Side dishes fit for a feast

Like most cooks, I have Thanksgiving on my mind these days. The quintessential American food holiday deserves plenty of advance planning and this year will be a bit more tricky than usual since we’ll be cooking at my dad’s home in Washington state. Shopping at unfamiliar stores and working in someone else’s kitchen is a recipe for cooking challenges.

I’m not that worried about the turkey. After experimenting with numerous ways of cooking the bird, including brining, I’ve come to the conclusion that only two things really matter: The bird must be fresh and hormone-free and it shouldn’t spend too much time in the oven. When a thermometer stuck into the inner thigh reads 165-170 degrees, it’s done.

As far as I’m concerned, the feast is all about the side dishes. A table overflowing with vibrant salads, vegetables, stuffing, gravy and freshly-baked rolls is what separates Thanksgiving from an ordinary Sunday dinner.

Although everyone in the family has their personal allegiances, I try to mix it up every year, by serving a couple of new dishes alongside old favorites reserved just for holidays. This year, one of the new dishes is green beans with shiitake mushrooms, shallots and sliced almonds. The bright, fresh flavor of the tender beans is the perfect counterpoint to so many rich offerings while the mushrooms, shallots and almonds dress them up enough for the holiday table. As an added benefit for harried cooks, much of the preparation can be done in advance.

The secret to these beans is blanching them in plenty of salted water first. I’ve used Julia Child’s technique for this recipe to ensure the beans are cooked through but not mushy. As soon as the beans are tender to the bite, they’re drained and plunged into ice water to stop the cooking. Then they can be wrapped in a dishtowel to dry and refrigerated for several hours before the final sauté . The shallots and mushrooms also can be cooked earlier in the day and reheated with the beans at the last minute.

Among the family favorites that will grace the table are the mashed potatoes that former Mercury News food editor Joyce Gemperlein introduced me to years ago. This recipe, first published in The Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook, is the most indulgent variation on the beloved potatoes that I have ever tasted. She revised the instructions by baking rather than boiling the potatoes and I lightened it up a little by substituting Neufchatel-style cream cheese and Greek yogurt for the original full fat cream cheese and sour cream. There’s no denying the hefty fat content but it’s worth every calorie. It also reheats beautifully so you can make it ahead and warm it back up while the turkey is resting before being carved.

Thanksgiving Potatoes
Serves 8

9 large baking potatoes
½ cup (stick) unsalted butter
12 ounces Neufchatel-style cream cheese
¾ cup nonfat Greek yogurt
½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Scrub potatoes and bake in a 400-degree oven for about an hour, until tender when poked with a small sharp knife. In the meantime, remove butter, cheese and yogurt from refrigerator and allow to come to room temperature.

When potatoes have cooled a few minutes, cut them in half lengthwise, scoop flesh into a large mixing bowl and reserve skins for another use. (They’re great sprinkled with grated cheese and roasted until crisp.)

Cut the butter and cream cheese into small pieces and add to the potatoes. Beat with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Fold in the yogurt. Season with nutmeg, salt and pepper to taste.

Serve immediately or place in a buttered casserole for reheating later. Warm in a 300-degree oven for about 20 minutes before serving.

Adapted from “The Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook” by Julee Rosso, Sheila Lukins and Sarah Leah Chase (Workman, 1985)

Green Beans with Mushrooms, Shallots and Almonds
Serves 4

1 pound green beans, trimmed
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided use
½ cup thinly sliced shallots (about 4)
¼ pound fresh shiitake mushrooms, sliced about ½-inch thick
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme leaves
2 tablespoons sliced almonds, lightly toasted

Bring 4-6 quarts of well-salted water to a boil. Drop in beans and cover for a couple of minutes to help bring water back to a boil more quickly. Remove lid and boil until beans are just tender to the bite, about 4 minutes in all. Drain, transfer to a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking, then drain again and wrap in a clean dishtowel to dry. Set aside.

Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a large sauté pan or wok. Add shallots and cook, stirring frequently until they are very soft and beginning to brown. Transfer shallots to a small bowl and set aside.

In the same pan, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil and sauté mushrooms over medium high for a minute or so. Cover pan and reduce heat to medium for a couple of minutes to help them release their juices. Remove lid, return heat to medium high and cook for a few minutes more, until the mushrooms begin to brown. Transfer mushrooms to a dish and set aside.

Melt butter in the pan over medium high heat. Add beans and sauté until warmed through, 2-3 minutes. Return shallots to the pan and toss with beans until warmed.

Place beans and mushrooms on serving platter. Scatter with shallots and almonds and serve.

Note: If you want to prepare dish ahead. Cook the shallots and mushrooms as instructed, but reheat shallots before proceeding with final sauté of beans and mushrooms.

Aleta Watson

4 thoughts on “Side dishes fit for a feast”

  1. Thanks for this! It’s especially handy since this year I’m hosting my first Thanksgiving dinner, for guests who will no doubt be very kind when I don’t make these dishes look half as good as you do.

  2. I’m ready to grab handful of those beans and jump into the potatoes! Thanks, Aleta, especially for the Neuchatel part. 🙂

  3. Aleta,
    I’m going to be making the Silver Palate/Gemperlein potatoes for a crowd this Thanksgiving. I’m wondering: How far ahead do you think they can be prepared? A day or two in advance?

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