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Make-ahead holiday dishes fit for a feast

October 21, 2022 | Valerie Elwell
Roasted garlic ratatouille in turquoise baking dish.
The vibrant colors of roasted garlic ratatouille make this dish an eye-catcher at any holiday feast and its garlicky aroma is sure to tempt a hungry crowd. Photos by Jessica Van Roo

With the hectic holiday season almost upon us, are you pondering what to serve at upcoming family feasts or bring to parties as healthy alternatives to traditional high-calorie fare?

Here are some delicious recipes you can prepare in advance that will keep you on track and surely brighten any table.

These easy, make-ahead side dishes also are chock-full of seasonal fall vegetables that will boost your immune system during what is expected to be a challenging cold and flu season. 

"Preparing side dishes ahead of time helps us stick to our nutritional goals and avoid impulse purchases that we may regret later,” says Katie Rankell, a registered dietitian and program director of the UCI Health Weight Management Program.

"Planning ahead may also help with the holiday stress many of us feel at this time of year, which can trigger overeating."

May your holiday meal planning go a little more smoothly with these recipes created by Jessica VanRoo, executive chef of the Susan Samueli Integrative Health Institute, part of UCI Health.


Baked Artichoke and Spinach Polenta With Gruyère

Serves 5 (Cost: $10.96/per serving $2.)
Calories: 276 per serving

Baked artichoke and spinach polenta in a blue dish.

This tasty casserole has the comfort food creaminess we all crave during the holidays yet is packed with vital nutrients.

When thinking of cooked grains, oatmeal, rice or quinoa usually jump to mind. But polenta — made by cooking yellow cornmeal in salted water — is another grain worth getting to know. When the cornmeal absorbs water, it softens and turns into a creamy, porridge-like dish.

Polenta also happens to be a gluten-free, complex carbohydrate that is full of fiber and some protein, both of which help you feel full longer. It's also inexpensive, simple to prepare, extremely versatile and easily enhanced with herbs, spices and grated cheese.

Artichokes — a type of thistle that originated in the Mediterranean region — have been prized for centuries for their potential medicinal properties. They are low in fat and high in fiber — one medium artichoke contains almost 7 grams of fiber, a whopping 23% to 28% of the amount recommended daily! They also provide high levels of folate and vitamins C and K, while supplying important minerals such as magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and iron. 

Adding spinach boosts the nutrition content even more with high amounts of carotenoids, folic acid, calcium, more vitamin C and K, as well as iron. Spinach also contains these important plant compounds: lutein (linked to eye health), kaempferol (thought to decrease cancer risk and chronic illnesses), nitrates (for heart health) and quercetin, an antioxidant that may ward off infection and inflammation.

Ingredients

  • 1 tablespoon avocado oil, more as needed
  • 1 large shallot, finely diced
  • 1 large bunch of spinach (about 1 lb)
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic (about 2 large cloves)
  • 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 12 ounces artichoke hearts (frozen or canned and well drained) cut into bite-size pieces
  • 18-ounce tube cooked polenta, sliced into ¼-inch-thick rounds
  • 3 ounces grated Gruyère cheese (about ¾ cup), divided
  • ¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese

Directions

  • Preheat oven to 400 degrees, coat 8-inch square baking dish with cooking spray or oil and set aside.
  • Heat oil in large skillet over medium-high heat. When hot, add shallot and cook for 20 seconds.
  • Add spinach and garlic, cooking just until spinach wilts, about 1-2 minutes.
  • Stir in vinegar and artichoke hearts, turn off heat, taste and season with salt and pepper.
  • Pour mix into baking dish then sprinkle with ½ cup Gruyère.
  • Arrange polenta rounds atop the spinach-artichoke mix, with rounds slightly overlapping.
  • Sprinkle remaining ¼ cup Gruyère and ¼ cup Parmesan cheese over the top.
  • Bake 15 minutes then broil 2-3 minutes to brown.
  • Cool at least 5 minutes before serving.

Make ahead tips:

  • The spinach-artichoke mix can be prepared ahead and stored in freezer for up to two months.
  • Assemble all ingredients one day in advance, then keep covered and refrigerated.
  • When baking, add 5-8 minutes to total cooking time, making sure internal temperature reaches 165 degrees before serving.  

Roasted Garlic Ratatouille

Roasted garlic ratatouille in a blue baking dish.

Serves 4 (Cost: $7.73/per serving $1.93)
Calories: 184 per serving

The vibrant plants in this vegetarian dish make it an eye-catcher at any gathering as well as nutritious powerhouse with a garlicky aroma that's sure to tempt a hungry crowd. 

Besides being delicious, garlic is low in calories and rich in vitamin C, vitamin B6 and manganese. Its use for health by ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans and Chinese is well documented. Scientists now know that most of garlic’s nutrition benefits come from sulfur compounds that form when a garlic clove is chopped, crushed or chewed. 

Tomatoes, which form the base of this traditional stew, are a major source of lycopene, an antioxidant linked to a reduced risk for cancer and heart disease. They also are loaded with vitamin C, potassium, folate and vitamin K.

Zucchini and yellow squash — which are classified as fruits, like tomatoes — help stabilize blood sugar levels and are high in vitamin A, which supports vision and immune system health. They are also high in fiber, vitamin C, potassium and carotenoids, which may lower blood pressure and cholesterol as well as reduce other risk factors for heart disease. Did you know that one medium yellow squash provides more potassium than a large banana? Potassium is an essential mineral that plays a vital role in muscle control, nerve function and balancing fluids.

Eggplant — a fruit also known as aubergine in Europe after its French name — is high in fiber yet low in calories, making it an ideal food to help promote promote weight loss. It's incredibly versatile and can be easily incorporated into many dishes. In addition to containing a variety of vitamins and minerals, eggplants are rich in antioxidants that help protect the body from harmful substances called free radicals. They are especially rich in anthocyanins, proven in multiple studies to be highly effective in protecting cells from damage.

Ingredients

  • 2 heads garlic
  • 2 tablespoons avocado oil, divided in half
  • ¾ cup vegetable stock
  • ¾ cup canned crushed tomatoes
  • ½ onion cut into thin half moons
  • 1 red bell pepper, sliced into ¼-inch thick rounds
  • 1 zucchini cut into ¼-inch thick rounds
  • 1 yellow squash cut into ¼-inch thick rounds
  • 1 Italian eggplant or ½ a globe eggplant, cut in ¼-inch thick rounds
  • Grated Parmesan cheese for garnish

Directions

  • Preheat oven to 400 degrees, trim tops of garlic heads, leaving the root intact, and place on foil sheet large enough to wrap both heads.
  • Drizzle with 1 tablespoon oil then wrap.
  • Roast 30-40 minutes, remove from oven and set aside, and reduce oven temperature to 375 degrees.
  • In mixing bowl, combine vegetable stock with crushed tomatoes, squeeze garlic cloves from cooked heads into the sauce and mix well.
  • Spread sauce in 8-inch or 9-inch baking dish and top with alternating layers of bell pepper, zucchini, squash, onion and eggplant.
  • Sprinkle with salt and pepper then drizzle with oil.
  • Cut parchment paper to fit atop the mixture or cover entire dish with foil.
  • Bake 35-40 minutes or until tender, remove from oven.
  • Garnish with Parmesan cheese, if desired, and serve.

Make ahead tip:

  • Prepare tomato sauce and remaining cut ingredients (except eggplant) and store refrigerated up to three days.
  • Just before assembling ingredients in baking dish, slice eggplant, which can turn brown if cut too early.

Tiramisu Trifle

Tiramisu trifle on a gold platter with fresh mint garnish.

Serves 4 (Cost: $9.93/per serving $2.33)
Calories: 432 per serving

Trifle is another show-stopper for the holiday table.

Notorious for looking complicated to make (it's not), our version of this decadent dessert uses silken tofu to add protein and a velvety smooth texture. You can lower the fat content and calorie count still more by using low-fat cream cheese.

Tofu is high in protein and contains all the essential amino acids your body needs. It also provides essential fats, carbs and a wide variety of vitamins and minerals, including calcium and manganese.

This recipe also calls for coffee and cocoa, which have powerful antioxidants called polyphenols that deliver numerous health benefits, including reduced inflammation, better blood flow, lower blood pressure and improved levels of cholesterol and blood sugars.

Ingredients

  • 8 oz silken (or Japanese-style) tofu
  • 4.5 oz cream cheese
  • ⅔ cup whipping cream
  • 4 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 teaspoon gelatin
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 5 oz ladyfingers or sponge cake cut to desired size
  • ⅔ cup hot water
  • 2 teaspoons instant coffee
  • 1 tablespoon cocoa powder

Directions

  • Blend tofu with cream cheese and whipping cream, combining thoroughly.
  • Place mixture in pot, add sugar and bring to a boil, stirring constantly.
  • Simmer 2 minutes, add gelatin then simmer 2 more minutes, stirring constantly.
  • Turn off the heat, stir in vanilla extract.
  • Cut cake or lady fingers into sizes that fit well in your desired glass serving bowl. (You will want to cover the bottom of the bowl with cake or lady fingers, reserving the rest for layering or lining the bowl.)
  • Dissolve coffee in hot water and brush onto lady fingers or sponge cake pieces.
  • Top with creamy mixture and refrigerate at least 2 hours.
  • Sprinkle with cocoa powder before serving.

Make ahead tip:

  • Tiramisu trifle can be made ahead and refrigerated for up to three days.
  • Do not dust with cocoa powder until serving time.

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