From the start of football season, to the turn of colors in the leaves, to upcoming holiday gatherings, the fall season inspires memorable meals. It can also be a challenging time of year to eat healthfully and stick to our health habits.
Jennifer Stack, award-winning chef, professor at the Culinary Institute of America, and a guiding voice for foodies with diabetes and pre-diabetes, is a passionate believer that seasonal eating can be both pleasurable and healthful.
For Chef Stack, it’s all about flavor, “One of my guiding principles is that it has to taste good, really good, not just okay. I have found that flavor brings more people to the table of healthful eating,” said Stack.
Building memories of healthful family meals is what’s important, she explained, “Ultimately, if someone doesn’t come back to a staple in their eating habits, it’s not going to be a good source of nourishment,” she added. What’s on Chef Stack’s fall menu? I asked her to give readers her best cooking class tips.
Rethink your appetizer offerings, advised Chef Stack:
“I think having some kind of dip that works with vegetables is a good idea. The vegetables can go beyond celery sticks and carrots. It might be string beans. It might be jicama cut into matchsticks. You can make some fabulous dips where the base is not sour cream, or a lot of mayonnaise. I like to do a silken tofu dip that has a lot of chopped up cucumbers and chopped up tomatoes in it, almost mimicking the flavors of what you might find in a tabbouleh.”
Add Color to Your Table
Butternut squash, pumpkin, Swiss chard, and other fall vegetables are abundant and can be prepared in a variety of ways. Chef Stack noted,
“I love roasting vegetables. Get it in that hot oven, and let it roast. It comes out tasting great. Root vegetables and cool weather greens also come to mind. The reason vegetables become so important is because they are packed with phytonutrients. They’re generally low in calories and high in fiber.
You can experiment with them throughout the holidays. They make great additional side dishes, or salad dishes that can be added in to your holiday menu. It gives you something else to fill up on.”
Super Kale to the Rescue
We also spoke about kale, a hidden gem of fall vegetables:
“Kale is this amazing green, not as bitter in taste as broccoli rabe, even less bitter than some spinach. I sauté kale with shallots, a recipe that is perfect for people that are a little hesitant to get into kale. It sweetens it up naturally with just a little bit of wine thrown in.
I like to make kale chips, crisps I call them. I like to toss them in a little bit of a vinaigrette, or a tofu and blue cheese dressing, so when you roast them, it becomes a very subtle background flavor. It makes them more interesting.”
Be a Master Chef – Use Braising
What is Chef Stack’s most robust fall cooking technique? Braising. She explained, “I get so excited as the temperature starts to dip. It gives me the perfect excuse to start braising again. This cooking technique takes tough and lean cuts of meat and turns them into succulent meals that are naturally low in fat but high in flavor.”
A time-tested technique with braising, Chef Stack’s mantra is to season, sear, sweat, and simmer:
“I start with a cut of beef or pork, season it with salt, pepper and a little bit of flour, so the surface of it is really dry. Then with a big heavy pan with some vegetable oil in it I’m letting get really hot, I sear all sides of the meat. As it hits the hot pan it starts to release some of the moisture. Then it sweats up some of those brown done bits on the bottom, and that’s the basis of good flavor. Next, I take a flavorful liquid and let that seared meat simmer in liquid with onions, or aromatic vegetables. This is something that’s really nice to just let it go in the oven for two hours until that meat is fork tender. I also like to serve it over any type of the hearty root vegetables that are available,” she said.
Chef Stack added that these types of dishes are win-win meals. One can make the dish a day or two before a holiday gathering--they freeze well and make great leftovers the day after when you don’t have the time to cook.
You don’t need to be a spice master to enhance flavor of your fall meals, Chef Stack advises to keep it simple. “I definitely love roasting celeriac and carrots with a little bit of fennel seed. That one is fabulous and so easy to do.” Using flavorful liquids is also a spicing-up tip, she explained, “At this time of the year it could be anything from using beer, to wine, to various vegetable broths, chicken broth, beef broth, or fresh cider from the market.”
Creating plant-based dishes can enhance health and also can introduce inventive flavor solutions, Chef Stack noted,
“My skills as a chef improve incredibly when I challenge myself to cook vegan. One Thanksgiving, I made a vegan Shepherd’s pie. Instead of using ground meat for the base of the Shepherd’s pie, I went with finely diced up mushrooms. I made sure that, that base had gravy that went with the mushrooms. As I was cooking that up, I had a lot of onions. I used shallots, some wine to infuse flavor into it. I also used a little bit of a roasted vegetable stock. I was getting some deep savory flavors added in. I then topped it with mashed sweet potatoes. I mixed in mashed chick peas so I was adding some protein and more fiber and then topped it with toasted pecans. I also used a lot of the flavors that we associate with Thanksgiving: sage, the traditional blend of poultry seasoning--a blend of rosemary, oregano, sage, ginger, marjoram, thyme, and pepper.”
Satisfy your Sweet Tooth
Want to satisfy your sweet tooth? The sweetness of apples can be a seasonal delight, noted Chef Stack:
“I love baking apples, roasting them whole. I also love poaching pears, because their shape is beautiful and they hold well after they’re done. You can keep them in the refrigerator. A few slices of a poached pear can top a salad and it’s just a nice surprise, because the sweetness is infused with whatever poaching liquid, like a wine perhaps.”
Sweet and savory is also a flavorful pairing, said Stack:
"I like to use apples sautéed. A lot of people don’t think that it is a savory item, but it doesn’t take much to sauté them. It could be with a little bit of walnut oil. It could be with a little bit of butter. You can sprinkle a little bit of sugar on them, but you don’t have to, because particularly in the fall they’ve got plenty of their own flavor. You can pour the sautéed apples over a piece of fish, chicken, meat, or quinoa.”
Think Mini--Not Super-Size
Mini-sizing, said Chef Stack, is a key to enjoying traditional holiday fare:
“Sometimes there is no substitute for the real thing. Often times I encourage people to have the traditional dish, but make it in a smaller portion. Make individual mini-portions, particularly if it’s a desert, like mini pumpkin pies, instead of one big one where you’re never quite sure what a portion is.”
Cook with Your Inner Artist
Keeping the art in preparing your meals is yet another secret. Chef Stack commented,
“Yes, we eat with all of our senses, probably even more so with our eyes at the holidays. I often tell this to my students that are chefs-to-be. Many people look at healthful foods with a preconceived bias. If we can wow them with presentation, I think they enter into that eating experience with an open mind, instead of saying, oh that’s a low fat dish, maybe I’ll pass it.”
Unplug and Connect
Her final tip to home cooks: unplug from the overload of our fast-paced digital lives and connect.
“I am a big fan of family and friends cooking together. It is a wonderful way to introduce new foods and cooking techniques. Both kids and adults are more likely to try new foods when they have prepared them and had a good time doing it. The more we learn how to cook with confidence, the more healthfully we’ll eat. Experiment with basic skills; it will become second nature to you and then you can start to push the limits.”
For more healthful cooking ideas, here are two cooking class sessions with Chef Stack: A festive Holiday Jicama and Red Pepper Salad and a flavorful Beer Braised Beef dish. To stay inspired, follow Chef Stack on Facebook for more recipe ideas from her new book The Diabetes Friendly Kitchen. Each post is guaranteed to keep you experimenting for the season.
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