Leaner holiday meals don't have to sacrifice taste

Dec. 03, 2013 @ 10:46 AM

How times have changed.
In 1990, Thanksgiving made me uneasy.
Not about getting together with my family. No. That year I'd lost more than 100 pounds for the first time and in my family, Thanksgiving dinner triggered the start of a food-centric race running for the next six weeks. T-Day 1990 marked the single toughest meal I'd faced that year.
If such things as fat-free sour cream, cream cheese or mayonnaise existed 23 years ago, I wasn't aware of them. Without those now easy-to-find ingredients, that year's dips and chips delivered too much fat and way too many calories for a newly lean guy.
At that time, as a Lean Wizard-in-training, I had almost no idea how to turn overly rich mashed potatoes (whipping cream, sour cream and butter) and high-fat gravy (turkey fat) and stuffing (starts with a butter stick) into healthy and still-delicious meals.
My family loved the standard sweet potato casserole smothered with marshmallows and a Mauer family classic: green bean casserole (ours wasn't fried onion topped; we used sliced almonds and loaded the sauce with Swiss cheese).
Nor was brining on my lean radar either, so roasted turkey breast slices ended up dry and the turkey's moist dark meat didn't make it to my dinner plate because of it's fat.
Standard Thanksgiving desserts like pumpkin pie and pecan pie topped with premium ice cream didn't work for me either. I'd take a small bite and walk away.
No mystery that 1990 Thanksgiving feast, as well as other holiday meals that year, required strong will power and denial of some items if I wanted to keep the weight off.
Today's a happier and tastier story. Since the '90s I've learned how to make almost every part of that Thanksgiving dinner lower in calories and fat without sacrificing great taste.
I've created dips that use a blend of fat-free and reduced-fat cream cheese and sour cream along with reduced-fat mayonnaise to make celebration-starting dips that taste so close to the original that most folks cannot tell the difference. For those dips I bake my own warm corn tortilla chips or lay out a platter of colorful and fat-free vegetables.
I've learned that brining a never-been-frozen, free-range, bone-in turkey breast creates succulent meat and you don't have to worry about overcooking the breast to ensure the legs are cooked through.
Cornflakes add an almond-like crunch with just a bit of fat to my green bean casserole and few guests notice that I use fat-free Swiss cheese. I pass on mashed potatoes and that cloying sweet potato casserole and bake a sweet potato casserole that's colorful, big on flavor and delivers less than four fat grams per generous serving.
By using Butter Buds (no artificial flavor; made from real butter) blended with a rich chicken stock my herb stuffing (whole wheat bread cubes) couldn't be more flavorful or leaner. I eschew the roux and thicken my turkey gravy with cornstarch.
I've never found a way to duplicate pecan pie's smooth texture and rich flavor (those pecans deliver too much fat and the filling too much sugar), but I have slimmed down pumpkin pie with fat-free evaporated milk and a reduced-fat graham cracker crust.
Times have truly changed and now I couldn't be more pleased with my T-Day dinner and just relax and enjoy my family and the meal.
This is my new lower-calorie, lower-fat take on sweet potato casserole. I use “real” maple syrup (Grade B has more flavor than Grade A), not “breakfast” syrup, for its great flavor without being overly sweet. I'm thankful for it and hope you will be to.
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Sweet Potato Casserole

3 pounds sweet potatoes (about 6 medium potatoes), peeled, halved lengthwise, and halves cut crosswise into 1/4-inch slices
5 tablespoons maple syrup
1/2 cup hot water
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 packet (1/2 ounce, about 2 tablespoons) Butter Buds butter-flavored mix
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger or 1 teaspoon dry ground ginger
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon cornstarch
2 tablespoons cold water

Place the oven rack in the middle position and heat oven to 375 degrees. Lightly spray a 9-by-13-inch baking dish with vegetable oil; set aside.
Over high heat, bring a large pot two-thirds full of water (there should be enough water to cover the sweet potatoes by at least 1-inch) to a boil. Add sweet potato slices, return to a boil and cook until bright orange and they can just be pierced (but do not break apart) with a sharp knife or fork; about 4 to 5 minutes. Drain potatoes well and transfer to the prepared baking dish.
Add maple syrup, water and melted butter to a mixing bowl and whisk to combine. Add Butter Buds, ginger, salt and cayenne and whisk until Butter Buds dissolve; set aside.
In a small bowl mix cornstarch with 2 tablespoons cold water until dissolved, then whisk into butter mixture; pour over sweet potatoes and toss to coat well.
Cover dish tightly with foil and bake until liquid is bubbly, about 50 minutes. Remove foil, stir potatoes gently, and bake until liquid thickens to glaze potatoes, about 10 minutes longer. Cool slightly and serve hot or at room temperature. Serves eight to 12.
Nutrition values per serving (assumes 12): 137 calories (21 percent from fat), 3.2 g fat (1.9 g saturated), 26.4 g carbohydrates, 3.4 g fiber, 1.3 g protein, 8 mg cholesterol, 158 mg sodium.

Don Mauer’s “Lean and Lovin’ It” column appears every other Wednesday. Don welcomes comments, suggestions and recipe makeover requests at leanwizard@aol.com.