Deck the Table
Tired of the same old seasonal side dishes? Try these new flavors to brighten your holiday feasts.
Photography by James Stefiuk
Ah, tradition. It’s the shiny, gossamer web that holds holidays together, connecting people and places and memories from one year to the next.
Food often serves as the iconic centerpiece of Thanksgiving-through-New Year traditions. And far be it from us to suggest that anyone abandon Nana’s signature cornbread stuffing, Uncle Charlie’s green bean casserole or Mom’s hand-grated latkes. We know it “just wouldn’t be (fill-in-the-blank)” without fresh pumpkin pie, six different kinds of cookies, and yes, even canned, jellied cranberry sauce, complete with ridges.
But maybe, just maybe, there’s room for a bit of surprise this year. Keep the turkey, the prime rib or the brisket centerpiece, and certainly keep your fave side dishes. Then, add something new to the rotation. Just for fun. Make it a one-time frivolity, or start a new tradition of trying out a different holiday dish each year.
To get you started, here are a few appealing options. Nothing to bump Nana’s stuffing off the table, but definitely conversation starters.
Brussels Sprouts Salad
6 cups Brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved
1 1/2 cups pecan halves
2 Tbsps. butter
2⁄3 cup dried cranberries
1 small-to-medium fennel bulb, halved, cored and thinly sliced
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil or orange-flavored olive oil
2⁄3 cup cranberry/pear balsamic vinegar or another type of fruit-flavored vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste
2 Tbsps. fresh orange zest
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the Brussels sprouts and blanch, cooking only until the outer leaves turn bright green and halves can be pierced with a fork, about 3 minutes. Drain sprouts, then plunge into cold water. Drain well, gently pat dry with paper towels, and place in a large bowl.
In a skillet over medium-high heat, melt 1 Tbsp. butter and add half the pecans. Cook, turning pecans frequently, just until pecans are fragrant and golden brown. Remove pecans to a plate lined with paper towels and repeat the toasting process with remaining butter and pecans.
Add cranberries, fennel and pecans to the Brussels sprouts. Whisk together oil and vinegar. Drizzle one-third of the dressing over the sprouts mixture and toss to coat. Add more dressing to taste.
Season with salt and pepper and garnish with orange zest.
Can be served chilled or at room temperature. Makes 12 servings.
NOTE: Raw fennel has a crisp texture and a mild licorice flavor. If you prefer, celery or jicama slices can be substituted.
Sautéed Collard Greens with Pancetta and Leeks
6 pounds collard greens
2 Tbsps. olive oil
2 Tbsps. butter
1 cup diced pancetta
1 cup sliced leeks (white part only)
Salt and pepper to taste
Tabasco or pepper vinegar
Fill a tall soup pot 3/4 full with water. Add salt and boil.
Wash and trim collard greens, removing spines and cutting leaves into one-inch pieces. Add leaves to the boiling water and cook 10 minutes. Drain collards in a strainer and, using the back of a cooking spoon, press out as much liquid as possible.
In a large skillet or flat-bottomed wok, heat olive oil and butter over high heat. Add pancetta and cook 2 to 3 minutes or until the cubes of pancetta begin to brown. Add leeks and continue to cook, stirring frequently, for another 2 minutes. Add collards to the skillet and toss until ingredients are well mixed and collards are hot. Season with salt and pepper to taste and serve with Tabasco or pepper vinegar. Makes 12 servings.
NOTE: This is a great dish to serve alongside cornbread stuffing and black-eyed peas. The amount of collards specified refers to greens sold by the bunch, untrimmed. If you buy ready-to-use collards in a bag, figure two to three bags for this recipe. Other types of greens—as well as rapini—can be substituted for collards in this recipe. However, most other greens will blanch in just a few minutes, rather than 10 minutes for collards.
Savory Bread Pudding
6 cups cubed day-old white bread
3 cups milk
3 Tbsps. butter
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 medium onion, quartered and sliced
8 oz. sliced mushrooms
1 five-oz. bag baby spinach
1/2 cup chopped sundried tomatoes
1⁄8 tsp. ground cumin
1/2 tsp. sea salt or to taste
1/4 tsp. freshly ground pepper
1/4 tsp. mixed Italian seasoning
Place three cups of bread cubes in a large bowl. Pour milk over the bread and press top cubes into the milk. Let stand. Using one Tbsp. of butter, generously coat the inside of an oblong glass baking dish or casserole. Distribute remaining bread cubes evenly over the baking dish.
In a large, deep skillet, heat the remaining 2 Tbsps. of butter and the olive oil over high heat. Add the onion slices and cook, stirring, until onions begin to wilt. Reduce heat to medium and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes or until onions begin to caramelize. Add mushrooms and return heat to high. Sauté for three minutes. Add the spinach and cook just until leaves wilt.
Carefully pour the contents of the skillet, including liquid, over the bread cubes in the baking dish. Use a spoon to distribute onions, mushrooms and spinach evenly over the dish. Sprinkle sundried tomatoes over the vegetables and bread.
Add cumin, salt, pepper and Italian seasoning to the bread and milk in the bowl. With an electric hand mixer, beat the bread and milk together to form a thick liquid. Pour the liquid over the bread and vegetables in the baking dish. Bake at 350 degrees for 40 minutes or until top is lightly browned and a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Let stand 10-15 minutes before serving. Makes 12 servings.
NOTE: This bread pudding makes a great stuffing alternative, particularly for cooks who traditionally serve two different stuffings at Thanksgiving. But it’s also a great side for prime rib or pot roast. If your bread is very soft, leave the slices exposed to the air for an hour or so before preparing the dish.
Sweet Potato Kugel
8 medium sweet potatoes
1 cup sultanas
1 tsp. cinnamon
3/4 cup orange juice
Pinch of salt
1 cup matzo meal or fine bread crumbs
2 Tbsps. softened butter or margarine
Peel sweet potatoes and cut into large chunks. Using a food processor and working in batches, grate the potatoes. In a large bowl, combine sweet potato shreds, sultanas and cinnamon. In a separate bowl, whisk together eggs and orange juice. Whisk in a pinch of salt.
Add egg mixture to shredded sweet potatoes. Sprinkle matzo meal or bread crumbs over the ingredients and stir until well blended.
Pour kugel mixture into a large, well-greased baking dish. Dot the top of the kugel with butter or margarine. Bake at 350 degrees for one hour, or until the kugel is nicely browned on top and tender in the middle. Makes 12 servings.
NOTE: This dish makes a nice alternative to sweet potatoes covered in marshmallows at the Thanksgiving table, and it’s also a great offering for a Hanukkah or New Year’s Day brunch.
Wild Mushroom Ragout with Polenta
4 Tbsps. butter
4 shallots, minced
1 pound white mushrooms, quartered
1 pound crimini mushrooms, quartered
2 pounds mix of chanterelle, shiitake, and oyster mushrooms, halved or quartered
4 plum tomatoes, diced
3 Tbsps. flour
2 cups heavy cream
1/4 cup brandy
1/2 tsp. fresh thyme leaves
2 Tbsps. minced fresh parsley
Salt and pepper to taste
In a large, heavy skillet, melt butter over high heat. Add shallots and sauté for 2 minutes. Add mushrooms and continue to cook, stirring frequently, for 5 minutes. Add diced tomatoes to the pan, reduce heat to medium-high and cook until tomatoes begin to release juices. Sprinkle flour over the mushroom/tomato mixture and stir to blend.
Slowly add cream to the skillet, stirring constantly to dissolve flour. Bring mixture to a boil, then reduce heat to medium. Add brandy and simmer 10 minutes.
Remove from heat. Stir in fresh thyme leaves and parsley. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Ladle ragout over firm polenta squares. Makes 12 servings.
NOTE: Polenta is not unlike grits, although it’s made with a finer grind of cornmeal. Depending on where you buy it and what type you buy, it can take anywhere from a few minutes to 30 minutes to cook. Instant polenta is available at most supermarkets. To make firm polenta, just boil 3 cups of water for each cup of polenta. Whisk the polenta into the boiling water, then stir constantly for five minutes until the mixture is thick and bubbly. Remove from heat. Add salt, pepper and butter, plus a bit of Parmesan cheese if you like. Pour polenta into a buttered heat-safe dish and let stand until mixture is firm. Cut into squares and serve. For this recipe, you’ll need enough polenta for 12 servings.
Simple, Yet Special
Maybe you’re looking for a change, but don’t have time to search for and try out new recipes each year. Here are a few quick and easy cheats that can add variety to your usual holiday menu.
- Make pesto potatoes. Boil or roast quartered red potatoes. While hot, toss in commercially prepared pesto sauce. Add fresh-ground black pepper and serve.
- Make stuffed pumpkins. Buy small individual-serving-size pumpkins. Cut off the tops and scoop out the seeds. Fill the pumpkins with your favorite stuffing and bake until the pumpkins are tender. Serve one per person.
- Make orzo with olives. Cook and drain the orzo, then toss with your favorite prepared olive tapenade. Serve warm or chilled.
- Make veggies almandine. Blanch and drain whole green beans, broccoli, or another vegetable. Heat slivered or sliced almonds in a skillet with butter and minced garlic. Cook until browned and toss with vegetables.
- Make gourmet macaroni and cheese. Just fold shrimp, lump crabmeat and crumbled bacon into your usual recipe for baked mac and cheese. Cook as usual and take in the compliments.
- Make a holiday-edition Caprese salad. Toss mini fresh mozzarella balls with orange sections, dried cranberries, toasted pine nuts, slivered basil leaves and a drizzle of orange olive oil.
- Make sweet-and-spicy cranberry relish. In a food processor, grind together a 12-oz. bag of whole cranberries, one or two stemmed hot peppers, one large quartered and seeded orange, a handful of walnuts and a cup of sugar. Process until finely ground and refrigerate until ready to serve.