It is the star who gets all the publicity. The red carpet, the flash bulbs, the magazine spreads.
But it is the supporting actors who carry the story along. Though they are often mistaken for mere back-ups and afterthoughts, the supporting actors are the meat of the performance, they are the ones who provide the structure for the plot. They are essential.
In the world of Thanksgiving, the turkey is the star. But it is those overlooked character actors, the side dishes, that give the dinner its dazzle.
A few exquisite side dishes turn a turkey dinner into a feast and turn a Thursday into Thanksgiving. They are the culinary exclamation points that give the meal its emphasis.
For a bit of greenery, I first decided to make the vegetable of the moment, Brussels sprouts. Long considered an outlier in the vegetable world, Brussels sprouts had been consumed by only a select few until the world suddenly discovered they didn’t have to be boiled or steamed and that they did not have to taste like bitter mush.
All at once, we saw a world of Brussels sprouts that could be roasted, braised, or even grilled. But the method of cooking that has taken the nation by storm is caramelizing and sautéing them. That is how they are prepared at many of the best restaurants.
And that is how I have tried to prepare them for a couple of years. But while my efforts have been adequate, I had never been able quite to get the caramelization right.
And then I read an article by my friend, Holly Prestidge, the food writer at the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Not only did she figure out the secret to caramelizing them — a little bit of brown sugar mixed with water — she also added a twist of her own: She sautés them in bacon grease and then adds back the crispy bits of cooked bacon.
Now that’s how to make a side dish special.
Potatoes, of course, are a necessity for any Thanksgiving meal, and an occasion like this is no time for ordinary old spuds. Baked potatoes are dull, mashed potatoes are better but are still a bit commonplace.
Time for something extra special. Time for twice-baked potatoes, but even better than that, time for a twice-baked potato casserole. And this one has the extra-fancy name Potatoes Romanoff, bringing its hint of Imperial Russia to the Thanksgiving table.
Created by John Schenk, executive chef of the Strip House steakhouses in New York and Las Vegas, Potatoes Romanoff takes baked potatoes, grates them, mixes them with shallots, shredded white cheddar cheese, and sour cream, and bakes it all together in a gratin dish.
For the first step, the potatoes have to be baked a day in advance and then chilled in the refrigerator. Although that means a little bit of work has to be done the day before the meal, that also means that less work is required on Thanksgiving day. And chilling the baked potatoes in advance gives them the proper texture, the necessary firmness to hold all of those good, rich ingredients while they bake again.
The potatoes are creamy, but a welcome balance comes from the warm bite of the shallots and the slight tang of the sour cream.
The humble mushroom, too, can be turned into an elegant side dish worthy of accompanying the most impressive turkey, and with very little effort. When sautéed in butter, shallots, and garlic, and then simmered in white wine and their own juices, mushrooms lose their essential fungusness and turn almost meaty.
A dose of Worcestershire sauce helps to propel along the flavor, and of course you need to season the dish with salt and pepper. But other than that, all it takes to create perfect steakhouse mushrooms is just a little bit of time. Slow cooking the thickly sliced mushrooms makes them tender and draws out and concentrates their flavor. And although they cook slowly, the whole dish can be finished in less than half an hour.
The finished product is juicy, delicious, and surprisingly hearty.
And then I made a side dish on the opposite side of the scale, brightly colored, brightly flavored, and more than a little bit sweet. Spiced purée of butternut squash with honey pairs particularly well with the mushrooms; they are visual and culinary counterpoints. But even if you don’t make the mushrooms, you’ll want to make this purée. Trust me on this.
You take the soft flesh of roasted butternut squash, with its brilliant orange flavor, and purée it with plenty of butter (Ahem. That’s plenty of butter. But this is Thanksgiving, right? So you’ll want to make your guests feel special). Then you stir in a few spices of the season, cardamom and cloves, and top it off with honey.
It is so good, so rich, and so sweet that you will be tempted simply to serve it for dessert. But then what would you do with all that lovely pumpkin pie?
Contact Daniel Neman at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6155.
Brussels Sprouts with Bacon and Brown Sugaré
Trim and clean sprouts and cut in half. Set aside.
Fry bacon in a skillet or saucepan over medium heat until crispy. (You can either cut bacon into pieces or leave whole and break into pieces later.) Transfer to a plate lined with paper towels to drain. Set aside.
Discard all but enough of the bacon grease to coat the bottom of your pan.
Add sprouts to the pan and sauté 3-4 minutes over medium heat until bottoms are browned. Add water, about 1 tablespoon at a time, along with brown sugar and stir to dissolve sugar. Cover and cook 5 to 8 minutes or until sprouts have softened and the sugar has caramelized.
Add more water throughout as necessary to keep the sprouts from burning.
Taste and adjust sweetness and add bacon pieces back into the pan. Stir in balsamic vinegar, add salt and pepper, and serve.
Yield: 3-4 servings; Source: Adapted from Holly Prestidge, Richmond Times-Dispatch
Clean and trim mushrooms, and slice fairly thick, in about ¼-inch slices (pre-sliced is fine). Set aside.
Melt butter in a large pan over medium-high heat. Sauté shallots until translucent, 2-3 minutes. Add garlic and cook 30 seconds. Add mushrooms and cook until they start to release their liquid, about 3-5 minutes. Add wine, Worcestershire sauce, and generous amounts of salt and pepper. Reduce heat to low and cook, uncovered, about 20 minutes. Garnish with parsley and serve.
Yield: 4-6 servings; Source: Daniel Neman
Cook's note: This recipe makes enough potatoes for 12 servings; it can easily be cut in half for smaller gatherings. Note that the potatoes must be baked the day before the dish is cooked and served.
Preheat oven to 425°. Poke holes in potatoes with a fork, wrap in foil, and bake 1 hour. Allow to cool, wrap individually in plastic wrap, and refrigerate overnight.
Preheat oven to 350°. Grate potatoes, including skin, on a box grater. Use your hands to make the grated potatoes fluffy (pick up handfuls and allow them to fall gently through your fingers). Add salt and pepper, mix it gently with your hands, and taste — you should be able to taste just a little bit of the salt. Add more salt if needed.
Add shallots and 3 cups of the cheese, and fluff the mixture with your hands again. Add sour cream, and mix gently with your hands. Carefully pile into a gratin pan, baking pan, or ovenproof individual portions — do not push down; the mixture should be light and airy. Sprinkle the remaining cheese over the top and bake until brown, 30-40 minutes.
Yield: 12 servings; Source: John Schenk, Strip House restaurants, via video
Spiced Purée of Butternut Squash
Preheat the oven to 400°. Halve the squash lengthwise, scoop out the seeds, wrap the squash loosely in foil, and bake until tender, 1-1½ hours. Let the squash cool until easily handled, then scrape out the flesh and purée in a food processor or through a food mill. Mix in the butter and the seasonings. Stirring constantly, reheat the purée over medium heat and serve hot.
Yield: 3-6 servings; Source: The Frog/ Commissary Cookbook, by Steven P:oses, Anne Clark, and Becky Roller