The vegetables at a Thanksgiving feast are not just sidekicks. They are a big part of the main act when you count the taste, texture, color and flavors.
“Everyone knows the turkey doesn’t carry the feast solo,” says Jeanne Ambrose, editor of Taste of Home magazine. “When people reach for second helpings, it’s usually the side dishes they want. It doesn’t take much to transform basic vegetables into the talk of the table.”
Your family might revolt when it comes to messing with the mashed potatoes or gravy, but vegetables are fair game for surprising creations. In fact, it’s a good idea to try at least one or two unexpected vegetable dishes; that’s how new traditions are born.
Put a spin on the tried-and-true by garnishing vegetables with fried quinoa or toasted nuts for more texture. Or brighten up flavors with a squeeze of lemon.
Add some fat, too, maybe some squares of bacon or a little bit of cured meat or fish. “Butter makes everything better,” Ambrose says.
When boiling vegetables, add vinegar or dry white wine to the water for another flavor boost.
Seasoning vegetables well is important, so don’t forget the salt and pepper. Rather than waiting until the end, season as they cook so you can taste the effect.
Most cooks just want simplicity in their vegetable sides and something that can be made ahead of time, Ambrose says.
“The simplest thing to do with them is to roast them.” Roasting concentrates the flavors and caramelizes the natural sugars. It also mellows strong-flavored broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and cabbage.
When adding herbs, incorporate them at the right time for maximum flavor. Add hearty herbs such as thyme, rosemary, oregano, marjoram or sage when vegetables are cooking or roasting. Save delicate herbs such as chives, tarragon, cilantro and parsley for the end so they don’t lose their fresh flavor and bright color.
Here are some variations that will keep everybody happy:
Green beans: “They stay bright green if you cook them in boiling water until they are crisp-tender, then immediately plunge them into ice water. Then you can do just about anything with them,” Ambrose says. “I like to cook some onion, garlic and ginger in sesame oil and then toss in the cooked green beans.”
For Lemony Almond-Feta Green Beans (Simple & Delicious, June/July 2014), add cooked beans to onion and garlic sauteed in butter. Then add almonds, lemon peel, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Top with feta cheese.
Carrots: “Cook them in butter, and voila! You have a winner,” Ambrose says. Toss in cumin powder and red pepper flakes with the butter and you get a spicy showstopper. Or cook thinly sliced carrots (2 pounds) and radishes (12), slightly boiled pearl onions (1 pound), 1/2 cup dark brown sugar and 4 teaspoons grated orange peel in 1/2 cup orange juice until vegetables are tender and liquid slightly thickened. Top with 1 cup chopped walnuts. (Taste of Home, November 2015).
Beets: These richly hued vegetables are ideal for roasting. Ambrose suggests wrapping each one individually in foil, placing in a roasting pan and sticking them in the oven. Once they’re cooked, manipulate the foil and the peel will come right off. “Don’t mix them with other vegetables in a pan unless you want a holiday red on all of them,” she cautions.
An alternate: Roast 2 pounds of cubed beets with 1 tablespoon canola oil, 3 tablespoons water and 1 1/2 teaspoons salt at 350 degrees for about 45 minutes. In a bowl, whisk 2 tablespoons orange juice, 1 tablespoon sherry vinegar, and salt and pepper to taste. Drizzle vinaigrette over beets, and top with crumbled goat cheese.
Corn: “For Thanksgiving, what could be more all-American?” Ambrose asks. It’s good in its simplest form – tossed with butter and gussied up with herbs such as basil. The kernels could be amped up by adding lemon or lime juice and chili powder. Corn also pairs well with cheese, and this includes cotija, Parmesan and cheddar.
An alternate: To boiling water, add 12 cups of frozen corn. After corn is tender, drain and stir in 1/2 cup butter, 2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley, 2 teaspoons salt, 1 teaspoon dill weed, 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder, 1/2 teaspoon Italian seasoning and 1/4 teaspoon dried thyme. (Taste of Home, October/November 2002).