Epcot Food and Wine Festival: How to pick healthy options

This year’s Epcot International Food and Wine Festival, which begins Thursday, boasts 30 marketplace booths serving guest favorites and almost 100 new dishes and drinks — but is there anything for foodies who want to make healthy choices?

The answer is yes, say Festival Executive Chef Mike Deardorff and Pam Brandon, author of Walt Disney’s World’s festival cookbooks. (Their comments have been edited for length.)

Question: Is it possible to eat healthy at the festival?

Deardorff: Absolutely. This year we have several offerings that will hopefully appeal to the guests who are looking to eat balanced. We have several wonderful plant-based choices we’re showcasing this year with the Impossible Burger in Earth Eats marketplace and the Ethiopian Lentil Stew in Africa, which both happen to be vegan. We’ve also tried to get more seafood out to the marketplaces, as well. We look at lightening some dishes where we can. A good example of this approach will also be in Active Eats marketplace, where we’ll be featuring a mushroom-blended burger, which cuts the overall fat content but not the flavor.

Q: What tips do you have for guests who want to eat healthy dishes at the festival?

Brandon: There are plenty of options for almost any diet, from keto to low-fat, at many marketplaces. My favorite way to visit the festival is with a pal on a Monday morning about 11 a.m., just as the marketplaces are opening. We take a leisurely stroll all the way around the promenade and over into Future World just to check out the options (and burn a few calories). We make notes of must-tries, then start our circle again. Armed with two forks and two bottles of water, we share each dish (thus saving more calories). You may think you want to eat the whole thing, but this also saves room for more small bites. We may splurge on one cocktail, wine or beer, but really focus on the great food. I also love revisiting toward the end of the festival, same day, same time, but the weather is way cooler!

Deardorff: Start with either going online to review the menus at www.TasteEpcot.com or, when arriving at the festival, take a few minutes and review the Festival Passport and plan your day. Menu items will display if they are gluten/wheat friendly, vegetarian and/or kid friendly. Also, when at the marketplaces, ask questions about the items. The cast members are there to assist in any way possible.

Q: Which dishes are the healthiest choices for festival-goers?

Deardorff: Thailand – Seared Shrimp and Scallop Cake with Cold Noodle Salad. This is the second year for this item. The cake is comprised of three types of seafood — shrimp, scallops and pollack. It’s mixed with lemongrass and ginger with just enough binder to hold them together. It’s served with a refreshing somen noodle salad carrots and chives flavored with a curry vinaigrette that has sambal chili paste, soy sauce, lime juice, rice wine vinegar and fish sauce.

Hawaii – Grilled Tuna Tataki with Seaweed Salad, Pickled Cucumbers and Wasabi Cream. We’ve always had a tuna poke-style dish in this marketplace, so last year we gave it a new look with searing the tuna rare and then beefing up the salad underneath. We added julienne cucumbers to the existing seaweed salad that has been tossed in a Ponzu dressing, which consists of three juices — orange, lemon and lime. It’s given it a lighter consistency and a refreshing taste.

Spain – Seafood Salad with Shrimp, Bay Scallops, Mussels, Extra Virgin Olive Oil, White Balsamic Vinegar and Smoked Paprika. This marketplace was reintroduced last year and this dish was reimagined for this year. It features three types of shellfish — shrimp, scallops and mussels. We put a light smoke on the mussels to give the dish another flavor profile. We add green and red peppers and Spanish olives and toss it in a white balsamic vinaigrette. We finish the plate with a smoked paprika olive oil.

Africa – Ethiopian Red Lentil Stew with Vegan Yogurt and Quinoa. This is one of our vegan offerings that has turned out to be a huge hit with all guests. This item debuted last year and was an instant favorite. It’s a flavorful stew made with red lentils, onions, garlic and vegetable stock. The spice mixture contains an array of African based spices such as coriander, cardamom, allspice, ginger, nutmeg, clove and cayenne. It’s served with a sprinkling of red quinoa and a dollop of vegan sour cream. It’s one of my favorite dishes. Full of flavor!

The Almond Orchard – Fire Roasted Tomato Hummus with Blue Diamond Lightly Salted Almonds and served with Blue Diamond Artesian Nut Thins Multi-seeds Crackers. This marketplace menu item was developed in partnership with Blue Diamond Almonds. We made a standard chick pea hummus and utilized almond milk in place of the tahini and olive oil, thus lightening it up considerably. We top the hummus with roasted red and yellow tomatoes tossed with Cilantro

Earth Eats – The Impossible Burger Slider with Wasabi Cream and Spicy Asian Slaw on a Sesame Bun. This is a new item this year that we’re very excited about showcasing for our guests. This is a completely vegan item and we’ll be cooking the sliders in the marketplace. We’ve put a slightly Asian twist to the slaw that will be placed on top. It consists of cabbage, carrots, poblano peppers, papaya, cilantro and sesame oil. For the aioli, we use a vegan mayonnaise with wasabi. We’re hoping this one takes off as we want to see how this type of item will perform.

Active Eats – Spice Crusted Verlasso Salmon with warm Lentil Power Salad, Crushed Avocado and Sherry Vinegar. This dish has been reimagined for the festival this year. We’ve taken our sustainably farm-raised salmon and given it a new set. It will come with a warm lentil power salad consisting of crimson lentils, kale, green cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, chicory, roasted pumpkin seeds and dried cranberries. We season the salmon with a citrus rub consisting of lemon and orange zest, star anise, szechuan peppercorns, ground cinnamon and ginger. We top it off with crushed avocado and sherry vinegar.

Energy Bar Bites – A mixture of chocolate, nuts, dried fruit and dates. The Energy Bites are new this year and they are as healthy as they are as delicious. The base of the bites are dates, with pecans, almonds, pumpkin seeds, dried blueberries, chocolate chips, peanut butter chips, oats and then topped with shredded coconut.

Q: Which foods do you think are most worth the splurge?

Deardorff: That’s easy — the Wild Mushroom Beef Filet Mignon with Truffle Butter Sauce at Canada and the Lobster Roll at Hops and Barley by American Adventure.

Q: How can guests incorporate recipes from the festival cookbooks into healthy eating at home?

Brandon: This year is my 10th year of creating a cookbook for the festival (and my 20th Disney cookbook). Our challenge is to give our guests something new every year and hope that they can re-create a memory around their own kitchen table. We home-test each recipe, and we do our best not to alter ingredients. While we use full-fat sour cream, yogurt or mayonnaise, for instance, home cooks can always substitute low fat. I recommend leafing through the cookbook and choosing dishes that suit your eating style – with recipes from both California and Florida chefs in this year’s book, I guarantee there’s lots to love.

Q: Which recipes in the cookbooks would you suggest for healthy eating?

Brandon: One of my favorite recipes in this year’s cookbook is the Charred Skirt Steak, Jicama Slaw, Cilantro Cream and Corn Pancakes (Flavors of Fire Marketplace). I make this at home without the pancakes and still enjoy the full flavors – and you could use low-fat sour cream and mayo for the Cilantro Cream. Another recipe that is low in fat and high in flavor is the Jerk Chicken with Sweet Plantain salad and Mango Chutney Yogurt (Islands of the Caribbean Marketplace). Bold flavors! And I love the super-easy Energy Bar Bites (Active Eats).

The Epcot International Food and Wine Festival runs through Nov. 12 at Walt Disney World.

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