Giving the Thanksgiving Side Dish a New Lease on Life

Thanksgiving is right around the corner. People will be starting their food prep this weekend, or at least start shopping, for Thanksgiving. Main courses are pretty standard, but Thanksgiving side dishes can actually make or break the whole meal. This month I set out to take the traditional side dishes and step them up a bit! I have five really fun and easy recipes to share with you! Over the next few days I will be updating this post to add each new dish. I hope you will stick with me on my Thanksgiving Side Dish journey!

Long island Cheese Pumpkin

Soup isn’t a typical side dish, but can be a great distraction in your busy holiday kitchen. Everyone likes to congregate in the kitchen to see what’s up with the chef, and what better way to keep them occupied, that a nice pot of soup? Leave it on the stove with a stack of small cups for people to help themselves.

I decided to try my hand using the Long Island Cheese Pumpkin. This smooth pale pumpkin was named not only for it’s shape, looking like a wheel of cheese, but where it was first cultivated, on Long Island, in the 1800s. This particular pumpkin is perfect for making pies, with it’s smooth and creamy texture.


Breaking into a hearty winter squash can be challenging. My little secret is to place it, and any other pumpkin for that matter, in a plastic bag and drop on the ground. Gravity will do the work. Scrape out the seeds and break into smaller pieces. While the squash cooks in the oven you can get the rest of the ingredients ready in the pot. The Long Island Cheese is really soft and not stringy, so pureeing is a snap.

Pumpkin Apple Soup

The addition of an apple gives it a little sweetness and the thyme earthiness. A great flavor combination that can’t be beat. Give this one a try and I promise you won’t be disappointed!

Pumpkin Apple Soup
Makes 6-8 servings

1 – 3 lb Long Island cheese pumpkin
Avocado or canola oil
Kosher salt
Ground black pepper
1 small onion, about 1 cup chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped
1 quart of low sodium vegetable stock
1 large tart apple, granny smith, peeled and chopped in 1” pieces
4 branches of thyme, 2 whole and 2 stripped and minced
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
1 tablespoon honey
Chives, thinly sliced, garnish

1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
2. Wash and dry the pumpkin. With a heavy knife cut it in half and scoop out the seeds. Then cut into 8 small pieces. Place on a rimmed baking sheet. Drizzle with oil and season with salt and pepper. Roast for 15-20 minutes, or until the pumpkin is very tender. Remove from oven and cool slightly.
3. While the pumpkin cools saute the onion and garlic with 2 tablespoons of oil. Season with salt and pepper. Cook until the onion is soft and translucent. Add the stock and bring to a simmer. Turn down the heat to very low and cover the pot.
4. Once the pumpkin is cool enough to handle scrap out the flesh and add it to the pot along with the apple and 2 whole thyme branches. Cook for 5 -10 minutes to soften the apple, uncovered.
5. Allow the soup to cool slightly and remove the thyme branches. Puree until smooth with an immersion or high speed blender. Add the vinegar and honey and blend well.
6. Add the fresh thyme and taste for additional salt and pepper. Serve warm garnished with chives.

If you think the sweet potato recipe below is easy, wait until you see what I have in store for mashed potatoes. You simply must make mashed potatoes. Almost every other side dish can be changed or tweaked, but this one serves not only as a creamy dollop next to your main course, but the be-all and end-all vehicle for your gravy.

OK, lets talk spud: First, I fancy the Yukon Gold for my mash. You can easily use Idaho Russets, but they can get a bit water logged and shred. The Yukon holds its shape even when fully cooked.

Yukon Gold potato

Next, you simply must invest in a potato ricer. It’s an absolute must-have gadget. I’ve used several different types, but the Kuhn-Rikon Ricer is my favorite, and the one that I have at home. It’s light, easy to use, easy to clean, AND it’s not going to cost and arm and a leg. It’s around $20 and if you have a 20% off coupon to Bed Bath & Beyond, all the better.

Riced Yukon gold potatoes.  image

After you get your potatoes riced, drain your half and half which has been infusing with smashed garlic. Here is the trick: you don’t want to pull out the mixer and risk a big gluey mess. Take a nice firm spatula and fold in the liquid. Do it a little at a time. The warm potatoes will soak up the liquid like a sponge. This step takes 3-5 minutes. I do it slowly so I can incorporate the liquid and keep it all soft and fluffy.

Fluffy Mashed Potates
Once you get the mash to the texture you like, soft or a little stiff, gently dollop into your serving dish or pan, if making ahead. Dot with some additional butter and a little bit of thyme. Easy and a sure hit!

Fluffy Mashed Potatoes
Serves 10-14

5 lbs. Yukon Gold, peeled and cut in 2″ pieces
Kosher salt
3 cups half and half
5 fat garlic cloves, smashed
1 stick butter, divided
Ground black pepper
Fresh thyme, garnish

  1. Place the potatoes in a pot covered with 8 cups cold water with 2 tablespoons of kosher salt. (Don’t skimp on the kosher salt here. You need it to season the potatoes as they cook.) Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer until soft and tender.
  2. While the potatoes cook bring the half and half and garlic to a simmer. Turn off the heat and let the garlic infused the liquid.
  3. When the potatoes are done, drain and let them dry and cool a bit in a colander. Melt 1/2 stick of butter and take the other half and cut into small cubes.
  4. Press the potatoes through a potato ricer, and into a large mixing bowl. Using a stiff spatula fold in the liquid through a strainer to catch the garlic. Do this several stages. The key is to add the warm liquid to the warm potatoes slowly, allowing them to soak it up. Keep folding with the spatula and once you reach the desired consistency add in the melted butter and taste for seasoning. You will need more salt and ground black pepper.
  5. Dollop into your serving dish or tray, dot with the remaining butter and some fresh thyme. You can make this ahead, cool down and store covered. When ready to serve bring to room temperature and reheat covered.

Sweet potatoes, a very popular vegetable to appear on the Thanksgiving spread. Growing up this tuber was (shiver) dumped from a can and covered with marshmallows. While I admit didn’t have the palate I have today, I knew something was seriously wrong with that application. Ah .. the 60s and 70s .. make it fast and make it sweet, right? In my later childhood years the can was replaced with the the real thing, but the marshmallows stayed. (Somehow my mother still believes to this day it is a tradition that must not be changed.) After a little internet digging I came across this fun little story on the Saveur site about the evolution of the dish.

Sweet Potato

I, for one, think the “sweet” potato is sweet enough, but for some looking for a little upscale kick at the end, I have a great idea. Peel and cut up the tuber. Remember, keep all your pieces the same size, so they cook at the same rate. Into a pot of salted cold water, just like potatoes and bring to a boil. Simmer until tender. Drain and let dry for about 5 minutes. You still want them warm, for an easy mash.

Mashed sweet potatoes

Mash first with a potato masher to break them up, and then fluff with a hand mixer. No gluten in these spuds, so you don’t have to worry about about a gluey mix.  To them I added milk, a bit of chili powder and plumped up dry cranberries.

Cranberry-Chili Sweer Potato with Salted Caramel

Now, for the “kick” … I found the most delicious salted caramel called Cara-Sel from the Ardent Homesteader. You simply must find this and use it! I got my little jar at Hilltop Hanover Farm this Fall. I also spotted it at Fishkill Farms when we went apple picking and from the link you will see it’s in Grand Central. Find it, buy it, and thank me later! Just before serving your sweet potatoes drizzle a little over the top. Sweet, salty, spicy and tart … a big win combination!

Maria’s Sweet Potatoes
Serves 4-6

2 lbs. of sweet potatoes, peel and cut in 2″ chunks
Kosher salt
1/4 – 1/3 cup dry cranberries or cherries (see note)
1/4 – 1/2 cup milk or half and half
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
Ground black pepper
Cara-Sel Salted Caramel
Toasted pecans, optional garnish

1. Place the sweet potatoes in a heavy bottom pot and cover by 1″ of cold water. Add 2 teaspoons of salt and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer until tender.
2. While the potatoes cook plump the cranberries in a cup of hot water.
3. Drain the potatoes and let them cool and dry out a little in a big bowl for about 5 minutes. Drain the cranberries and roughly chop.
4. Mash the sweet potatoes, with a potato masher, to break them up. Then using a hand mixer on high whip the potatoes. Slowly drizzle in the milk until you get the consistency you desire. Add the chili powder and additional salt and pepper to taste.
5. Fold in the cranberries and place in a casserole dish. Just before serving heat it up and drizzle a little Cara-Sel over the top. If desired, sprinkle with chopped pecans.

Cook’s note: I highly recommend using real dried cranberry or cherry. Skip the juiced up raisins this time.

Next up: lets explore collards, cauliflower and quinoa. I created this one especially for the daughter of one of my clients who is a vegetarian. This is a great side dish to have for the vegetarian and vegan guests sitting at the table, having the addition of quinoa for a protein boost.

Collard green leaves

Collards, another love/hate situation for me. I never ate them as a kid, but as an adult I always felt like they had a weird soapy after-taste. I know sounds crazy, but it kept me from eating them for a long time. Plus cooked to death and usually in a greasy fat. Not really appealing, for me. So when I came upon them last year, at Hilltop Hanover Farm I decided this was another vegetable I needed to take a look at again. In the early Fall I worked up a recipe using them as a vehicle for Italian Prune Plums, which turned out to be not only beautiful, but very tasty.


Along with the collards and quinoa I used cauliflower. You can easily use the ubiquitous white head, but branch out and get the purple or even yellow. You can find them at the farmer’s market and specialty grocers like Whole Foods or DeCiccos. If you want to add this one to your holiday buffet go ahead and spend the the extra few dollars for the special variety. It will certainly make a statement on the table.


I can’t take full credit entirely with this recipe. I started it last week and then had my cooking class participants help me tweak it over the past weekend. I think the final recipe is just dandy! I hope you will give this one a try. It’s another recipe that is done in around 30 minutes.

Collards, Cauliflower and Quinoa
Serves 6-8

2-3 cups cauliflower florets, any color
Kosher salt
½ cup dry quinoa
1 lemon
½ bunch parsley, roughly chopped
Extra virgin olive oil
1 leek, white and pale green part only, sliced thinly and rinsed
2 garlic cloves, minced
Ground black pepper
1 bunch collards, stems stripped
½ cup pecans or walnuts, toasted
½ cup dry apricots, roughly chopped

1. Bring a small pot of water to boil and salt with 1 tablespoon of kosher salt. Blanch the cauliflower for 2 minutes. Scoop out and set aside in a large mixing bowl. Remove ¼ cup of the liquid and set aside.
2. Using the cauliflower cooking liquid, cook ½ cup dry quinoa according to the package instructions. Drain, fluff with a fork and add to the cauliflower bowl along with the zest and juice of ½ of the lemon and parsley, toss well.
3. While the quinoa cooks sauté the leek and garlic in a tablespoon of olive oil for 3-5 minutes on medium heat, seasoned with salt and pepper.
4. While the leek cooks stack and roll the stripped collards like a fat cigar and slice thinly. Add to the pan along with a few more tablespoons of olive oil and season again with salt and pepper. Cook for about 5 minutes. Add the reserved ¼ cup of cauliflower water to steam the collards.
5. Once the water has evaporated add the collards to the cauliflower and quinoa tossing well. Mix in the pecans and apricots. Toss and taste. Add additional lemon juice, olive oil and seasoning as needed.
6. Serve warm or room temperature.

Cook’s notes: You can prepare this ahead of time fully, except adding the collards to the cauliflower. Mix it together just before serving with the second half of the lemon and olive oil. The lemon will oxidize the collards and turn them a dull color over time. It will still taste delicious just not look vibrant.

brussels sprouts

Brussels Sprouts! Ah, the sprout … we have a love/hate relationship with them. At least for me, it was hate for a long time. Back in the day as a youngster this little cabbage was cooked to death in a bubbly bath of water. Cooked to a mushy Army-green death. A typical cooking application of the 60s.  It wasn’t until a few years ago I decided to give them another look. Sliced in half and roasted in a hot oven is a great way to enjoy them. Or sautéed with a little bacon or pancetta, you can’t go wrong.

Slicing sprouts in a food processor

So what could I do to make them more interesting? With my handy dandy food processor I sliced them up with shallots in a snap. If you own a food processor I guarantee you have the slicer disc. Most people don’t use it, but its just about the best way to slice anything!

This dish could not be easier. Take your trimmed and clean sprouts along with shallots and slice them up. Lay flat on a rimmed tray and toss with olive oil, salt and pepper. Roast in a very hot oven for about 10 to 15 minutes. You want them to cook and take on a golden brown color. Then simply toss with dried cranberry and apples. Sweet, tart and earthy – a combination that can’t be beat!

Stop by in a few days, my next dish will include quinoa and cauliflower.

Buon appetito!

Brussels Sprout, Shallot, Apple and Cranberry

Brussels Sprouts, Apple and Cranberry
Serves 6-8

1/3 cup dried cranberries, plumped in warm water
1 1/4 lb brussels sprouts, trimmed and cleaned, but kept whole
4 oz small shallot, no bigger than the brussels sprouts, cleaned but kept whole
Extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt
Ground black pepper
1 large apple, cored and cut in 1/2 ” cubes
Zest and juice of 1/2 lemon

  1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Place the cranberries in a small cup of very hot water.
  2. Slice the brussels sprouts and shallot in a food processor, using the slicing disc. Place them on a rimmed sheet fairly flat. You may need to use two sheets. Drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Roast for 10-15 minutes, or until it gets a nice golden brown and crisp in spots. Remove from the oven and allow to cool a few minutes.
  3. While the sprout-shallot roasts drain the cranberries and roughly chop them. Place in a large bowl. Add the cut apple and squeeze the lemon juice and zest over the apples.
  4. Scrape the cool brussels sprouts and shallot into the big bowl and toss it all together. Drizzle in a little more oil and season with salt and pepper as needed.
  5. Serve at room temperature.

One Comment Add yours

  1. drgaellon says:

    I use a food mill instead of a ricer. I find it’s more versatile, and I get very similar results.

    I made your sweet potatoes, but I upped the game a little: based on advice from Modernist Cuisine, I made them in the pressure cooker, with 1/4 tsp of baking soda per pound of sweet potatoes. Alkalinizing the environment allows the Maillard reactions to start around 230-240 degrees F, easily reached in a pressure cooker. Roasted flavors without the oven!


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