Still Don’t Know What You’re Cooking for Thanksgiving? We Have You Covered
Thanksgiving is tomorrow, and whether you are hosting the iconic feast or simply contributing to a festive potluck, everything is under control, right? I know. Hahahaha.
Odds are the turkey already has a point person, so I’m here to gab about the side dishes—those you can whomp together at the last minute. The thoughts below are all informed by the years (and years) I’ve spent in the trenches at food magazines—in particular, Gourmet. One of the most important things I learned is that holiday food doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive, just good and abundant. Simplicity is key, in other words, and that is really very easy when you have confidence in your ingredients. Take Kennebec or Yukon Gold potatoes from the farmers market. They are so darn flavorful, you don’t have to do much at all—simmered until fork tender, salted and peppered, and mashed with butter and (warmed) milk, they are absolutely stellar and will make everyone around the table ecstatic.
There is no shame in using store-bought stuffing mix—it is a time-honored Thanksgiving shortcut—but the nice thing about homemade is that you are in control of the seasonings, and you can have larger, pleasingly irregular pieces of bread, which translates to a more interesting texture. You can use any good-quality loaf you like (bear in mind: the denser the bread, the denser the stuffing), but a good rule of thumb is that a one-pound loaf of crusty country-style bread will yield about 12 cups of stuffing. Your preliminary step is to spread the pieces out on a rimmed baking sheet and bake at 325 F until just dry, about 25 minutes.
For a delicious straightforward stuffing, sauté a chopped onion, a few sliced celery ribs, and ½ teaspoon each of crumbled dried rosemary, thyme, and sage in a stick of melted butter until the celery is softened. Add a handful of vacuum-packed peeled chestnuts, crumbled coarsely or cut up, and/or toasted pecans (for crunch), if you like. Scrape all that into a large bowl, add the bread, about 1½ cups of chicken broth, and about ½ cup water, and season with salt and pepper. Refrigerate until ready to bake. I’m not a fan of stuffing the turkey, by the way; it’s far easier (and smarter, from a food-safety perspective) to bake it in a buttered baking dish in a 325 F oven—covered for 30 minutes, then uncovered until browned on top, about 30 minutes more.
If you want more richness and complexity in your stuffing, think about adding cooked sausage, bacon, or greens. One of my favorite renditions is more along the lines of an Italian bread salad, with chestnuts, broccoli rabe, and a generous amount of crisp-cooked pancetta; it’s as terrific with a pork roast or Sunday-night roast chicken as it is with the holiday turkey.
If you are feeding people who must avoid gluten, no worries; we zeroed in on some fabulous gluten-free options a few years back. This year, I think I’ll go for a mushroomy wild rice stuffing; I’ve been craving wild rice ever since I wrote about it a few weeks ago.
The Sweet Potatoes
First things first: It doesn’t matter what the label says—sweet potatoes are not yams. Here’s the lowdown.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, there are a couple of staggeringly easy ways to dress up sweets for the Thanksgiving table, and neither involves marshmallows. The path of least resistance is to slice the sweets crosswise into coins about ¼ inch thick, toss them in extra-virgin olive oil to coat, and season with salt and pepper. When spread in a single layer on one or two baking sheets, they roast quickly in a preheated 325 F oven; by the time the turkey has finished resting and the gravy is made (it’s not too late to make turkey stock if you haven’t already done so), they’ll be tender and deep golden. This approach is extremely adaptable: You can substitute coconut oil for the olive oil, for example, or brush the coins with pure maple syrup halfway through roasting. To peel the sweets or not beforehand is your call; I often leave the skin on to get every last bit of flavor and nutrition out of the vegetable, but the coins do look prettier without it.
When it comes to whipped sweet potatoes, the smoky heat of chipotles plays well with the vegetable’s natural sweetness, and you can get this dish, a mainstay of many of the editors at Gourmet, prepped now. Bake 5½ pounds of sweet potatoes (enough to serve 8 to 10) at 450 F for an hour or so, until they’re very soft (don’t forget to prick before baking). When they’re cool enough to handle, scoop the flesh into a bowl. Mince 1½ to 2 chipotles in adobo and mash to a paste. With an electric mixer, beat the sweet potatoes with chile paste to taste, a few tablespoons of softened butter, and salt to taste. Spread in a buttered baking dish, cover, and refrigerate until tomorrow. Then simply bring to room temperature before baking at 350 F until hot, about 20 minutes. Again, you can pop them into the oven while the turkey is resting.
Mashed potatoes are a perennial crowd-pleaser. For best results, mash them while they are piping hot, and gently heat the milk before adding it; coolness makes the starch in the spuds firm up. An old-fashioned hand masher is my tool of choice. To liven up things, you can always add crumbled fresh goat cheese, caramelized shallots, or roasted garlic to the basic mash, substitute extra-virgin olive oil for the butter, or buttermilk for the milk.
If whipped sweet potatoes are already on the menu, however, you may want to go in another direction here with scalloped potatoes, which can be made a day ahead.
The Green Vegetables
Trimmed, cut in half lengthwise, then pan-browned in garlicky butter until crisp-tender, brussels sprouts are irresistible—and almost count as finger food. You can also roast them with chestnuts and gild the lily with smoky bits of bacon.
When it comes to green beans, adding lemon zest is the gateway to brightness and freshness of flavor—always welcome in what is typically a heavy, rich meal. Trim the beans and cut them on the diagonal into ½-inch pieces, then cook in boiling water until just tender. After draining toss with finely grated lemon zest and a little extra-virgin olive oil. Adding toasted pine nuts or slivered almonds adds crunch and finesse.
Toasted nuts—as well as juicy garnet-red pomegranate seeds—also dress up a crisp, cool green salad. Give the vinaigrette a burst of citrus with lemon or lime juice.
I wrote about some favorite vegetarian sides (and main dishes) a couple of years back, and in rereading the column, I was reminded of how good the gussied-up green beans are; the addition of chestnuts is especially nice if they don’t happen to be in the stuffing.
The Cranberry Sauce
Canned cranberry sauce has its passionate fans, but there’s no reason you can’t have a homemade relish on the table as well. Just combine a bag (12 ounces) of fresh cranberries, about 3/4 cup sugar, 1 teaspoon grated lemon or orange zest, and 1 cup water in a pan. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to a simmer, and cook until the cranberries have burst and are soft, about 10 minutes. For more oomph, stir in finely chopped dried figs and a splash of sherry vinegar, for instance, or substitute lime zest for the lemon or orange zest and add a teaspoon or so of minced serrano chile. If you stumble across Fuyu persimmons—those are the squat ones, which can be eaten when firm and crisp-skinned as well as when soft and ripe—pounce. Diced and folded into cranberry sauce before serving, they add a subtle spiciness and complex acidity. Cut into wedges, they’d be lovely in that green salad above too.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve got things to tend to in the kitchen. Happy Thanksgiving!