Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday of the year. I repeat: Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday of the year.
That’s because it marks the start of “snuggle” season, where the air gets cooler. The neighborhood gets covered in lights. The music on the radio changes from Top 40 to jingle bells. Evenings get filled with alternating smells of squash soup and cinnamon. And, as for the holiday itself, the home and the table gets filled with tradition, memories, and family and friends.
But if you’re on a low-so or really ANY kind of special diet, holiday season may give you both stress and indigestion. And that’s because so many of those traditions and memories are built around meals that you may no longer be able to eat (or no longer should eat). From the turkey to the green beans to Aunt Whatshername’s famous pecan pie, Thanksgiving is filled with high-sodium, highly processed ingredients.
Before you give up or give in, though, let me tell you a little holiday secret: by making over your favorite Thanksgiving dishes, you will not only have a healthy holiday season, you might actually have a more delicious one. And I’m not trying to blow smoke up your Turkey butt. I’m being totally serious. Because, let’s be real. How much do you really like those mushy green beans? Or that super dry turkey breast. Or the pecan pie (okay, maybe the pie is delicious).
My point is, by focusing on really bright, fresh, colorful ingredients you will create an equally show-stopping Thanksgiving meal this year that is not only more flavorful, but in a lot of ways, less stressful, too. It is a trifecta of winning: tasty, simple, and healthy. And I think we can agree that’s something to share and celebrate.
Now that we are all on the same page, let’s talk about the food. And let me introduce you to my HUUUUUUUGE Thanksgiving round up of recipes. I’ll also be posting tips from now until Thanksgiving day that will keep you sane and well-seasoned for the big feast! So let’s dive in.
Whether you plan to host this year’s dinner or get invited to someone else’s house, chances are there is only one oven and that’s being used by the big bird. So as far as side dishes go, try to choose one or a few that are mostly “raw” (think: massaged kale salad or riced cauliflower) or require just a little time in a steamer or the stove top (think: Wax Bean “Pasta” Salad). This not only frees up oven space, but it also adds something on the fresher and brighter side to the usually heavy Thanksgiving spread. Plus, if you’re traveling, these dishes keep well at room temperature. To get you started, let me suggest the following recipes:
Raw Carrot Ribbon Salad
Time: 15 minutes; Serves: 4 to 6
- 1 bunch carrot (about 6 or 7 carrots total), washed
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1 to 2 Tbsp apple cider vinegar (depending on your love of “zing”)
- 1 Tbsp minced shallot
- 1 lemon, zest and juice
- 1 tsp salt-free garlic powder
- Fresh dill
Holding the stem, use a vegetable peeler to make ribbons from carrot, rotating as you peel. Place all the carrot ribbons in your serving bowl. Note: one carrot makes about 1 1/2 cups of carrot ribbons. Save any leftover carrot pieces for homemade, low-so stock.
In a small, lidded jar or container, combine the olive oil, vinegar, shallot, lemon zest and juice, and garlic powder. Cover with the lid and give it a good shake. Taste and adjust the flavor as needed. Then shake again and use half to 3/4 of it to dress the salad. Add in some fresh dill weed and use your hands or salad tongs to toss until well combined. Refrigerate up to a day before serving. Then add the remaining dressing, as needed, right before its time to eat.
Raw Cauliflower Rice Salad
Time: 20 minutes, Serves: 4
- 3 cups chopped cauliflower florets
- 1 ear corn, kernels removed
- 1/4 cup fresh basil, cut in ribbons (or parsley, roughly torn)
- 1 lemon, zest and juice
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1/4 tsp salt-free garlic powder
- 1/4 tsp red chili pepper flakes
- 1/8 freshly ground black pepper
- 1 medium shallot, minced
Add the cauliflower florets to a food processor and pulse until they resemble a crumbly, rice-like texture. Transfer the cauliflower to a serving bowl and add the corn and herbs. Mix until combined.
Pour the lemon juice into a small mixing bowl, and while whisking, slowly add the olive oil. Add the fresh herbs, spices, and shallot. Whisk until well combined. If not serving right away, refrigerate the cauliflower, corn, and herb salad separately from the dressing. And when ready to serving, mix in the dressing and any leftover fresh herbs on top.
Note: Can also be made with broccoli florets!
Now that we’ve tackled raw and stove-top sides, let’s tackle those supporting dishes that use the oven. Usually, these dishes taste best when served warm and often require strategic timing and coordination when it comes to the turkey and its cooking temperature. That’s why I like to choose recipes that can be made at the same temp as that turkey (or guinea hen) — which I usually spatchcock or breakdown in order to cook it more evenly and at a temperature at 425 dg or so — or those dishes that can be served at room temperature a few hours later.
Like the simple sides, though, roasted dishes need not be complicated in order to be flavorful. I think some of the best dishes usually include the following equation: roasted vegetable + tasty sauce or punchy dressing + acid + fresh herbs + something textural (crushed nuts, pomegranate seeds, oven-crisped mushrooms). And to get you started, may I suggest using Bon Appetit’s roasting matrix to come up with a combo of your own. Or try one of the following:
Roasted Delicata Squash with Creme Fraiche Drizzle
Time: 45 minutes; Serves: 4 to 6
- 3 medium delicata squash
- 2 Tbsp olive oil or ghee
- 1 lemon, zest and juice
- 1/4 cup honey
- 1/2 cup pomegranate seeds
- 1/4 cup creme fraiche
- 2 to 3 Tbsp minced fresh chives (or mint or dill)
Preheat oven to 425dg F.
Cut off the ends of the delicata squash and then, along the midline, cut in half. Standing up on a flat side, cut down the center of the squash. Use a spoon to scoop out the seeds. And then cut each squash half crosswise into 1-inch-thick half moon shapes. Place the squash on a large baking sheet and toss with the oil until evenly coated. Arrange in a single layer — no crowding — and place in the oven to cook until squash is fork tender and slightly caramelized, turning the squash pieces over at the halfway point, about 30 minutes total.
Meanwhile, in a small mixing bowl, whisk together the lemon juice, zest, and honey until well combined. When the squash is ready, transfer to a serving bowl or tray. At this point, you can cover the squash and keep it at room temperature for up to 2 hours and reheat right before serving.
When ready, toss the squash with the lemon honey dressing, some pomegranate seeds, and fresh chives. Then, use a small whisk or fork to whip the creme fraiche until silky and viscous. Drizzle some right on top of the squash and leave the rest in a bowl for guests to drizzle to their own content. Top with a few more pomegranate seeds and fresh herbs, and serve.
Roasted Carrots and Fennel with Yogurt and Dill
Time: 30 minutes; Serves 4
- 1 bunch carrots (about 6 or 7 carrots total), washed with tops trimmed
- 2 large fennel bulbs, washed
- 2 Tbsp olive oil or ghee
- 1/2 tsp salt-free garlic powder
- 1/2 cup Greek yogurt
- 1/4 cup roughly chopped, fresh dill
Preheat oven to 450dg F.
Cut carrots in half lengthwise. Then cut the using a mandolin or your knife, hold on to the fronds and cut off the bottom of the fennel bulb. Continue cutting the fennel into thin slices (about 1/4-inch thick) until you reach the fronds. Discard the fronds OR save for vegetable broth.
Place the carrots and fennel on a large baking sheet with rims, Toss with the oil, garlic powder, and dill until well combined. And then arrange vegetables so they all touch the pan in a single layer — no crowding, please! Place the pan in the oven and roast until the carrots are soft enough to pierce with a fork and the fennel looks slightly browned and caramelized, about 35 to 40 minutes. Remove the vegetables from the oven and, at this point, you can cover the vegetables with foil for up to 3 hours until it is time to serve.
In a small bowl, use a spoon or a small whisk to “whip” the yogurt until it gets drippy and viscous, just a minute or two. Then dollop and drizzle a little yogurt on your serving dish as well as some of the fresh dill weed. Layer on half of the carrots and fennel, then drizzle with more yogurt and dill. Layer on the rest of the carrots and fennel, and finish with a final drizzle of yogurt and dill.
Time: 45 minutes; Serves: 4
- 1 Ancho chile pepper
- 1 medium cauliflower (about 1.5 lbs or 650g)
- 1/4 cup + 3 Tbsp olive oil, separated
- 1/2 tsp salt-free garlic powder
- 1 pint cherry tomatoes
- 1/4 cup fresh basil, packed
- 1/2 cup unsalted pine nuts, toasted
- 2 Tbsp roughly torn, fresh parsley
- Zest and juice from 1 lemon
Cut off the top of the Ancho pepper and then slice in half, lengthwise, removing the stem and the seeds. Place the pepper on a small baking sheet lined with foil and broil it in the oven until the skin is black and charred, about 8 to 10 minutes. Remove the pepper and use the foil to flip it into a bowl. Then cover with the foil and let it sit and steam.
Preheat the oven to 450dg F (note: thanks to the broiler, your oven should come to temperature faster!)
Remove the majority of the stem from the cauliflower head, but keep and set aside the leaves. Then cut the cauliflower into flat-sided florets – having some stem attached is totally cool. Place the florets and the leaves on a large baking pan and toss with 2 Tbsp of oil and garlic powder. Then arrange the florets and leaves so they lay in a single layer — remember, no crowding! And place in the oven to roast until the florets take on some golden brown spots, about 30 to 35 minutes.
In a separate baking pan, toss the cherry tomatoes with 1 Tbsp of oil and place them in the oven as well. Cook until they begin to blister and burst, about 20 minutes. Note: this can be done ahead of time and tomatoes can be either reheated by adding to the cauliflower in final 5 minutes of cooking or separately in a microwave.
While the veggies roast, check in with that Ancho pepper. The blackened skin should now easily slide off, leaving you with the silk flesh underneath. Roughly chop the pepper. Transfer the pepper to a food processor and add the basil, half of the pine nuts, and the remaining 1/4 cup of olive oil. Blend until smooth and well combined, although I also think a little chunkiness is ok. Whatever you prefer.
When the cauliflower is finished, transfer them to your serving dish. Toss with the warmed, roasted cherry tomatoes, remaining pine nuts, the Ancho pesto, the lemon zest. At this point you can tent with foil for up to 3 hours at room temperature before serving. Or, if you’re ready to serve, finish with a half of the lemon juice. Gently mix it in, taste, and add a little more as your taste buds desire.
Here’s everything you need to know about buying brine free birds, creating big salt-free flavor (and crispy skin), and carving the dang thing. Plus a nifty video from Sodium Girl and the National Kidney Foundation. But here’s another tip: SKIP THE BIRD altogether. Go with a roasted chicken, or balsamic glazed guinea hens, or a gorgeous rack of lamb. Or any of these non-turkey suggestions (thanks Food52!). And give yourself permission and creative license to explore new proteins and new spice blends (that don’t need to be soaked in salty solutions to stay moist). Not to mention, cut down on prep time and effort.
Balsamic Glazed Guinea Hens
Time: 1 hour; Serves: 4
- 2 Cornish game hens, backbone removed and butterflied
- 2 Tbsp olive oil or ghee
- 1 tsp salt (optional)
- 1 tsp garlic powder (salt-free optional)
- 1 tsp smoked paprika
- 1/2 tsp freshly cracked black pepper
- 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
- 2 Tbsp apricot jam
- 2 Tbsp molasses
Preheat oven to 400dg F.
Use foil to cover a large roasting pan or baking sheet with edges. Place a flat roasting rack on top. And place the butterflied guinea hens on the rack, so they lay flat. Pat guinea hens dry with a paper towel and use your fingers to separate the skin from the meat as much as possible, without ripping.
In a small mixing bowl, combine the oil and spices. Then rub the mixture under the skin and on top. Place the guinea hens in the oven and cook for 35 minutes.
In another small bowl, mix the vinegar, jam, and molasses. Stir until combined. Remove the guinea hens from the oven and brush the tops with the vinegar glaze. Then return the guinea hens to the oven to cook until a thermometer inserted in the thigh reads 160dg F, about 6 to 8 minutes.
Japanese Seven Spice Lamb
Time: 2 hours; Serves: 4 to 6
- 10 cloves garlic, peeled
- 2 to 3 tsp Japanese Seven Spice
- 2 to 3 tsp olive oil
- One 4 to 5 lb boneless leg of lamb, tied and rolled and fat trimmed
- 1/4 cup finely chopped cilantro
- 1 small shallot, minced
- 1 lime, zest and juice separated
Remove the top oven racks (this is so your roasting rack with fit). Then preheat oven to 425dg F.
Place the garlic, Japanese Seven Spice, and 2 tsp olive oil in a food processor. Blend until it forms a paste and add more olive oil as needed. Then set the paste aside.
Line a roasting or baking pan with foil and then, place the lamb on a roasting rack on top of the pan. If you don’t have a roasting rack, you can always you a cookie cooling rack instead over a large enough skillet or pan (to catch the drippings). Then use your hands to cover the lamb completely in the rub (and if your butcher tied the line with netting versus twine, try to get the rub under the netting as much as possible). Place the lamb in the oven and cook until the top browns, about 15 minutes. Then lower the heat to 375dg F and continue cooking for 1 hour and 15 minutes. Because every oven is different, this is when you will start removing your meat from the oven and checking the internal temperature using a meat thermometer. When placed into the meaty center (not in fat and not poking all the way through), the lamb should read 135 to 145dg F for a medium rare. If the temperature is still too low, put the lamb back in the oven for 15 minutes and then recheck. Repeat as needed.
When ready, transfer the lamb to a carving board — the kind with divots to catch the juices. Let the meat rest for 15 minutes and remember that the temperature will rise as it sits there. While you wait, mix the cilantro, shallot, lime zest, and 1 tsp of the lime juice in a small bowl. Taste and add more lime juice as desired.
Then put the lamb on a serving platter with roasted root vegetables, shredded Brussels sprouts, or whatever sides you’ve prepared. Sprinkle the tip with your vibrant cilantro salsa, with extras on the side for guests. And then serve to your adoring family, friends, and fans.
TINY EATS BEFORE THE FEAST
Keep the appetizers light and simple with these crunchy pasta crackers or stuffed cucumbers or bread-free crostini. Sneak in some extra vegetables with a creamy broccoli dip. And if you have time and hickory chips, try making your own smoked fish dip to add a little surf before the turkey turf.
MAKING THE MASH
If you want creamy and “cheesy” use these tips. If you want crispy and easy, try these hasselback potatoes. And if you want something without the spuds, make fluffy cauliflower instead. Or swap in something new, like pesto or roasted peppers. This other new and nifty National Kidney Foundation video has plenty of ideas for you.
Surprise those tastebuds by adding pickled cherries, baked grapes, and roasted garbonzos for unexpected tang and texture. Or serve up this roasted sweet potato salad with cranberries for a total holiday mash up. Or skip the stuffing and make a seasonal and savory tart.
HOW TO HOST
A gluten-free, paleo, and low-sodium eater walk into a room…and this is how you feed them all with the ultimate DIY, flexible feast. “Choose your topping” chocolate bark bar included. Or these easy and festive chocolate marshmallows. If you’re attending someone else’s holiday table this year, here are tips on staying full and sticking to your diet.