Sunday Cooking – Thanksgiving Side Dishes


It isn’t just the stuffing that creates controversy at Thanksgiving – shall we have bread stuffing? Cornbread?  With oysters? Giblets? Chestnuts? Without? — it’s the side dishes.  My mother, who was a good but mostly unenthusiastic cook, would periodically make an effort to upgrade the holiday with something new. It always brought howls of protest from her tradition-bound family, (though I loved the addition of green bean casserole). I remember the year she added sautéed mushrooms to the peas, and the following year chucked in buttery almonds. Revolution! At least for a year or two. But in short order I grew to love the change and later to love the variety offered by subsequent Thanksgivings shared with enlarging family and friends. Everyone had sacred cows for that particular meal, so the table kept expanding. Liz always had to have her fabulous, dessert-like sweet potatoes with pecan crust. Grandma had sauteed green beans. Jeannette couldn’t call it Thanksgiving without her savory onion custard.  I need sauerkraut and Brussels sprouts.

My sister-in-law, Allison, who is a superb cook, is also not in the least impressed with food traditions and so plonks down whatever she finds interesting and delicious on the Turkey Day groaning board. I remember the first year she added avocados and fresh strawberries and blueberries to the salad. For Thanksgiving! So much for seasonal foods. But, Boy! Was the salad good!

Despite this ecumenical – and delicious — agglomeration, for Thanksgiving, the gardener in me wants a harvest-provided table. So I do a ‘traditional’ Thanksgiving dinner here sometime that week regardless of where we actually eat on the official day. Yet variety within seasonal-harvest parameters is a nod to innovation that seems very American.

To find something new to do with the same old stuff, I mine cookbooks and magazines.  Last month’s Bon Appetit had a recipe for sauerkraut and gin that I want to try, and this month’s suggests shredded Brussels sprouts sautéed with ham and pecans, along with roasted carrots and parsnips with white balsamic glaze (which is delicious) and fennel gratin with pecorino and lemon. The December issue of Food and Wine weighs in with ginger-roasted winter squash that looks superb. One link below lists about 10 different possibilities for Brussels sprouts and doesn’t even include two of my favorites: steamed with lemon juice and pepper and served with melted gorgonzola, and steamed until just crisp=tender with mustard-garlic sauce.

I don’t want to get into spuds – lumps or no lumps, mashed, whipped, or riced?, cream, butter, chicken stock to cut calories without cutting flavor, with or without roasted garlic or chives? – which are a whole category on their own. And don’t get me started on sweet potatoes with marshmallows (who thought up that one? The marshmallow lobby? Come on!). The thing about Thanksgiving is it’s a blessing to have a gathering centered on gratitude and nourishment. Traditions are whatever you want to make them, even including marshmallows (gag). Just don’t forget the sauerkraut.

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