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...
Stealing from David Chang of Momofuku, I make mustard seed caviar to accompany my green beans. The preparation of this dish makes it the easiest thanksgiving side dish of all time.
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.
Lastly, and easiest of all, is a casserole that is inspired by the Minnesotan casserole called Hotdish (pronounced Hoddish)
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.
Here's a southwestern themed squash casserole that you can make your own.
Maybe I'm biased and the rotating group of guests that I've hosted for nearly a decade have been lying to me, but I have not tasted the equal to my Chorizo and Oyster Jalapeno Cornbread stuffing.
Because there is a lot of fat to cut through at Thanksgiving, I love this recipe. Pickled root vegetables go a long way to balancing out the palate.
In sum, Thanksgiving is a meal that can go a lot of different directions, and our tastes as a Nation are changing.
Whether you brine your turkey in our Classic Holiday, Apple Rosemary Sage flavor and embrace traditional flavor profiles or try our Lemon Thyme Turkey Bath, Ancho Y Chipotle Brisket Bath, or Smoked Apple Spice Butt & Rib Bath to kick up your Thanksgiving, there are a bevy of side dishes to match.
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.