My father-in-law, John, is — and has been for the last 15 Thanksgivings — the bird cook. I get to brine the turkey, but John is the person who roasts it to perfection. This, by the way, is fine by me because I get to focus on the side dishes, which enables me to showcase some of the extra special bounty of the fall.
For me, side dishes also include appetizers and there are plenty of quick and easy additions to the pre-meal. The first is simple – “easy to peel” citrus. Both Clementines and Satsuma Mandarins have started harvesting and by Thanksgiving the quality and flavor is spectacular. I’m a fan of the stem and leaf Satsuma — aside from the incredible flavor they are the easiest to peel, which makes them a favorite with the kids.
Another favorite appetizer twist for my family is apples instead of (or in addition to) crackers on the cheese tray. Some of the early apple varieties start to fade as we get closer to the end of the year, but late harvest varieties like the Fuji and Pink Lady are excellent pared with soft or regular cheeses. Slicing then tossing them in lemon juice keeps them from turning brown.
Pears are another fruit that I have introduced as a side lately and my favorite for Thanksgiving is the Comice. This pear is meant to be eaten soft, so it is best to buy it a few days ahead and put it in a fruit bowl with any type of citrus (they naturally release ethylene gas which speeds the ripening process). Cubed Comice pears gently tossed with roasted pecans, your favorite crumbled blue cheese, and a Meyer lemon vinaigrette makes an incredible addition to any Thanksgiving table.
An item we see fresh only in the fall is cranberries. While it is easy to open a can of jellied cranberry sauce, nothing beats the flavor and freshness of homemade. Most recipes for cranberry sauce call for orange juice, and you can add additional flavor by using juice from Satsuma Mandarins or Clementines instead.
One off-season item that somehow made it onto the traditional Thanksgiving menu is green beans. Beans are a summer harvest vegetable and while they are readily available during the fall months, they must travel a long way to get to market in most cases. Here are some selection tips to help make the most of them:
- Buy small. It’s better to buy small, even slightly immature green beans since fully mature beans tend to be stringy and bitter. Look for beans that are about 2” long.
- Choose handpicked beans. You can tell if a bean has been machine picked by the number of broken or otherwise damaged beans in a display. Handpicked beans are considered superior because they are generally harvested at a more consistent level of maturity – thereby cooking at a consistent rate.
My favorite contribution to Thanksgiving is mushrooms. By November we generally see an improvement in foraged mushroom availability, so I get to prepare my personal favorite side: broiled Chanterelles. I use cultivated (Crimini) mushrooms as well so the side doesn’t break the bank as wild mushrooms tend to be very expensive. There are many ways to prepare mushrooms, and my favorite not only combines mushroom varieties but roasting and sautéing:
½ pound Chanterelle mushrooms (cleaned and sliced in half)
1 pound brown Crimini mushrooms (cleaned and thinly sliced)
One large shallot or Cipollini onion (finely chopped)
Two tablespoons fresh parsley (chopped)
One tablespoon fresh thyme (chopped)
¼ cup heavy cream
2 ounces olive oil (equally divided)
2 pads butter
Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 450°F (broiler mode). Place chanterelle mushrooms in a mixing bowl. In a sauté pan, melt two pads of butter and combine with the cream, half the olive oil, the shallots, thyme and half the parsley. Toss mixture with chanterelles, place in a broiling pan, and add salt and pepper. Place in oven and roast for 8-10 minutes or until the edges of the mushrooms just start to brown. At the same time heat the remaining olive oil in your sauté pan, add the sliced Crimini mushrooms and remaining parsley. Sauté until tender and combine with roasted chanterelles (making sure you keep the pan juices from both).
There are plenty of other side dishes, but these are just a few of my favorites. What are your favorite Thanksgiving sides?