A taste of the holidays year-round

With lemon, garlic, rosemary and parsley, Herb Roasted Chicken (recipe below) brings a delicious taste of the holidays that you can enjoy all year. 

By Margi Lenga Kahn, Special to the Jewish Light

The 2012 holiday season has come to a close, and with it, our culture’s consent to gorge on those traditional festive foods. Come Jan. 2, we are told, we must bid farewell to satiny mashed potatoes, turkey drenched in thick gravy, creamy soups, and glistening fruit pies. So, too, we must avoid those decadent holiday party classics such as caviar-topped deviled eggs, salmon crepes, and cheesy dips. These foods, we are warned, are laden with fat and calories. Thus they are often banned by our stern (but fleeting) New Year’s resolutions. But should they be? Are they really that bad for you?

Actually, there is nothing inherently unhealthy about those satiny mashed potatoes or, for that matter, any of the other holiday treats deemed verboten after the final New Year’s Day celebrations. The issue lies not in what we eat, but how much. And because many of these holiday foods come but once a year, we feel compelled to overeat. After all, we won’t have them again until next year.

But what if we were to incorporate some of these traditional foods on, say, a weekly basis? Would we enjoy them less?

I will concede that many classic holiday dishes contain generous amounts of sugar, salt and fat. We come to crave these foods because they stimulate the pleasure area of our brain. A good example would be that iconic Thanksgiving sweet potato dish featuring lots of butter, maple syrup, and toasted marshmallows.

But there is a deeper explanation for why we crave these foods, one that is anchored in nostalgic association and childhood memories—memories of our mothers and aunts and grandmothers cooking together in a warm kitchen, our homes filled with the heavenly scents of meats roasting and pies baking. I am convinced that the profound connection that each of those dishes has to the warmth and joy we experience when eating them together as a family has much more to do with making them holiday favorites. These are, quite literally, our comfort foods.

In 2005, National Public Radio asked several chefs to talk about their favorite comfort foods.  The list they compiled was not particularly exotic: Swedish meatballs and mashed potatoes; chicken and rice; chicken noodle soup; pasta with garlic and parsley.  But the emotions behind that list were intense. Each chef spoke of the fond memories of their favorite dish, not only how it tasted, but with whom they had shared it. Memory was the key behind each comfort food, not the sugar, salt or fat.

Marcel Proust certainly understood the link between food and memory. The literary device behind his masterwork, “In Search of Lost Time” (also known as “Remembrance of Things Past”) is the flood of childhood memories released when his main character takes a bite of a petite French cake known as a madeleine, a comfort food he vividly recalls sharing with his beloved aunt Léonie.

All this leads me back to the nostalgic associations we have with holiday foods. If you crave that holiday turkey, don’t wait until next Thanksgiving to roast one. For a scaled down version, consider roasting a whole chicken. Moist and flavorful and easy to prepare, it is an excellent understudy for the role of comfort food. If you crave those creamy mashed potatoes, you might try a different “comfort” version of that favorite dish that will get you a thumbs-up from your nutritionist.  Substituting caramelized onions, garlic, and olive oil for the butter and cream will yield a dish of mashed potatoes just as satisfying as the original, if not more so.

By limiting our enjoyment of holiday comfort foods to only two months of the year, we limit the pleasures we could be sharing and the memories we could be creating throughout the year. What is more, we may eliminate the need for holiday gorge fests and those broken New Year’s resolutions.

The recipes below are for comfort foods that are easy to prepare, healthy enough to enjoy year round, and might just earn a place on your next holiday table.


Margi Lenga Kahn is the mother of five and grandmother of four. A cooking instructor at the Kitchen Conservatory, she is currently working on a project to preserve the stories and recipes of heritage cooks. She welcomes your comments and suggestions at [email protected].