I don’t really enjoy cooking turkeys. My oven is too small, for one thing; for another, as a solo cook with diminishing upper-body strength, I find wrestling the heavy, slippery bird – out of its bag, in and out of the brine, on and off the roasting rack – difficult and fraught with peril. And then there’s the carcass problem: To make stock or not? If so, when? And given that I still have turkey stock in the freezer from last Thanksgiving, is there really any point?
So when my friend Ellen volunteered to roast a turkey for our three-couple Thanksgiving feed, I was delighted. It means my oven will be free on Thursday – and it means I get to cook side dishes. And honestly, for me, Thanksgiving is all about the sides: Dressing, sweet potatoes, whipped potatoes, gravy – lots of gravy, please! – and an array of vegetables and relishes … all the lovely, rich, kitchen-intensive dishes I rarely bother with the rest of the year, when my cooking tends to one-dish meals with maybe a vegetable or salad on the side.
And when several cooks are pitching in, each bringing the dish without which it would not be Thanksgiving for them, the odds of discovering something new, or a new variation on something familiar, is high.
So. I’ve offered to make baked dressing (although Ellen will likely stuff the bird as well, but nobody objects to two varieties), sweet potatoes, smashed potatoes … and a pecan pie, because I need pecan pie on Thanksgiving, whether anyone else does or not.
The dressing and sweet potatoes will be variations on old favorites, tweaked just enough to have new interest without offending the tastes of anyone who’s got their heart set on the standards. And yes, containing local ingredients, from the final weekend of our farmers’ market, local farmstands and my garden: The yams, potatoes and onions, the herbs, the mushrooms, the eggs.
Cornbread dressing with sage and wild mushrooms
- 6 cups cornbread (I like this flourless Epicurious recipe, which is solid and less sweet than my usual recipe. It makes about 12 cups; I halve the recipe.)
- 1/2 cup (1 stick) plus 3 Tbsp butter
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 1 pound fresh wild mushrooms (chanterelles), coarsely chopped
- 2-3 cloves garlic, minced
- 2-3 stalks celery, diced
- 2 Tbsp fresh sage, minced, or 2 tsp dried
- 1 Tbsp fresh rosemary, minced, or 1 tsp dried
- 1 Tbsp fresh thyme, minced, or 1 tsp dried
- 3 large eggs
- 1 1/2-2 cups low-salt chicken stock
- Salt and pepper
Bake cornbread the day before and allow it to cool completely. Cut into 1-inch cubes and place in a big mixing bowl.
Melt 1 stick of butter in a large skillet. Add the onions, mushrooms and garlic and stir well to coat with butter. Sautee over medium heat until the onion and garlic are translucent and the mushrooms have shrunk and absorbed most of the butter. Remove from heat and allow to cool enough to handle.
Preheat oven to 375F. Add the mushroom mixture – including any liquid in the pan – celery and minced herbs to the cornbread; use (clean) hands to toss well (I don’t know any other good way to do this). Taste; if salt is needed, add some now, along with a good deal of black pepper, and toss again.
Beat the eggs with a fork and add to the dressing, tossing again to coat. Melt the butter and drizzle it over the dressing, toss again. Finally, add stock, slowly, stirring to combine. You should wind up with a very moist mixture. Heap into a 9×13 baking dish or large casserole and bake until lightly browned and crisp around the edges, about 45 minutes. If the rest of the meal isn’t ready (does anyone actually manage to get everything ready to serve at once on Thanksgiving), cover loosely with foil, slash a vent in the top to let some of the steam escape and set aside until dinner is ready. If necessary, tuck it back in the oven to reheat while you carve the turkey.
Maple Sweet Potatoes with Candied Ginger
- 4 pounds sweet potatoes (use canned if you must. But they won’t be as good)
- 1/2 cup real maple syrup (Tip: If you like a stronger maple flavor, see if you can find Grade B syrup)
- 1/2 tsp allspice
- 3 Tbsp candied ginger, chopped
- 1/2 cup butter (1 stick) cut into pieces
Preheat oven to 375F. Peel sweet potatoes and cut into 1-inch chunks. Bring a large saucepan of water to a boil; add sweet potatoes. Once water returns to a simmer, parboil for about 5 minutes. Drain.
In a small saucepan, combine maple syrup and allspice. Bring to a simmer.
Place sweet potatoes in a 9×13-inch baking dish. Sprinkle candied ginger over the top. Pour on the hot maple syrup, and dot with butter. Bake for about 45 minutes, until yams are tender. Can be kept, covered, on the counter until ready to serve.
This is less sweet than the standard candied sweet potatoes, and the ginger and allspice add a nice zing. If you like it even less sweet and more zing-y, substitute chopped fresh ginger for the candied ginger. If you have a bigger sweet tooth than I do, try combining the candied ginger with an equal amount of chopped pecans, a couple of tablespoons of flour and a half cup of brown sugar and sprinkling that over the top for the last 15 minutes or so of cooking for a crunchy, streusel-like topping.
You’ll note that these two dishes call for the same oven temperature. The recipes I based mine on called for a 350-degree oven for the dressing and 400 for the sweet potatoes; I split the difference and adjusted the cooking times so I can bake these at the same time, one on the bottom oven rack and one on the top. Midway through cooking, I’ll swap racks so they cook evenly. Of such adjustments are big meals made.
The pie? I’ll bake that the day before. From my mom’s recipe – the one printed on the label of the Karo syrup bottle.