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Pre-holiday detox: 5 ways to beat the bulge before it happens

It is hardly news that the holiday season can be quite calorie-intensive, what with all those parties, meals and events we tend to attend this time of year. The “harmless” cookie or snack here, the extra glass of hot wine there, or that second helping of mashed potatoes at dinner can inadvertently add up to several unwanted pounds by the end of the season. Sure enough, I have noticed that come January, every fashion, food or health-related magazine has a “lose the holiday pounds” feature to help readers deal with the post-holiday bulge. I’ll be the first to agree that holiday food is delicious and hard to resist, and -admittedly- I have largely given up attempting to restrain myself from indulging in holiday goodies, because I’ve found that not only does it often not work, but also -let’s be honest- it is much less fun to be dieting during the holidays…but that doesn’t mean weight gain is necessarily inevitable this time of year, and it also doesn’t mean that you necessarily have to be left looking for ways to lose weight after you have gained it.

Why is it that we always look for “post-holiday” detox plans, when there is a lot you can do to pre-emptively keep you waistline in check? First off – let’s be realistic. This is not the best time you can choose to start a weight-loss program, but a few seemingly minor tweaks to your daily routine are all it takes to maintain your weight. One obvious way is to step up your exercise routine to offset the extra calories, but if your busy life (like mine) often comes in the way of extra exercise time, you can find your equilibrium by making sure to balance a particularly heavy meal like Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner, or a string of holiday parties and social events that often involve snacking and drinking, with uber-healthy meals during “down” time. While it is a terrible idea to cut your calorie intake excessively in preparation for the holidays as this could adversely impact your health and metabolism, I do find that shaving as little as 100-200 calories off of my daily intake on “normal” days in December can go a long way in “making room” for heavier days later in the month and -best of all- shaves inches off my guilt levels.

With Thanksgiving behind us and the Christmas/New Year mania still a few weeks away, now is a good time to stock up on your healthy eating in anticipation of heavier meals, extra sugar and a generally less healthy lifestyle in weeks to come. Here are 5 easy tips to shave those 100-200 calories a day without going hungry.

1. Skip the Starbucks

A simple tall whole milk latte can have up to 180 calories, and a more “festive” holiday drink like a tall  peppermint mocha with 2% milk, a gingerbread latte or hot chocolate can pack in as many as 250, 190 and 230 calories respectively before even factoring in whipped cream. If you really need coffee in the morning, go for a tall skim cappuccino (60 calories) or regular brewed coffee (as little as 5 calories a cup).

 

2. Arm yourself with healthy snacks

Having a healthy alternative to munch on makes it easier to turn down unhealthy snack options like Christmas cookies. One of my favorite snacks is a Granny Smith apple with a tablespoon of peanut butter. The natural sugar satisfies my sweet tooth and the lipids in the pb help create a full feeling. Even better if you can use low fat peanut butter- just make sure it’s a kind with no extra sugar added to compensate for the reduced fat.

3. Drink your 8 a day

Water is soooo underrated. Drink 1-2 glasses of water 10-15 minutes before a meal. It takes up physical space in your stomach and tricks your brain into feeling fuller before you even start eating, so you’re less likley to over-eat. Being hydrated also fights water retention, which can cause unnecessary bloating (retaining water is our bodies’ way of hoarding moisture when we’re dehydrated), and will help regularly cleanse your system of toxins.

 

4. Eat dinner before parties

Show up to cocktail parties (or even dinners) having eaten a small, healthy meal or light snack like a salad, a lean protein (chicken or fresh tuna are great options), or even a piece of fruit. We’ve all experienced the tendency to over-eat when we’re suddenly surrounded by lots of food while hungry, so if you don’t arrive with a completely empty stomach, you’re less likely to eat too much. At parties, even small bite-size canapes can be deceptively fattening, so be careful!

5. Be smart about your alcohol

It’s easy to forget the liquid calories we consume, but alcohol actually has a high calorie and sugar content. In fact, a gram of alcohol contains 7 calories, second highest of all food types after fat. If you can have one less glass of wine at each party you attend, you can save about 100-150 calories, depending on glass size and wine variety.

 

 

In good health,

F

The French Laundry Cookbook

Over the weekend I was delighted to have received The French Laundry Cookbook from one of my Thanksgiving dinner guests. I cannot tell you how excited I am to try out some of Thomas Keller’s famous recipes myself and to see how they turn out. I thought it was such a thoughtful gift to have received from someone who knows that I appreciate good food – and I believe he wasn’t even aware that I had recently been there!

I shall keep you posted on my French Laundry recipe adventures…but in the meantime if you are interested in buying your own copy (it also makes a great holiday gift for food lovers!), they are widely available in bookstores or online. Try Amazon, Barnes & Noble or eCookbooks.

In good health,

F

* Image courtesy of Barnes & Noble

Turkey day wrap-up

I think it is clear by now how much I love love love Thanksgiving, and I really enjoyed spending a whole day cooking up a feast for my friends here in Dubai with the help of my boyfriend-turned-sous-chef (and expert turkey carver!).  I must say that I am already feeling premature withdrawals from the idea of having to retire my turkey-day related posts until next year (it didn’t help that I changed my header photo from a Thanksgiving-y fall photo to a Christmas-y winter photo this morning)….but before I shelve Thanksgiving completely, here’s one last post for the road.

What was on your table this Thanksgiving?

This was my menu:

Appetizers

  • Baby mozzarella and pesto bites
  • Puff pastry “grilled cheese” bites

Main course

  • Roast turkey brined in salt, brown sugar, citrus and herbs overnight, then glazed with spices and pomegranate molasses (and of course a touch of butter!) before going in the oven [image above] accompanied by pan-dripping red wine gravy and orange-cranberry sauce

Rory aka the carving master hard at work!

Sides

  • Whole wheat bread stuffing with butternut squash, chestnuts, green apple and rosemary
  • Buttermilk mashed potatoes
  • Maple-roasted sweet potatoes with caramelized onions and balsamic vinegar
  • Black pepper and butter glazed carrots
  • Green bean and asparagus salad with red wine vinegar, mustard and shallot dressing
  • Mini Yorkshire puddings (I consider this my feat of the evening! Alton Brown’s recipe is amazing (find it here), because I have never made these before and they came out perfectly just by following his instructions)

My perfect Yorkshire puddings (better known as "popovers" in America) - courtesy of Alton Brown's recipe

Desserts

  • Sweet potato pie
  • Apple crumble
  • Pecan pie, peanut butter pie, apple cake and assorted chocolate truffles contributed by my guests (thank you!!)

    Our "accidental potluck" delicious dessert spread

Beverages

  • Mulled wine (I used Merlot with cloves, cinnamon sticks, whole nutmeg, star anise and a vanilla pod as mulling spices, along with brown sugar to taste and the zest and juice of 2 oranges)

I already cannot wait for Thanksgiving 2012!

In good health,

F

Fun with leftovers

So…Thanksgiving 2011 is over. Hopefully you spent a day full of good food and festivities, but now your guests have come and gone, your kitchen sink is probably a mess, and your fridge is crammed full of turkey day leftovers.. What should you do with all this food?! Here are some ideas I have come across recently:

1. The infamous turkey leftovers sandwich

This post-Thanksgiving staple is probably as infamous as the t-day meal itself. Pile it high! Spread your bread with leftover gravy or cranberry sauce first -or both! Absolutely any kind of bread works for this…baguette, toast, focaccia, ciabata, whole grain or even tortilla wrap, you name it! Then add a few slices of leftover roast turkey and pack in a few other delicious ingredients… a “TLT” is a simple but great option -turkey, lettuce and tomatoes. Or if you’re in the mood for a more involved sandwich, you could also add cheese (think brie or provolone), other spreads like aioli or tapenade, and if you’re craving some crunch (or feeling naughty!) top your sandwich with some onion rings or potato chips. Yum!

 

 

2. Turkey salad

Create a creative alternative to a traditional chicken salad by substituting with turkey meat. Works with just about any variety of chicken salad! Here is Jamie Oliver’s suggestion.

 

 

 

 

3. Turkey lasagna

Pulse your left over turkey in a food processor to mince and use it instead of beef to make a lasagna. Great recipe from Ina Garten here.

 

 

 

 

 

4. Potato croquettes

Put leftover mashed potatoes to good use by making tasty croquettes. Make little round patties of potato, roll in bread crumbs and sautee in a skillet with some olive oil. Here’s a recipe from Paula Deen.

 

 

 

 

 

5. Turkey “sushi”

I came across this enterprising idea in Food Network Magazine’s November issue. Use lettuce instead of nori and gravy instead of soy sauce for dipping.  So creative!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In good health,

F

* Images courtesy of bonappetit.com, foodnetwork.com, jaimeoliver.com, Food Network Magazine’s November 2011 issue

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! Turkey day is finally here and I hope you are all spending it just the way you want. I have had a crazy week at work but I am so glad it is finally almost over and I can finally celebrate with my friends and loved ones. Through the madness of preparing for this day, combined with the hectic work schedules that many of us have, it can be quite easy to get caught up in making plans and forget what the day is really about…so as you are preparing for your delicious meal today and gathering to celebrate with friends and family, don’t forget to take a moment to reflect about what you are thankful for this year. Is it your family? Your friends? A significant other? Health? A job? Success? All of the above? I can certainly say I am thankful to have been blessed with many things this year and it is impossible to make a comprehensive list, but if I had to pick one thing that stands out, I would say I am overwhelmingly thankful for all the fabulous people in my life; a supportive and caring family, a loving boyfriend, and amazing, talented friends scattered all over the world.  I will be hosting a Thanksgiving party tomorrow (we don’t get Thanksgiving day off in Dubai!) and terribly excited for all the cooking and merry-making. To all of you who are celebrating it on time – cheers!

In good health,

F

Countdown to Thanksgiving: time to get organized

On days like this when my stress levels are through the roof (crazy week at work), my instinct has always been to clean or organize something. With turkey day fast approaching (only 3 sleeps away today!), I thought what better way to diffuse my work-induced anxiety than to organize a few things around the kitchen. I am sure that many of you who are entertaining this year have begun making preparations – whether in the form of grocery shopping or advance cooking and baking. Soon -if not already- there will be a large bird, an assortment of fresh fruit and vegetables, loaves of bread, bottles of wine and/or other beverages, dishes cooked in advance, and a slew of other items competing for space in your fridge, oven and kitchen countertops.

The prospect of a disorganized kitchen when I’m attempting to cook dinner for 20 people makes me nervous (yes, in case you can’t tell, I have OCD tendencies), and given how easy it is for life to become disorganized in the lead-up to Thanksgiving and on the day itself, here are a few tips to keep things sane around the kichen.

Reorganize the fridge

My fridge needed a serious overhaul to accommodate the 19-pound bird I purchased yesterday after the butcher informed me that the delivery of fresh turkeys they were expecting from France has unfortunately been delayed (I think it is safe to assume that there aren’t any home-grown turkeys here in Dubai!). My frozen turkey is now happily thawing in my fridge, but it put a serious dent in the amount of fridge space remaining, so I had to get creative.

  • Start off by throwing out anything that looks like it has grown its own winter jacket.
  • Find clever ways to stack things; using uniform containers helps.
  • Martha Stewart Living suggests putting a Lazy Susan into your fridge for easy access to all your condiments instead of rummaging through the fridge to find what you’re looking for everytime you need something…genius!!
  • Move all non-perishables out to make room for things that absolutely have to be stored in the fridge (e.g., soda cans take up a lot of space but they will not spoil if not refrigerated, while all dairy and most fruits and vegetables will quickly go bad unless kept in the fridge).

Plan your day to perfection

If you have a relatively small kitchen like mine and/or you don’t have the luxury of two ovens, you will need to think about how to orchestrate the cooking process to make sure everything you plan to make gets enough cooking time.

  • First, figure out what dishes need to be cooked in the oven (such as potato gratin, stuffing, roasted veggies, pies, and -duh- the turkey) and which ones you plan to cook on the hob (like sauteed vegetables, mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce).
  • Make whatever you can in advance to get it out of the way, such as baking the pie crusts and cooking the cranberry sauce.
  • Plan the timing and sequencing of cooking for Thursday: decide what time you want to serve your meal and work back based on the time needed to prepare and cook each dish. Make sure to think about what dishes will need to be in the oven at the same time and how that will work, as different dishes may need to cook at different temperatures. Having multiple dishes in the oven simultaneously usually also prolongs the cooking time needed for each dish.
  • If you get really stuck and can’t find a way to make everything you planned, you may want to reconsider some items on the menu. Or if any of your guests ask you what to bring and are willing to help out, take them up on it and ask them to make one of the dishes!

Find creative ways to make space

With all the washing, chopping, peeling, mashing, mixing, cooking and cooling that takes place on Thanksgiving day, kitchen work surfaces can quickly become a rare commodity.  Placing a large, sturdy wooden chopping board over your sink is a sneaky way to create some much-needed additional countertop space!

In good health,

F

* Fridge image courtesy of Martha Stewart Living, November 2011 issue.

Holiday spirit: a quick guide to wine and other beverage pairings

Holiday drinks…hhmmmm. If the thought of pairing beverages with your holiday menu has crossed your mind recently, and if your brain’s response was to draw a blank, rest assured you’re not alone. Like many other holiday-related decisions I have had to make recently, the problem with choosing an accompanying beverage(s) stems from having too much choice rather than too little. Wine, sparkling wine, mulled wine, champagne, eggnog, cocktails, cider, soft drinks, fruit juices, water. Being spoiled for choice is often not a problem, but on holidays like Thanksgiving or Christmas (or whatever it is you choose to celebrate), it can be a daunting situation. Not only do you have to take all the different dishes on the menu into account, but you also have to consider the prospect of differing tastes among however many guests you are entertaining. From appetizers, to turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, vegetables, cranberry sauce and gravy, all the way to pumpkin, pecan or apple pie…is there a beverage that can truly go with everything? Well, first the good news. As long as you are not a trained sommelier, it is totally forgivable even if you make the “wrong” choice. Not that I believe such a thing even exists.

Beverage pairings are obviously a matter of personal choice. Do you want to serve alcohol or not? If so, wine or cocktails? What drinks do you want to offer to non-drinkers, kids and let’s not forget the designated drivers? These are all questions that you have to answer for yourself, but once you have…what next? Being the indecisive person that I am, I resorted to some help from my friend Google. Here are some of my findings about what beverages tend to be best-suited for a traditional holiday feast.

Champagne

When in doubt, go with some bubbly (or sparkling wine). It is elegant, festive and versatile, and therefore a safe-yet-exciting choice.

Many decent yet affordable options exist. Try Freixenet Brut (approx. $9 a bottle) or Martini & Rossi Prosecco (about $15 a bottle) if you are looking for a slightly sweeter variety.

Of course there’s always Moet & Chandon (their rosé imperial is a favorite), Veuve-Cliquot (personally not the biggest fan), Dom Perignon, Laurent-Perrier and Ruinart is you are looking to splurge.

Sauvignon Blanc

If you are a white wine kind of person, this is a crisp option known for its citrus-based flavors, and a great pairing candidate for turkey and mashed potatoes. 

One of my all-time favorites is produced by Cakebread Cellars from Napa Valley.

* Another white wine variety that is particularly suitable for Thanksgiving is Pinot Grigio.

Pinot Noir

This red wine is a traditional favorite for Thanksgiving because of its earthy tones. As a lighter red, it has relatively tame tannins that will not overwhelm your palate.

Look for a Pinot from the Burgundy (Bourgogne) region of France, as they tend to be among the best.

* Other suitable red varities include Zinfandel, Syrah/Shiraz and the ever-popular Beaujolais Nouveau, which is released in mid-November just in time for the holidays!

Sparkling apple cider

Just because you or any of your guests are not drinking doesn’t mean your beverage choice should be less festive. Apple cider is very wintery and therefore a great choice with a winter holiday meal.

Martinelli’s is definitely the best known brand

.

Mulled wine or mulled apple cider

This is a particularly great choice for more reasons than one. First off, call it what you may – glühwein, vin chaud, or simply mulled wine – hot wine screams winter holidays. Second, you can make both an alcoholic version (using red wine) or a non-alcoholic version (using apple cider).  Just combine a small handful of cloves, 2 cinnamon sticks, 2-3 star anise pods and the zest of one orange in a small spice bag and let simmer with a bottle of wine or cider over medium heat for 10-15 minutes. You can also add other flavors to your mulling spices as desired, including vanilla pods, ginger and candied ginger, or even a splash of honey or brandy.

In good health,

F

Countdown to Thanksgiving: to brine or not to brine?

This is it, foodies! Thanksgiving is officially less than one week away. Are you as excited as I am?! (I’m not even American and I love this holiday! It represents some universal themes like gratitude, togetherness, family, and of course, good food that I think everyone can relate to regardless of nationality).

Have you ordered your turkey yet? If you’ll be using a fresh turkey this year, be sure to put your order in with the butcher asap if you haven’t already, to ensure a prime pick. And if you’ll be using a frozen one, start thinking about buying it in the next few days so it has time to thaw properly. The recommended method for thawing a frozen turkey is to leave it to gradually thaw in the fridge, which requires approx. 24 hours for every 5 pounds. However, if for some reason you’re unable to buy your turkey in advance, the fastest way to thaw it is the cold-water method, which can thaw your turkey at a rate of approx. 30 minutes per pound (just make sure to keep the turkey in its packaging or else it’ll absorb water and lose some of its flavor).

Now the question remains…to brine, or not to brine? I say brine. Being a relatively lean meat, turkey is prone to becoming very dry very quickly, particularly if you are planning to cook a bigger bird that requires longer time in the oven. And the last thing you want after all the time and energy you’ll spend putting your Thanksgiving feast together is to end up with dry turkey meat. Brining was actually first used as a method of preserving meat (salt is a natural preservative), but the brining we’re after in this case is known as “flavor brining” and the purpose is to help make the turkey juicier and more flavorful by soaking it in a saline solution for up to 24 hours before cooking. I won’t get too scientific here- but brining works because the saline solution you submerge the turkey in contains a higher concentration of water, salts and other flavors than the meat, so the processes of osmosis and diffusion will result in the turkey cells absorbing some of these substances to achieve equilibrium, resulting in moist, juicy and flavorful meat. Suffice it to say that trust me, it works! Brining also helps cut down the need for frequent basting during the cooking process, so you can focus your attention on other things.

Here is a simple brining recipe that I have used before (to great results!) and will be using it again this year:

  • 2 gallons water
  • 1 cup salt
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1 large yellow onion, chopped
  • 6 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 6 sprigs thyme
  • 4 sprigs rosemary
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1/2 bunch sage
  • 4 sprigs parsley
  • 4 springs mint
  • 2 oranges, quartered
  • 2 lemons, quartered
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter at room temperature

Heat 0.5 gallon of the water in a large pot and dissolve sugar and salt. Remove from heat add the remaining 1.5 gallons of water (preferably very cold water to bring the temperature down faster), as well as the other ingredients. Crush the herbs and garlic cloves a little bit before adding to the mixture to release their oils and flavors. Squeeze the juice of the lemons and oranges before adding the pieces to the pot. Don’t worry about neatly chopping your ingredients – you’re just using them for flavor and they will not make it into your final dish. Make sure the mixture is cool before submerging the turkey in it (otherwise it’ll partly cook the turkey, so refrigerate it first if necessary!), and if the pot is big enough you can use it for the brining. Otherwise, use a brining bag. Place the fridge for up to 24 hours before cooking (NEVER leave uncooked poultry at room temperature for longer than 15-30 minutes unless you are using the cold water thawing method. Even then, you need to ensure the water stays icy cold by replacing it frequently with new water). Brine recipe can be scaled up or down depending on how big your turkey is.

In good health,

F

* Image courtesy of Food Network

Wedding Wednesday: seated dinner or buffet?

One question that I have always wondered about when attending weddings is the food setup…which is better, a seated dinner with a set menu, or a buffet dinner with broader options? I am yet to be able to make a decision! (thankfully I’m not in a rush to make any decisions just yet…).

A seated dinner feels more chic to me – there’s something luxurious about not needing to get up for your food but rather, having it brought right to you. But the problem is that a set menu will inevitably not appeal to all guests at the event. It’s really hard to get a set menu right when you’re feeding at least 100 people (or many, many more at Arab weddings!), and to be honest the options for a seated dinner seem fairly boring: appetizer, main course, dessert. There’s some wiggle room to be creative of course, but overall I find it a little bit predictable. On the other hand, buffets are a great way to provide more options and allow your guests to make some food decisions for themselves, but they also seem a bit less elegant to me (though maybe that’s just the management consultant in me silently screaming that I’ve had one too many hotel lunch buffets during my busy travel/work days). Also, I think buffets allow for a little bit more risk-taking in your menu options. Think about it..  you can put in some creative/interesting/unusual dishes that may appeal to some of your guests but not others, without worrying that those who don’t like it will be stuck with nothing to eat. Hmmm.. decisions decisions.

Buuut, who ever said this decision was binary? I was recently at a friend’s wedding in San Francisco, and she may have found the perfect compromise: a family-style seated dinner. You still get the luxury of having the food brought to your table, but maintain some of the variety of a buffet. Genius! Leave it to a fellow foodie to find the perfect solution to this conundrum (and I’ll be sure to tell you more about her own food blog sometime soon). I’m not sure if this concept is unheard of in the world of weddings in general, but where I come from it is definitely revolutionary. If you’re looking to inject a bit of whimsical casual-ness into your wedding, this may be the perfect way. You just have to make sure that guests seated at each table are sufficiently chummy before you make them share food!

In good health,

F

Countdown to Thanksgiving: stuffed to bursting (just kidding)

Hello foodies!

I am having a pretty hectic day and have unfortunately not found the time to put together a very creative post for today, but I thought I would at least post the second installment of Food Network Magazine’s Thanksgiving “Mix and Match” guide. I hope the “Turkey Mix and Match” installment from last week helped you navigate the turkey decision-making process! Now onto the stuffing.. Different dish, same problem: the fact that there are about a million different recipe options out there doesn’t help indecisive people like me one bit, so I personally think that these guides are just fantastic. There’s just one thing I would add that the guide misses out: as I’ve said before, your stuffing doesn’t not have to be bread based! You can forgo bread altogether and use a grain like wild rice, red rice, quinoa, farro, or a combination of these for a unique alternative to traditional stuffing.

I’m also attaching a useful article about stuffing options that I found a few days ago on Whole Story (the Whole Foods blog) . This blog is another great source of food inspiration!

In good health,

F

* Top image compliments of Whole Story, stuffing guide courtesy of Food Network Magazine’s November 2011 issue.

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