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Traditions beyond the turkey: The importance of side dishes on the Thanksgiving table

Food writer Holly Ebel says side dishes can earn their place in the spotlight all by themselves.

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Family Thanksgiving
An assortment of Thanksgiving foods.
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Are you starting to cull through recipes for the big feast next Thursday? The star of course is the turkey, but the supporting players — the side dishes — are getting a lot of attention this year, likely because home cooks have become more adventuresome.

Blame the pandemic and time spent honing kitchen skills. That doesn't mean the traditional standards will be missing from the Thanksgiving table. Never. There may however be a few auditioning for a permanent place in the "sides" line-up. I'm referring especially to a colorful mixture of roasted vegetables that have become popular the past few years.

An interesting observation is that sides haven't changed much over the years — we serve the same year after year, and to even suggest dropping or adding an item can bring howls of "No, you can't. It's a tradition."

Interesting too is that not all sides are created equal. A recent survey listed the most popular starting with mashed potatoes followed by stuffing, gravy, cranberries, Brussels sprouts, then sweet potato casserole and/or macaroni and cheese. Green bean casserole, the old lady of sides, is on the list as are dinner rolls.

Carol Burnham of Rochester adds lefse to her family's list of must-haves.

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"As long as I can remember, we've had lefse with the cinnamon sugar folded in. Rolled up with leftovers is also part of our tradition," she says.

Brussels sprouts are on just about every Thanksgiving menu and overall have become a very popular vegetable in spite of the fact that for years we passed them by. Roasted, creamed, sauteed or braised, they are versatile and also take well to a variety of simple sauces. Count them in.

Mashed potatoes, ranked as the number one side, are a favorite of nearly everyone, though over the past decades cooks have taken to new ways of preparing them — mashed with the skins on, adding garlic, stirring in crispy bits of bacon. I would guess that on this day most folks would prefer the old-fashioned mashed potatoes with cream and butter. Save the fancied-up versions for next week, or Christmas dinner. Cheesy hash browns aren't on the favorites list, but there are those who insist on having them. Catering by Design offers them as a take-out choice.

It isn't a surprise to see that the infamous green bean casserole comes out of hibernation to join the list. It may make just one appearance a year, but here it is. It's estimated that more then 20 million cooks will be making and serving it. The recipe, originally created to sell Campbell's cream of mushroom soup, has been among the most popular for nearly 70 years. Cooks and chefs have created variations but the original retro version is the one everyone wants.

Another old-timer is sweet potato casserole, yes, the one with marshmallows on top. It appeals to everyone, especially the younger set. The version I have used for years is a sweet potato carrot puree with a topping of some kind, candied pecans usually, but you could top it with marshmallows. I don't because it is already sweet enough. It can be made ahead and frozen.

It's a surprise to me that macaroni and cheese is also on the list of sides favorites, but there it is. And why not? It's something everyone likes and when I added it last year there were no leftovers. We're not talking about the Kraft box but rather the made-from-scratch, grate-your-own-cheese version.

Roasted vegetables promise to be a popular addition this year for several reasons. They add color, texture and variety, and can be prepared quickly. Cut the chosen vegetables roughly the same size, season with olive oil, salt and pepper and whatever herbs you like, and put in a 425 oven. While the turkey rests these will roast. Good choices are Brussels sprouts, carrots, onions, red pepper, cauliflower, parsnips. Focus on the fall offerings.

By this time next week you'll have figured it all out and be well into preparations. I will have too. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

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Sweet potato and carrot puree

4 large, sweet potatoes
1 lb. carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch lengths
12 tablespoons sweet butter, room temperature
1/4 to 1/2 cup brown sugar
Salt and black pepper to taste
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

Boil sweet potatoes in skins until they are soft. At the same time in another saucepan add the carrots and cook until soft. Scrape out the flesh of the potatoes when cool enough to handle, and combine with the carrots in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade. Add butter and brown sugar and process until very smooth, no lumps. Turn out into a bowl and season with nutmeg and salt and pepper. Put in ovenproof serving dish. Add a topping of your choice, if desired. Cover with foil and refrigerate. To bake place in a 350 oven for 30 minutes or until steaming hot.

Roasted Brussels sprouts with garlic

1 lb. brussels sprouts
4-6 tablespoons extra virgin oil, to coat bottom of pan
4 garlic cloves, peeled
1-2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

Heat oven to 400. Trim bottom of Brussels sprouts and slice each in half, top to bottom. Heat oil in cast-iron pan over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Put sprouts, cut side down in one layer in pan. Put in garlic and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cook undisturbed until sprouts begin to brown on bottom then transfer to oven. Roast, shaking pan every 5 minutes until sprouts are quite brown and tender, 10-20 minutes. Taste and add more salt and pepper if necessary. Stir in balsamic vinegar and serve hot or warm.

Buttermilk mashed potatoes

Kosher salt
3 lbs. potatoes, like russets or Yukon Gold
1/2 cup whole milk
1 stick unsalted butter
3/4 to 1 cup buttermilk, shaken
Freshly ground black pepper

In a large pot bring 4 quarts water and 2 tablespoons salt to a boil. Peel potatoes and cut them into 1-1/2 inch cubes. Add to boiling water. Lower heat and simmer uncovered for 10-15 minutes until potatoes are soft. Meanwhile heat milk and butter in small saucepan, but don't boil. Set aside until potatoes are done. As soon as potatoes are tender, drain in a colander. Place a food mill fitted with a small disc or blade over a heat-proof bowl and pass potatoes through, turning handle back and forth. When all are mashed stir in the hot milk and butter mixture with a rubber spatula. Add enough buttermilk to make potatoes creamy. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot.

Post Bulletin food writer Holly Ebel knows what’s cookin’. Send comments or story tips to life@postbulletin.com .

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Related Topics: FOODRECIPESHOLLY EBEL
Post Bulletin food writer Holly Ebel knows what’s cookin’. Send comments or story tips to life@postbulletin.com.
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