The Thanksgiving menu is a complex one in which each dish fits into a matrix of nostalgia, identity, excess, creativity, and flavor. At the center is that once-a-year big bird, delivering on both custom and ceremony with table carving and the contest: “dark meat or light?”
There are many ways to turn out the bird. I like a turkey dry-brined, spatchcocked, and roasted with a compound butter, herby or spiced, tucked under the skin. But to me, the sides are where things can get interesting.
There are challenges: Thanksgiving dishes, like visiting relatives, can push the boundaries respected on other days of the year. By which I mean a heavy hand with cream must be excused. And there are traditions to be honored: some families will revolt if the marshmallow sweet potato casserole is missing; others expect Grandma’s lasagna, or Tia’s tamale pie.
Planning the sides can be like a game of edible bingo: something roasted, something rich and indulgent, sweet-tart, colorful, a family favorite, or a new spin. You want buttery richness countered by something tart — think cranberry sauce next to creamy Eastham turnips. And because Thanksgiving is synonymous with “never too many carbs,” ideally these get balanced with a bounty of vegetables.
Here are three winners that play together well at our house.
Oyster stuffing was always out of reach until Robert and I got our shellfish licenses. Foraging oysters off Blackfish Creek in Wellfleet adds an ineffable ingredient of belonging to this remarkable place. Spinach nods to oysters Rockefeller and adds color to the buff and brown palette of the meal. Years ago, I fell for potato bread in stuffing; it stays moist and almost custardy, but any white bread will do. It’s fine to sub in some corn bread — just make sure it’s not a sweet one.
The Sicilian butternut squash dish has become an all-time most-requested dish in our family. It hits the sweet and sour notes without being cloying and checks the do-ahead-and-serve-at-room-temperature box. It means one fewer dish jockeying for oven space as dinnertime approaches.
Never skip something green. If you love that 1960s casserole of frozen green beans with cream of mushroom soup, you be you. But the complexity of the meal screams for contrast and simplicity. Green beans and sugar snaps bathed in a slightly spicy ginger butter and topped with crisp pecans keeps things fresh and bright.
Just remember to leave room for pie.
Oyster and Spinach Dressing
Best to cut the bread a day or two ahead so it is nice and dry. Or dry it in a low oven for about 30 minutes.
1 stick (4 oz.) unsalted butter
2 leeks, white and light green, thinly sliced and well rinsed
Kosher salt and fresh-ground black pepper
2 stalks celery with leaves, diced
1/3 cup dry vermouth or white wine
2 cups spinach, lightly packed
1 Tbsp. fresh thyme
1¼ cups turkey, chicken, or vegetable broth (preferably homemade)
2 large eggs
¼ cup chopped flat parsley
Hot sauce or nice pinch cayenne
10 cups cubed potato bread, dried
20 shucked oysters with their liquor (about 2/3 cup)
- Melt 6 tablespoons of the butter in a large skillet, add the leeks and celery, salt and pepper to taste, and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the vermouth and thyme and bring to a simmer; cook until thickened slightly. Stir in the spinach and cook until just wilted. Transfer to a large bowl and cool slightly.
- Heat oven to 350° F. Whisk together the eggs, broth, and parsley and season with salt, pepper, and a good jolt of hot sauce or pinch of cayenne to taste. Fold in bread cubes until evenly moistened. Add the oysters and their liquor.
- Brush a casserole with some butter and fill with the stuffing. Dot surface with the remaining butter. Cover casserole lightly with foil and bake for 20 minutes. Uncover and bake until lightly browned, about 15 minutes more. Serve hot.
Sicilian Sweet and Sour Butternut Squash
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
10 cloves garlic, halved
1 large sprig fresh rosemary
1 butternut squash, unpeeled (about 2¼ pounds)
Kosher salt and fresh-ground black pepper
8 oz. shiitake mushrooms, stemmed and quartered
8 oz. red cherry, grape, or pear tomatoes
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
1/3 cup sugar
Pinch crushed red pepper flakes
- Preheat oven to 500° F. Heat the olive oil, garlic, and rosemary in a small saucepan over medium heat until it bubbles gently. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the garlic is tender, about 8 minutes. Set aside.
- Halve the squash lengthwise, scoop out the seeds, and cut crosswise into half-inch-thick slices. Arrange the slices on a large baking sheet, brushing both sides with about a tablespoon of the garlic-and-rosemary-infused olive oil, and season with salt and black pepper. Roast until tender, lightly browned but not mushy, about 20 minutes.
- Toss the shiitake mushrooms with a half tablespoon of the flavored olive oil on one side of a baking sheet and then spread them out. Also toss the tomatoes in oil and spread them out on the other side of the pan. Season both vegetables with salt and black pepper. Roast and remove the tomatoes when soft, after about 10 minutes, and the mushrooms when brown and slightly crisp, after another 10 minutes or so. When the vegetables are cool enough to handle, arrange the squash on a dish and scatter the mushrooms and tomatoes over the top.
- Using a slotted spoon, remove the garlic from the oil and scatter it over the roasted vegetables; lay the rosemary sprig on top. Add vinegar, sugar, and red pepper flakes to the oil and bring the mixture to a boil; simmer until slightly syrupy, then pour over the vegetables and marinate at room temperature for at least 2 hours. You may refrigerate the dish, covered, overnight and bring it to room temperature before serving.
Green Beans With Pecans and Ginger
Serves 4 to 6
8 oz. green beans or haricots verts, trimmed
8 oz. sugar snap peas, halved if desired
2 to 3 Tbsp. pecan halves
1-inch piece fresh ginger
2 to 3 Tbsp. cold unsalted butter
- Bring a large pot of salted water to a vigorous boil. Set a bowl of salted ice water near the stove. Cook the beans and sugar snaps uncovered in the water until crisp tender, about 5 minutes. Drain and immediately put in the salted ice water. Swish around to cool completely; drain.
- Heat oven to 350° F. Spread the nuts out on a small pan and cook until fragrant and lightly toasted, about 8 minutes. Cool and roughly chop. Peel, thinly slice, and then cut the ginger into very thin strips. (The dish can be prepared up to this point a day ahead.)
- When ready to serve, heat the butter in a large skillet over medium heat with the ginger and 1-2 tablespoons of water. Cook, swirling the pan to flavor the butter with ginger. Add the green beans and toss to coat evenly and heat through. The beans should be lightly coated in a gingery buttery glaze. Season with salt and pepper. Transfer to a serving bowl and scatter the nuts on top.