The problem with Thanksgiving is the food. Though it's a lovely family holiday, most traditional Thanksgiving recipes -- the mashed and sweet potatoes, chestnut stuffings, cornbread dressings, whipped parsnips, pastries and pies -- call for butter.
Riddled with fat and cholesterol, butter also poses a challenge to people who keep kosher. Jewish dietary laws prohibit the mixing of dairy with meat. On Thanksgiving, it means that the autumn foods Americans love must be tweaked to share a sideboard with turkey.
Most kashrut observers simply substitute margarine for butter and move on. It's the way Jewish cooks have operated for decades. But what happens to flavor and health in the process?
"I never use margarine," says chef Laura Frankel, co-owner of Shallots, a Chicago-area restaurant renowned not only for fabulous dining, but for being among the top kosher restaurants in America. "You can't take a recipe calling for butter and shove margarine into it instead."
Butter melts at body temperature, while margarine melts at higher than 98.6, explains Frankel, the author of Jewish Cooking for All Seasons: Fresh, Flavorful Kosher Recipes for Holidays and Every Day. "Because margarine doesn't melt while you're eating it, the stuff ends up coating your teeth. With margarine, there's no clean wash away in the mouth."
Some brands of margarine also contain trans-fats, the result of adding hydrogen to vegetable oils. "The product was created in a chem lab," says Frankel. "It has nothing to do with real food."
The American Heart Association warns that trans-fats and saturated fats found in dairy products are the main dietary culprits in raising blood cholesterol.
But when a little indulgence is called for, Frankel prefers butter to margarine, because of its superior taste and performance.
High-quality butter contains between 78 percent and 82 percent fat, as compared to margarine with 6 percent to 79 percent fat, depending on the manufacturer. The rest of the product is water.
"In cakes made with margarine, the fat sinks to the bottom. The water rises and evaporates. The end result -- a cake which is dry on top and gooey at the bottom."
Margarine also doesn't brown like butter. Therefore, it can't impart butter's rich flavor into sautéed foods, such as vegetables and other Thanksgiving side dishes.
"Why would anyone take autumn squash and drown it in chemicals in a frying pan?" poses Frankel.
Before substituting a nondairy ingredient for butter, she considers: What was butter's purpose in the recipe? For moisture? Rich flavor? Thickening?
Once you realize what you're looking to duplicate, it's easier to find something that plays the same role, ideally imparting great taste in the most natural way. Sometimes, beef stock will mirror butter's deep flavor. If it's simply moisture you're after, oil will do the trick.
Frankel favors canola and olive oils, both monounsaturated fats. During the fall, when nuts are harvested, pumpkin seed and walnut oils -- polyunsaturated fats -- impart toasty earthy taste. These four healthy oils are ideal for sautéing.
What does Frankel serve to family and friends on this all-American holiday?
This year, she's going to start with Roasted Pumpkin-Chestnut Soup, a re-cipe that she's never published anywhere until now. Visually appealing, this wholesome bisque is quintessential harvest fare. Frankel suggests serving soup the way she does -- passed around in cups to milling guests, while she's putting the finishing touches on the rest of dinner.
Her Maple Mashed Sweet Potatoes are a deep-orange purée, deriving sweetness from maple syrup and crunch from pecans. Use high-quality maple syrup, rather than pancake syrup; no one will miss the shortening.
Pan-Fried Smashed Potatoes taste similar to hash browns, but are far easier to prepare. They're far tastier than their competition -- mashed potatoes whipped with butter and milk. Frankel suggests using extra-virgin olive oil, and the season's best bliss or new potatoes.
On cool autumn days, Braised Chestnuts, Fennel, Leeks and Golden Raisins are as comfy as a cashmere sweater. While the chestnuts take some time to prepare, the rest of the recipe is so easy, it's well worth making. The taste is divine, and the brunette color so gorgeous, Frankel wishes she could duplicate it in her hair.
She feels it's time for kosher cuisine to come into its own.
"Somehow, kosher food got off on a different path," admits Frankel. Instead of oil, people still rub turkey skin with margarine, which clumps and then, in the oven, runs off like water. They're still opening overly salted flavor packets, and tossing them on meat and other foods.
"Too many kosher recipes call for processed ingredients. Why are we eating chemicals? Why are kosher recipes not going natural? To comply with kashrut, somehow we got into the habit of substituting and adjusting with things that taste bad and are bad for us."
Frankel believes in honest food, freshly prepared. Because she made the decision to become kosher as an adult, she's sensitive to the taste differential between the two worlds. That's why she's driven to infuse delectable flavor into kosher cooking.
She explains that the Mediterranean diet is the one to which nutritionists keep returning because it's the best way to eat. It's a healthy diet, revolving around olive oil and vegetables, roasted meat and fish, and a wide variety of fresh fruit.
Jews originally came from the Mediterranean, she states. "Why can't kosher cooking go back to the clear, light foods of our roots?"
In a country blessed with pumpkins and apples, pears, potatoes and farmer's markets of possibilities, forget flavor packets and margarine. Think fragrant, fresh and natural.
These recipes are all by Laura Frankel. Side dishes are from Jewish Cooking for All Seasons.
Roasted Pumpkin-Chestnut Soup
2 Tbsps. olive oil
2 Tbsps. carrot, small diced
2 Tbsps. onion, small diced
2 Tbsps. celery, small diced
1 tsp. minced garlic
1/2 tsp. chopped ginger
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground coriander
1/2 tsp. dried thyme
pinch ground cloves
1/2 cup pumpkin purée, fresh or canned
1/2 cup canned chestnuts
3-4 cups chicken stock or water if using cream
1/2 cup heavy cream (optional)
salt, pepper and honey
Garnish: chervil, chives, tarragon and parsley
In a 1-quart saucepan, heat olive oil until smoking.
Brown the carrots, onions and celery. When they are browned, add the garlic and the ginger. Cook for another 2 minutes.
Add the cinnamon, coriander, thyme, nutmeg and ground cloves. Cook the mixture for another minute.
Stir in the pumpkin and chestnuts, and cover with the chicken stock or water, about 2 inches above the vegetables.
Cook until all the vegetables are soft, keeping the liquid at the same level.
Purée the mixture in a blender until smooth, strain through a fine strainer and return to a 1-quart saucepan.
Add the cream. Season with salt, pepper and honey. Thin the soup with water, if necessary.
To serve, garnish the bowl with a mixture of chervil, chives, tarragon and parsley.
Soup can be stored covered in the refrigerator for three days.
Makes 4 servings.
Maple Mashed Sweet Potatoes
2-3 large sweet potatoes (about 3 pounds), peeled and cut into large dice (yield about 4 cups)
1/2-1 cup warm chicken stock or water reserved from cooking sweet potatoes
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup pure maple syrup
1/4 cup toasted pecans (optional)
Cover the sweet potatoes with lightly salted water in a large saucepan and bring to a boil.
Cook the potatoes until tender, about 20 minutes.
Drain potatoes, reserving a cup of cooking liquid, if desired. Mash them in a large bowl or put them through a ricer.
Add 1/2 cup warm stock or potato water, salt and pepper. Stir until smooth and creamy. If potatoes are too thick, stir in more liquid, a spoonful at a time, until they reach desired consistency.
Stir in the maple syrup and pecans, if using. Adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper.
Makes 4 servings.
Pan-Fried Smashed Potatoes
1 and 1/2 lbs. new potatoes, scrubbed well
coarse sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 350°.
Roast the potatoes on a baking sheet for 1 hour, or until easily pierced with a thin knife.
Cover your hand with a kitchen towel and gently smash each potato to flatten it.
Heat a large sauté pan over medium-high heat, and generously coat the bottom of the pan with olive oil.
Pan-fry potatoes until crispy and golden-brown, about 5 minutes on each side.
Transfer the potatoes to paper towels to drain.
Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Makes 4 servings.
Braised Chestnuts, Fennel, Leeks and Golden Raisins
1 lb. chestnuts in the shell
1/2 cup water
1 medium fennel bulb, trimmed and sliced 1/4-inch thick
2 medium leeks, white and light green parts only, thinly sliced
cup chicken or vegetable stock (preferably freshly made, but canned, if necessary)
1/2 cup golden raisins
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 Tbsps. fresh thyme leaves
With a sharp paring knife, cut a small X shape into the rounded side of each chestnut shell. Toss the chestnuts in a large bowl with a drizzle of olive oil, until lightly coated.
Heat a large sauté pan over medium heat and add the chestnuts.
Cook, stirring chestnuts occasionally to prevent them from burning, about 10 minutes.
Add 1/2 cup water to the pan and cover. Lower the heat and allow the chestnuts to steam for 15 to 20 minutes, until they are quite tender and most of the water has evaporated from the pan.
Remove the chestnuts and allow them to cool, until they can be handled comfortably. Peel the chestnuts. The shells and skins should be easy to pull off.
Heat the same pan over medium-high heat and lightly coat the bottom of the pan with olive oil. Add the fennel and leeks.
Sauté until the vegetables are golden-brown, about 10 minutes.
Add the stock, peeled chestnuts and raisins, and the salt and pepper to taste.
Cover pan and lower the heat to a simmer. Simmer the chestnuts until tender and the liquid has reduced to a glaze, about 20 minutes.
Add the thyme. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.