Easy side dishes can also be healthy side dishes

Peanut coleslaw is filled with extraordinary flavor with the addition of cilantro, ginger and wasabi.

Sweet potato fries have an earthy warm flavor with the addition of cinnamon, cumin and garlic.
By : 
Iris Clark Neumann
Food for the Neighborhood

Serving healthy foods for company can be a challenge with guests having food preferences based on fast food habits. I struggle with offering new choices at holiday meals.

With my children and family, there are standard menus, which are expected and accepted, although admittedly, not all the grandchildren are willing to try every item.

Everyone likes potato lefse, which is a result of a team effort a week or so before our first holiday meal.

I discovered during Thanksgiving discussions with my nieces and their husbands, some traditions are not necessarily everyone's favorite. Dipping bread in broth may seem weird, but it's a tradition based on a meal my Swedish grandmother served.

When I was growing up, my mother never served lutefisk, although her dad was Norwegian. Because she didn't like eating it, she ignored continuing the tradition. It wasn't until I'd left home and started making lefse myself that it made it's way back onto our holiday menu.

My grandmother had a special meal she reserved for a few neighbors at noon on Christmas Eve. But a time came when my cousins and I were older and having a gathering on Christmas Day didn't work for everyone anymore. She started treating us to her dip-in-the-broth menu on the 24th.

And now, for many years, this has been a tradition I've continued for my children, their cousins, and their children. But knowing not everyone likes soggy bread, I also set out butter and jam this year. There are a lot of other choices, so no one has to go hungry. Almost everyone likes Swedish potato sausage, (although my husband has confided he isn't a fan).

Choosing Christmas menus for my husband's children has been more challenging to me. He says, “Why don't we just serve pizza or spaghetti?”

He may be right and it would make everyone feel more comfortable if I didn't keep trying to create the perfect menu and just pick a few items I know for sure everyone will like.

For one group of guests this year, I decided to make a pepper steak stir-fry over rice, with a couple of easy, healthy sides —oven sweet potato fries and a peanut flavored coleslaw.

Almost everyone tried the fries, but the coleslaw was mostly avoided. The beef stir-fry might have been better received if I had left out the mushrooms. I miscalculated how long it would take to slice and prepare the beef, so the fries got left in the oven longer than I'd intended. I did turn off the oven heat, while leaving the fries in the oven to keep them warm.

Maybe it will be pizza next year. It would be a lot easier and no one would leave hoping to stop at McDonald's on the way home.

It may just be me, but I loved the coleslaw and have relished the leftovers. The combination of cilantro, fresh ginger, a hint of wasabi, and the crunch of peanuts contributed flavors that made this coleslaw seem extraordinary.

There is always a factor of chance taking when trying a recipe for the first time with any group. I found the beef recipe online and the coleslaw in a booklet discovered while I was cleaning for the holidays.

The sweet potato fries were not new, but I tried a different combination of spices from another recipe found during more paper sorting.

Using a pre-bagged mix of green and red cabbage, with shredded carrots, made prep really easy. I have found keeping a chunk of fresh ginger frozen in my kitchen fridge is a great way to add grated ginger to a recipe.

I just take it out and grate off enough for my recipe, then return it to the freezer for next time.

The flavors in the coleslaw needed a bit of chill time to blend, which also made this salad fit well into my menu.

Cleaning for the holidays led to other re-discovered treasures. But, there were things I'd hoped to complete that never got done. Oh well. My husband was a great team member in our cleaning, renting a machine to clean our carpets, which (with the contribution of pets) need an annual cleaning.

I ran out of time this year to finish decorating, so I really appreciated last minute tree decorating help from my daughter-in-law, Jenna, and granddaughter, Kylie. Their help in the kitchen cutting up veggies, buttering lefse and slicing bread the next day was also a lifesaver for me.

Guests helping with dish rinsing and dishwasher loading allowed me to sit down, rest and chat with guests.

It's not always easy to get every family member to love everything served, but it helps to offer enough options. One can watch for clues that a new healthy vegetable or fruit choice could become a new favorite.

Sometimes it takes using familiar flavorings like cilantro or cinnamon to make it special.

Peanut Coleslaw

3 tablespoons white vinegar

1 tablespoon peanut oil

2 tablespoons mayonnaise

1 teaspoon sugar

1 teaspoon grated ginger

1 teaspoon wasabi paste

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro

1/4 cup chopped green onion

16-ounce package shredded coleslaw mix

1/2 cup lightly chopped salted peanuts

Whisk together first eight ingredients in a bowl. Add cilantro and green onion; stir to combine. Pour in coleslaw mix and toss together. Cover and refrigerate for 45 minutes.

Stir in salted peanuts just before serving.

Seasoned Sweet Potato Oven Fries

3 or 4 large sweet potatoes

1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon cumin or chili powder

1 teaspoon powdered garlic


Sour cream

Heat oven to 450 degrees. Scrub sweet potatoes. Peeling potatoes is optional, cut off any discolorations. Slice into even wedges or half-inch thick sticks. Lay sweet potatoes in thick roasting sheet. Brush with olive oil, then toss with fingers to coat all sides.

Mix cinnamon, cumin or chili powder, and powdered garlic together in a small bowl. Sprinkle sweet potatoes with salt and half the seasoning mix. Turn wedges, then sprinkle again with salt and other half of seasoning mix.

Bake until tender and golden brown, 20 to 25 minutes. Turn slices over about halfway through roasting. Serve with sour cream for dipping.