The stockings are hung by the chimney with care. All is calm. All is bright.
You're almost ready for your big Christmas dinner. You know precisely how you will cook your main course — how you will bake your ham, roast your turkey, grill your standing rib roast. The desserts are already lined up: the chocolate cake, the pecan pie, the trays full of Christmas cookies.
But lost in the planning are the side dishes. These are often afterthoughts, the part of the meal that is ignored until it is time to cook it. Then follows a frantic search of the freezer as you look for some appropriate vegetable to serve to your guests.
This year, why not make the side dishes count as much as everything else? If cooking is an expression of love, why not carry your feelings through the entire meal?
Your guests will be grateful, and think of how glad you will be you did not just serve another heat-and-eat package of pre-made mashed potatoes.
Besides, this is a time for giving. And what better gift to give your friends and family than the best meal you can make?
Let's start with the salad. Several weeks ago, my wife, the Queen of Salads, was cooking for a big dinner. She had recently bought some pomegranate seeds just because they intrigued her, and we often have arugula around the house because we love its baby-soft texture and the peppery bite it brings as an accent to salads.
In a moment of inspiration bordering on true genius, she decided to sprinkle pomegranate seeds over the arugula, toss in some toasted pine nuts, and dress it lightly in a simple vinaigrette.
The combination was outstanding, and it immediately became our favorite salad. It is easy to make; the only part that takes any time is the toasting of the pine nuts, and that can be done while you are mixing the vinaigrette.
Best of all for our current purposes, the combination of bright red pomegranate seeds sparkling on the dark green arugula makes it a perfect dish for the season.
Whatever your choice of protein is this holiday, it is a good bet it will be accompanied by mashed potatoes. And the bet is almost as good that green beans will figure somewhere in the meal as well. So why not mix the two?
I wish I could say this was my idea, but it has been around at least since the 1970s (I found it in Craig Claiborne's indispensable The New New York Times Cookbook). Pureed beans, as it is called, mixes cooked green beans and potatoes and whirs them all together with a healthy hunk of butter, a restrained amount of cream, and just enough nutmeg and salt to give it a healthy boost of flavor.
The pureed beans' color is a wonderful bright green sure to prompt comments from your guests, mostly along the lines of "What the heck is this stuff?" But when they taste it and experience its soothing richness and intriguing blend of comforting, familiar flavors presented in an unfamiliar way, the comments will be more like, "Wow! What the heck is this stuff?"
Mashed potatoes and those ubiquitous green-bean casseroles may well be banished forever.
Acorn squash is plentiful this time of year, and its dark green skin and golden flesh make it particularly fitting for a holiday meal. When sliced into rounds and roasted, it can be drizzled with olive oil mixed with smoked paprika.
What makes this dish sing, though, is the use of honey. Honey is a natural accompaniment to acorn squash, and its sweetness here turns into an unbeatable counterpoint to the smoked paprika (maple syrup also goes well with acorn squash, but it adds one layer of flavor too many for this dish).
Melissa Clark, who invented the dish — it's called Roasted Acorn Squash, Honey, Smoked Paprika, and Sage Salt — is particularly enthusiastic about the homemade sage salt that she uses to top it. I'm not as enamored of the salt as she, but it doesn't do any harm. She also calls for two teaspoons of honey for two medium acorn squash, and while I usually opt for less-sweet versions of foods that aren't dessert, I think an extra teaspoon of honey (for a total of one tablespoon) makes for a marked improvement.
A delicious way of serving beans on the side, or a great main course for vegetarians, comes to us from Italy. Beans Uccelletto (if you want to be specific, it's fagioli all'uccelletto) mixes beans with tomatoes and cooks them with olive oil, garlic, and sage. Though the flavors are simple, the combination is savory and irresistible.
Finally, if you want mashed potatoes, maybe it is time to dish them out in a novel format. Potato Brioches take mashed potatoes, adds cheese and whipped egg whites, and bakes them. The idea is that the whipped egg whites will give the potatoes a stiff enough infrastructure that they will hold their shape when cooked, so they end up looking like brioches, a French roll or bread.
Mine flattened out in the oven and ended up looking like squished hockey pucks, or perhaps small Frisbees. But the taste was divine.
Potatoes, butter, milk, cheese, and eggs — side dishes for the holidays don't get better than that.
Contact Daniel Neman at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6155.
Arugula and Pomegranate Seed Salad
½ cup pine nuts
1 pomegranate or ¾ cup pomegranate seeds
5 ounces arugula
Toast the pine nuts by heating them in a dry pan over medium heat 5-10 minutes, shaking frequently. The pine nuts are done when they are golden brown and fragrant; watch them carefully, because they burn easily. When done, pour onto a plate to allow them to cool.
If using a whole pomegranate, slice in half and submerge the halves in water (this will help keep from getting indelible pomegranate juice everywhere). Scoop out the seeds with a spoon and drain them in a sieve or colander. Discard the rest of the fruit; it is inedible.
Mix together the arugula, pine nuts, and pomegranate, and dress lightly with a basic vinaigrette, below.
Yield: 4-6 servings
Mary Anne’s Perfect Vinaigrette
8 tablespoons olive oil
4 tablespoons vinegar, any type
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon salt, optional
Combine all ingredients in a small jar with a tight lid (a jam jar or a mustard jar works well). Shake vigorously. If not using within a few hours, store in a refrigerator, return to room temperature, and shake or whisk vigorously before serving. Store unused dressing in the refrigerator.
Yield: 3/4 cup dressing
Roasted Acorn Squash, Honey, Smoked Paprika, and Sage Salt
2 medium acorn squash, trimmed
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon honey
1 teaspoon smoked sweet paprika
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
4 large sage sprigs (about 16 nice leaves)
2 teaspoons coarse sea salt
Preheat oven to 350°. Slice the squash crosswise into ½-inch rings. Use a spoon to scoop the seeds from the center of each ring, and discard.
In a small bowl, whisk together the oil, honey, paprika, and kosher salt. Arrange the squash on a large baking sheet; pour the paprika oil over the squash and toss well to combine. Place the sage leaves in a small baking pan.
Transfer both pans to the oven. Roast the sage leaves until just crisp, about 10 minutes. transfer to a rack to cool. Raise the heat to 400°. Continue roasting the squash, turning once, until tender and light golden, 20-25 minutes more.
Transfer the squash to a platter. Crumble the sage in a small bowl with the coarse salt; sprinkle some of the sage salt over the squash, and serve. Reserve the remaining sage salt for other uses.
Yield: 4-6 servings
Source: Adapted from Cook This Now, by Melissa Clark
Purée of Green Beans
1 1/4 pounds green beans
1 pound potatoes
4 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons heavy cream
1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
Peel the potatoes and halve, quarter or cut them into eighths, depending on size. Place potatoes in a saucepan and add cold water to cover and salt to taste. Bring to a boil and simmer 15-20 minutes until tender. Meanwhile, trim off the ends of the beans and drop beans into boiling salted water to cover. Cook for 5-10 minutes until tender; do not overcook.
Drain the potatoes and beans and blend them in a food processor. Add the butter, cream, nutmeg, and salt to taste. Serve piping hot.
Yield: 6-10 servings
Source: The New New York Times Cookbook, by Craig Claiborne
1 3/4 cups dried beans or 1 (29-ounce) can or 2 (15-ounce) cans beans
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 large garlic cloves
4-5 fresh sage leaves
1 (14-ounce) can tomatoes
If using dried beans, soak in cold water at least 12 hours, and drain. Place these beans in a large pot, add water to cover by several inches, bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer for 2 hours.
Heat the oil in a skillet, add the garlic and sage, and cook for a few minutes. Remove and discard the garlic when it turns golden brown. Drain the beans (whether you have cooked them or have opened the can), add to the skillet, and cook over medium heat for about 10 minutes.
Add the tomatoes, season with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring frequently, for an additional 15 minutes, until the sauce starts to thicken. Remove the skillet from the heat and transfer the beans to a warm serving dish.
Yield: 4 large servings
Source: The Silver Spoon
1 cup milk
3 tablespoons butter, softened
3/4 cup freshly grated Emmentaler cheese
Preheat oven to 400°. Spray a cookie sheet with nonstick spray or grease it with additional butter.
Cook the whole, unpeeled potatoes in plenty of salted water for about 45 minutes, until tender; then drain and peel.
Place in a bowl and mash with a potato masher. Heat the milk in a small pan to just below simmering point, then remove from the heat. Add the butter, Emmentaler, and hot milk to the potatoes and mix well. Lightly beat one of the eggs, and stir it in.
Separate the remaining egg and whisk the egg white until stiff in a grease-free bowl, fold into the mixture, and season with salt.
Spoon small, round mounds of the mixture onto the cookie sheet and top each with a smaller mound. Lightly beat the remaining egg yolk and brush the mounds with it. Bake until golden brown, 15-30 minutes.
Yield: 4-6 servings
Source: The Silver Spoon