Light and Easy Holiday


If flavor and fat merge synonymously during your holiday season, blame it on tradition. Winter's meager harvest once forced cooks to rely on fatty cured meats and richly preserved sweets to serve at feasts. But the year-round availability of fresh vegetables, fruits, fish and meat opens the contemporary buffet to a range of dishes that celebrate the season without fattening the figure.

To help us slim down these merry meals, we asked three prominent chefs to create holiday recipes that maximize flavor while minimizing fat. "You don't want your guests so full they have to flop on the couch," says Emily Luchetti, executive pastry chef at Farallon in San Francisco, one of our guest chefs. "Remember, yours is not the only holiday dinner your guests will attend." The other chefs are Henry Meer, chef/owner of both The Cub Room and City Hall in New York City, and Josie Le Balch, who was executive chef at The Beach House in Santa Monica, Calif., and is opening her own restaurant this month. (They've also provided us with tips on how to prepare and serve their dishes.)

Prized for creativity and presentation, these recipes can be stand-alone dishes to incorporate among your favorites. Or, if you hunger for a complete break from your usual holiday fare, you can assemble an entire holiday meal using these recipes. This year, your guests won't be unbuttoning their pants and skirts while you're pouring the coffee.

About our holiday chefs:

Henry Meer, owner of both The Cub Room and City Hall in New York City, says his reward comes in working with organic and local farmers to get the freshest produce on the market. "When you work with the best products available you don't have to dress them up," says Meer. "Food doesn't need to be fatty to taste good."

Emily Luchetti, executive pastry chef at Farallon in San Francisco, eats her cake and maintains her figure too. "I allocate my fats wisely," says the sweets chef, who has written two cookbooks and forgoes fatty snacks like chips in favor of dessert. "It's like buying shoes. If I have the money I pay; if I don't, I save up."

Josie Le Balch's father opened one of Los Angeles' first French cooking schools, making Le Balch -- who is opening her own restaurant this month in L.A. -- a second-generation pro cook. Since her parents hail from France, Le Balch and her family practice a late-night Gallic Christmas custom, often eating roast goose at 2 a.m. and opening presents until sunrise.

Chef's tips

For preparation and party giving

Henry Meer

"Family-oriented winter dishes are perfect for the holidays. They can cook while you talk with your family and friends -- plus it'll warm up your kitchen and make it smell great."

Grilled Portobello Mushrooms: When shopping for mushrooms, look at the gills on the underside of the mushroom cap. The tighter they are, the fresher they are. Open and very dark gills betray old produce.

Serve this with a crisp white wine, such as a Gewurztraminer.

Mustard Baked Salmon With Lentils: Accompany with a chilled bottle of California sauvignon blanc or American pinot noir.

Cornish Game Hen Pot-au-feu: You can also use trussed chicken, turkey or capons instead of Cornish game hens.

Josie Le Balch

"I break out the nice silver for the holidays. If I'm doing a sit-down dinner I invite no more than 8-10 guests. Otherwise people don't get a chance to talk. And I serve courses so there's no moving around. In France no one leaves the table. There's the cheese course and then the cognac and cigars. In the U.S. everyone wants to get up and help do the dishes. I let them stack up and then do them in the morning."

Herbed Wild Rice: Pair this versatile, authentic American side dish with turkey, goose or even beef. Flavor booster: Add toasted walnuts or pine nuts in the saute phase.

Emily Luchetti

"When entertaining, a majority of the dishes should be ones you've cooked before. Mix new recipes with familiar ones to reduce hostess anxiety. Plus, since guests naturally insist on helping with cleanup, allow them to do the dinner dishes while you assemble the dessert."

Oat Crisps With Bananas and Warm Cocoa Sauce: Balance your entree and your dessert. If one is light, the other can be heavier. For example, this simple dessert could follow a heavier meat course.

Serve coffee after the dessert course, since hot coffee can mask the flavor and temperature of this finale.

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