I love cooking and I love hosting parties. Having moved away from my family to live in a foreign country at a young age (relax, I went to boarding school), I’ve always treasured the opportunities to gather groups of loved ones around a table to be wined and dined. My love for playing hostess makes Christmas one of my favorite holidays to celebrate (right up there with Thanksgiving and Chinese Valentine’s Day). While I enjoy studying the cookbooks, watching Julia Child cook up a storm, and tinsel bombing my entire apartment, cooking on the holidays is not exactly my favorite activity. The pressure that comes with cooking for 20 while being directed by various ‘backseat cooks’ and entertaining can really make even the most devoted cook throw down their spatulas. On any given day, I cook to de-stress, on Christmas, however, that does not apply. After a couple of years of fiasco (and guilt)-ridden holiday feasts thanks to overly concerned relatives and butter-filled recipes, I started dedicating the days post-Halloween to research and plan a healthy, stress-free holiday feast.
While I’m a huge endorser of indulging in your food fantasies every so often (I follow the 2 meal rule, ie I get 2 cheat meals a week to prevent myself from binge-eating virtually every bag of potato chips I can lay my hands on), it’s extremely difficult not to over-indulge during the winter holiday season (Thanksgiving = food, Christmas = food + food, Chinese New Year = food + food + FOOOOOOD). Among the mountains of mashed potatoes (with a huge scoop of butter and sour cream, please), marshmallow-covered yams (seriously, yum), glazed ham, roasted turkey (more butter), not to mention the winter-exclusive eggnogs, the chances of over-indulgence is inevitable while the chances of eating boiled Brussels sprouts
(don’t even mention kale to me between November and January) is close to a laughable dream. While exercising self control in the face of all the yummy goodness could be the solution to such predicament (and potentially mean you’ve got the mind of steel), it’s just a bit of a downer really, and to be honest, not very merry.
To me, the search of the perfect holiday feast menu is very much like finding the perfect man. The trick is balance. The menu must embody the perfect balance between taste (so that it doesn’t scream “DIET FOOD”) and health (so my trainer doesn’t immediately recognize the drumstick shaped imprint on my holiday belly), while being holiday-feast worthy without being so complicated that makes you want to pull out your hair. Now do you see why I start prepping after I bid adieu to trick-o-treaters? To make sure I stay on track with my regular eating habits (I detest the word diet, it’s always more about deprivation than nutrition) and ensure my skin looks its best when I hop from party to party, I focus on the three most important nutrients (besides the usual fiber, and protein for healthy body functions) often overlooked while feasting: Vitamin A, C and E, the holy trinity of anti-aging.
The Protector: Vitamin A
Vitamin A, commonly known these days as retinoids (referring to Vitamin A and its derivatives), is a fat-soluble nutrient responsible for vision, immune functions and skin health. In other words, Vitamin A is best absorbed by the body when ingested with fat and is good for your eyes, immune system and your skin. Found primarily in animal livers, and vegetables such as sweet potatoes, carrots, winter squashes, bell peppers and more, upon ingestion, the retinyl esters (RE, used for internal storage) and β-carotene are converted by the liver to retinol and released into the circulation. It binds to protein and reaches the skin via capillaries in the dermis and then supplied to the epidermis. In several clinical studies, researchers have found that Vitamin A can be effective in protecting your skin against UV damage. While the UV degrades the collagen and fiber located in our dermis and are responsible for our skin looking supple, plump and lifted, Vitamin A can protect our skin from such damage. When applied directly and constantly to the skin (ie, your skincare products), retinol can reduce the signs of aging due to too much sun exposure. In essence, Vitamin A should be eaten with fat (olive oil, for instance) and eating it could potentially protect your skin against its biggest killer, the sun.
The Great and Powerful: Vitamin C
Vitamin C is a water-soluble nutrient responsible for collagen synthesis. On normal skin, it can be found in both the epidermis and the dermis (with a higher concentration in the epidermis) and is vital to the skin appearing youthful. Some studies have indicated that Vitamin C can protect the skin from UV damage as well as treat the signs of such damage. Transported via blood vessels (and Keratinocytes in the epidermis), Vitamin C can be quickly absorbed and lost due to age, smoking, excessive exposure to UV rays and pollution. Vitamin C can be ingested through eating bell peppers, guavas, green kiwis, strawberries, cooked tomatoes and more. It can also be topically applied via Vitamin C rich skincare products (it is also one of the favorite ingredients in Asian skincare products that advertise the whitening element of the product). While it doesn’t reflect UV rays, it does protect against the damage caused. Researchers have found that a combination of Vitamin C and E can effectively treat the damage caused by sunburn.
The Maintenance Crew: Vitamin E
Vitamin E is a group of various fat-soluble molecular nutrients essential for healthy cellular metabolism. Usually provided to the skin via the sebum (a waxy substance used by the body to protect and waterproof hair) after being gathered at the sebaceous glands. It is the only vitamin of the trio that requires topical applications as well as dietary in order to supply the body with the necessary nutrients. It is commonly found in foods such as cooked spinach, almonds, avocados, shrimp and olive oil to name a few. Studies have indicated that Vitamin E (especially when combined with Vitamin C) could prevent the dermal damages caused by free radicals and reactive oxygen species. Vitamin E can also support the maintenance of healthy hair as well as prevent inflammatory damage after UV exposure (sunburn).
While all three of the vitamins can be applied topically (and you should still religiously apply your night cream every night), the trio can and should be ingested since it’s not just your skin health that these vitamins help. Anyways, in case you’re not a crazy, overly analytical control freak like moi, here’s a last minute, stress-free, guilt-free, totally free to get seconds, thirds (and possibly fourths), holiday recipe that you can totes bring home to meet your parents:
Get the party started with a bit of fizz and bite-size seafood.
I love seafood but I rarely eat them in public (with the exception of fish, of course). Why? Because of all the shells, my darling, because of all the shells. Or rather, not so much the shells but the fact that you’d have to touch it in order to get to the yummy insides. Call me spoiled (I admit that I am) but I detest smelling like fish in public and can’t wash my hands after every single shrimp. Unfortunately for me, eating the crustaceans while they’re still in their original shells is the symbol of ‘freshness’ in Taiwan. Hence my dilemma: smelly fingers or no seafood at all. Well, not much of a dilemma really. Good news for the shrimps but bad news for me, seafood is a great source of protein that contains a high level of good fat (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats) that’s known to lower cholesterols levels as well as nutrients necessary for the body to remain healthy (and you looking fab, of course) such as Vitamin A, and E. Luckily enough, there’s plenty of seafood that doesn’t result in dirty, fishy smelling fingers. This starter is beautiful inside and out. The bite size, creamy Salmon Rillette, (which I serve with original Wheat Thins) is filled with the delicious taste of smoked salmon, creamy texture of a dip and best of all, it can be prepared 3 days in advance! The recipe calls for butter but I think it’s ok to indulge a little. It is a party after all.
For tips to select the top quality salmon, click here.
Of course, no fiesta is complete without a good fizz, so to kick off an amazing night of wining and dining with this White Cranberry Mimosa, which is fuzzy enough to get you into the holiday spirit with a little bit of anti-oxidative kick on the side. You can choose to make this with champagne or Prosecco (personally I prefer the latter) depending on your preference. Prop both on a gold rimmed (or a simple elegant serving plate would also do) platter and your party is off to a fan-ta-bulous start!
Salad or No Salad That is the Question!
I’m not a huge fan of uncooked veggies unless they’re in my morning, pre-workout smoothie. However, if you like a raw fiber before the main event, a simple and elegant salad like this Winter White Salad with Endive and Pomegranate is fabulous. I like to add a little bit of crushed almonds to add a little extra texture to the dish.
Go a little Asian with the chicken.
Traditionally, the main course involves a rather large portion of glazed ham and/or a roasted turkey. However, seeing that Thanksgiving was only a month ago, I prefer a different and slightly healthier member of the poultry family, chicken. While an oven-roasted chicken can be prepared with a lot of variations, I like the recipe of this Oven Roast Kimchi Chicken. The exotic, spicy nature of kimchi adds eons of oomph to just a regular plate of roasted chicken. This traditional Korean delicacy is rich in both vitamin A and C, the two key elements in skin (and overall bodily) health with very little calories and no fat whatsoever, making it one of the Asian super foods for anti-aging and weight loss. For this Oven Roast Kimchi Chicken, I use olive oil instead of butter for the kimchi sauce to hike up the nutritional value and I forgo the salt since kimchi is already pretty savory (but I’m also the type of person who’d eat an olive-oil rubbed baked chicken breast sans salt.. so it’s really a judgment call). Finally, the recipe calls for bacon and seeing that it is Christmas, I’d be ok with a little bit of bacon for the holidays, eh? The kimchi sauce in this recipe can be prepared beforehand so on the day of, you can just prep the chicken and pop it into the oven. Done and done!
Partner the main dish with vitamin rich winter veggies.
Remember how I said I like my veggies cooked? Well, I LOVE them roasted. While most Asian recipes calls for stovetop preparations, during the holidays when your little cousins are running in and out of the kitchen, playing hide and seek, open fire is probably not the best idea. The oven is single handedly my favorite kitchen appliance (with the coffee maker being a close second) ever created so most of the recipes I choose end up in the oven at one point or another. While the Kimchi Chicken is already surrounded by veggies, it can’t hurt to have a little more. Since the Kimchi Chicken is spicy and savory, it’s good to have a little something glazed on the side to balance out the taste buds. For the sides, I do an Oven Roasted Glazed Baby Carrots and Winter Squashes. Being an Italian wannabe, I tend to season all of my food with fresh thyme, rosemary and garlic giving the dishes a little more flavor since carrots are sweet by nature and add that with the glaze it’s sweet on top of sweet (fine if you have a sweet tooth but I tend to find that a bit dull). Also, the recipe calls for peeled baby carrots but I like to leave the peel on, adds a bit crunchiness to it and let’s face it, saves a little time (just make sure you scrub it down really well). I also substitute the butter required in the Roasted Winter Squash and Parsnips with olive oil.
End with a Bang!
My love affair with cheesecakes goes way back to the days when my family moved to Phoenix, AZ for a year and my mother learned to make the most decadent cheesecake that involved no flour and only cream cheese. I was 10 and almost two decades later I’m still obsessed with this creamy delicacy. Combining a girl’s second greatest love, chocolate (the first being of course diamonds) with the creamy cheesecake, this Chocolate Truffle Cheesecake, garnished with raspberries (or mint if you’re looking to spend some time under the mistletoe later), will keep your guests happy and talking about your party for years to come.
What do you put on your holiday menu? What is your trick to stop yourself from over-indulging? Leave me a message and let me know!
Happy holidays and happy cooking! Cheers!
For more holiday feast inspirations go to: http://www.epicurious.com/holidays-events/the-best-christmas-ever-package
To learn more about the biggest organ in your body, your skin, go to: 7 Things You Should Know About Your Skin
For more information about the relationship between the skin and vitamins, go to: Oregen State University, Linus Pauling Institute.