Healthy feast
Gilfeather turnips (actually, rutabagas), an heirloom variety developed and grown in Wardsboro.

Healthy feast

Thanksgiving doesn%u2019t have to be clogged with fat to be festive and delicious

BRATTLEBORO — Ah, the holidays. It used to be that all one had to do was roast a turkey, add cream and butter to everything else, sit back, and watch the carnage.

What made us suddenly concerned about fat and carbohydrates and fiber and on Thanksgiving, for goodness sake? Turning 50. Then turning 60. Cholesterol. Blood pressure. Gall bladders.

How gloomy. The holidays are a time to celebrate, not to ponder mortality. But part of our very American celebration of Thanksgiving has always been eating to excess.

I have a relative whose Thanksgiving ritual is to get up from the table in the middle of the meal, undo his belt, walk around the house 20 times, then jauntily return to the table for more. Sound familiar? For a few recent years I was able to justify the cream and butter by explaining to myself that this was a once- or twice-a-year occurrence. But I don't know if I can keep it up.

The other half of the dilemma involves my intense desire to feed people wonderful food. It is one of the primary ways I show love. Food is such a wonderfully simple pleasure. I certainly do not want to turn my table into a glum, moralistic, and boring statement on nutrition where gravy is to be eternally outlawed and people are afraid of a pat of butter.

But we do eat too much on Thanksgiving, and it isn't good for us. I can't be the only resident of Windham County who needs to pay attention to what I eat. So I have set out to dissect the Thanksgiving menu and have designed a meal that I feel can be both satisfying and non-fatal.

One thing I discovered long ago about Thanksgiving is that most people are not interested in appetizers or a first course of parsnip soup with frizzled leeks. A few olives with a small array of raw vegetables may be enough while people mill around, drink wine, and nibble. The acidity of the olives perks up the mouth, and the spears of celery and fennel let me and my guests feel righteously healthy before we begin the big feed.

It's truly just the basic meal we are looking forward to: turkey, stuffing, potatoes, gravy, and a vegetable thrown in for color. Then we want a piece of pumpkin pie. We don't want a lot of unrecognizable fancy food, and we don't want a lot of choices.

I believe strongly in the symbolism of food and its ability to make us feel good about ourselves and the people with whom we share it around a table. The food that is served on Thanksgiving can be delicious, but more important, it can connect us to a collective past that gives us comfort and pleasure with every bite without making us comatose.

The turkey

Let's start with the turkey.

On its own, turkey is a remarkably good choice, low in fat and high in protein. That changes when you start sliding sticks of softened butter under the skin and basting it every 15 minutes with the melted result. The question is, then, can you roast a tender and succulent turkey without adding fat?

Yes, you can.

(Before you proceed any further, remove the giblets, the neck and heart, and whatever else you find from inside the turkey. Cover all of this with 4 cups of cold water in a saucepan and add a bay leaf, an onion, a carrot and some salt. Bring to a simmer and cook for 40 minutes. Cool and refrigerate. This broth will come in very handy later.)

Preheat the oven to 400º F. Stick a few sprigs of rosemary and thyme, a carrot, and an onion inside the body cavity of the turkey. Stick a few more herbs in the neck cavity and fold over the excess skin, then truss the whole bird so that the legs and wings are tight against the body.

Mix the juice of 1 lemon and 2 teaspoons of olive oil. Brush this mixture over the turkey, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and then baste every half hour with the juices that come out of the bird. If the liquid dries up, throw in a cup of that wine you're drinking while you cook.

After about half an hour reduce the heat to 350º F. Total cooking time should be around 15 minutes per pound, unless your bird comes with other rules. As with any meat protein, after you take it out of the oven, let the turkey rest for at least 15 minutes. Very simple.

The sides

Things get more complicated when we move on to what we love to call “the sides.”

Just like turkey, potatoes are low in fat. They are also high in fiber and a good source of vitamins and minerals.

And they can be fabulous, without their very own small ponds of butter, if you start with fabulous potatoes. Yukon Golds have lots of flavor. Green Mountain potatoes, a Vermont original from the 1800s, are even better. Just don't use baking potatoes for mashed potato recipes.

We now come to what for me is a crucial choice - whether to use what I call “ersatz” food: items like lowfat sour cream or pretend butter made with soybean oil. Not only do I find their manufacture suspicious, I find their flavors inferior to the real thing.

Buttermilk potatoes are another matter. Not designed to mimic their fat-addictive cousins, they shine with their own special qualities. Vermont's Butterworks Farm in Westfield bottles their own, and it works beautifully with potatoes.

Buttermilk has a clean and straightforward tangy flavor and a thick, creamy texture; it creates a deceptively rich mashed potato that is somehow simultaneously light and luxurious. To serve eight people, boil around 6 large potatoes that have been cut into thirds - peel them if you must. Save a cup or so of the potato water when you drain them.

Put the cooked potatoes back in the pot and dry them out a bit over a medium heat. Then add ¾ cup of buttermilk. Mash. Add in small quantities of the potato water until you get the consistency you like. Add salt and pepper to taste. These can be made ahead and reheated, adding a bit more liquid if necessary.

Creating a tasty dressing that isn't dripping with fat is a more difficult task. My guests want a classic bread stuffing, not some grainy wild rice dish with fruit and nuts.

Actually, it is not really stuffing we make anymore, is it? We all stopped putting the stuffing inside the bird when the food police told us we would kill our guests with salmonella. Fine. I will make dressing and call it stuffing. My stuffing has no sausage, no mushrooms, no oysters, no chestnuts. It is just bread and seasoning.

And the key to great-tasting, yet not fatty, stuffing is that seasoning. Remember the broth that we made from the giblets? Here's where you use it.

For a 14-pound turkey, start with 1 large loaf of bread, whatever variety you like. Cut it into slices and dry it out at room temperature overnight. Cut it into cubes.

Add enough diced onion and celery to make 2 cups and use lots of herbs: poultry seasoning, sage, thyme, rosemary, parsley – a couple of teaspoons at least of each, plus salt and pepper to taste. Mix this all, then add 1½ to 2 cups of that giblet stock, enough to make the stuffing moist, but not soggy.

Put it all in an oiled baking dish in a preheated 400º F oven and cook for around 40 minutes.

This stuffing is savory and earthy with a rich turkey flavor from the broth, a crunchy golden top but no butter.

Vegetables are easy, and I serve two. The path of least resistance is a mélange of roasted vegetables. Use any combination of carrots, winter squash, parsnips, some great Gilfeather turnips, fennel, celery root, brussels sprouts, beets, and onions. Cut them into same size pieces of approximately an inch square, toss them with 2 tablespoons of olive oil, some minced herbs, salt, and pepper.

Spread them on a baking sheet and cook in a preheated 425º F oven for 35 to 40 minutes until tender and caramelized, turning them once or twice as they cook. You can get fancier and mix them before roasting with some honey as well as olive oil and finish them off with a drizzle of balsamic or sherry vinegar. But they are delicious without that as well.

The other is puréed, oven-roasted sweet potatoes mashed with lemon juice and zest, a bit of brown sugar, and a healthy jigger of bourbon. Peel and cube the squash or sweet potatoes and roast in a preheated 425º F oven for 15 to 20 minutes until tender. Mash with a squeeze of lemon and ½ teaspoon of lemon zest, ¼ cup of brown sugar, and a good ¼ cup of bourbon, which I find makes most people forget about the lack of butter.

Misunderstood gravy

Now we come to the reason for Thanksgiving - gravy.

Gravy is a much misunderstood food. People start with way too much fat. To make enough gravy for eight people, you need only 2 tablespoons of fat.

You should have around 2 cups of giblet broth left over. You should have quite a bit of fat and drippings in the bottom of the turkey roasting pan. Pour all the liquid into a measuring cup, add two ice cubes, and wait 15 minutes. Most of the fat should easily rise to the top; measure 2 tablespoons and put it into a heavy saucepan (a cast-iron skillet is perfect). Throw out the rest of the fat. Keep the drippings.

Heat the pan with the 2 tablespoons of fat over medium heat, add 3 tablespoons of flour, and whisk until smooth. Lower the heat and cook for 5 minutes, until the flour has turned a golden brown. Add your giblet broth by the ½ cup, whisking until smooth. You will need at least 2½ cups of liquid, so use the reserved drippings until the gravy is the consistency you prefer. Add salt and pepper to taste.

The reward

You have now created all the elements of a classic and delicious Thanksgiving meal with very little added fat. Your reward is a pumpkin pie filled with eggs and cream as well as pumpkin, ginger, and maple syrup. One rich course is allowed in a meal like this one, and people often remember the ending far better than they do the middle. And after such a clean and healthy meal, the richness of this pie will not be lost on a muddied palate.

So, here is my recipe for a pie that, although rich in calories, is also rich in vitamin A, calcium, and iron. How virtuous!

Start with your best prebaked single pie crust in a 9-inch pie plate. Preheat the oven to 425º F. Whisk 3 eggs, a 15-ounce can of pure pumpkin purée, ½ cup of maple syrup, ¼ cup brown sugar, 1 teaspoon of ground ginger, 1 teaspoon of cinnamon, ½ teaspoon of freshly grated nutmeg, ¼ teaspoon of ground cloves, ¼ teaspoon of ground cardamom, ½ teaspoon salt and 1 cup (yes) of heavy cream.

Pour this into the crust and bake for 15 minutes. Lower the temperature to 350º F and cook an additional 40 to 50 minutes until the center is set. Cool for at least an hour and serve naked; no additional cream is necessary. I have been known to offer a tiny jigger of the bourbon, just to aid in digestion.

And as your guests lick the last pumpkin off their forks, I hope as the cook you can gaze around the table and feel that you have fed your loved ones well. It is a simple menu, I know, but Thanksgiving is about gratitude for life, family, and friends. I would like to help mine live for a very long time.

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