself, the steam from the cooking gets into your container and can spoil your dried herbs more quickly.

11. Dried herbs should be kept in a dark, dry, cool place.  Those little spice racks we buy are actually not very good for storing the herbs and spices, because usually those are put on the wall, near the stove where the light, heat and moisture all work together to spoil the herbs and spices.

12. If you want to buy dried spices or herbs but get that “fresh” flavor, buy whole dried spices which you can grind in a spice grinder just before using.

Herbed Shrimp and Vegetables


1 – 2 tbsp olive oil (depends on how much you prefer to use)

1 cup frozen chopped onions (can use fresh if you have)

1-2 tsp dried herbs of your choosing (depends on how you prefer to use)

1-2 tsp minced garlic (jarred, tube, freeze-dried, fresh, whatever in the amount you prefer)

4-6 zucchini, 5-6 inches long, cut into 1/2 inch half moons*

2 yellow peppers, diced into 1/2 inch squares

1 14.5 oz can no salt added petite diced tomatoes, drained

1 lb thawed frozen deveined cooked shrimp**

4 cups fresh herbs of your choosing, chopped (will reduce to about 2 cups when diced)***

1/2 tsp coarse sea salt (you can add more or just omit altogether)

1/2 tsp black pepper

Cooking Instructions:

1. In a large stovetop skillet combine the olive oil with the onions.  Saute over low heat, stirring occasionally, for ten to 15 minutes until the onions are caramelized, which essentially means they’ve turned darker in color and become a bit thicker in texture.

2.  Add the dried herbs and garlic and saute for another five minutes over low-medium heat, being careful to stir so the garlic doesn’t burn.

3. Add the zucchini and peppers and saute over medium heat for about 3-4 minutes until the colors become a bit darker and more vibrant.

4.  Add the tomatoes and saute another 3-4 minutes.

5. Add the cooked shrimp with the herbs, salt and pepper, and stir until well coated and shrimp becomes slightly warm, about 1-2 minutes.

6. Serve by itself or over pasta or rice or couscous or quinoa or whatever.

* I prefer to buy or grow and use smaller zucchini because the flavor is better and it’s not as seedy.  If you purchase a larger store zucchini, then you should adjust your amount accordingly and scrape out the seeds from the zucchini before slicing.

** I love frozen deveined cooked shrimp because it’s cheaper and always ready when I want to use it.  You can use fresh shrimp but you then need to add it after the vegetables with the tomatoes so they can cook during that 3-4 minutes.  If yo use the frozen shrimp and forget to take it out ahead of time like I always do, you can just put the shrimp in a bowl of cold water to defrost them.

*** I use a lot of herbs for this recipe because my family likes it that way, but you can use reduce the amount by half.  As for the types of herbs we use, we like to vary it every time, but we usually use some combination of oregano, basil, mint, ginger mint, cilantro, rosemary, thyme, dill, chives, and/or parsley.