Favorite Thanksgiving Sides

November 6, 2010



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I’m in St. Louis today, wishing I could stay here for three weeks. My mama-in-law is ready for Thanksgiving: there are lots of little china pilgrims and turkeys and American Indians sitting quietly together on windowsills and bookshelves. It’s almost enough to gloss over the bloody battles and trails of tears. I try not to be too ornery about this murky spot in American history, especially since the meal that commemorates it is so good. Since I’m always lax about posting my favorite holiday recipes ahead of time, I’m re-posting one from last year. That’s the nice thing about the classics: they never change.

My friends Molly and Phil have a faux-Thanksgiving every year at their home in Houston. About a dozen of us gather for this potluck affair the weekend before that wonderful Thursday, and each of us brings a dish or two, perhaps more than that, depending on how inspired we feel. I’ve never hosted on Thanksgiving day, so it’s nice to feel like I can take part in the best meal of the year—even if it comes a few days early.


What I love about Thanksgiving is that even if the guest list changes and the potluck dishes are a little different, a variation on the same flavors always comes out: the salty taste of stock and celery in stuffing; the rich taste of gravy over turkey and smooth creamy potatoes; the tart, sweet bites of cranberry chutney coupled with some version of roasted, creamed or spiced vegetable.

Since the bird gets done on Molly’s end, us guests have the opportunity to focus on the side dishes that make the table so colorful. I make the same thing every year: cranberry chutney, jalapeño cornbread and creamed spinach. I love how a smear of tangy chutney can cut the richness of the meal, perking it up a bit, too. I love the taste of cheddar cheese baked into bread, and I think I’ll keep these spicy cornbread muffins even when we move away from Texas. Finally, creamed spinach is my ultimate favorite. I would eat that for breakfast, lunch and dinner if I could. The taste of caramelized onions deep inside and the slight hint of nutmeg in cream sauce make this dish totally unforgettable.


The chutney recipe comes from a family tradition, passed down from my Grandmother’s kitchen. She found it in one of those Pillsbury advertisements, an entire little booklet of recipes dedicated to promoting the brand. The little palimpsest is nearly 50 years old, covered with splashes and encrusted crumbs spanning the decades. (Watch me make this for Christmas, too…) The cornbread was a more recent discovery for me, and I’ve made several batches since coming to Houston. I love the combination of sweet, crispy corn meal with sharp cheddar and a little bit of jalapeño kick. The recipe I used this year (from my last ever Gourmet) calls for real corn kernels, which lent a welcome texture to the golden bread.


And finally, my favorite, creamed spinach. This recipe comes from none other than the goddess of easy, elegant recipes, Ina Garten. I’m sure there are some foodies out there who assume that because her recipes are so straightforward, they’re not heavy on the culinary clout. Well I’m here to tell you that this is absolute malarkey, and that anybody who doesn’t have her books is missing out. I’ve never had a bum recipe from the Barefoot Contessa—which is more than I can say about virtually any other source out there. This creamed spinach recipe—actually a spinach gratin—comes from her book Parties, and is a no-fail crowd pleaser.

So that, friends, would be my contribution if you invited me over for a communally cooked Thanksgiving meal. I love the stuffing, the potatoes, the turkey and all that, but this trio of dishes is my idea of sides at their most complimentary. All told, whipping these up can be done in less than 2 hours, leaving you plenty of time to bake a pie… or roast a turkey… or, depending on your responsibilities, take a pre-dinner nap.


Cranberry Chutney

½ c apricot preserves
½ c firmly packed brown sugar
¼ tsp cinnamon
¼ tsp ginger
¼ tsp cloves
12 oz bag of fresh cranberries (thawed if frozen)
2 medium pears, peeled and cubed
1 medium apple, peeled and cubed
½ c raisins
½ c coarsely chopped, toasted walnuts

Combine the preserves, sugar and spices in a medium saucepan.

Bring mixture to a boil and cook until sugar dissolves, stirring occasionally.

Add cranberries, pear, apple and raisins and cook over medium hear for 25 minutes, or until mixture is thick and cranberries have all popped. (Stir occasionally.)

Take chutney off the heat and stir in walnuts. Cool slightly and store in glass jars, up to 3 weeks.

Cheddar and Jalapeño Corn Muffins

Nonstick cooking spray
5 T unsalted butter, melted and cooled
2 c cornmeal—preferably stone ground
1 t salt
1 t baking powder
½ t baking soda
¾ c corn (thawed if frozen)
1 ¼ c well-shaken buttermilk
1 large egg
1 ¾ c grated, sharp Cheddar, plus ¼ c for garnish
1 jalapeño, finely chopped, with seeds

Preheat oven to 425 degrees, with rack in the middle. Coat muffin cups with spray.

Whisk together cornmeal, salt, baking powder and baking soda in a large bowl.

Whisk together corn, jalapeño, buttermilk, egg and melted butter in another bowl, then stir into flour mixture until just combined. Add 1 ¾ c cheese.

Divide batter among muffin cups and sprinkle with remaining cheese. Bake until puffed and golden, about 20 minutes.

Creamed Spinach (or Spinach Gratin)

4 T unsalted butter
4 c chopped, yellow onion (2 large)
¼ c flour
¼ t grated nutmeg
1 c heavy cream
2 c whole milk
3 lb frozen spinach, defrosted and chopped (5 10oz bags)
1 c freshly grated Parmesan cheese (for simple creamed spinach, only ½ c is needed)
1 T kosher salt
½ t freshly ground black pepper
½ c grated Gruyere cheese (for gratin only)

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
(Only if making gratin—you will not need the stove for creamed spinach.)

Melt butter in a heavy bottomed sauté pan over medium heat. Add onions and sauté until translucent, about 15 minutes.

Add the flour and nutmeg and stir constantly for another 2 minutes.

Add cream and milk and cook until thickened, about 10 minutes.

Extract as much liquid as possible from the spinach (I do this by cutting a hole in the side of the package and squeezing it over the sink) and add spinach to the sauce.

Add ½ c of the Parmesan cheese and mix well, seasoning with salt and pepper.

To make gratin: Transfer spinach to a baking dish and sprinkle the remaining ½ cup Parmesan and the Gruyere on top. Bake for 20 minutes until hot and bubbly.

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