By: Brenda Neugent
(Editor’s note: With just one week to go until Thanksgiving, we thought you’d enjoy learning about Brenda’s time-tested approach to creating a diabetes-friendly traditional turkey day treat.)
There are certain expectations that come along with a holiday dinner, and if you’re the one in the kitchen, the task can seem particularly daunting when you’re cooking that meal for someone who has diabetes.
My husband was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes 13 years ago, and rather than falling into despair, he immediately took charge of his health. He bought a bike, rode away about 100 pounds, and changed his diet in many healthy ways.
I met him seven years ago, and we got married a year and a half after that. I wasn’t really intimidated by his disease, even though I come from a family with a long, rather depressing history of type 2. I just knew that I had to do my best to make sure that the outcomes my family suffered – two double amputations, a lot of denial – were not to be my husband’s.
We are in a better situation than most, because we love to garden, and plant a huge plot that usually yields plenty of tomatoes, squash, peppers, and beans, much of which I am able to can or freeze to extend through the winter.
My husband is also a hunter, so we usually also have a freezer full of lean, diabetic-friendly venison to take the place of fattier beef in dishes like chili, burgers, and stews.
Still, I take the responsibility of keeping my husband healthy pretty seriously, especially during a food-focused holiday like Thanksgiving, which can be especially tricky to navigate, even with the best of intentions.
Over the years, I’ve given our traditional meal a big makeover. I’ve erased the carb-heavy stuffing and traded mashed potatoes for cauliflower purée, since a splash of cream adds a richness that completes the dish without the need for a stick of butter.
Although it’s just the two of us (plus a dog who loves Thanksgiving turkey), I roast a large bird stuffed with fresh sage, onions, carrots, celery, and garlic so that we have plenty of leftovers for sandwiches and enough bones to freeze for soup. Along with the cauliflower purée, I make luxurious vegetables sides like diced butternut squash and roasted Brussels sprouts – lightly dressed with olive oil and roasted at a high heat to crisp and caramelize the outer leaves while rendering the insides tender and succulent.
For dessert, we splurge, but I bake a pumpkin pie, since pumpkin is packed with vitamin A – an essential vitamin for eye health and especially important for people with diabetes. Not only that, but pumpkin is a much smarter choice than pecan pie, the most popular of pies in my Southern community. Compared by the slice, pecan has 600 or so calories per slice, compared to 250 to 300 for the same-sized slice of pumpkin pie.
So that leaves the cranberry sauce. Traditional cranberry sauce – whether homemade or the jellied kind in a can – typically has a lot of sugar in order to make the tart little berries tasty.
The initial response might be to skip it, but cranberries are packed with antioxidants, and I love the tart sauce paired with tender turkey.
So – how to sweeten it up? This year, I set out to create something delicious and healthy to take the place of traditional sauce.
I remembered my grandmother used to dress up her Thanksgiving table with a cranberry relish tossed with orange zest, and that served as the inspiration for my diabetic-friendly new dish. Along with the zest, I used fresh-squeezed orange juice and agave nectar along with a splash of balsamic vinegar and a hint of brown sugar. I also cooked the berries down with a cinnamon stick and two star anise to spice them up.
As a main sweetener, agave nectar is low on the glycemic index, so it’s a better choice to keep blood sugar levels from soaring, and while it took the sour edge off the cranberries, it still allowed the tart flavor to shine.
Better still, my husband doesn’t know the difference.
1 12-ounce bag fresh cranberries
Zest from one orange
Fresh-squeezed orange juice and water to make 1 cup
¼ cup agave nectar
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 cinnamon stick
2 star anise
Mix ingredients and bring to a boil over medium heat. Cook until liquid has evaporated and berries have burst, about 45 minutes.
Remove cinnamon stick and star anise, chill until ready to serve.