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7 Healthy Holiday Cooking Tips from an Italian Chef

tony galzin from nicky's coal fired in nashville working pizza dough

When someone says “Italian food,” what do you picture? A heaping bowl of pasta? A cheesy slice of pizza?

As an Italian chef, Tony Galzin knows that expectation, but at his Nashville restaurant, Nicky’s Coal Fired, he and wife Caroline make a point to serve healthy fare alongside heavy dishes.

Here are their tips for lightening your holiday load:

1. Grate your garnish

Tony: People think of nutmeg as what you grate over eggnog, but it’s a really complementary spice for squash and root vegetables. I love to go to the farmers market and get a mix of vegetables to roast — parsnips, carrots, celery root, turnips, rutabaga [a cross between a cabbage and turnip]. Peel them, cut them up and roast them simply with olive oil, salt, pepper, some whole sprigs of rosemary. I also like to put in whole, peeled shallots [a smaller onion with a more delicate flavor], a few smashed garlic cloves, and grate nutmeg over the top. Every root vegetable has its own flavor and color, and the nutmeg puts you in the warm holiday mood with its taste and aroma. It’s simple but super satisfying.

2. Go gluten-free

Tony: One of my favorite gluten-free things to cook is risotto, which is an Italian rice dish cooked in a broth to a creamy consistency. It’s a hearty, starchy dish but it’s essentially just rice and broth. In the winter, mushrooms are so good — I love weird ones like hedgehog, chanterelles and black trumpets but any mushroom will work — so I’ll roast them in the oven with a little bit of chicken stock and then finish them at a high heat. For the risotto, I sauté shallots in olive oil and butter, add the roasted mushrooms and then deglaze the pan with a splash of white wine. [Deglazing means adding a liquid (wine, broth, vinegar) that will dissolve browned food bits from a pan to flavor food.] Spoon that over risotto and you have a great alternative to pasta that’s not hard to make — it’s just a lot of stirring.

Find a similar recipe here.

3. Skip the starch

Caroline: I’m that weird person who watches what they eat in the winter so I can relax a little more in summer, so I like to limit my carbohydrate intake, and an easy way I’ve found to do that is by replacing the noodles in my favorite soups with vegetables. For example, after Thanksgiving, I’ll use our turkey carcass to make a bone broth and then I’ll make a turkey noodle soup without the noodles, adding in a few extra carrots, celery and herbs in their place. Sometimes I finish it with a squeeze of fresh lemon to give it a Greek flavor. It’s satisfying and filling and really low on the glycemic index, so it will help keep you full longer.

Find a similar recipe here.

4. Feast on fish

Tony: We do the Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve, and a whole roasted fish is one course. You want a fish in the three- to four-pound range so the cavity is big enough to put some things inside like a red snapper. Many varieties of fish will work, just ask the person at the fish counter for advice. Stuff it with thyme, parsley and garlic, but not lemon — putting the lemon in the cavity overwhelms it, so I save that for later. Tie it up with kitchen string so everything stays inside, drizzle it with olive oil and cook it on a grill or in an oven at 350 degrees. Once it’s done, crank the oven up to broil for a minute or two to crisp the skin and that’s it! Lay it out on the table with some fresh lemon on the side and one last drizzle of olive oil and you’re done. It’s not heavy, you don’t have to do a lot of legwork, and it’s fun for kids because they get to reach in and serve themselves.

Find a similar recipe here.

5. Splurge on something

Tony: We grew up doing a really “red saucy” type of Christmas dinner, and there were some things my grandma would only make on Christmas. My favorite is braciole, or thin slices of meat that are rolled with a filling of grated cheese and nuts. It’s rich, for sure, but I like to have one dish where you really blow it out, that you get the highest quality ingredients for. With this one, I’ll get sirloin, pound it out really thin and then lay prosciutto [thinly sliced dry-cured ham] on it. I make a filling with seasoned breadcrumbs, garlic, lemon, pine nuts, parmesan cheese, and bind it with chicken stock and a little bit of egg. I roll that up, stick some toothpicks in it to cinch it, and then braise it in tomato sauce for about four hours. Then I slice it an inch thick and serve it with some of the red sauce, which picks up the little bits of braised beef. It’s filling and super delicious, and I’ve found that focusing on one big thing in the kitchen, especially something that can be partially prepared in advance, helps you enjoy the holidays more.

Find a similar recipe here.

6. Sweeten with squash

Tony: I love to take advantage of winter squash like delicata, which is the yellow and green kind that has a sweet skin that’s delicate enough to eat. Halve them, scoop out the seeds and roast them with the skin on. Finish with a tiny sprinkle of brown sugar, fresh grated nutmeg, cinnamon, brown sugar, oil and salt and pepper. It’s sweet enough that you may not even need dessert.

Find a similar recipe here.

7. Get lucky with lentils

Tony: In the South, you eat black-eyed peas or collard greens for luck on New Year’s Day, but in the North, we eat lentils. The way my grandpa made it is actually vegetarian. Cook white lentils with mirepoix [diced celery, carrot, onion and pepper] in vegetable stock with crushed tomatoes and bay leaf. Serve it with a drizzle of red wine vinegar and chili flakes. It’s comforting — and lucky, if you believe my grandpa.

Ashley Brantley

Ashley Brantley

Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville). As Senior Editor at Parthenon Publishing, she is a writer, editor and social media strategist on projects ranging from Better Tennessee magazine to Unsung Nashville.

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