Making it Through High Fat Holidays

Holiday cooking is difficult. Trying to eat lo-co all the time with a house full of guests while juggling a job and dinners for those guests (not to mention being behind on Christmas shopping) is, well, just not possible.

So this holiday season my gift to myself was to set the bar low. I decided my goal for the last 2 weeks of December was to simply eat low-cholesterol SOME of the time.

That I would feed the masses guests what they want, but find a little something healthy for me when possible.

And it actually worked.

At the extended family holiday dinner party I hosted (53 people…I am still tired!) I whipped up a chicken dish so I’d have a low-fat option. While my relatives dined on the holiday favorites they make: Beef Burgundy, Penne a la Vodka, Baked Ziti and Honey Baked Spiral Ham, I enjoyed an absolutely delicious lo-co variation of The Silver Palate’s Chicken Marbella.

If you’ve never made Chicken Marbella, try it – it’s a fantastic dinner party recipe. The original recipe calls for bone-in, whole chicken, but I made it this year with skinless, boneless chicken breasts. The key is to cut them into pretty big chunks so they don’t dry out, and maybe cook 5 minutes less than the original recipe. As I was feeding a lot of people, I made one tray of breasts and one tray of thighs…and everyone was happy with the white or dark meat option!

I was a tad less successful with Christmas dinner. Because, I served, well, beef. I know, I know…beef is a lo-co horror show. But I was tired, people! And Melissa Clark’s recipe for Garlicky Beef Tenderloin with Orange Horseradish Sauce looked so tasty…and special enough for Christmas…and EASY.  So I went for it, and it was SO worth it. The only thing wrong with this dish was the ridiculously long line for beef filet at Stew Leonard’s… and its $75 price tag.

A few things I learned while cooking this fabulous beef tenderloin:

  • Get the butcher to trim and tie it for you. Or, if they won’t tie it, at least trim it. You do NOT want to be trimming it yourself.  Especially while drinking wine.
  • If your butcher hasn’t tied it, you need twine. I accidentally bought ‘baking twine’ because it was all red, white and pretty. Quite festive but NOT to be used to tie meat (Turns out, it’s for tying cake boxes; why they sell this at Crate & Barrel is beyond me). Luckily we had some white cotton twine tucked in a shelf in our garage.
  • I have never tied a roast before. Usually, I ignore directions like this. But do – tying it really does make the meat cook more evenly, and it’s easy. I guessed at how you are supposed to tie it – wish I had noticed Melissa Clark’s fab video on Tying a Roast.
  • I normally don’t sear meat because who wants to make a mess of another pan? But I was not taking risks on Christmas, not with a $75 piece of meat that I waited in a stupidly long line for! So sear it I did – in a brazier pan that went right from stovetop to oven (I forgot I had this pan as it was tucked away in the ‘magic closet’ along with my 4 crock pots – that’s another story.) I am now a searing believer: the meat turned out beautifully browned and yet incredibly tender and rare. As he carved it, my husband christened it “restaurant quality,” his highest accolade.
  • As no one in my family besides me likes any kind of citrus rind in their food, I left out the orange zest and just made horseradish sauce. Delicious nonetheless.

The lo-co part of the dinner wasn’t the beef, obviously. My lo-co success in the face of serving a beef tenderloin was that:

  • I ate just ONE piece of the tender, fabulous filet of beef (and savored it).
  • I also served Butternut Squash Soup with Toasted Walnuts – which worked for me AND my vegetarian niece (just use vegetable stock). This Cooking Light recipe is easy to make ahead of time, so it didn’t add to Christmas dinner prep stress!
  • On my Christmas Dinner plate – in addition to the non-lo-co beef and a bit of my mom’s delicious mashed potatoes, I added string beans and roasted asparagus.

So what was my final grade? I give myself a solid B+ for meeting for my goal of mostly-kind-of-sometimes eating low-fat this holiday season. True, there was a Wendy’s run (ok, 2) in there…and a few more bites of ziti and Beef Burgundy than there should have been. And I’ve not even mentioned my homemade eggnog yet. Which I would not have made if my friend Craig – who joined us for Christmas Eve – hadn’t looked so darn disappointed that we weren’t having a CT Christmas fire. At which point, I either had to make some Christmas eggnog (and drink it, of course) or rally everyone around the piano for Christmas carols.  Since no one plays…

Yes, OK. Maybe my grade was in fact more of a B – or even a C.

But redemption was mine on Boxing Day.  Check out this sumptuous salad I made for dinner last night, featuring asparagus and just 1 piece of warmed up beef tenderloin leftovers…with a drizzle of the horseradish sauce. And I ate it – enjoyed it, even – while my husband and son plowed through plates piled high with beef, mashed potatoes and pigs in a blanket (don’t ask) with nary a veggie in sight.

Though I might have nabbed one of those weenies while they weren’t looking.


Contaminated Fish Oil Brands

Fish oil supplements are in the news again, as the January 2012 issue of Consumer Reports tested 15 fish oil brands and rated whether they met quality standards vis-a-vis contaminants.

Why take Fish Oil? My doctor ‘prescribed’ them because of my high triglycerides. (She also suggested I cut down to no more than 1 glass of wine per day, but….) According to The Mayo Clinic, fish oil provides these benefits:

“There is evidence… that DHA and EPA in the form of dietary fish or fish oil supplements lowers triglycerides, reduces the risk of death, heart attack, dangerous abnormal heart rhythms, and strokes in people with known cardiovascular disease, slows the buildup of atherosclerotic plaques (“hardening of the arteries”), and lowers blood pressure slightly.”

You can read more on the Mayo Clinic site – and you might want to check out this Consumer Reports article, Is fish oil right for you?  The Mayo Clinic also recommended that diabetics should only take fish oil if they’ve discussed it with their doctor first.

Photo: Consumer Reports

OK, so you’ve talked to your doctor and you want to start taking fish oil pills. Now what? Just go to the store, right?


Because the market for supplements (fish oil and others) is unregulated … and fish oil pills have been found to contain contaminants.

Mercury.  PCBs.  Other stuff you don’t want to ingest.


This is not a new issue (see my Heavens To Mercury post for more info, including the Environmental Defense Fund’s list of best/worst choice for Fish Oil brands. On the ‘worst choice’ of this list were RiteAid, Solaray, and KMart brands).

But what is new is that Consumer Reports recently conducted their own testing. In their labs. Nice and objective. Love that.

Turns out, you might want to avoid some big, well-known brand names of fish oil including CVS, Sundown, Nature’s Bounty, and GNC – as these brands had PCBs. (I was horrified that my husband had been taking Sundown so tossed that right out). You also might want to avoid Costco’s Kirkland brand which had an enteric coating issue.

Another heavy hitter, Nordic Naturals – which is sold in high end health/organic stores – was also on Consumer Reports list.  For spoilage, not PCBs. But Nordic’s already fought back and CR has issued a ‘correction.’ In mid-December, a correction to a January article. Gotta love the web.

But I digress. Back to Nordic Naturals. To me, this correction is irrelevant because Nordic Naturals is even more expensive than the Metagenics brand my doctor’s office sells. (Which she specifically ‘prescribed’ for me because I eat too much tuna so she wants to be 100% sure I don’t get any mercury-laced fish oil pills.) Since Metagenics is outside-lab tested and proven to be free of contaminants and Nordic Naturals is NOT, and they’re roughly the same price, I don’t see why anyone would buy Nordic Naturals brand.

But that’s just me. So given all this, what brand should you choose? IMHO, any of the 9 brands on the Consumer Reports list – or Metagenics.

Having tossed my husband’s fish oil pills last week, I just bought a giant jar of Nature Made 1,200 mg from WalMart as that was on the CR ‘met quality standards’ list. (Though my husband does not have high cholesterol so I need to ask why he’s even taking these?!)

As for me, I’ll either stick with the Metagenics my doctor ‘prescribed’ or try the Nature Made brand.

And hope they lower my triglycerides so my daily glass or 2 of wine stays my daily glass – or 2 – of wine!




Cholesterol-y Coffee?

Coffee raises cholesterol?

This was the surprising and disturbing fact I recently learned in an email from my friend Lisa. If true, it means that in addition to changing the way I eat and exercise, and my doctor’s latest advice to reduce my daily wine intake (so not gonna’ happen), I should stop drinking coffee, too.

Cut out wine AND coffee?  Both?



Once my toddler tantrum subsided, I took to the web to do some research. The bad news: there is a coffee-cholesterol connection. The good news: it’s French Press and other unfiltered coffee that increases cholesterol. That’s good for me, but bad for Lisa – she needs to cut back her coffee consumption because she drinks French Press coffee. But I’m a regular joe junkie, so am not boosting my already-high cholesterol with my morning fix.  Whew.

Why do some kinds of coffee increase cholesterol? And by how much? According to the Berkeley Wellness Alert’s The Coffee-Cholesterol Connection:

“Daily consumption of 10 milligrams of cafestol—the amount in about four 5-ounce cups of French-press coffee—has been shown to raise cholesterol by 8% to 10% in four weeks, mostly due to increased LDL (“bad”) cholesterol. Some people are affected more than others, and the effects may be greater in those who have higher cholesterol to begin with.”

For those with high cholesterol, French Press coffee is not a good plan. But for those like me who drink ‘regular’ coffee, the issue is moot since, “American-style ‘drip’ coffee has virtually none (of the cholesterol-raising compounds) because the paper filters trap the compounds. Percolated and instant coffees also have negligible amounts.”

So my 2-cups-a-day-of-Keurig-brewed-decaf habit is A-OK. I am still supposed to cut down on wine (again, not gonna’ happen), but I am thrilled to report my coffee habit is safe.

Smugly savoring my hazelnut decaf the next morning, it hit me that I wasn’t exactly sure if coffee brewed in a Keurig machine was, in fact, filtered coffee. I mean, you can’t see a filter. And what if it’s just filtered via the plastic K-cup? Would the plastic filter out the bad stuff?

Panic building, I again hopped online but found nothing. Nowhere could I find an answer to whether K-cups have filters that would trap the cholesterol-raising compounds in coffee. So I resorted to taking apart a K-cup. And look what I found – a brown paper filter inside! See? Isn’t that the cutest little baby paper filter you have ever seen?

OK, roll your eyes at my waxing rhapsodic about the internal guts of a K-cup. But come on, you have to admit it’s cool that there’s a tiny brown paper filter in every K-cup.

And it saves my coffee addiction. For which I’m exceedingly grateful.

But if you drink French Press or Turkish (whatever that is) or some other type of unfiltered coffee, it might be time for a new coffee machine.

Just in time for the holidays.