In my world, Thanksgiving is all about the side dishes. For produce people, there is significance to just about every season. But there is a special place in our hearts for the fall and Thanksgiving, which are the biggest times of the year for us! It’s all about abundance, freshness and making that extra effort to provide everything our customers (and we ourselves) need to make an exceptional family meal. This is no small feat because for produce, this is also a time when local farms shut down for the season and our produce teams become more reliant on product grown further away. The holiday is steeped in tradition and many of the items we traditionally serve are truly at their seasonal best, but a few others have been added over the years and are not exactly in season. Regardless, Thanksgiving is about celebrating the bounty of Mother Nature in ways we know and maybe don’t know.
Hard Winter Fare
One of the founding principles of Thanksgiving was to celebrate the bounty of the final harvest before winter. Several produce categories making up the last fall harvest are among the most hardy storage vegetables and are at their best during Thanksgiving. Among these are:
Thanksgiving Row Crop
- Onions/ Shallots/ Garlic: Harvested during the long summer season, onion and their cousins must cure for long periods before coming to market. Grown in countries all over the world year round, the fall marks the peak domestic availability and variety. Varieties that do not store for long periods are also abundantly available (like the flat Italian Cipollini onion) and you'll find new crop sweet onions.
- Squashes and Pumpkins: The Halloween carving survivors are now part of the holiday dinner table. Among the most common are the sugar pie pumpkin, butternut and acorn squash but there are hundreds of varieties grown all over the U.S. that are just as good if not better for pies, mashing or baking.
- Potatoes: A less glamorous but no less important category is the tuber – sweet and regular potatoes play a huge part in the fall harvest season and depending on the size and variety are dug throughout the late summer and fall. Depending on where you live you can have literally dozens of local varieties in addition to product grown in Florida, California, and of course, Idaho. So what is the best masher? The truth is any potato (sweet or otherwise) will mash well — combinations of different potatoes also do well. It all depends on what you want in the way of an end product. Russet potatoes tend to be fluffier, reds and yellow types tend to be creamier (sweets tend to be sweeter). Combinations using other root vegetables are also excellent — my personal favorite is a red potato with some celery root.
Here in California, like everywhere else, many “summer” crops are finishing, but for row crop vegetable growers the long winter season is really just getting starting as they look to replace production areas that have a harsher winter. For items specifically planted for Thanksgiving (like Brussels sprouts and celery) farms are frantically harvesting to hit delivery windows as close to the holiday as possible. Many of these same growers have to plan for as much as three times as much business as they would do in a regular week. Brussels sprouts in the field right before harvest – Moss Landing, CA.
Many of the items harvested in numbers significantly higher than normal are simple staples (common herbs like parsley and green onions) but Thanksgiving also bring an increase in demand for items less commonly used in U.S. kitchens. Among these are Anise (or fennel bulb) – a vegetable that has very similar characteristics to celery and can be served as a standalone side (roasted or baked) or used like you would celery. I include some in the chopped vegetables that go into my stuffing.
Anise in the field- Castroville, CA
Cranberry bog in South Hampton NJ
Cranberry Sauce Suggestions
An item we see fresh only in the fall is cranberries. While it may be 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 — to add additional flavor use Satsuma mandarin or Clementine juice instead.
Beans and Corn – Some Off Season Tips
Two off season items that somehow made it onto the traditional Thanksgiving menu are green beans and corn. Both are summer harvest vegetables and while they are readily available during the fall months, both must travel a long way to get to market in most cases. Here are some selection tips to help make the most of both:
- Buy small: for both beans and corn it is better to buy small, even slightly immature specimens as fully mature beans and corn tend to be stringy and starchy. Look for beans that are about the length of your index finger and corn with small kernels.
- Machine vs. handpicked beans: you can tell if a bean is 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.
- Look for corn with the husk still on: the condition of the husk is the best indication of the age of the ear. Corn with pale, dried out husks should be avoided.
I hope this brings some fresh inspiration to your holiday table. I can't wait to sit down and dig in. Happy Thanksgiving!