Thanksgiving recipes: Thanksgiving side-dish recipes that are on the simple side

What would Thanksgiving be without the "good stuff"?

That's what my kids like to call the myriad side dishes and stick-to-your-ribs starches that are about to go swimming in a pool of pan gravy.

No doubt family and friends are expecting to see old favorites such as green beans, Brussels sprouts and potatoes (both sweet and white varieties) on the table. But most guests also appreciate a little flair and culinary creativity during the holidays. We up the ante just enough to make it interesting with the recipes that follow.

Cooks, meanwhile, love anything that makes their job easier, which is why the recipes are on the simple side, with components that can be prepared the morning of or even the day before the big event. A less-stressed chef is a happier chef, which in turn makes for a meal the entire gang will enjoy.

CREAMED ONIONS WITH A WHOLE-WHEAT BREADCRUMB TOPPING

(Tested by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

Pearl onions can be a real pain to peel, so if you're crunched for time, feel free to substitute frozen pearl onions in this otherwise easy recipe. My family isn't vegan, so I also substituted real butter and cream as well as unbleached flour. Two pieces of bread didn't seem like it would make enough topping, so I doubled that. Delicious.

-- Gretchen McKay

2 slices whole-wheat bread, roughly chopped

2 teaspoons neutral-tasting, high-heat oil

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

1/2 teaspoon finely ground black pepper

1/2 teaspoon dried oregano

1 teaspoon agave nectar

1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

1 pound fresh pearl onions

3 tablespoons non-dairy butter

3 tablespoons spelt flour

1 cup soy-milk creamer

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 teaspoon Champagne vinegar

1 teaspoon brown rice or maple syrup

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

For breadcrumbs: Place bread on baking sheet. Drizzle with oil and sprinkle with garlic powder, salt, pepper, oregano, agave and lemon juice. Toss to coat and bake for about 7 to 9 minutes or until crisp.

Pulse bread mixture in a food processor until breadcrumb consistency is reached, and set aside.

For creamed onions: Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add pearl onions in their skin and cook, uncovered, for about 5 minutes. Drain onions and rinse with cold water to stop cooking. To peel, slice both ends off and squeeze onion out of skin, discarding outer layers. Set aside.

In a medium pot, combine butter and flour. Whisk over medium heat, making a roux. Add creamer, salt, pepper, nutmeg, vinegar and brown rice syrup. Whisking constantly, cook over medium heat for about 5 minutes, or until mixture is thick and creamy.

Grease an 8-by-8-inch baking dish and add onions. Coat with sauce mixture and top with breadcrumb topping. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until mixture bubbles in the center.

-- "Spork-Fed" by Jenny Engel and Heather Goldberg (St. Lynn's, October 2011)

OVEN-ROASTED VEGETABLES GLAZED WITH APPLE CIDER, DRIED CRANBERRIES AND PUMPKIN SEEDS

(Tested by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

Nothing is easier than roasted veggies, but you'll want to be sure to chop them to the same size so they cook at the same rate. This dish can be made a day ahead -- just reheat before adding the cider glaze. Consider doubling the recipe for pumpkin seeds; they're addictive.

-- Gretchen McKay

2 cups apple cider

1 butternut squash, skinny top half only, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks (about 2 cups)

2 small white turnips, peeled and sliced into 1-inch chunks (about 2 cups)

1 small rutabaga, peeled and sliced into 1-inch chunks (about 2 cups)

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon fresh-ground black pepper

2 tablespoons dried cranberries

Handful of fresh celery leaves

Roasted pumpkin seeds (recipe follows)

Make sauce by cooking apple cider in a small saute pan over high heat for 15 to 20 minutes, until it reduces down to about 1/2 cup and thickens into a syrup.

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Lay squash, turnips and rutabagas on a rimmed baking sheet and pour olive oil over them. Season with salt and pepper, then use your hands to turn and mix the vegetables so that they're coated with oil all over.

Roast vegetables on middle oven rack. At 8-minute mark, pull baking sheet out and turn vegetables over to make sure they roast evenly on all sides, then put the sheet back in the oven.

Keep roasting vegetables for another 7 to 9 minutes or so, until they've browned up and softened and a knife can go through them easily.

Pull vegetables out of the oven and pile them into a large bowl. Add dried cranberries to the reduced cider. Spoon cider glaze over vegetables, and toss everything together, so the vegetables are coated and shiny. Season with more salt and pepper if you're feeling that. Spoon vegetables into a serving bowl, and top with roasted pumpkin seeds and celery leaves.

Serves 4 to 6.

-- "American Flavor" by Andrew Carmellini (Ecco, October 2011)

ROASTED PUMPKIN SEEDS

(Tested

by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

Unroasted pumpkin seeds, also called pepitas, can be found in the produce section next to the nuts.

2 teaspoons butter

1/2 cup pumpkin seeds

Pinch of salt

Pinch of cayenne pepper

Melt butter in a small pan over medium heat.

Add pumpkin seeds, reduce heat to medium, shake seeds around to coat them, and let them toast for a couple of minutes, until they start to puff up and make sharp cracking sounds.

Add salt and cayenne and shake pan to coat the seeds with the spices. Then pull the pan off the heat, but leave seeds in pan. They should be buttery, salty and a little bit chewy -- like really good popcorn.

GREEN BEANS WITH GARLIC

(Tested by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

Most everyone expects green-bean casserole on holidays, but man, what a way to pack on the calories. This easy stir-fry is a bit kinder on the waistline but still full of flavor.

-- Gretchen McKay

Salt

2 pounds small, slender green beans, stem ends trimmed

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

4 cloves garlic, minced

2 teaspoons minced fresh tarragon or 1/2 teaspoon dried tarragon

Freshly ground pepper

3-ounce piece parmesan or grana padano cheese, cut into shavings with a vegetable peeler (about 3/4 cup)

Have ready a large bowl of ice water. Bring a large pot three-fourths full of water to a boil. Salt water, add green beans and cook them until tender-crisp, 4 to 5 minutes. Drain beans, transfer immediately to ice water and let cool for 1 minute. Drain again and pat dry.

In a large frying pan over medium heat, melt butter. Add garlic and cook, stirring, just until pale gold, 2 to 3 minutes. Add beans and tarragon and toss to coat with garlic butter. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Cover partially and cook, stirring occasionally, until beans are heated through, 3 to 4 minutes. Top with parmesan shavings just before serving. Serve hot.

PAN-ROASTED BRUSSELS SPROUTS GRATIN WITH SHALLOTS AND ROSEMARY

(Tested by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

This recipe, which I halved, was weeknight-easy and really, really good.

-- Bob Batz Jr.

1-1/2 pounds Brussels sprouts, trimmed

2 large shallots, halved

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1-1/4 cups heavy cream

3-1/2 ounces (1-1/4 cups) finely grated Gruyere

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

3/4 cup panko

1/2 cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh rosemary

Position a rack in the center of oven and heat oven to 375 degrees. In a food processor fitted with a slicing blade, slice Brussels sprouts and shallots.

In a 12-inch oven-safe skillet, melt butter over medium heat. Continue to cook butter until it begins to brown and smell nutty. Set aside 1 tablespoon of the browned butter in a medium bowl.

Add Brussels sprouts, shallots, 2 teaspoons salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper to the pan and toss to combine. Cook, stirring occasionally, until sprouts and shallots begin to soften and brown in spots, about 6 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat.

Meanwhile, in a 2-quart saucepan over medium heat, combine cream, Gruyere, nutmeg, cayenne and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Heat until cheese is melted, whisking occasionally, about 4 minutes.

Do not boil. Add sauce to sprouts, carefully stirring to combine.

Add panko, Parmigiano, rosemary and a pinch of salt to the reserved butter and mix thoroughly. Top the sprout mixture with panko mixture.

Bake until crumbs are browned and sprouts are tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Let cook for about 5 minutes before serving.

For a more elegant presentation, transfer sprout mixture to a 12-inch wide, 1-1/2-inch-deep ceramic baking dish before topping with panko and baking.

Serves 6 to 8.

-- Fine Cooking, October/November 2011

INDIVIDUAL SWEET-POTATO GRATINS WITH CREME FRAICHE, ONIONS AND BACON

(Tested by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

Typically candied, sweet potatoes often are the sweetest dish on a Thanksgiving table. Not so with these individual gratins, which get their flavor from a creamy bechamel sauce and salty bacon.

-- Gretchen McKay

8 pieces bacon, chopped into 1-inch pieces

1 cup chopped onion

2 teaspoons chopped garlic

4 cups sweet potatoes, thinly sliced (1/8-inch thick)

4 tablespoons butter

4 tablespoons flour

2 cups whole milk

6 tablespoons creme fraiche or sour cream

1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

2 tablespoons brown sugar

Salt and black pepper, to taste

Parmesan cheese, grated, to taste

Lightly grease 4 individual baking dishes. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a small saute pan, cook the bacon over medium heat until crisp. Remove from heat, crumble and toss with onion and garlic.

In a small pot, melt the butter over medium heat. Stir in the flour, and cook until the mixture is well combined but still pale. Stir in the milk and the creme fraiche. Reduce the heat to low and bring to a simmer. Stir in nutmeg, brown sugar, salt, and pepper.

Layer 4 to 6 slices of potato at the base of each of the prepared

baking dishes. Top with a few tablespoons of bechamel and a few spoonfuls of the bacon mixture. Repeat with another layer of potatoes, another layer of bechamel and more bacon. Top with one last layer of potatoes and spoon remaining bechamel over the top. Finish with a sprinkling of grated parmesan cheese.

Bake the gratins until they are bubbly around the edges and cooked through, about 15 to 20 minutes. Let cool slightly before serving.

Serves 4.

-- Adapted from "The Food 52 Cookbook: 140 Winning Recipes from Exceptional Home Cooks" by Amanda Hesser and Merill Stubbs (Morrow, October 2011)

SMOKY SCALLOPED POTATOES

(Tested by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

Smoked paprika adds a wonderfully smoky flavor to these cheesy, make-ahead potatoes. There's very little taste difference between white, yellow and orange cheddar, so feel free to use what you've got on hand.

-- Gretchen McKay

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 small shallot, finely chopped

4 cloves garlic, minced

1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

3 cups half-and-half

1 to 2 teaspoons smoked paprika

2-1/2 pounds russet potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced

1 cup grated sharp white cheddar cheese

1/3 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-by-13-inch casserole dish with 1 tablespoon butter. Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons butter in a large saucepan. Once the butter foams, add shallot and garlic and saute until softened, 3 to 4 minutes.

Add flour and cook, stirring frequently, until golden, about 2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and add the half-and-half, smoked paprika and potatoes. Bring to a low simmer and cook for 5 minutes.

Pour half the potato mixture into buttered casserole dish. Shake pan to arrange the potatoes in a single layer. Sprinkle half of each of the cheeses on top of the bottom potato layer. Add remaining potatoes and shake again to arrange in a layer. Sprinkle on remaining cheese, cover with foil and bake 45 minutes, or until bubbling. Remove foil and place back in oven for another 15 minutes, or until potatoes and cheese are golden and browned. Let stand 15 minutes before serving.

Serves 6.

-- Food Network Magazine, November 2011

SOUR CREAM AND LEEK MASHED POTATOES

(Tested by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

Don't add all the milk at once as you may not need the full amount. I made these with my own homegrown, organic potatoes and so I just left the skins on.

-- Bob Batz Jr.

1-1/2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces

Kosher salt

2 tablespoons butter

2 medium leeks (white and light-green parts only), halved lengthwise, washed and sliced into 1/4-inch-wide pieces (about 1 cup)

1/2 cup sour cream, at room temperature

1/2 cup whole milk, heated, more as needed

Freshly ground white or black pepper

Put potatoes in a large saucepan and cover with cold water by at least 1 inch. Bring to a boil over high heat, add a generous 1/2 teaspoon salt and lower the heat to a steady simmer. Cover pot partially and cook until potatoes are just tender when pierced with a fork, 10 to 12 minutes.

Meanwhile, melt the butter in a 10-inch skillet over medium heat. Add leeks and saute, stirring often, until tender but not browned, about 6 minutes.

Drain potatoes and return to the pan. Steam-dry over low heat, shaking the pan until potatoes leave a light film on the bottom, about 3 minutes.

Mash potatoes with a potato masher. Stir in leeks, sour cream and milk, adding more milk as needed to reach your desired consistency. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Serves 6.

-- Fine Cooking, October/November 2011

SWEET SQUASH MATCHSTICKS

(Tested by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

3 tablespoons butter

1 pound squash, such as banana, acorn or butternut, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch matchsticks

1 tablespoon firmly packed brown sugar

1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage

Salt and pepper

Melt butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add squash, brown sugar and chopped sage. Sprinkle with 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Cook, stirring frequently, until squash is tender and lightly browned, about 10 minutes. Set aside and keep warm.

Makes 4 servings.

-- "Holiday Dinners with Bradley Ogden" by Bradley Ogden with Lydia Scott (Running Press, 2011)

(Food Network is part of Scripps Networks Interactive, which shares common ownership with The E.W. Scripps Co., the parent company of Scripps Howard News Service.)

(Contact Gretchen McKay at gmckay@post-gazette.com.)

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service)

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