The Big Bird gets all the attention on Thanksgiving.
But the supporting roles for this dinnertime drama are just as important and (dare we suggest?) can serve as the real stars of this once-a-year occasion.
Just ask Rick Rodgers, who as cookbook author and cooking teacher has prepared more Thanksgiving dinners than most of us will in a lifetime (about 300 at last count). “I walk into kitchens of cooking schools where I’ve never been before and have to make Thanksgiving dinner for 50 people, and I need a few tricks up my sleeve,” he said in an interview.
He’s put his extensive experience into the new “The Big Book of Sides” (Ballantine Books, 466 pages, $30), an impressive ode to the side dish, 450 in all, from the humble mashed cauliflower that can balance the weeknight meal to the squash-leek-potato gratin that can impress your guests.
We are a firm believer in holiday sides — variety, please! — so Rodgers was preaching to the choir when he offered his rationale for those elements on the table that often get pushed off center plate.
“Everyone needs a repertoire of simple, flavorful side dishes,” he said. “If the main course is complicated, keep the sides simple.” His personal approach to cooking — providing the most amount of flavor with the least effort — suits our entertaining style, as well.
Before we head to the kitchen this holiday — will there be new recipes on your menu? — see what Rodgers recommends for prepping for the big meal.
Q: What’s so important about side dishes?
A: They round out the plate. The main dish is normally quite rich. You need a repertoire of side dishes that are versatile. Everything can’t have butter and cream. One of the tricks I’m tired of these days is so many recipes with bacon and cheese. Hello? Everything is good with bacon and cheese!
Q: What do you look for in a Thanksgiving side dish?
A: Lighter side dishes, things that are made with fresh ingredients that are going to add a lot of color to the table. There’s a reason why green bean amandine is such a popular side dish. You can blanch the green beans ahead of time. It only takes a few minutes to finish in the skillet. The nuts are nice and crunchy. And it’s delicious and it goes with gravy. We have a lot of pre-Thanksgiving dinners in my neighborhood because everybody goes away for the holiday, and I see so many Thanksgiving menus where everything is baked, everything is a casserole, everything is saucy, everything is rich. You have to give your palate some relief. It’s just too many carbs.
Q: How do you handle tradition at the holiday dinner table?
A: It’s a big subject and it’s personal because there are certain things you have to have on the table, and every family is different. In my family we have a Jell-O salad that I’ve never seen anywhere else. It takes three days to make because of the layers. And if I say to my mom, “We could make this with blackberries instead of fruit cocktail,” it’s heresy.
One of the things I like to do is a little bit of switch-and-bait. To me the classic example is cranberry sauce, where if that can of cranberry sauce with the ridges on the side in Grandma’s cut glass dish is not on the table, I’m in trouble. But I will make fresh cranberry sauce because it’s easy and it’s delicious and people take both.
Q: How can people make dishes interesting in a more contemporary way?
A: The key word is fresh. Look for ways to bring fresh vegetables into your menu. I make something similar to green bean casserole. I use fresh green beans, a wild mushroom sauce and I do French-fried onions on the top — not the canned variety. You can’t have it both ways! A can of fried onions is much easier than frying them up separate, but now I assign someone to make the fried onions because I’ve got other things to do, and he loves to do it.
Q: Do people make the Thanksgiving meal too complicated?
A: This is another huge mistake that I see people make. They don’t play to their strengths. If you don’t know how to bake, Thanksgiving is not the time to learn to bake dinner rolls. It’s just too much pressure. If you can manage a trial run, that’s great. But there are so many great places to buy pre-made foods, dinner rolls, pies. Don’t be ashamed of that.
Another way is to assign food — a potluck, but you have to be very, very specific or you will be surprised. Don’t just say “Bring broccoli.” Say “Bring a broccoli dish that I don’t have to put in the oven for 12 people,” because if everyone brings something that just needs to be warmed up in the oven, you will run out of space. When I’ve been stuck and have no more space in the oven, I use my gas grill. I use indirect heat on medium and use it as another oven. Works great. A slow cooker only works for so many things.
Q: Other advice?
A: Make in advance as many side dishes or components of side dishes that you can. And lists, lists are important. You cannot have too many lists at Thanksgiving time. Prepare to cook with mise-en-place [putting in place]. Measure everything out. I use plastic cups for mise en place bowls because I can wash them or throw them away, depending on my mood because I don’t want any more dirty dishes on Thanksgiving. This way, when you are cooking, you are not looking through your gadget drawers for your spoons or measuring cups or brown sugar. Another thing I’ve learned is to photocopy a recipe. A cookbook takes up a heckuva lot of room on a counter, especially on a holiday. And I tape the recipe at eye level so I have more room in front of me.
Follow Lee Svitak Dean on Twitter: @StribTaste