Food & Drink

Take a break from gut-busting holiday decadence with easy veggie dishes

A garlic-and-soy roasting sauce adds salty-sweet depth to root vegetables. (Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
A garlic-and-soy roasting sauce adds salty-sweet depth to root vegetables. (Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
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My spinning instructor says we’re squarely in the eating season; she hounds us to pedal faster. She’s right, of course. From Thanksgiving through New Year’s, temptations abound — from the sharing tables at the office to dinners with visiting friends and relatives. And let’s not talk about my penchant for eating all the richest items at holiday dinners first.

How to counteract the gravy, buttered rolls, rich stuffings, scalloped potatoes, creamed spinach and candied yams? I arm myself with an arsenal of lighter, delicious and beautiful vegetable preparations that shake up the buffet.

Instead of a typical green salad, I offer a holiday Caesar made with stunning ruby red radicchio and a homemade dressing spiked with lemongrass and fresh thyme. This gorgeous salad, inspired by Cathy Whims’ version at Nostrana in Portland, Ore., proves worthy of any party. The dressing and other components of the salad can be made several days in advance.

To help eliminate any excuse for not eating salad, I trim, clean and spin-dry a couple of days’ worth of interesting, super-fresh salad greens. Then I put the greens into a plastic container (or zip-close bag) lined with a paper towel. Covered, and refrigerated, the greens will last several days. Sturdy salad greens, such as romaine, frisee and radicchio will keep nicely even longer.

Homemade croutons will make any salad a standout. For a Caesar salad, I use a cheesy bread, such as the Three Cheese Semolina from La Brea Bakery. Cut into evenly sized cubes and tossed with a little olive oil, the bread crisps in about 10 minutes. Pack them into a container when they are completely cool, and they’ll keep several days.

For the dressing, I employ the microwave to lightly cook the eggs destined to thicken and enrich the Caesar dressing. The blender makes quick work of this creamy classic. Adding just a dash of pureed lemongrass transforms the dressing into holiday fare. I label and date the bottle of dressing to use it within several days.

I think the best salad combination is room-temperature dressing and chilled, crisp greens. Just before serving, place the bottle of dressing in a large mug full of hot water and let it stand until the solidified oils liquefy and the flavors peak. To properly dress a salad, measure out 1 tablespoon of dressing for every 2 loosely packed cups of torn, cleaned salad greens. Use a little bit extra for a more indulgently dressed salad, but refrain from adding too much, or the salad can get unpleasantly soggy. Always serve the salad within a few minutes of dressing it; a chilled salad bowl will buy you a little more time.

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Roasting vegetables yields an infinitely more luxurious dish than steaming or blanching them. Adding a full-flavored seasoning gives them extraordinary flavor. My niece swears by a combination of soy sauce, sugar, rice vinegar and garlic for her addictive roast broccoli. I keep a bottle of the mixture on hand to use on just about any cut-up vegetable destined for a sheet pan. Sugar might sound odd on vegetables, but here it acts to boost flavors and mellow out bitterness.

For holiday meals, I combine root vegetables, such as zesty turnips, sweet carrots and sturdy parsnips, before coating them with the seasoning sauce. Broccoli and cauliflower likewise look and taste great when roasted and combined. Make a double batch of the seasoning sauce for roasting all season long.

Bring on the eating season. We are ready.

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