Simple Thanksgiving side dishes move stress to back burner
For people who love food, this is the best holiday of the year — completely focused on the food and the people surrounding the table.
For others, severe kitchen anxiety builds from now until Thursday.
Everyone talks about the turkey. Debates go on about the best way, the newest ideas, the questions surrounding getting that bird done at just the right moment. But really, it’s just a big bird.
You know how to roast a chicken, right? Just remember this is like a chicken, only bigger. Do whatever you usually do for a roast chicken, just cook it longer. Arm yourself with a reliable thermometer, a roasting timetable, and a sturdy pan and you’re good to go.
Knowing the bird is going to take up oven space and time for a good part of the Big Day, consider what else to serve and how to get it all done at one time. Remember that the finished turkey needs to rest for 30 to 45 minutes, and plan so that all of the other hot dishes can be finished in the oven during that time.
My advice is to find the easiest methods, then make a really detailed timetable.
Start early with planning and prep to reduce the last-minute flurry and panic trips to the grocery.
I begin by roasting a chicken a few days ahead of Thanksgiving.
Remove the meat and use in whatever way you wish, but keep all of the bones and trimmings (like wing tips).
Also add juices and crispy bits from the pan. Put those into a deep saucepan, cover with water and add onion, carrot, celery, bay leaf and a bit of Worchestershire sauce and simmer 30 minutes. Strain and refrigerate.
This homemade stock will be handy for use in a number of ways.
On Thanksgiving I put it on the back of the stove and ladle out what I need over the course of the day. If there is not as much as you need, add a can of low-sodium broth.
Next in line for consideration are stuffing and potatoes. See the Low Mileage Kitchen column for my easy answer to a delicious dressing that can be made ahead and chilled until ready to bake just before serving time.
Mashed potatoes always make an appearance. I cook them early while the kitchen is quiet. Add a scoop of sour cream and, using some of the prepared broth, whip them and put into their serving bowl.
Top with some melted butter and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Then place them on top of a heavy towel set into a slow cooker set on low.
Leave the lid partially open so that the steam escapes or else the potatoes will swell (if they do, just stir them down). One last-minute chore done and off the list.
I also make the gravy ahead of time. Make a roux by cooking equal parts butter and flour in a heavy pan until they are completely cooked and smell like toast, then add homemade broth plus ½ cup or so of white wine to reach the consistency you like. Season well.
The gravy holds in a Thermos container for several hours. The crazy flurry of making it from the turkey pan is completely eliminated.
Sweet potatoes are a favorite of mine, but I never liked the gooey sweet marshmallow version. Once I learned this recipe, even my family adopted it as their all-time favorite. It too can be partially prepared a day or so ahead. Simply pour cream over the top and drop the crumbly topping over the surface before baking.
While these stars are somewhat non-negotiable on the menu, I always look for something more healthful to expand the offerings. Something green and something crunchy will add eye appeal, not to mention nutritional benefit.
Choose your family’s favorite green vegetable and roast it as the last oven activity. I alternate between green beans, asparagus or halved Brussels sprouts. Toss the vegs with olive oil and spread on a foil-lined bake sheet. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and a shower of lemon zest, then roast for only a few short minutes until tender and slightly charred. Add chopped nuts for the last few minutes for their crisp texture.
Adding a salad is always welcome. This one combines fall’s produce with a lovely creamy pink dressing with just the right amount of tang to balance the other rich dishes.
You always can buy prepared cranberry sauce, but this one is so easy and the flavor is so unique, it is well worth the few minutes it takes to put it together. It will hold in the refrigerator for a couple of days.
The pumpkin pies are best made the day before the holiday. Follow the recipe on the pumpkin can, but substitute ½ cup maple syrup or honey for part of the sugar and add a tablespoon of very finely grated fresh ginger for a delicious change-up to the basic.
Here’s to the most anxiety-free and delicious Thanksgiving ever !
Judith Dunbar Hines is a cooking teacher, tour guide, writer and culinary consultant in Chicago. For upcoming classes, see firstname.lastname@example.org