"We're having something different this year for Thanksgiving . Instead of a turkey we're having a swan. You get more stuffing." — George Carlin
While roughly 46 million turkeys will be gobbled up during the Thanksgiving feast — whether a tom or a hen, organic and free-range or conventional, roasted, brined, deep-fried or smoked — this holiday centerpiece actually takes second fiddle to the glorious and bountiful sides, the true gustatory fantasies of your guests. Creative chefs amp up traditional classics with rich flavors, interesting textures, and an oomph of nutrition amongst a sea of fat, sugar and carbs, while catering to dietary restrictions and preferences. As always, cooks must be mindful of safe ingredients, preparation and storage. So here's a run-down of a few irresistible sides with some cautions and practical tips to keep us all healthy, happy and satiated.
• Strut your Stuff: To stuff or not to stuff the holiday bird has been a raging debate among cooks across the land. It's no coincidence that most foodborne illnesses occur during November and December holidays as a result of bacteria contamination from foul fowls, bolstering the popularity of casserole-style stuffings. But if you're a diehard bird stuffer use proper cavity protection to prevent calamities.
• Don't prepare stuffings in advance, even if properly refrigerated, whether in a casserole or a cavity.
• Precook eggs, meats, fish and seafood, such as sausages, oysters and shrimp, along with grains and pastas, including Israeli couscous, wild rice, farro and barley, while sauté tough vegetables and fruits, especially roots, fennel, peppers, chestnuts, apples and celery until tender.
• Use a meat thermometer to ensure internal temperature reaches a safe 165 degrees.
• For cavity stuffing, completely remove every morsel once cooked. (Lining the cavity with a cheesecloth bag makes this a breeze).
• Bread stuffings are best with day-olds, and feel free to experiment with various types from rye and pumpernickel to challah and sourdough.
• For scrumptious gluten-free options try rice of all manners, quinoa, millet, buckwheat, amaranth, seafood, sausages (without wheat fillers), roasted roots, and wheat-free breads baked with brown rice, teff, tapioca, potato, corn, almond or chickpea flours.
• Smashed Potatoes: This Thanksgiving staple can be dressed up or down, and even made a little tipsy with a splash of smooth, woodsy bourbon. While russets are the best choice for fluffy and creamy whipped potatoes, some prefer redskins or Yukon Golds that tend to be waxy and grainy, but have a greater depth of flavor with buttery undertones.
Mash the old-fashioned way by hand, or squeeze through a ricer rather than mechanically that will transform the tubers into unpalatable super-glue. Then blend the smooth as silk spuds with sea or celery salt, herbs and spices like chives, smoked paprika, rosemary or garam masala; low-fat Greek yoghurt (for cholesterol-conscious); goat chevre and ghee butter (for lactose intolerant); or non-dairy milks and cheeses (for vegans).
For less-starchy versions, add pureed celery root or parsnips, or for a low-cal, anti-cancer spin, swap out spuds for cauliflower. If your goal is pure decadence (OK, we all deserve a cheat meal), add uncured, hickory-smoked bacon crumbles, Brie, Swiss or Parmesan cheese, along with butter and cream.
• Veg Out: Broaden your vegetarian horizons beyond the mundane creamed spinach and green bean casserole with such delights as roasted Brussels sprouts with balsamic glaze, zesty tri-colored cauliflower with toasted pepitas, braised fennel with garlic and tangerine juice, wilted escarole with crunchy shallot strings, baked potato latkes with chunky cranberry applesauce, wild mushroom and puff pastry strudel, and fire-roasted butternut squash with maple and toasted pecans.
There's more. Cranberry, ginger and Meyer lemon relish, caramelized carrots with cinnamon and golden raisins, hazelnut breaded asparagus spears, and coconut creamed kale — all sides that will satisfy the most discriminating carnivores.
Recipe: Rustic Bread & Cranberry Stuffing
• INGREDIENTS: 1 crusty baguette cut in 1-inch cubes, lightly toasted; 1 pound assorted mushrooms (crimini, Portobello), your choice, sliced; 2 celery stalks, diced; 1 sweet onion, diced; 1 fennel bulb, thinly sliced; 1 cup dried cranberries or cherries; 1/3 cup toasted pepitas; 1 cup mushroom or vegetable broth (adjust for desired texture); juice from one orange and lemon; 2 tablespoons fresh herbs (rosemary, sage), your choice, chopped; 3 tablespoons butter or olive oil
• METHOD: Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Grease large oven-safe casserole dish with butter or oil. In a large skillet on medium heat, melt butter or heat oil, and sauté vegetables until tender. Add bread cubes, cranberries, pepitas, herbs, spices, broth and juices. Mix well. Transfer to casserole. Bake until golden and toasty, about 30 minutes.
— Catharine Kaufman can be reached by e-mail: email@example.com