There's a moment before Thanksgiving
when many a dinner invitee will ask the fateful question:
"So, uh, do you need me to bring anything?"
If they're lucky they'll be asked to bring wine, rolls, or a pie; all easily procured or prepared. However, woe unto the Thanksgiving guest who's told, "Um, I don't know. Bring a side dish or whatever." Damn!
The problem? Guests will not question the quality of the host's turkey. If it's cooked through, it will be consumed. On the other hand, critical eyes are easily cast toward visitors' foil-covered casserole dishes. Whose will be sought for seconds? Whose will remain untouched?
There will be a winner and a loser. They will be praised or ridiculed on the ride home: "Did you taste that green-bean casserole? My God! Was it made of shit?"
Or, conversely, "I would have strangled Grandma for another serving of those porky greens."
Chef Robert Reynolds, mastermind behind Chefs Studio, a Southeast Portland culinary learning center for novices and professionals alike, has never been a big fan of the "wretched excess" of Thanksgiving.
"The whole thing is without measure," he says. "It's not a real meal that compares to any other meal at any other time of the year."
Still, he understands the popularity of the holiday feast, as well as the dangers of contributing to the gastronomic melee.
According to Reynolds there's likely not a side dish guaranteed to win the day. However, he does offer this advice, "The test for me of any dish is whether a child goes 'mmm.' And if a child goes 'mmm' then you've hit it. That's reality. Everything else is artifice."
The Mercury is here to help you achieve that reality. We want you to be a winner. To that end, we've collected side-dish recipes from a handful of ringers like Chef Reynolds to help you win praise on Thanksgiving. Because that's what the season is really all about. So, preheat that oven, because it's time to throw down!
Reynolds suggests that when asked to bring a side dish, guests shouldn't attempt to gain favor by bringing something "different."
"My experience having run a restaurant is that you can't wander too far on Thanksgiving from people's expectations," he says.
Much can be gained by simple tweaks to traditional fare. "To make something interesting and appealing, there's an element I borrow from my French training," he says. "Lace the menu with fruit, because fruit helps you digest. It helps to keep the whole thing a little bit lighter."
The recipe Reynolds offers for pureed celeriac and apples looks very similar to mashed potatoes, but adds a lightness sorely lacking from most dishes on the Thanksgiving table.
Purée de Celeris Aux Pommes
(by Claude Guermont from The Norman Table)
2 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons milk
salt and pepper
4 cups celeriac (a brown, knobby, root-like veggie found in the produce isle of most organic grocers), cut into 1-inch cubes
4 tablespoons butter
3 Granny Smith apples, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
pinch of nutmeg
Bring 2 quarts of water to a boil with flour, milk, and salt.
Add celeriac and simmer 35 to 40 minutes until tender.
Drain well and puree in a food processor.
Melt butter in skillet and sauté apples until soft. Puree and add to celeriac.
Add nutmeg, mix well, and season to taste.
David Siegel, executive chef of Belly Timber, looked toward the matriarch for inspiration in creating his three-layer seasonal root veggie side dish.
"This dish is based on my mother's signature Thanksgiving side dish," he says. "It's so popular in fact, that it's a staple at other holiday dinners as well."
Siegel says he's particularly interested in the way the pecan topping offsets the savory tones of the vegetable layers, each combined with a different winter spice.
He's very happy with his version, but notes he'll be looking forward to his mother's all-yam version when he travels home for Thanksgiving this year!
Siegel's Root Vegetable Casserole
1 cup muscovado sugar
½ cup all-purpose flour
¼ pound butter, cut into little cubes
2 teaspoons kosher salt
½ tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
½ tablespoon chopped fresh sage
1 cup toasted pine nuts
For the topping: Combine the sugar, flour, salt, herbs, and butter in a food processor. Pulse until the mix resembles coarse sand. Add nuts and pulse a few more times to incorporate. Reserve topping for later. Multiply as needed for larger casserole dishes.
Vegetables and Spices:
2 cups rutabaga (cooked)
2 cups parsnip (cooked)
2 cups red garnet yam (cooked)
1 teaspoon ground star anise
seeds from 1 vanilla bean
1 teaspoon shaved fresh nutmeg
Vegetable preparation: Peel and cut the vegetables into ½-inch pieces.
Boil individually and lightly pack into measuring cups.
3/4 cup white sugar
6 egg yolks
6 tablespoons egg whites
3/4 pound butter
1 cup heavy cream
7 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
Per layer: Each layer should be blended separately, and added to the casserole one at a time. Allow each layer to set slightly in the fridge before adding next layer.
In a food processor, blend until very smooth one third of the layer ingredients: ¼ cup white sugar, 2 egg yolks, 2 tablespoons egg whites, ¼ pound butter, 1/3 cup heavy cream, and 2 ½ teaspoons kosher salt, and also add 2 cups cooked rutabaga and 1 teaspoon star anise, occasionally wiping down sides with a rubber spatula while blending. Spread into any 4 quart-ish casserole dish or Dutch oven (as long as the sides are at least 4 inches high). Repeat process for middle layer—substitute the rutabaga and anise with 2 cups parsnip and the vanilla bean seeds. Repeat process for last layer—this time use 2 cups cooked yam and 1 teaspoon nutmeg.
When all the layers are in the dish, lightly pack the topping on, and bake for 20 minutes at 275 degrees. Turn the oven up to 350 degrees and bake for an additional 10 minutes.
"Collard greens become extremely sweet when the temperature drops and it frosts at night," says Cathy Whims. "In fact, just around Thanksgiving in Oregon."
As chef and co-owner of Nostrana, the 2009 James Beard Foundation Award nominee has a tendency to work more in the Italian tradition, but Whims' porky greens side dish has allowed her North Carolina heritage to come through.
Whims also offers a spicy onion relish (adapted from Joyce Goldstein) that's not only perfect for cornbread stuffing and pork, but for day-after turkey sammies (if you can steal any of the bird on your way out the door after dinner).
7 cups water
chicken broth or meat broth
1 ½ teaspoons salt
pinch chili flakes
diced prosciutto, salami, ham hock, or pancetta
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon sugar
2 ½ pounds collard greens; washed, de-stemmed, and roughly torn
salt and pepper to taste
Bring water or broth, olive oil, sugar, and seasonings to boil in an 8-quart stainless stock pot. Add collards, choice of meat, and return to boil; reduce heat and simmer for 1 to 2 hours, until silky tender.
Joyce's Sweet and Sour Onion Relish
12 cups sliced red onions
1 tablespoon chili flakes
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 cups brown sugar
1 ½ cups red wine vinegar
1 cup Marsala
2 cups raisins
Heat oil in a large, wide, short-sided pot over medium heat. Add onions and chili flakes. Cover pot and sauté until wilted, about 25 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add sugar, vinegar, and Marsala. Cook until onions are tender and the liquid is syrupy. Add raisins and stir well. Let cool.
Chef Jenn Louis of Lincoln Restaurant and Culinary Artistry looked into the rain-wet woods to find the inspiration for her farro, chanterelle, and sage side dish.
"The mushrooms are in season and everything about this dish screams Thanksgiving to me," she says. "It's that hearty, comforting, warm fall dish that just seems like a perfect accompaniment to turkey and gravy."
You'll be sure to score points using farro, an ancient grain that is reported to have fueled the Roman legion back when they were kicking around.
Hey, if it helped the Romans win an empire, then surely it's good enough for you to rule the turkey day feast.
Farro with Chanterelles and Sage
1 cup whole farro
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups chanterelles, cleaned and pulled by hand into wedges
8 cloves garlic, sliced paper thin
6 sage leaves
2 large bunches lacinato kale; stemmed, cut into ribbons, and blanched in salted, boiling water for 2 minutes
1/2 cup chicken broth
salt and pepper to taste
zest of 1 lemon
3 to 6 ounces pecorino cheese
6 tablespoons butter
In a medium saucepan, cook farro like pasta, in salted, boiling water for about 30 minutes or until tender. DO NOT let it become mushy—farro should have some tooth to it. Drain and set aside.
Heat oil and 2 tablespoons butter in a large sauté pan over high heat. Sauté mushrooms until tender, about 1 ½ to 2 minutes. Add garlic and sage and sauté for one minute more. Stir in kale.
Add chicken broth and cooked farro. Stir in grated pecorino, lemon zest, and 4 tablespoons butter. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve.