Thanksgiving side dishes are, cumulatively, more important than the bird. After surveying hundreds of recipes and cooking dozens, I've compiled this list of my suggested top side dishes for Thanksgiving 2014.
Typically the host handles brining the turkey and cooking the bird, In many families different branches of the family tree are responsible for different side dishes and, over time, the meal is often not the same without them.
Thanksgiving traditions are great, but what happens when Aunt June is a bad cook? It's time for a change. Luckily, this list was created to help replace tired old side dishes with new ones full of flavor.
What is clear about Thanksgiving menus is that most families have varieties of the same dishes. I like to incorporate some of the historical foods that the Pilgrims (supposedly) ate such as lobster and oysters, but for 99.9% of Americans, side dishes in the Thanksgiving menu typically include the following foods or dishes.
Potatoes, Sweet Potatoes, Yams.
Obviously dinner rolls, cranberry sauce, and desserts are integral components of the Thanksgiving meal, but we're just focused on the side dishes for this article.
Let's start with Green Beans - This is a dish that is almost always found in a casserole. I understand that the 1950's and 1960's traumatized us as a nation with canned foods ready for the impending long winter in a nuclear bomb shelter, but green beans are not best served over done and mushy. Casseroles almost guarantee that green beans lose their luster. The following recipes work to avoid that outcome.
This recipe by Alton Brown, or whatever research chef he employed to create the content, is one of the best casserole-esque versions of a green bean dish that I've made.
The recipe calls for using real mushrooms to make the cream sauce as well as home-made crispy, panko crusted, onions for the topping.
The one downside to this recipe is that it asks you to blanch the green beans for 5 minutes before baking them another 15-20 minutes in the oven. In my experience, this leads to over cooked beans. Instead, blanch them very quickly - 1-2 minutes, then chill on cold water before adding to the casserole.
This recipe by Two Fat Ladies (RIP) is a great departure from casseroles. The use of a homemade Roman mustard (allow for 36 hrs prep) produces an excellent companion flavor to Turkey, which is something I do when I make Sweetwater Spice Co.'s own green bean dish...
Aside from boiling mustard seeds in vinegar, the only other preparation needed is cleaning and trimming the beans, and slicing some meyer lemons. I love Meyer Lemons because you can eat the rind which makes them great to use in dishes.
I simply slice the lemons very thinly (a mandolin helps here but watch your fingers!), then in half, and toss the beans and the lemon slices with some olive oil and a pinch of salt, then roast for 15 minutes. I top off the dish with a few spoonfuls of the pickled mustard seeds and the result is flavor that pairs perfectly with the main dish - brined turkey.
Potatoes, particularly of the mashed variety, don't really require a recipe in my opinion. Peel and boil the potatoes, add your choice of fat (typically butter and/or cream), and whatever tertiary flavor enhancer your like.
There are many ways to spruce up your mashed potatoes such as this brown butter recipe (yum), truffles (which is cheating because you can put truffles on a shoe and make it taste good), bacon (see truffles), and various cheeses.
Yes - adding fat, bacon, or truffles can make your potatoes delicious. I am not innocent as I use an unholy amount of butter myself.
I love the nuttiness of brown butter, roasted garlic, and my secret ingredient - parsnips and/or celery root. I mix in 1/4 parsnip or celery root with my potatoes to add complexity to the flavor of the mash.
Here are some things to avoid doing when making mashed potatoes:
1) Mixing cold with hot. If you are adding butter or cream, melt the butter or warm up the cream prior to adding it to the mix.
2) Mash by hand. If you whip your potatoes in the food processor what you will make is glue. Use a masher (not a fork - consistency is also key and no one wants your lumpy mashed potatoes) and some elbow grease.
Sweet Potato / Yams
Most American Thanksgiving tables that I've seen combine sweet potatoes or yams with a sickly sweet topping of roasted marshmallows. I love my s'mores, but I find the texture and sweetness of this traditional version to be too much for me.
When I'm feeling up to it (and the crowd is small), I will almost certainly make sweet potato tamales. I mix some of the sweet potato puree with the masa for the dough, and make a spiced sweet potato filling with bananas, chipotle chilies in adobo, and dark chocolate. These rock but they are also incredibly laborious to make.
Slightly less laborious are twice baked sweet potatoes, using the same Tyler Florence and Bobby Flay inspired recipes that combine banana (use 2 bananas per 5 sweet potatoes, not the nearly 1:1 combo that Tyler suggests) and adding the dark chocolate where Bobby goes with Maple syrup. You can go either way.
Make the sweet potato puree described above, place it in a casserole dish, top with frozen tater tots, and bake until the tater tots are ready. How easy is that for a Thanksgiving side dish? Have you ever known anyone who didn't light up at the sight of tater tots? Nor have I.
Like green beans, corn is often found creamed and in casseroles. They taste good, because fat and sweet tastes good. That said, I love how good corn tastes all by itself. Roasted, grilled, or smoked properly, the natural sweetness in corn doesn't need much help (though butter never hurt anyone).
I might be inclined to make Mexican corn after I've roasted, grilled, or smoked it.
If you feel the need to have a dish you can spoon out for a crowd, then go all the way. Here's a corn casserole recipe that utilizes bacon grease to the fullest.
If you have the time and inclination, one of the absolute best dishes you can make is a corn chowder. Use your turkey necks to season the stock (roast them first for an extra layer of flavor) and make a chipotle cream to drizzle on top, garnish with cilantro and lime wedge. Careful with that chowder recipe - Ina Garten apparently has no sense of taste when it comes to salt, so cut some of that out of the recipe.
Now here's a vegetable that does well in a casserole. Yellow and green (zucchini) squashes have a consistency when cooked that is not negatively impacted by adding cream or overcooking. Acorn and butternut squash, similarly, do not need a bite to their texture to succeed. Mix the two and make a casserole laden with cheese, bake until it's crispy and brown on top, and watch everyone smile.
The dishes that have been "traditional" for the past few decades are being pushed aside for bolder flavors and recipes that push fresh and exotic ingredients to the forefront.
I hope this list of possibilities enhances your Thanksgiving dinner in 2014.
Don't wait until it's too late to get your Turkey Bath brine! The side dishes might be more important all together, but no one wants to eat dry turkey.
Scott Sapire is the Chief Spice Officer of Sweetwater Spice Co. As the creator of TURKEY BATH Brine Concentrates, he may have cooked more Thanksgivings per year since 2006 than anyone. After perfecting the main course, Scott has turned his attention to making the entirety of his favorite meal as memorable as possible by infusing Southwestern flavors from his Texas roots into the ultimate American meal.
Unless you're kosher or are allergic to shellfish, it's pretty much a guarantee that you'd like a lobster roll.
As my wife is from Boston I've had my share of the crustacean and over time have developed some recipes of my own.
I ordered 40 lbs of live Maine lobster from Ready Seafood for a fundraising dinner, allowing me to do something most people will not have the opportunity to do, make lobster rolls with just leg and head meat.
I dispatched of the lobsters with a knife rather than boiling them to death, then removed their tails and took the meat out raw. I removed the claws and front legs, and placed them in a steamer, rinsed out the heads and thorax (yes, I tossed the tomalley), then placed them in my stock pot to make the base of my Lobster Corn Tortilla Soup.
I tossed the tomalley in part because I didn't want enzymes from the liver to start breaking down the meat in the head and thorax.
After removing the meat from the lobster legs with a rolling pin and picking the heads of the good bits they contain, I set that aside for one of the rolls. To have this much leg and head meat is truly a rare treat. This lobster roll will be served raw with candied jalapeno, candied meyer lemon, celery leaf, peas, spicy pickled watermelon rind, and mayo.
I broiled two pasilla chilies along with one bunch of spring onion until the skin on the chilies was blistered and the onions had a nice char.
Place the pasilla chilies in some tupperware and close so they steam while they cool and peel the outer, charred, layers of the spring onions off and add to a pot of melted butter - approximately 2 sticks for 28 lobsters.
Once the chilies cool, removing the exterior of the chilies, leaving only the roasted pulp, is quite easy. Add the pulp to the butter and charred onions and puree.
Placed all of the lobster tail meat in a vacuum seal bag, along with the cooled butter, and placed it in the fridge so the butter will harden.
Once cooled, seal the vacuum bag and it's ready for some sous vide cooking. Granted, I don't own a circulating sous vide machine, but I have a candy thermometer and a large pot which allows me to control the temp of the water well enough to achieve the results I seek. If you don't have a candy thermometer - bring a stock pot to the point just before boiling, turn the heat off, wait five minutes, then place the cold, sealed, lobster tail bag in the pot.
I cooked the lobster tails at 135 degrees for about 20 minutes then I removed the bag from the water.
One secret ingredient in my warm lobster roll is actually seared scallops. Dry sea scallops brown beautifully, generating an umami rich exterior from the maillard reaction.
Give the cooked (still medium rare) scallops a rough chop and add them to the lobster tails, also roughly chopped. This is ready to serve, though I admit the green butter does not make the most appetizing visual display. When next I make these I'll add some fresh herbs and diced chilies - likely some fresh marjoram, but perhaps tarragon or mint - experimenting will be fun.
The cold lobster roll is assembled using the ingredients stated above - I make the candied jalapeno and meyer lemon by soaking finely diced jalapeno (de-seeded) and sliced meyer lemons in a sugar syrup (2 parts sugar to water by volume) then roasting at 350 until the sugar caramelizes. I dice the lemons after they are cooked. Make sure to do this on wax paper or a silicone mat if you want to remove the candied goodies from your pan.
Fresh peas, celery leaf, and mayo round out the roll. I served these on split Hawaiin bread but traditional buttered hot dog buns would suffice.
For sides I made a cold corn salad and old bay steak fries.
This is a bisque meets chowder meets soup. It's Nuevo England, which is essentially the soul of my home since I am a Texan and my wife grew up in Boston.
The recipe began with two lobsters. Sorry fellas.
I have to admit I don't enjoy putting live lobsters into boiling water, but you aren't going to get this flavor without that process and I'm not going to pretend that buying a cooked lobster would have saved them from that fate. There's something very profound about being connected to your food from life to plate and I have no regrets about being an omnivore.
After removing the meat , and separating the gills from the body, I placed the shells back in the pot of boiling liquid, brought it to a simmer and let cook, stirring occasionally for about 2 hrs.
Meanwhile I set out to create the corn chowder component.
First I removed the kernals from two ears of corn (about 1.5 cups), diced a sweet onion (about 1 cup of diced onion), diced 1 carrot (about 1/2 cup of diced carrot), diced 2 fennel stalks (about 1/2 cup of fennel stalk), and 3 cloves of garlic (mashed).
I sauteed these in coconut oil along with 2 sprigs of thyme until the onions began to sweat and become translucent, then I added 10 cups of the lobster broth, 16 oz of coconut milk, 12 oz of tomato paste, 2 teaspoons of sea salt, 1 teaspoon of black pepper, 2 teaspoon of palm sugar, 1/2 teaspoon of cumin, 1/2 teaspoon of chipotle powder, 1/2 teaspoon of saffron, and 1/2 teaspoon of smoked paprika.
I brought the mix to a boil, then lowered to a simmer and let cook for 1 hr - stirring occasionally - then, after removing the twigs of thyme, I placed it all in a food processor and ran until the mix was smooth. I placed this back in the pot, added 1/2 cup of cream sherry and brought to a boil to burn off the alcohol.
Salt to taste at this point but there's no need to add more spice because you will garnish with chipotle morita, sour cream, cilantro, corn tortilla strips (freshly fried are best), fried shallot, chives, avocado, and a wedge of lime.
You can also add some diced banana (yes, banana) and sliced radish (they look pretty but I think they are the least interesting topping flavor wise).
Place the tortilla strips in the bowl first, then ladle the soup over the strips and add the toppings.
If you don't want to use the lobster meat for a second course, like Lobster Rolls, put it in the soup.
A rolling pin can release some of the sweetest meat (and hardest to obtain) in a lobster, found in the legs. Just snip the ends of the legs off with your kitchen shears and roll the legs under a pin to squeeze the meat out.
When making Lobster Rolls, bisques, or other soups, this meat is a great addition.
Seen next to the other treasure extracted from the lobsters, you can see that the quantity is substantial enough to make the effort worth it.
Here are the other tools I had to use to pick these lobsters clean. I started out with the mallet, placing the lobster under a towel, but I soon ended up using the trusty back side of my favorite chinese cleaver.
It's March Madness so I cooked up 40 lbs of wings for my office mates and we're projecting games onto a movie screen.
Most people's brackets are already busted after Day 1 but everyone can still be a winner.
Guess how many wings are in this bowl and win 4 Free Bottles (any flavors)! Hint - you can't see all the wings.
As for the wings, I tried something new and it worked out great. After brining the wings I strained the brine as I normally do., then I mixed the spices that I caught in a fine mesh strainer and mixed them with olive oil then tossed the wings in the blend before baking them on parchment paper at 425 degrees. Turned out great!
Even people who don't like Brussel Sprouts will like these.
Super simple and everyone loves them, they just take a little bit of prep work.
Cut (don't bother washing yet) the bottom 1/3" off your brussel sprouts. From the bottom, peel the leaves off the center.
After you've peeled a few layers of leaves, you'll note that it is getting increasingly harder - move on to next brussel sprout. Set aside the half naked ones for use in another recipe, toss the leaves in a colander for washing.
Now there are two ways to continue - one is both easier and healthier for a home chef, and the other is how a Chef might do it a restaurant.
First, the healthy home option.
Mix 1 teaspoon of curry powder and 1 teaspoon of sea salt with 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Drizzle the flavored oil over the brussel sprout leaves, then spread them across a baking sheet and place in a 350 degree oven. I use convection if it is available.
1 lb of brussel sprouts trimmed of their first 3 layers of leaves covers about 1 hotel pan. Use a silicon mat or parchment paper.
Cook the leaves for about 10-15 minutes - looking for them to get crispy and even a bit brown on the edges.
The Chef way, stolen from the award winning Uchiko Restaurant in Austin, is made by flash frying the brussel sprout leaves, then drizzling them with a 1:1 simple syrup flavored with fish sauce. Just mix 1 part sugar with 1 part water (by weight - remember 1 part water + 1 part sugar = 1.5 parts simple syrup) over low heat until sugar is dissolved (about 10 min). Then add seasoning, in this case curry powder (to taste) and voila.
Poblano Pea Puree is a great pairing for lamb and seafood.
Savory, tangy, and fresh, this balances fatty meats and compliments both fresh white fish and oilier fish like salmon and mackerel.
Place two poblano peppers under the broiler until their skin blisters and chars on all sides, then place in an empty grocery bag and fold it closed to steam the skin off. Ziplocs work better for steaming, but we're trying to use less melted plastic around here.
After about 15 minutes, take the peppers out and the waxy skin will peel off easily. Remove the seeds, stem, and membrane and place in food processor / blender / stick blender.
To this add the juice of 1 Meyer lemon. If no meyer lemon, then use regular lemon and a touch of orange juice. Lime would be better if I was preparing this for seafood, but it was created to accentuate the buttery sweetness of lamb when brined in the Lime Jalapeno Fajita Bath Brine Concentrate.
Quickly blanch 1/2 cup of peas in boiling water - about 30 seconds. Add these to the mix.
You can add 1/4 cup mint or cilantro, or a mix of both.
Finally, add 1 clove of garlic, 1 teaspoon of black pepper, 1 teaspoon of salt, 1/2 teaspoon cumin.
Puree together and that's it. If you want to spice it up, add a jalapeno or serrano to the mix.
The loin roast weight 2.5 lbs, but I diluted it with pineapple juice instead of water as I normally would and brined it for less than 1 hr per lb as I normally suggest, going for just 2 hrs. It could have gone longer but I wasn't familiar enough with the cut of meat or the kitchen I was to be cooking in to feel confident.
I pre-heated the oven to 450 F and got a stainless steel pan to medium high before I removed the lamb from the brine.
A little olive oil in the pan and the lamb loin went in whole as I browned all sides before placing it in the oven for 8-12 minutes, aiming for medium rare.
At home I would have reached for grape seed oil, which has a higher burning point, and I may not dilute the lime jalapeno fajita bath brine with pineapple juice in the future as the sugars burnt too quickly in the pan.