Carla Hall: Lighten Up Your Holiday Cooking Without Compromising Flavor

The 'Top Chef' star dishes on trying to create a healthy holiday meal for her family

Oh, the holidays are here! The music is playing, the ads are running, the stores are stocking up and the pressure of producing memorable meals is mounting. Thanksgiving is behind us, but in all its glory, it seems to serve as a warmup for the December holidays—Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa and New Year’s Eve. Holiday decorations and signs magically appear, holiday music is playing and folks are already strategizing how to make it to all the parties and dinners while keeping their waistlines intact.

As much as I live a pretty active lifestyle with foods to match, I have to admit that I crave my childhood meal favorites for Thanksgiving and Christmas. This year I went home, back to Nashville, for Thanksgiving. It was a double celebration—Thanksgiving and my mother’s 70th birthday. I was expected to cook the Thanksgiving dinner, but I was okay with that. I usually work on Thanksgiving anyway, so cooking for my family was a treat. Not to mention the fact that I could make whatever I wanted. The same way that I slip back into my Southern drawl when I go home, my mouth starts to water in anticipation of the Southern fare that my grandmother used to make when she was cooking the dinners—roasted turkey, mac and cheese, candied yams, cornbread dressing, cranberry sauce, green beans, turnip greens with chow chow pickle, fresh tomatoes and cukes in vinegar, and rolls. Oh, not to mention the sweet potato and apple pies. It seems like a lot of food, and I guess it is, but that’s what’s expected.

My cooking challenge was that both my mother and sister have high cholesterol, which they diligently and consistently control with diet. I was then faced with the question that I’d been answering professionally over and over again leading up to the holidays, not to mention the countless cooking demos that I had done: “How can we cut back on the fat, salt and loads of calories and still enjoy our holiday dinner?” What?! Are we really going to do that now? Isn’t there some way I can slip back into my Southern drawl and my soul food dinner memories like one slips into an old pair of well-worn and comfortable jeans? Is this one meal really going to hurt you and make a difference in the whole scheme of things?

I was having a little bit of a food memory tantrum. I wanted my experience at home to be what I remembered. All of a sudden, I realized that I was personally experiencing what people had been asking me about the last six months. It’s one thing to answer a question about healthy and alternative cooking, but it’s another thing to put it into practice when every bone in your body wants to go in another direction. But this was family, and we’ve all changed. My joy ultimately came from us hanging out in the kitchen together while the food was being prepared (my sister was in charge of the dishes, and my niece was in charge of prepping the veggies and getting the ingredients together for the pies), sitting around the dinner table sharing stories, good food and being thankful for just being together.

Putting my tantrum aside, I proceeded to make some adjustments to some of the dishes and really put myself in the shoes of someone who had dietary restrictions. Because I was making everything from scratch, I could control the salt. It’s when we start with processed food that we may run into problems. I felt like we had something for everyone on the menu. If you were sensitive to wheat, you only had to worry about the rolls. The dressing was made with cornbread (which was flourless), onions, celery, turkey sausage, turkey gravy (okay, there was a little bit of flour here) and spices. I made the cranberry sauce with less sugar by using orange juice and agave nectar. The turkey, which is always secondary to the sides in our family, was marinated in fresh herbs, spices and garlic instead of soaking it in a brine. Oh, and I broke the turkey down into parts, so the dark and white meats were both cooked perfectly, and I could use the carcass to make delicious turkey stock for gravy, instead of saving it for leftovers. The sweet potatoes were baked, peeled, sliced, layered in a pan, and covered in a mix of ginger, orange zest, a bit of butter and real maple syrup, instead of sugar. They were a lot less sweet than we were used to, but the natural sweetness of the potatoes shined through. The green beans were blanched and then sautéed with garlic and almonds, keeping them crisp tender and bright green. My grandmother would have cooked them slowly with onions, smoked turkey and a bunch of spices until they were soft and not so green anymore. My mom did make the turnips greens in this traditional way with a lot less salt, and we loved every bite of them. We stopped using smoked pork in our greens decades ago. There were plans to sauté a batch of collard and Brussels sprout leaves, but I ran out of time. Next time.

I have to admit, though, that no changes were made to the mac and cheese. The decision here was to just have less. I did end up making a special pan of dressing for my sister without the turkey sausage, but other than that, everyone focused on what they could have instead of what they couldn’t. The portions were controlled, but not the conversation. It was perfect. Perhaps I’ve created new food memories that we can sustain. I’m looking forward to having a repeat at Christmas.

By the way, my sister told me that was the best turkey she had ever had ... in life. Coming from her, that is huge. She is to me what Anthony Bourdain is to Top Chef. Oh joy!

I hope you all enjoy the spirit of this beautiful season while embracing the joys and memories of family and food.

Until next time ... cook with love.

Learn more about Carla Hall

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