Let me be explicit about the conflict that informs my “Conflicted Kitchen” column here: I love food – making it and thinking about it and reading about it and eating it – but I hate gaining weight.
They say the average person gains 3 to 7 seven pounds between Thanksgiving and New Years. One holiday season, I managed to put on 17 pounds in 21 days. This feat is easier than you might think. That year, there were cookie binges so intense that I ate every available Christmas cookie my mother had baked for the family and went on to pillage the neatly ribboned gift bags of treats she made for other people.
I remember sugar-spurred sleepless nights when I thought I was sweating butter. I remember eating popcorn at the movies and ordering fettuccine alfredo as though there were no rules that governed sensible eating and I had never read a women’s magazine article about the foods you should always avoid. It was the kind of eat-what-you-want abandon that you would expect of an underweight pregnant woman, which I definitely was not.
And, of course, there were the holiday cocktails. Every day in December brings an opportunity to toast with family and friends. No self-respecting holiday cocktail hour proceeds without an equally festive snack spread: Spiced nuts, mini quiche, mayonnaise and sour cream based dips, fancy cheese by the whole wedge, pigs in blankets, buttery mushrooms wrapped in puff pastry. Sometimes it seems like the goal is to pack as many grams of fat and calories into a square inch of food as possible.
I wish I could say I learned my lesson that year. After all, I still remember the punishing months I spent shoehorning myself into my existing wardrobe while swimming thousands of pre-dawn laps in the frigid mornings of January, February, and March. I remember cursing all those cookies while surviving on a bad diet of frozen veggie burgers, frozen lima beans, and V-8.
Yet every year, I still struggle. I still eat too many cookies. I continue to go to every party I’m invited to and drink too many glasses of wine.
The one thing that helps me prevent another double-digit weight gain is that I can cook now. When I’m at home, I eat big salads and vegetable filled soups. And when I host or have the chance to bring something I cooked, I often choose things that are lighter and healthier. These recipes are good party food for any time of the year, but they work especially well around the holidays because they are festive, delicious, and dramatically better for you than the usual appetizer suspects. You don’t even need to tell anyone they’re healthy.
These are some of the cutest snacks you will ever serve. Their dainty size means you can eat more of them without going overboard. Because turkey breast is very, very lean you need to keep a close eye on these and serve them as soon as they are cooked through for maximum tenderness. Any re-heating at all tends to overcook and dry them out. For a more forgiving but slightly less healthy version, use ground dark meat turkey.
1 pound ground turkey breast
4 ounces feta cheese
¼ cup bread crumbs
1 egg, beaten
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
⅛ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper, nonstick foil, or a silicone baking mat.
In a large mixing bowl, combine all the ingredients and mix gently with your hands until just combined. Gently roll the mixture into balls about 1 tablespoon in size.
Arrange on the baking sheet, leaving room between each meatball, and bake until just cooked through, 12 to 15 minutes, and serve at once with tzatziki sauce.
Makes 35 meatballs.
Greek yogurt is a healthy sauce’s best friend. Thick, creamy, and tangy, it makes the perfect partner to these mini meatballs.
½ cup shredded cucumber (from about ½ a medium peeled cucumber)
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup low-fat Greek yogurt
1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint leaves
1 garlic clove, minced
Toss the cucumber with the salt and set in a mesh strainer over a bowl. Set aside for 15 minutes, and then press the cucumber solids against the strainer to remove any excess liquid.
In a small mixing bowl, combine the strained cucumbers, yogurt, mint leaves, and garlic and stir until smooth. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
Makes ¾ cup sauce.
The secret ingredient here is the liquid smoke–don’t leave it out. It gives the whole dip a savory depth of flavor that suggests grilled meat or even bacon. Roasted eggplant takes on a very creamy character. It blends seamlessly into the yogurt for an unusual, vaguely exotic dip.
2 small eggplants (about 11 ounces each), poked with a fork in a few places
2 garlic cloves
1 cup low-fat Greek yogurt
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon liquid smoke
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon minced fresh mint leaves
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Roast the eggplants on a foil-lined baking sheet, rotating once or twice, until collapsed and completely soft, about 30 to 40 minutes. Set aside until cool enough to handle. When cool, peel and chop coarsely.
In the work bowl of a food processor, add the garlic and pulse until minced. Add the roasted eggplant, yogurt, salt, and liquid smoke. Process until very creamy and smooth, about 20 seconds. Add the extra-virgin olive oil and pulse a few times until just incorporated. Remove the dip to a bowl and stir in the mint leaves. Serve with the za’atar spiced pita chips.
Makes 2 ½ cups
Za’atar Spiced Baked Pita Chips
You can find za’atar at spice shops and specialty markets. Sometimes you can find ready made za’atar spiced flat breads at these kind of shops which are reliably fabulous yet oil-slicked and less healthy than a homemade version.
8 whole wheat pitas, split and cut into quarters
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons za’atar
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Set two wire racks into two rimmed baking sheets and arrange the pita triangles evenly over both sheets in a single layer. Brush with the olive oil and then sprinkle the za’atar over the top. Bake until the chips are browned and crispy, about 10 to 12 minutes, rotating the trays halfway through. Cool and serve with the eggplant dip.
Vegetarian Stuffed Mushrooms
Stuffed mushrooms are a classic. This vegetarian version is actually gluten free as well, thanks to the rice in the filling. If you have some on hand, homemade breadcrumbs make a worthy substitute for the rice.
24 large button or cremini mushrooms, stems removed, trimmed, chopped and reserved
1 tablespoon butter
¾ cup minced onion
¾ cup minced fresh fennel
½ teaspoon fennel seeds, toasted and ground in a spice mill or with the back of a knife (optional)
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
⅛ teaspoon salt
½ cup cooked rice
¼ cup pine nuts, toasted and chopped
¼ cup grated romano cheese
¼ cup minced parsley
Lemon wedges, for serving
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Set a wire rack inside a rimmed baking sheet.
Season the mushroom caps with salt and pepper on both sides and arrange on the baking sheet with the cavity side facing down. Bake for 20 minutes. Set aside.
Meanwhile, in a large nonstick skillet over medium high heat, melt the butter and add the mushroom stems, onion, fresh fennel, ground fennel, red pepper flakes, and salt. Cook until the vegetables are tender, about 8 to 10 minutes. Off heat, stir in the rice, pine nuts, romano cheese, and parsley.
Using a small spoon, divide the filling evenly among the mushroom caps. Arrange on the wire rack and bake on the middle oven rack until the top of the filling is starting to brown, about 10 minutes. Cool slightly before serving with lemon wedges.
Makes 24 stuffed mushrooms.
Crab and Avocado Lettuce Cups
Jumbo lump crab is a luxury ingredient–not exactly a staple of most people’s everyday cooking. It is, however, well worth the splurge. Sweet, saline, and tender, it pairs perfectly with ripe avocado. Crisp butter lettuce cups and crunchy pumpkin seeds provide a textural contrast. This dish is such a treat it would be worth if even if it were bad for you. Thankfully, it’s light, healthy, and totally guilt-free.
2 tablespoons minced shallot
½ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed orange juice
¼ teaspoon sriracha
1 pound jumbo lump crab meat
2 ripe avocados, peeled, pitted, and diced
¼ cup toasted pumpkin seeds
16 small butter lettuce leaves
In a large mixing bowl, combine the shallot, salt, orange juice and sriracha. Whisk to combine. Add the crab meat, avocado, and pumpkin seeds and toss gently to combine. (You don’t want to mash the avocado or break up the crab meat too much.)
Divide the mixture evenly into the lettuce cups and serve immediately. This dish must be enjoyed at once.