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Thanksgiving menu: Recipes for the calorie conscious

Looking for a lighter Thanksgiving? These recipes are on the healthier side, without sacrificing flavor. 

More Thanksgiving menus: Make ahead | Last minute | Simple | With a twist | Americana | Cooking for two | Vegetarian | Vegan | WaPo Favorites

Brussels Sprouts California Style

Brussels sprouts have come to be a Thanksgiving favorite. Here, they’re paired with colors and flavors found in Southern California cuisine.

SERVINGS: 12 – 16
  • 2 pounds fresh Brussels sprouts
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 or 2 tablespoons water (optional)
  • Sea salt
  • 4 ounces fresh pomegranate arils (seeds)
  • 1/2 cup roasted unsalted pistachios
  • Finely grated zest and freshly squeezed juice from 2 lemons (2 tablespoons of zest; 1 tablespoon juice)

Wash and dry the Brussels sprouts. Trim the bottoms, then cut the sprouts in half from top to bottom.

Heat a large saute pan over medium heat. Add the oil and the Brussels sprouts. Cook for several minutes, until they are bright-green, tender and golden on the cut edges. If the sprouts appear to be too firm, add water as needed; cover and cook until the water evaporates. Season with the salt to taste.

Transfer to a serving bowl. Top with the pomegranate arils, pistachios, lemon zest and lemon juice.

VARIATION: The sprouts can be cooked in the oven instead. Toss them with the olive oil and sea salt in a large bowl, then transfer to a large baking dish, making sure to spread them in a single layer. Roast in a 400-degree oven for about 30 minutes or until golden brown and tender. Top with the arils, pistachios, lemon zest and juice just before serving.

Pear and Red Onion Gratin

This is a side dish that calorie-conscious holiday diners will appreciate. Ripe Bosc pears work well here because they hold their shape when cooked.

  • 1 large red onion, cut into 16 wedges
  • 3 to 4 Bosc pears
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped thyme leaves
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 cup Japanese-style panko bread crumbs, preferably whole wheat
  • 1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Have ready a large bowl 3/4 full of ice water and ice cubes, and a lightly greased 8-by-8-inch ovenproof glass baking dish. Place the onion in a strainer and lower the strainer into the ice water bath. Let stand for 20 minutes, then drain and transfer to the baking dish.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Halve and core the pears and cut into 6 slices each. Add them to the baking dish, along with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil, thyme, salt and pepper to taste, stirring to coat evenly. Cover tightly with heavy-duty aluminum foil and roast for 20 minutes, stirring twice during the cooking time.

Meanwhile, combine the bread crumbs and Parmigiano-Reggiano in a medium bowl and add the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil, stirring to combine. Set aside.

Remove the baking dish from the oven and discard the foil. Sprinkle the bread crumb mixture evenly over the top and roast for 20 to 30 minutes, or until the bread crumbs are well browned. Let cool 10 minutes before serving.

Sweet Potato Casserole (a Makeover)

This recipes proves you can have a delicious sweet potato side dish without overloading on sugar and calories. It is a makeover of an archive Washington Post recipe that called for 2 full cups of sugar. This version is more gently sweet, with a lovely maple flavor that lets the taste of the sweet potato shine through.

  • 3 cups cooked, peeled mashed sweet potatoes
  • 1/4 cup pure maple syrup
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1/2 cup low-fat milk (1 percent)
  • 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon plus one pinch salt
  • 1 cup chopped pecans
  • 2 tablespoons whole-wheat pastry flour (may substitute all-purpose flour)
  • 3 tablespoons light brown sugar

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 2-quart baking dish, such as an 8-by-8-inch Pyrex, with cooking oil spray.

Combine the mashed sweet potato, maple syrup, eggs, milk, 2 tablespoons of the butter, the vanilla extract, cinnamon and 1/4 teaspoon of the salt in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a balloon-whisk attachment or a handheld electric mixer. Beat on medium-high speed for several minutes, until all the ingredients are well combined and the mixture has slightly increased in volume, then transfer to the baking dish, smoothing the mixture evenly.

Combine the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter, the pecans, whole-wheat pastry flour, light brown sugar and the remaining pinch of salt in a medium bowl; use your clean fingers or a fork to evenly incorporate and coat the pecans. Sprinkle over the top of the sweet potatoes in the dish.

Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, until fragrant and lightly caramelized on top. Let cool for about 10 minutes before serving.

Salt-Encrusted Turkey Breast

The beauty of a salt crust is that it holds in all the juices of the bird. The skin should be discarded before the turkey breast is carved. If you’d like to try the recipe on a whole bird, a medium-size turkey works best. If the turkey weighs more than 6 pounds, increase the salt mixture accordingly (for a 12-pound turkey, double the salt mixture).

  • 2 pounds kosher or rock salt (6 to 7 cups)
  • 2 pounds flour (6 to 7 cups)
  • About 3 cups water, or as needed
  • 6 pounds skin-on, bone-in whole turkey breast, fresh or thoroughly defrosted
  • Freshly ground black pepper (optional)
  • 1 bay leaf, preferably fresh
  • 1 rosemary sprig

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Lightly grease a rimmed baking sheet or shallow roasting pan with nonstick cooking oil spray.

Combine the salt, flour and water as needed in a large mixing bowl; knead to form a fairly stiff, non-sticky dough.

Lightly flour a work surface; use a rolling pin to roll out the dough to a thickness of about 1/4-inch; it must be large enough to encase the turkey breast. Reserve a small pinch of the dough for plugging holes during baking.

Season the turkey breast lightly with the black pepper, if desired. Place the bay leaf and rosemary sprig in the cavity formed by the breast.

Place the turkey breast at the center of the dough; bring up the sides to enclose the turkey, making sure the crust is secure with no holes. (A little water can be used to smooth the dough and patch holes, if needed.)

Transfer the wrapped turkey breast to the prepared sheet or pan and bake for 1 1/2 to 2 hours or until the internal temperature registers 160 on an instant-read thermometer (poke a hole through the crust; if the turkey is not fully cooked, use some of the reserved dough to fill the hole made by the thermometer).

(At this point, the turkey breast can remain warm inside the crust for up to 2 hours; its internal temperature will rise by as much as 10 degrees before the cooling begins. Or the encased turkey breast can be cooled for 2 hours and then refrigerated until ready to reheat.)

Break open and discard the top and sides of the crust. Discard the herbs underneath the breast. Let cool for at least 15 minutes before carving. Discard the skin, then carve the turkey breast as desired.

Baked Ricotta Custards

This dessert is considerably lighter than its cheesecake inspiration.

SERVINGS: 10 – 12
  • 12 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
  • 3/4 cup fresh ricotta cheese
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 egg white
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • Cranberry sauce (recipe follows)
  • Coarse granulated sugar (optional)

Adjust the oven rack to the middle position and preheat the oven to 250 degrees. Have ready 10 to 12 four-ounce ramekins.

In a large bowl using an electric mixer on medium speed, beat the cream cheese until light, smooth and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add the ricotta and mix until combined. Add the eggs and egg white, 1 at a time, mixing until completely incorporated after each addition. Add the vanilla and mix until combined. Add the sugar and cream and mix until combined. The batter should be smooth and glossy.

Divide the batter among the ramekins, place in a large roasting pan and place on the oven rack. Pour enough hot water into the roasting pan around the ramekins to reach about halfway up the sides. Bake for 45 minutes, until set. The top should not have changed color at all. Set aside to cool slightly. Refrigerate until chilled through, at least 3 hours.

Serve with the Cranberry Sauce on the side. If a crisp topping similar to that on creme brulee is desired, you may sprinkle the top of each custard with coarse sugar and caramelize it under the broiler or with a blow torch just before serving.