We put the Thanksgiving dinner on a pedestal, as we should. Big or small, with or without the bird, this gathering around the table takes on a life of its own at the close of the harvest, whether for its menus or memories. There’s no doubt it’s a celebration of the season — that’s why so many root vegetables appear on the table — but it’s also a celebration of each other, whether family, friend or someone new who has joined the hungry crowd. There are those who focus their attention on the turkey, which is understandable given its size. But the side dishes — mostly earthy fare this time of year — are what spark my interest as both cook and diner. The family favorites may warm my heart, but the surprises on the table — those twists on tradition — tempt and intrigue me. Candied sweet potatoes or those stuffed with bacon, butter and sage? Steamed florets or broccoli draped in pimiento cheese? Carrot sticks or roasted roots tossed with wheat berries and dill? Such are the dilemmas of the curious cook. And the delight of our ravenous companions. Let’s eat.

 

Baked Japanese Sweet Potatoes With Fried Sage and Bacon

Serves 6.

Note: Find these varieties of sweet potatoes at food co-ops. They are creamier than the regular potatoes. Or substitute small garnet yams. These are cooked atop mounds of kosher salt, which helps conduct the heat and also keeps them from flattening, which causes the juices to run out. These can be baked up to several hours in advance. From “Mozza at Home,” by Nancy Silverton.

• 4 thick-cut applewood-smoked bacon slices (about 3 oz.)

• 6 medium yellow-fleshed sweet potatoes or purple yams (see Note)

• 1 tbsp. plus 1 tsp. olive oil, plus more for frying the sage leaves

• 1 1/2 c. plus 1 tbsp. plus 2 1/2 tsp. kosher salt (see Note), divided

• 1/2 c. fresh sage leaves

• 6 tbsp. (3/4 stick) unsalted butter

• Wedge of Parmigiano-Reggiano for grating

Directions

Adjust an oven rack to middle position and preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Lay bacon on baking sheet and bake until cooked all the way through but not crisp, 15 to 17 minutes, rotating the baking sheet from front to back halfway through the cooking time so the bacon cooks evenly. Remove bacon from oven and transfer to a stack of paper towels to drain and cool to room temperature. Slice bacon into 1/4-inch-wide threads on an extreme bias, and set aside.

Put sweet potatoes or yams in large bowl, drizzle with olive oil and rub oil to coat them. Pour 6 (1/4-cup) mounds of salt on a baking sheet, leaving at least 6 inches between each, and nestle 1 sweet potato or yam on each mound. Sprinkle 1/2 teaspoon salt over each of the potatoes or yams.

Bake for 1 hour to 1 hour 15 minutes, until tender when pierced with toothpick. Depending on size and shape, some may be done sooner than others; remove each from the oven as it’s done. Set aside until cool enough to touch. They can be baked up to several hours in advance. Store them, uncovered, at room temperature. Before serving, warm them in a 350-degree oven enough so that butter melts on them.

Meanwhile, to fry sage: Fill pot 3 to 4 inches deep with olive oil. Heat oil over medium-high heat until thermometer registers 350 degrees, or until sage leaf sizzles immediately when dropped into pot.

Add half the sage leaves to the pot. Fry sage for about 30 seconds, until crispy but not brown. Lift sage out with slotted spoon and transfer to paper towels to drain; sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon of remaining salt. Repeat with remaining sage leaves. Turn off heat and let oil cool. Transfer oil to covered container and reserve to cook with.

Remove sweet potatoes or yams from baking sheet, tap and wipe them to remove salt, and put them on cutting board. Cut a 1-inch-deep slit toward each other to push insides up out of skins. Sprinkle 1/4 teaspoon salt on each. Put 1 tablespoon butter on each. Finely grate a generous layer of Parmigiano over each potato. Sprinkle bacon slices and scatter fried sage leaves over potatoes.

 

Broccoli With Pimiento Cheese Sauce

Serves 6 to 8.

Note: From “The Southern Vegetable Book,” by Rebecca Lang.

• 2 lb. fresh broccoli, cut into spears

• Pimiento Cheese Sauce (see recipe)

• 1 c. soft white breadcrumbs

• 2 tbsp. butter, melted

• 1/3 c. shredded Parmesan cheese

Directions

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Arrange broccoli in steamer basket over boiling water. Cover and steam 5 minutes or just until crisp-tender.

Arrange broccoli in a lightly greased 7- by 11-inch baking dish. Pour Pimiento Cheese Sauce over broccoli.

Combine breadcrumbs, melted butter and cheese; sprinkle evenly over cheese sauce.

Bake for 20 minutes, or until thoroughly heated.

Pimiento Cheese Sauce

Makes 3 1/2 cups.

Note: From “The Southern Vegetable Book,” by Rebecca Lang.

• 1/4 c. butter

• 1/4 c. flour

• 2 c. milk

• 1/4 tsp. salt

• 1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce

• 2 c. (8 oz.) shredded sharp Cheddar cheese

• 1 (4-oz.) jar diced pimiento, drained

Directions

Melt butter in heavy saucepan over medium heat; add flour, stirring until smooth. Cook, stirring constantly, 1 minute.

Add milk gradually; cook, stirring constantly, until mixture is thickened and bubbly. Stir in salt, Worcestershire, cheese and pimiento.

Roasted Carrot and Wheat Berry Salad With Dill

Serves 6 to 8.

Note: From “Mozza at Home,” by Nancy Silverton.

• 2 tbsp. kosher salt, divided

• 1/2 c. wheat berries (or farro, barley, rye berries, freekeh, or spelt), soaked overnight and drained

• 3 tbsp. plus 2 tsp. extra-virgin olive oil, divided

• 3 lb. slender carrots (3 to 4 bunches, weighed with tops)

• 10 to 12 medium or large garlic cloves, peeled

• 10 fresh thyme sprigs

• 1/4 c. chopped fresh dill sprigs, plus a few sprigs for garnish

• Finishing-quality extra-virgin olive oil

• Maldon sea salt (or another flaky sea salt such as fleur de sel)

Directions

Bring 1 quart water to boil in a medium saucepan over high heat. Add 1 tablespoon kosher salt and the wheat berries and return the water to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until wheat berries are al dente, 30 to 50 minutes. (Cooking time varies greatly depending on freshness of grains.) Drain wheat berries in colander and transfer to a small bowl. Drizzle with 2 teaspoons olive oil and toss gently to coat the grains. Set aside to cool to room temperature.

Place oven rack nearest to the oven floor; put a pizza stone on it, if you have one. Preheat oven to 500 degrees.

Scrub carrots and cut off greens, leaving last 3/4 inch of stems attached. Cut carrots in half lengthwise (quarter them if you’re using larger carrots) and put in a large bowl. Drizzle with remaining 3 tablespoons oil, sprinkle with remaining 1 tablespoon kosher salt, and toss to coat them.

Lay carrots, cut side down, on baking sheet. Toss garlic and thyme in bowl you tossed the carrots in and coat them with oil that’s left in bowl. Scatter garlic cloves and thyme sprigs around carrots, taking care that the garlic has as little contact with tray as possible so it doesn’t burn.

Put baking sheet in oven and roast carrots and garlic until carrots are fork-tender but not mushy, 10 to 15 minutes, shaking baking sheet and rotating it front to back halfway through cooking time so carrots and garlic brown evenly. Remove baking sheet from oven and set aside to cool to room temperature. (Be careful when you open oven door, as there will be steam from the vegetables.)

Remove and discard thyme sprigs and transfer carrots and garlic to a large bowl. Add chopped dill and toss gently to distribute evenly. Add half the wheat berries and toss again gently to distribute them.

To serve, spoon remaining wheat berries on bottom of large platter. Lift carrots with wheat berries out of bowl and lay on platter over bed of wheat berries. Scatter dill sprigs on top, drizzle with finishing-quality olive oil, sprinkle with sea salt and serve.

Cheesy Potato Gratin With Rosemary

Serves 6.

Note: From the very new “Smashed, Mashed, Boiled and Baked,” by Raghavan Iyer of Minneapolis.

• 8 tbsp. (1 stick) salted butter, chilled

• 2 lb. potatoes (mix of russets, purple and red)

• 1 1/4 c. heavy whipping cream

• 1/4 c. finely chopped fresh rosemary leaves

• 2 tbsp. finely chopped fresh thyme leaves

• 1 tsp. coarsely cracked black peppercorns

• 1/2 tsp. coarse sea or kosher salt

• 2 c. shredded cheese (such as Gruyère, mozzarella, sharp Cheddar, Havarti or a blend)

Directions

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Grease inside of 10 1/2-inch cast-iron skillet or a round 10- by 2-inch baking dish with a little of the butter. Slice remaining butter into small pieces and keep butter chilled as you prepare the gratin.

Fill a large bowl with cold water. Lay out a clean cotton kitchen towel or several layers of paper towels on counter for drying the potatoes. Scrub and rinse the potatoes well under cold running water. Slice them lengthwise with a chef’s knife or mandoline into long planks, about 1/8 inch thick. Submerge them in bowl of water to prevent them from discoloring.

Bring cream, rosemary and thyme to a simmer in small saucepan over medium heat. Once cream is hot, after 2 to 3 minutes, remove from the heat.

Drain potatoes in colander and give colander a good shake or two to rid potatoes of excess water. (You don’t want to dilute the cream later.) Spread the potatoes on the kitchen towel and dry them well.

Arrange a layer using one-quarter of the potato planks to cover the bottom of the prepared pan, slightly overlapping them. Sprinkle potatoes with one-quarter each of peppercorns and salt.

Pour one-third of herbed cream over this. Sprinkle one-third of shredded cheese over cream. Repeat with another layer of potatoes, peppercorns, salt and half the remaining cream and cheese.

Top with a third layer of potatoes, peppercorns, salt, the remaining cream and final portion of cheese. Arrange remaining potato slices on top of this and sprinkle remaining peppercorns and salt over them. Scatter butter pieces on top and cover the pan with aluminum foil.

Place pan on baking sheet and bake until sauce is bubbly and the interior potatoes are tender when you pierce layers with a fork, about 1 hour.

Allow gratin to cool a bit before you slice it and serve. It can be cut into wedges, like pizza slices.