The vegetables at a Thanksgiving feast are not just the sidekicks. They are a big part of the main act when you count the taste, texture, color, flavor and many preparation possibilities.
“Everyone knows the turkey doesn’t carry the feast solo,” says Jeanne Ambrose, editor of Taste of Home. “When people reach for second helpings, it’s usually the side dishes they want. It doesn’t take much to transform basic vegetables into the talk of the table.”
Your family might revolt when it comes to messing with the recipe for mashed potatoes or gravy, but vegetables are fair game for surprising creations. In fact, it’s a good idea to try at least one or two unexpected vegetable dishes; that is how new family traditions are born.
Put a spin on the tried-and-true by garnishing vegetables with fried quinoa or toasted nuts for more texture. Or pucker and brighten up flavors with a squeeze of lemon.
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Add some fat, too, maybe bacon fat or a little bit of cured meat or fish. “Butter makes everything better,” Ambrose says.
When boiling vegetables, add vinegar or dry white wine to the water for another flavor boost.
Seasoning vegetables well is important, so don’t forget the salt and pepper. Rather than waiting until the end, season as they cook so you can taste the effect.
Most home cooks want simplicity in their vegetable sides and something that can be made ahead of time, Ambrose says. “The simplest thing to do with them is to roast them.”
Roasting concentrates the flavors and caramelizes the natural sugars. It also mellows strong-flavored broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and cabbage.
When adding herbs, incorporate them at the right time for maximum flavor. It’s best to add hearty herbs such as thyme, rosemary, oregano, marjoram or sage when vegetables are cooking or roasting. But delicate herbs such as chives, tarragon, cilantro and parsley should be saved for the end as they will lose their fresh flavor and verdant color.
Green beans, carrots, Brussels sprouts, beets and corn are regulars at the Thanksgiving table. Here are some variations that will keep everybody happy:
“They stay bright green if you cook them in boiling water until they are crisp-tender, then immediately plunge them into ice water. Then you can do just about anything with them,” Ambrose says. “I like to cook some onion, garlic and ginger in sesame oil and then toss in the cooked green beans.”
An alternate: For lemony almond-feta green beans (Simple & Delicious, June/July 2014), add cooked beans to onion and garlic sautéed in butter. Then add almonds, lemon peel, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Top with feta cheese.
“Cook them in butter, and voila! You have a winner,” Ambrose says. Toss in cumin powder and red pepper flakes with the butter and you get a spicy showstopper. They are loved universally, and the rich orange and yellow hues are incredible, she adds.
An alternate: Cook thinly sliced carrots (2 pounds) and radishes (12), slightly boiled pearl onions (1 pound), 1/2 cup dark brown sugar and 4 teaspoons grated orange peel in 1/2 cup orange juice until vegetables are tender and liquid slightly thickened. Top with 1 cup chopped walnuts. (Taste of Home, November 2015).
People either love or hate Brussels sprouts, Ambrose says. They are better roasted than boiled, which emphasizes their cabbagelike qualities. Toss sprouts with oil, salt and freshly ground pepper before roasting them. They also could be made into a quick slaw by shredding and dressing them with a yogurt, mayo and lemon juice mix or by combining mustard and maple syrup.
An alternate: After roasting 1 1/4 pounds of sprouts tossed in 2 tablespoons of oil and salt and pepper, add seeds from 1 pomegranate, 3 tablespoons pomegranate molasses, 1/2 cup coarsely chopped pecans and 1 tablespoon grated orange zest.
These richly hued vegetables are ideal for roasting. Ambrose suggests wrapping each one individually in foil, placing in a roasting pan and sticking them in the oven. Once they’re cooked, manipulate the foil and the peel will come right off. “Don’t mix them with other vegetables in a pan unless you want a holiday red on all of them,” she cautions.
An alternate: Roast 2 pounds of cubed beets with 1 tablespoon canola oil, 3 tablespoons water and 1 1/2 teaspoons salt at 350 degrees for about 45 minutes. In a bowl, whisk 2 tablespoons orange juice, 1 tablespoon sherry vinegar, and salt and pepper to taste. Drizzle vinaigrette over beets, and top with crumbled goat cheese.
“For Thanksgiving, what could be more all-American?” Ambrose asks. It’s good in its simplest form – tossed with butter and gussied up with herbs such as basil. The kernels could be amped up by adding lemon or lime juice and chili powder. Corn also pairs well with cheese, and this includes cotija, Parmesan and cheddar.
An alternate: To boiling water, add 12 cups of frozen corn. After corn is tender, drain and stir in 1/2 cup butter, 2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley, 2 teaspoons salt, 1 teaspoon dill weed, 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder, 1/2 teaspoon Italian seasoning and 1/4 teaspoon dried thyme. (Taste of Home, October/November 2002).
Beet and prune salad
The original recipe called for a mayo dressing and the beets were boiled, Olia Hercules says. The dressing is wonderful when it is really garlicky. You could substitute green onion for the cilantro. From “Mamushka: A Cookbook” by Olia Hercules (Weldon Owen, $35, 240 pages)
2 pounds beets, peeled and sliced into 8 wedges each
2 tablespoons oil
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
6 tablespoons sour cream
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
2 cloves garlic, crushed
3 tablespoons prunes, roughly chopped
1/4 cup toasted walnuts, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons cilantro
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Toss beets in oil and season generously with salt and pepper. Place in roasting pan, and bake until beets are tender and have started caramelizing at the edges, 40 minutes.
Mix sour cream, balsamic vinegar and garlic together; season well with salt and pepper, and stir. Add a little bit of water if the dressing seems too thick.
Arrange beets on a platter. Drizzle with dressing, and top with prunes, walnuts and cilantro.
Green beans with fried onions
Skip the same old green bean casserole with condensed mushroom soup and go instead with this citrusy version that has a slight bite to it.
2 1/2 pounds green beans, trimmed
2 teaspoons oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 teaspoons red pepper flakes
Juice of 1 lemon
Freshly ground pepper
1 cup fried onions
1/2 cup pecans, toasted
Place the green beans in a large pot of boiling salted water and cook for 7 minutes, until they are bright green and crisp-tender. Drain the beans and shock them in a large bowl of ice water to stop the cooking. Drain beans again and pat dry.
In a pan, heat the oil, then saute garlic and red pepper flakes until just fragrant. Turn off the heat, and add beans and stir gently. Add lemon juice and pepper and stir gently again. Top with fried onions and pecans.
Baked cream corn
Adapted from Food Network magazine, September 2012.
One 16-ounces bag of frozen corn, thawed
2 small red bell peppers, diced
1 jalapeño pepper, diced
1 cup light cream
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
1/2 stick butter, cut into pieces
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, add corn, red peppers, jalapeno and cream; mix well. Add salt and pepper to taste, and mix again. Pour into a 9- by-13-inch baking dish. Dot with butter. Bake until bubbly, about 45 minutes.
Roasted garlic Brussels sprouts
Adapted from Food Network magazine, November 2012
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
3 garlic cloves, chopped small
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 pounds Brussels sprouts, halved
1 tablespoon brown sugar
Juice of 1 lemon
Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
Heat oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add cumin seeds; stir until lightly browned. Add garlic, salt and red pepper flakes, and cook for 2 minutes.
Turn off heat and toss in Brussels sprouts. Add brown sugar and lemon juice, and mix well.
Transfer vegetables to a baking tray, and bake for 18 to 24 minutes, until tender.
Adapted from Food Network magazine, October 2011
2 pounds carrots, sliced thickly
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
Juice of 6 tangerines
2 teaspoons salt
Freshly ground pepper
1 tablespoon butter
Chives to garnish
Simmer carrots in a skillet with vinegar, tangerine juice and salt until tender, for 8 to 10 minutes.
Season with pepper. Then stir in butter.
Garnish with chopped chives.