Perhaps being a side dish for a Christmas dinner is a lot like being a bridesmaid at a close friend's wedding.
Just as a good bridesmaid tries to look elegant on the day of the big event but stops short of outshining the bride, a holiday-season side dish probably aims to be as delicious and attractive as possible with no plan to out-glisten the turkey, ham, or duck on the table.
Yes, a well-mannered side dish knows it will not be exclaimed over until everyone has gotten done oohing over the beautifully roasted beast on which the host has worked so hard. "That's OK," the side says to itself. "Just wait until they taste me and realize I'm way better than anyone was expecting."
Crowd-pleasing taste is the goal for holiday hosts planning which sides to serve, yet it's often a bit of a tightrope act. Hosts want vegetables that are both traditional enough to keep, possibly, senior guests from fretting, yet different enough to appeal to those with sophisticated tastes.
So get ready for some of this writer's favorite winter-holiday sides.
The first one is a crumb-topped vegetable casserole I've adored ever since I was a teenager, and it's still my go-to favorite when I want to impress someone with mere carrots. It's a cinch to make, it doesn't tie up much oven time, and the subtle horseradish sauce gives the carrots surprising zip.
And it's got a little crunch, too. Crunch is always good in my book.
On top of the taste, Sister Mary's Zesty Carrots is a side dish with local history attached. My parents and I first tasted it at a Shaker dinner served at Hancock Shaker Village Museum in Hancock, Mass. — roughly equidistant from New Lebanon, N.Y., and Pittsfield, Mass. These dinners were held as fundraisers designed to highlight the creative recipes used by Shakers, who once populated Hancock Shaker Village and other settlements in the Northeast.
It was a pleasant drive and a different kind of food experience, so we went to several of these dinners back in the early 1970s — sometimes in the company of friends. My mother and I were so taken by the Shakers' inventive use of herbs (which they'd grown themselves) and emphasis on natural, wholesome ingredients (in perfect keeping with the back-to-the-earth zeitgeist of the '70s), that we bought the cookbook. Literally.
Both of us used "The Best of Shaker Cooking" frequently — either to re-create something we'd tasted at a dinner or to try something that just looked intriguing in print. Eventually, I moved out, borrowed this beloved cookbook from my mother and, gosh golly, somehow never managed to return it. I just figured I'd wait until she asked for it back a few times.
The publication of this 1970 cookbook, written by Amy Bess Miller and Persis Fuller, is still sold in the museum gift shop. According to museum interpreter Kathy Vincent, it was "the first major undertaking as a fundraiser" to support the museum, opened in the 1960s.
Ah, but maybe you're wondering if a sect known for adherence to a communal lifestyle, celibacy and pacifism would have ever had big Christmas dinners.
"Initially, Christmas would have been a day of reflection," says Vincent, who's worked at Hancock Shaker Village since 1994. "Each person would reflect on good deeds, misdeeds and then work to sweep away whatever had led to the misdeeds" he or she had committed that year.
As the 1800s came to a close, though, "they did celebrate Christmas in a more worldly way -- much like our ancestors. We know that by the 1900s they had tables laden with various holiday foods. There might have been decorative garlands on the tables, and there were trees hung with decorations. We have photographs of all this."
So now that we've squared all that away, what else makes a great side dish to consider?
Scalloped potatoes are well-received by both young and old, so consider including them in your holiday spread.
They're better suited to advance preparation than mashed potatoes because their flavor is not adversely affected. Quite the opposite, actually. If baked in a non-metal pan, they are easily popped into a microwave for last-minute re-warming.
The following rendition of scalloped potatoes is especially mouthwatering due to the addition of with Swiss cheese, Parmesan, fresh spinach and mushrooms.
As for the Brussels sprouts recipe you'll find here, here's a little story.
One brutally cold night last winter, my husband and I were having dinner at an upscale Saratoga pub with two young professionals, one of whom is closely related to us. These two twenty-somethings tend to know what they're doing when it comes to culinary matters, so we told them to pick the hot appetizer we'd all share.
When they excitedly chose Maple Bacon Brussels Sprouts ($13 as I recall), I realized that Brussels sprouts have gone hipster. Forget about the days when you had to practically bribe those under 50 to eat this vegetable. This autumn, I noticed, one could scarcely pick up a food/homemaking magazine without seeing a photograph of someone's take on these edible buds, rich in vitamins C and K.
It just goes to show you: Put bacon on any vegetable, and it's a hit. Put maple syrup AND bacon on it, and it's a genuine sensation.
As I was eating those sprouts that night, I was thinking of what a snap this dish would be to make at home. The product of that thought is what I _ tongue in cheek _ like to call On-Trend Brussels Sprouts.
Lastly, we have Rum-Glazed Acorn Squash, which you can make with or without toasted pecans. As is the case with many favorite holiday sides, it's almost a cross between a vegetable and a dessert
Now who's going to argue with that?
Sister Mary's Zesty Carrots
This recipe from "the Best of Shaker Cooking" was a kitchen trademark of one of the many "sisters" who once lived at Hancock Shaker Village.
It could easily be doubled and baked in a 9-by-12-inch ovenproof dish. I've always enjoyed adding some dried dill weed to the horseradish sauce, a variation the Shakers probably would have favored since they produced and sold their own dried dill.
One update for today's cooks: Save time by substituting 1 pound of baby carrots halved lengthwise for the cut-up regular carrots.
2 tablespoons grated onion
2 tablespoons horseradish
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup buttered breadcrumbs (see NOTE)
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Clean and cut carrots into thin strips. Cook until tender in salted water; drain. Place in an 8- or 9-inch-square baking dish. Mix together grated onion, horseradish, mayonnaise, salt, pepper and water. Pour over carrots. Sprinkle with the buttered crumbs.
Bake for about 15 minutes or until crumb topping is golden.
WRITER'S NOTE: To make the buttered breadcrumbs the easy modern way, simply stir 2 teaspoons melted butter into 1/4 cup Italian-style dry breadcrumbs.
On-Trend Brussels Sprouts
6 or 7 slices bacon
2 pounds Brussels sprouts, ends trimmed off, sliced lengthwise
2-1/4 tablespoons olive oil
2-1/2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
2-2/3 tablespoons pure maple syrup
Seasoned salt blend (such as Morton Season-All, Weber Kick'n Chicken or McCormick's Grill Mates Montreal Chicken)
Freshly ground black pepper
Optional for a fancy holiday touch: Chopped roasted chestnuts
Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
In the meantime, rough dice the bacon and cook in a medium pan just until opaque. Drain off fat, reserving it. Set bacon aside.
In a 9-by-12-inch baking dish, mix together the olive oil and 2 to 2-1/4 teaspoons of the reserved bacon fat. Drop the halved Brussels sprouts into the dish and stir to coat evenly with fat.
Place baking dish in oven. Roast sprouts for about 12 minutes, then stir. Roast for 10 minutes more, or until they are tender and nicely browned. (If some leaf tips start to char a bit, don't worry: It won't taste burnt. Just stir more frequently.)
When Brussels sprouts are almost done, combine maple syrup and mustard. Spoon mixture evenly over sprouts, then season to taste with preferred seasoning blend and black pepper. Stir. Return baking dish to oven for a few minutes.
Just before the sprouts are fully colored to your liking, scatter the bacon pieces on top and, if desired, roasted chestnuts. Return to oven for a minute or so, watching carefully so bacon doesn't over-crisp. Makes 6 or 7 portions.
Sophisticated Swiss Scalloped Potatoes
5 or 6 red potatoes (about 2-1/4 pounds)
1 tablespoon butter
1/2 to 3/4 pound sliced mushrooms
1 medium onion, chopped
1/3 teaspoon garlic powder
1/3 cup flour
1 cup chicken broth
1/3 cup milk or half-and-half
1-1/4 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1/2 teaspoon dried Italian herb blend
1 tablespoon fresh snipped chive (or 1 teaspoon dried)
1 cup sour cream
1 cup torn fresh spinach leaves
2 cups shredded Swiss cheese
1/4 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Use a sharp knife to trim out any undesired rough spots from the potato skins. Leaving some of the skin on, cut the potatoes into thin slices. Place potatoes in a large pot; cover with water. Bring to a boil.
Let cook for about 10 to 12 minutes, or just until slices are tender. Drain immediately.
In a saucepan over medium-high heat, heat butter. Saute mushrooms and onion, stirring, for 6 to 8 minutes or until tender. Set aside.
In a bowl, whisk together garlic powder, flour, broth, milk and seasonings until smooth. Stir into mushroom mixture.
Bring mixture to a boil, stirring constantly. Stirring, let cook for 1 minute or so until thickened.
Remove from heat; stir in sour cream.
Arrange 1/2 of the potato slices in a greased, large rectangular baking dish. Top evenly with spinach. Spread 1/2 of the mushroom mixture over the top; sprinkle with 1 cup of Swiss cheese.
Repeat layering with remaining potatoes, sauce and Swiss cheese. Scatter Parmesan evenly over top.
Bake, uncovered, for 18 minutes or until heated through and cheeses are melted. If necessary, tent loosely with foil if cheese starts browning too fast.
Let stand for 10 minutes before serving. Eight to 10 portions.
Rum-Glazed Acorn Squash
Adapted from "The Joy of Christmas" by Helen Feingold and Mary Lee Grisandi (Barron's Educational Series).
3 acorn squashes, cut in half
1/2 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
1/2 cup dark rum
6 tablespoons butter
Optional: 1/2 cup pecan pieces, lightly oven-toasted
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Scoop seeds from squash halves. Place each cut side down on a greased shallow baking pan. Bake for 45 minutes.
Remove squash halves from oven and turn right side up.
Mix brown sugar and rum. Spoon mixture into squash cavities, adding 1 tablespoon butter to each. Return to oven and bake for another 15 minutes or until squash is easily pierced.
If desired, toss equal amounts of pecan pieces into each squash half during the last minute in the oven. Serves 6.