- Honestly, Dara -

Let Them Eat Cake

|
Let Them Eat Cake

Enough with all the heavy, sugary treats at holiday gatherings. There’s a world of fresher, healthier delights out there for you to offer — and enjoy.

You know what I love? A glass of old-fashioned, homemade eggnog, prepared with real eggs from wild-roaming chickens and real cream from cows that feed on grassy pastures. The way the fresh nutmeg floats on the whipped egg whites, the way the scent of cinnamon floats through the air — it just whispers Christmas to me.

It also whispers, Wow, I just drank a cup of melted ice cream. Boy, oh boy, I’m full. And holy cow, how am I supposed to eat dinner after this?

I mean, I love eggnog as much as anybody, but that doesn’t mean I want to drink a glass every night for a month in the run-up to the holidays. It’s just a bit much.

I felt this way even before I heard about the Utah man who last year chugged a quart of nonalcoholic eggnog at his company party and ended up in the hospital for the next three days. We simply aren’t meant to have that much holiday cheer in such a short period of time.

In December alone, there are fried potato latkes for Hanukkah, holiday-cookie exchanges, treat-laden school programs, gifts of bûche de Noël cakes, potluck staff parties, New Year’s Eve blowouts — all piled on top of the inevitable birthdays and going-away parties.

Our ancestors probably tottered into a party and hoisted a glass two or three times during the holidays. They could not possibly have encountered the nonstop tsunami of fruitcakes, seasonal ales, and other edible riches that threatens to drown us today.

So, bah humbug?

Not so fast. There are plenty of ways to celebrate with food and drink that don’t involve spackling a cake to another cake and serving it on a raft of still more cake. Here are just a few of my favorites you might explore.

Fanciful Fare

The French have a way of creating platters of vegetables that make you feel like you’re eating something fancy. They call them crudités (crew-dih-TAYS) and pair them with a dipping sauce like the niçoise below, which elevates and unifies them.

For a beautiful spread, I recommend as many fresh radishes as you can find, along with lots of green onions, and green beans, or any other of the related long snap beans. Pile on other veggies according to your taste. I like a mix of Belgian endive, carrots, peppers, celery, fennel, zucchini or other squash, radicchio, blanched asparagus, and sugar snap peas or snow peas.

Fermented treats like French olives, pickled artichokes, and gherkins will round out the plate nicely. Add chèvre or other cheeses if you’re so inspired, and a basket of crackers or bread.

If you want to make it into a full dinner, add cold roasted chicken, cold poached salmon, or seared rare tuna.

Sancerre, the elegant French Sauvignon Blanc, goes beautifully with  crudités, and adds a nice through-line to the evening. If you prefer a red wine, Beaujolais is ideal.

Sauce niçoise 

  • 2 cups mayonnaise
  • 2 cloves garlic (or more, to taste)
  • 2 tbs. capers
  • 3 tbs. niçoise olives, pitted

Black pepper to taste

Combine in a blender or food processor.

Spiced Up

Looking for something gluten-free, healthy, and festive? The Thai tradition of nam prik is analogous to French crudités. It’s a way of serving vegetables with a dipping sauce that can be made with or without meat.

Load up platters with lots and lots (and lots!) of cucumbers, cut on a slant to maximize their dip-holding ability. Add lettuce leaves, Belgian endive, red peppers, asparagus spears, planks of zucchini and summer squash, long beans, slices of daikon radish, cauliflower, broccoli or broccoli raab, Napa cabbage, bok choy, celery, and lots of cherry tomatoes.

Set a dish of vegetarian or meat-added nam prik in the middle of the table along with some high-quality sake — the type that’s meant to be drunk chilled, to showcase the rice wine’s surprisingly delicate lemon or cucumber notes. Or set out some shochu, a higher-octane spirit typically distilled from barley, rice, buckwheat, or potato.

If you want to turn it into more of a dinner, add cold, marinated and grilled sliced steak. For a nice, simple finish to the meal, try coconut sorbet or a fruit salad of pineapple dressed with chili pepper to taste.

Nam prik 

  • 7 cloves garlic
  • ¼ lb. ground pork (optional)
  • 1 cup cherry tomatoes
  • Chili peppers to taste
  • 1 tbs. Thai fish sauce
  • 3 tbs. shallot, minced
  • ¼ cup fresh cilantro, minced

In a hot pan glazed with olive oil, sauté two minced garlic cloves until golden brown, then add the ground pork and brown until cooked through. (You can skip this step to make it a vegetarian dish.) In a food processor, combine the cherry tomatoes, chili peppers, five garlic cloves, Thai fish sauce, and shallot until chunky. Add the tomato purée to the pork mixture, and cook until well integrated. Add water, if necessary; it should have the texture of taco meat. Add cilantro before serving.

An Italian Take

Does every country have a vegetable-based celebration dish that Americans have not been eating? Pretty much! In northern Italy, it’s bagna cauda, a warm dipping sauce made of olive oil, butter, garlic, and anchovies.

All you do is combine those and serve with a heaping platter of vegetables. Think broccoli, red and yellow peppers, fennel, celery, carrots, radishes, zucchini and summer squash, radicchio, Belgian endive, any sort of snap bean, asparagus, scallions, sugar snap peas, and snow peas.

Barbera, the Piedmontese red table wine, is the traditional pairing for bagna cauda, but in the United States it’s usually hard to find at a reasonable price to serve at a party. Instead, I recommend a simple Chianti, something earthy and tangy. If you want a more significant spread to make it a dinner, add salami, cheeses, or grilled meats.

Bagna cauda 

  • ¾ cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 3 tbs. butter
  • 2 tsp. chopped garlic
  • 8 to 10 anchovies, chopped

In a saucepan, combine olive oil and butter, and cook until liquefied. Add garlic, and cook until it’s soft but doesn’t become crisp or take on any color. Add anchovies. Cook it all together, mashing with a wooden spoon until the anchovies become a paste. Transfer the mixture into a ceramic bean pot or fondue pot to keep it warm, and serve.

That’s how you make vegetables the center of a celebration!

Perhaps you’re thinking, Won’t my friends be annoyed or disappointed not to be getting more cake and eggnog?

The way I look at it, your friends will be getting plenty of that elsewhere. Someone has to be the first to put vegetables in the center of the table this New Year. Why not let it be you?

Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl is a James Beard Award–winning food and wine writer.

Illustration by Tom Kaczynski

Leave a Comment