Good Health for A Great Holiday Season
It’s the holiday season, time to celebrate – and what’s more celebratory than food? We all have our own touchstone food memories from when we were young that we often try to share during festive gatherings with our loved ones.
In fact, since ancient times, festivals and celebrations were directly connected to the different equinoxes (spring and autumnal) and solstices (winter and summer). During these events, people would prepare and feast upon the bounty the earth provided – local, seasonal, fresh ingredients. As this is the winter season where we need to keep up our immune systems to stay strong and healthy during the holidays, it’s time to stop equating the words ‘delicious’ and ‘festive’ with rich, highly indulgent foods, and instead look to the seasonal ingredients and dishes that will keep us healthy and round out our holiday tables!
The Pomegranate – a Ruby-hued Treasure
With their sultry, scarlet coloring and gorgeous, crimson seeds, pomegranates have been a symbol of passion and fertility since ancient times. They are often associated with Hera, goddess of marriage and childbirth, and Aphrodite, goddess of love and fertility, who planted a pomegranate tree in her sacred garden in Cyprus.
In more recent times, pomegranates have come to symbolize prosperity and good fortune. On Christmas Day in Greece, the tradition is to hang a whole pomegranate above the door outside to draw in good fortune. On New Year’s Day, the head of the household smashes the same pomegranate while walking into the home with their right foot first to release all of its positive energy and share the blessings with their family for the year to come.
As a child, one of my favorite fruits was pomegranate. This large red fruit seemed like nature’s candy to me, each seed bursting with a bright, tartly flavored juice. I never craved sweets when pomegranates were in season, because I would pick one off the tree, crack it open, and eat these seeds like candy. My yiayia (grandmother in Greek) encouraged this by telling my siblings and I that pomegranates had many health benefits, even medicinal purposes.
Yiayia was right about many things, but especially about this: pomegranates are full of antioxidants – in fact, they contain approximately three times the amount found in red wine or green tea! Because they are so high in antioxidants, they’re also excellent for reducing inflammation, and helping to lower cholesterol and blood pressure.
What makes beautiful, symmetric pomegranates even more amazing is their flavor – bright, tart, and slightly exotic – yet somehow familiar – with an undercurrent of sweetness that leaves you wanting more. This majestic fruit is incredibly versatile: the seeds (known as arils) can brighten up a salad, punctuate a warm grain dish with their crunch, garnish a soup or dessert, or be enjoyed just as they are – like nature’s candy!
Avgolemono (Egg-Lemon) Soup – The Ultimate Holiday Comfort Food
In Greece, you can find avgolemono (egg-lemon) used in countless ways – as a sauce, as a condiment, as a binder and thickening agent – so much so, that people often just refer to certain dishes, most specifically kotosoupa avgolemono (chicken soup with egg-lemon emulsion) simply as avgolemono!
While this dish has been around since ancient times, it has come to be a holiday season staple thanks to its silken, creamy texture and bright-yet-homey flavor. A simple, light, nourishing soup full of protein and vitamins, it should come as no surprise that avgolemono is a cornerstone of Greek cuisine.
My yiayia and papou (grandfather in Greek) would make avgolemono for our whole family as soon as the weather turned cold to ensure we stayed strong and healthy. This recipe was inherited from generations past, combining my Sephardic Jewish origins, Sardinian roots, and Greek heritage. They added orzo instead of rice so we would better absorb the iron in the chicken stock. They would often disagree on how much lemon to add; Papou liked A LOT of lemon in the avgolemono, while Yiayia had a more sensitive palate and didn’t need as much to taste its tartness. Their compromise was to add lemon zest, which perks up the dish with even brighter notes without it becoming sour.
Papou was right again – the citrus kick from the lemons not only provided the acid balance needed, but gave a great boost of vitamin C as well, perfect for fighting off cold-weather germs. The richness of the eggs gave an extra dose of protein, vitamins, and minerals to the dish, since eggs are technically the most complete food source on the planet for humans!
We all know the magic of chicken soup on a cold day or a day where we feel under the weather (and sadly, sometimes both). Chicken soup is full of essential fatty acids and protein, as well as vitamins and minerals necessary to boost immunity from the onions, carrots, and celery with which it’s made – there’s a reason they call chicken soup ‘Jewish Penicillin’.
When you combine all these elements, you have a true superfood dish that is both elegant for a festive gathering, and extremely nutritious to keep immunity boosted throughout the season.
Brussels Sprouts – Delicious and Nutritious
When you look at a stalk of brussels sprouts, they sort of remind you of the holidays, almost like little ornaments on a tree, and in recent years, they have become superstars across holiday tables. Thankfully, these little mini cabbages are worthy of such celebrity, since they are incredible sources of vitamins K, A, B, and C, as well as antioxidants, including polyphenols, like those present in olive oil!
Whether you shave them to make a delicious salad or slaw, roast them with some olive oil and your favorite herbs, or pickle them to cut the richness of your preferred holiday protein, brussels sprouts are an excellent seasonal choice to keep immunity up and stomachs happy!
Chestnuts – a Symbol of Winter
Chestnuts are a quintessential holiday ingredient found in countries around the world during the fall and winter, especially in Greece – and spring and summer in the southern hemisphere.
For me, chestnuts remind me of my childhood – my papou would gather chestnuts from the woods just outside our farm, that my yiayia would prepare by poking with a knife and either boiling or roasting over the fire. Once they were cooked and lightly cooled, peeling chestnuts was a full family affair – tedious work, but well worth the effort!
I would always sneak a handful of the soft chestnuts and savor their flavor – I preferred them roasted, because I liked the light smokey flavor imparted by the fire. My sisters and brother preferred boiled chestnuts, because they found the flavor to be purer.
Yiayia would make traditional sweet preserves or spoon desserts (glyka koutaliou) with chestnuts to save for Christmas Eve. She also used chestnuts in our holiday stuffing, incorporating them into many savory and sweet dishes throughout the winter, including our New Year’s cake, vasilopita.
Given that chestnuts are low in fat, high in fiber, and full of antioxidants, including polyphenols, as well as an excellent source of potassium, they are an amazing ingredient to include on your holiday table, or snack on during the season to keep you healthy!
This Holiday Season…
While I know I talk about my papou and yiayia a lot this article, it was the two of them that were pivotal in creating many of my food memories as a child. So, this holiday season, remember to spend time with your loved ones and memory makers, and remember that festive foods don’t need to pack on the pounds. They can support your immunity and well-being and help you appreciate the spirit of the holidays by keeping you healthy all winter long! Happy Holidays!
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