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Thanksgiving Dinner With A Lighter Touch

On a Sunday morning a few weeks before Thanksgiving, there's a distinct chill in the air at the farmers market. Despite San Francisco's recent mercurial weather, fall is definitely here at last. The vegetables heaped before me are the only evidence I need: Brussels sprouts still on their stalks lean against baskets spilling over with creamy cauliflower, piles of butternut and acorn squash threaten to roll off the tables, fat bunches of beets rest comfortably alongside buckets of potatoes.

I wander, clutching my cup of coffee, and I plan. Thanksgiving is nearly here, and I am nearly ready. I've written up menus. I've made lists. Visions of upside-down cranberry cake, apple pie with a brown-sugar crust, phyllo and roasted vegetable "lasagna," cauliflower-pear puree, and mashed potatoes with olive oil and sauteed greens drift through my mind. I can't wait to get into the kitchen.

Know your diner. While there are those who will happily bite into tofu laced with miso broth served atop a pile of lightly curried quinoa and never miss the bird, there exist equally as many who would feel keenly the omission of mashed potatoes smothered in rich gravy ...

But hang on a minute — mashed potatoes with greens and olive oil? Phyllo-vegetable lasagna? Cauliflower puree? For Thanksgiving? Isn't that boring health-food stuff?

Well ... not exactly. I'm all for the tried-and-true holiday fixins. (Well-salted mashed potatoes with a lot of cream? Homemade macaroni and cheese? Yes please.) But even more, I'm all for experimentation. The early settlers may not have had access to phyllo pastry, but I have a feeling they would have approved — America is, after all, a nation of blended tastes.

For me, Thanksgiving is about gathering my loved ones together to sip and sup, to take a few hours to really savor and appreciate our food. If I'm cooking, I want my dishes to be simple in ingredients yet rich in flavor and substance — special, yes, but not because they're bound to harden your arteries.

This is certainly possible — even easy — to accomplish.

In recent years, I've trended more toward a bit of butter rather than lashings of it. Let's say I'm a traditionalist at heart who likes to put her own twist on things.

I'm also a vegetarian — although I might be, gulp, cooking the turkey this year — but even if I weren't, I'd still laud the vegetable side dishes simply because they're so very good.

Then there's the health issue to consider: Not a few of my loved ones grapple with high blood pressure, high cholesterol or weight gain, require lower-fat fare or simply don't want to leave dinner feeling overstuffed. A holiday table groaning under the weight of generously buttered green beans or a butternut squash soup that's two parts cream to one part squash may prove too daunting.

So when I cook my Thanksgiving feasts, I usually prepare dishes that are a bit on the lighter side yet still satisfy a longing for those classic dishes we know and love.

One thing I've learned: Know your diner. While there are those who will happily bite into tofu laced with miso broth served atop a pile of lightly curried quinoa and never miss the bird, there exist equally as many who would feel keenly the omission of mashed potatoes smothered in rich gravy or a very sweet sweet potato casserole. We are so often creatures of habit and tradition.

Luckily, there's a middle ground.

I've found that sweet potatoes mashed with vegetable broth and a drip or two of sesame oil and sprinkled with toasted walnuts or pecans (or try candied nuts, to up the sweetness a notch) are spooned up greedily even without the marshmallows. Mashed potatoes whipped by hand into creamy splendor need only the flavor of good olive oil and sea salt (add garlic and wilted spinach, too) to pack a nutritional and rich-tasting punch. It goes without saying that I like to incorporate as many vegetables as possible, adding an extra handful of chard here, a scoop of pretty, maple syrup-infused butternut squash there.

Don't be afraid to get creative (though perhaps test out new ideas beforehand if possible). I'm not advocating eschewing fat and dairy altogether (Thanksgiving is, after all, one of our most decadent holidays), but don't be afraid to cut down dramatically. The wonderful thing about vegetables in their purest form is that they taste of themselves. Why cover up all that goodness?

Good vegetable broth and herbs — fresh or dried — are your allies here. A splash of cream (or milk) at the end of the cooking process (think a velvety pumpkin-leek soup made with a sparing addition of olive oil, with about a tablespoon of cream slipped in just before serving) adds a hint of richness without being cloying. Lean heavily on the delicious, natural flavor of the vegetables — and if you're like me, you'll want to retain a certain crunch — to make your creations addictive.

As usual, come Wednesday night, I'll probably be up to my elbows in flour, busily tucking apples sweetened with maple syrup into a flaky olive oil crust. I'll be sauteeing countless leeks and cubing squash in preparation for the next day. I'll be tired — though happily so — and around dinnertime Thursday, it will all be worth it.

Thanksgiving is about celebrating the harvest and the gifts it gives us. Let the market be your guide, and if you like, experiment with unexpected flavor combinations (I've been itching to try soy sauce-braised Brussels sprouts served with a lemony tahini sauce). You may cut back on a few calories, but you definitely won't sacrifice taste.

The holiday is also about breathing deeply and savoring the moment — being grateful simply to be. Well ... that, plus a healthy serving of vegetables. I have a lot to be thankful for this year.

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Nicole Spiridakis