For a fresh take on festive foods, we asked Iron Chef Cat Cora, Mom-a-licious chef Domenica Catelli, and our own nutrition expert Carolyn O'Neil, MS, RD, for the family holiday recipes they return to most often. The result? Dishes that transform familiar tastes from "same old" to "something special." From Cora's Caribbean-themed curried lentils with butternut squash to O'Neil's can't-skip-this salad and Catelli's guiltless mashed potatoes, each recipe rethink provides inspiration on how a little redo leads to redux: newfangled favorites you'll want to prepare again and again. Plus, stress-busting tips for home cooks to take the worry out of holiday prep.
Cat Cora: Changing Things Up
"I love changing things up for the holidays," says Cora, which is no surprise, coming from America's first female Iron Chef, anointed by the Food Network's reality cooking show. "For the celebration table, you want things to be comforting, but not boring. So I always keep a few old-standby dishes on the table but pick at least a few others that I mix it up with, making them a little more exotic, more unique -- still ensuring that the recipes are very approachable and easy to do." The key here? "Stay in the same flavor family when you substitute something different for something traditional." For example, do coconut-sprinkled curried squash and lentils rather than marshmallowed sweet potatoes, or pomegranate-glazed Cornish game hens instead of one big turkey.
Cora's Holiday Tip
Don't change your entire holiday menu over to exotica. Keep a few familiar dishes on the table that family members might mutiny without. Pin down your shopping list at least a week ahead, practicing any dishes you're unsure of ahead of time and pre-prepping a day or two in advance whatever will hold. And delegate some of the dishes to trusted family members (the old standbys, for example).
Pomegranate-Glazed Cornish Game Hens With Wild Rice and Chestnut Stuffing
4 Cornish game hens
1 cup uncooked wild rice
²/³ cup coarsely chopped chestnuts (either fresh or from a jar or can)
½ cup finely chopped yellow onion
2 tsp finely chopped fresh thyme
1 tsp finely chopped fresh sage
3 tbsp chopped Italian flat-leaf parsley
freshly ground black pepper
1 cup pomegranate juice
1 cup all-purpose flour, divided
3 cups low-sodium chicken stock
1. Rinse the rice in cool water, drain the water, and add the rice to a 2-quart saucepan with lid. Add 3 cups cold water and dash of salt. Bring the rice to a boil and stir once. Immediately reduce the heat to low, and cover the pot. Cook over low heat for 45 to 55 minutes, or until all of the liquid has evaporated.
2. Preheat the oven to 325ºF.
3. While the rice is cooking, remove the chestnuts from the jar or can, chop them roughly, and spread them on a baking sheet. Toast them in the oven for about 10 minutes to remove some of their moisture. When the chestnuts are done roasting, turn up the oven to 375º. In a large bowl, mix the cooked wild rice, toasted chestnuts, chopped onion, and herbs.
4. Pat the game hens dry with a paper towel. (If they have been frozen, be sure they are completely thawed, with gizzards removed.) Loosely fill each cavity with stuffing, leaving a little space in each bird to allow the rice to expand during roasting. Secure the legs, wings, and opening of each hen by trussing with cotton string. Spoon leftover stuffing into a small casserole dish with lid. During the last 25 minutes of roasting the hens, slide the casserole into the oven to heat.
5. Place hens breast-side down on a rack set in a roasting pan. Place pan on the center rack of a preheated oven, and allow the hens to cook for 15 minutes before basting with the pomegranate juice (or with pomegranate-balsamic reduction option at the end of this recipe).
6. Baste again 15 minutes later, turning birds breast side up after 40 minutes of roasting. Continue basting with the remaining pomegranate juice until the hens are dark golden brown and the juices run clear when the hens are pierced at the thigh. Total cooking time will be about 50 to 55 minutes. An instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh, not touching the bone, should register 175º to 180º.
7. Remove the birds from the oven, and transfer them to a platter. Cover them with foil and let them rest for 10 to 15 minutes.
8. Place the roasting pan with the juices on the stovetop over medium-low heat, add about ½ cup of the chicken stock (or water), and scrape up any roasted bits from the bottom of the pan. Sift the flour into the cooking juices and mix well. Slowly whisk in another 1½ cups of stock (or water) and stir well, and let simmer until the mixture is thick and has no lumps, about 5 to 6 minutes. Add a few more teaspoons of water or white wine if you'd like the gravy to be thinner. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
9. To serve, cut each bird in half lengthwise. Pool a little gravy on each plate, place a half bird on top of each gravy-pooled plate, and garnish with finely chopped parsley. Serve with a little extra rice stuffing on the side, if desired.
Makes 8 servings
For a more flavorful glaze, you can use a reduction of pomegranate-balsamic rather than straight pomegranate juice.
1. Combine equal parts pomegranate juice and balsamic vinegar (use a good balsamic but not your most expensive bottle).
2. Heat over medium-low heat for 15 to 20 minutes or until the reduction is syrupy but not as thick as molasses.
Makes 8 servings
Per serving: 359 calories, 2 g protein, 76 g carbohydrate, 1 g fat, 70 g sugar, and 81 mg sodium. Calories from fat: less than 1%.
Curried Lentils With Butternut Squash
1 cup dry lentils (preferably French or green)
1 small butternut squash (about
1½ lbs), peeled and cut
into chunks (equals 1½ cups)
olive oil spray
1 tbsp curry powder
1 tsp grated fresh ginger
1 tsp chili powder
dash of kosher salt and freshly
ground black pepper
¼ cup unsweetened shredded coconut
1. Spray olive oil in an 8x11-inch baking dish and set aside. Pour the lentils into a deep pot and cover with cold water. Heat water to boiling; reduce heat to simmer, and add the raw chunks of squash. Simmer until the squash is soft, lentils are tender, and liquid has reduced by two-thirds, about 25 minutes. Remove the pot from the heat. Spoon contents into a colander to drain. With tongs, pull out the chunks of squash and mash them roughly with a fork, ricer, or potato masher.
2. Preheat the oven to 375ºF.
3. In a large bowl, mix the drained cooked lentils and mashed squash with all of the spices. Spoon the mixture into the baking dish. (At this point, you can cover the dish and refrigerate it for a few hours or overnight.) Bake until piping hot (about 20 minutes if you're putting it into the oven right after mixing; 25 to 30 minutes if it's been refrigerated). Serve warm, topped with shredded coconut.
Makes 4 servings
Per serving: 285 calories, 14 g protein, 38 g carbohydrate, 10 g fat (8 g saturated fat), 18 g fiber, 3 g sugar, and 34 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 28%.
Carolyn O'Neil, MS, RD: Lightening Up
Dietitian, writer, and food expert Carolyn O'Neil's first holiday makeover mission was to lighten up the standard green bean casserole by using fresh green beans, fresh sautéed mushrooms, and caramelized onions instead of the typical canned veggie/soup/fried onion trio. The result was such a hit at her house that O'Neil's makeovers are now much anticipated. Her latest best twist on tradition? "The addition of fresh salads to the holiday table," says O'Neil. Built with seasonal produce and flavors that complement the winter holiday theme, her salads haven't replaced the obligatory Jell-O salad mold, but the family has created a welcome space for them on the table.
Carolyn's Holiday Tip
"Since I'm a dietitian, friends and family expect me to prepare 'healthy dishes' for holiday meals," says O'Neil. "But the last thing I want to do is start a family feud by banning calorie-laden traditional favorites." Instead, she recommends making lighter dishes an exciting addition to the usual holiday menu. You'll be introducing some healthier fare and keeping the peace.
Fennel, Orange, and Pomegranate Salad
O'Neil discovered this recipe at a "girlfriends getaway" weekend in Rosemary Beach, Fla. "The pretty green, bright orange, and deep red created a picture-perfect platter on the brunch buffet. What a beautiful way to enjoy the fiber in the fennel, the vitamin C in the oranges, and antioxidants in the pomegranate," she says.
4 navel oranges
1 head (bulb) fennel
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
¼ cup pomegranate seeds
(or dried cranberries)
1 tsp kosher or sea salt
freshly cracked black pepper
¼ cup slivered almonds, toasted
1. Segment the oranges, reserving ½ cup orange juice. Clean the fennel, trim, and remove any browned or bruised areas. Cut the fronds off and reserve. Shave the fennel crosswise, using the finest slicing blade on the food processor or a mandolin.
2. In a large bowl, toss the shaved fennel with the orange segments, olive oil, and salt. Mince 2 tablespoons of the green fennel fronds and toss into the salad. Add the pomegranate seeds and orange juice and gently toss to combine.
3. Cover and chill for at least 30 minutes before serving so the flavors can combine. Season to taste with salt and freshly cracked black pepper. Garnish with toasted almonds and some of the fennel fronds.
Makes 6 servings
Per serving: 170 calories, 5 g protein, 19 g carbohydrate, 10 g fat (1 g saturated fat), 6 g fiber, 10 g sugar, and 408 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 49%.
Domenica Catelli: Switching Out Ingredients
Chef and cookbook author Domenica Catelli -- of Mom-a-licious -- is a believer in holiday recipes that are big in flavor, ease, and health. Her garlicky, no-guilt mashed potatoes won out in something of a family feud. "My mother-in-law let me know early on that I didn't know how to make mashed potatoes," says Catelli. "She knew how her son liked them and, chef or not, I wasn't going to match up. I, of course, wanted to prove her wrong and came up with this no-cream, no-butter, healthy-but-flavorful recipe." The verdict? "Once I made them, she conceded that I earned 'best' potatoes that Thanksgiving!" Catelli says.
Aim for holiday menu recipes that will taste great and look beautiful but that won't keep you in the kitchen too long. Assign some of the last-minute food prep to family and friends so you can gather together and talk while preparing the meal. "Whether it's putting my nephews on picking thyme or having Uncle Matt grate Parmesan for the guiltless mashed potatoes, there are small things you can delegate that will take some pressure off you and create great memories in the kitchen," she says.
No-Guilt Mashed Potatoes
Mashed potatoes evoke thoughts of coziness, warmth, and comfort -- but also indulgence and guilt! In this recipe, you enjoy all the benefits minus the guilt. The dish is surprisingly creamy without milk or butter in the mix.
6 large Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled
and cut into large chunks
1 box (32 oz) chicken broth
3 to 5 cloves garlic, peeled
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
pinch of salt and pepper
1. Place the potatoes in a pot with broth, a dash of salt, and garlic cloves. Add water to cover 2 inches above the potatoes. Bring potatoes to a boil and cook until soft but not falling apart, about 15 to 20 minutes.
2. Drain most of the liquid into a large measuring cup. Smash potatoes with a hand masher, whisk, or electric mixer.
3. Add Parmesan cheese and enough reserved broth until you reach desired consistency.
4. Finish with a sparing salt sprinkle and freshly cracked black pepper.
Makes 8 servings
Per serving: 251 calories,10 g protein, 52 g carbohydrate, 2 g fat (1 g saturated fat), 6 mg cholesterol, 2 g fiber, 2 g sugar, and 390 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 7%.