It has taken me some analysis of classic side dishes — especially the vegetarian ones — to realize why we tend to get so overwhelmed by Thanksgiving meal planning. We have over-complicated our vegetable dishes.
A green bean casserole or even a sweet potato gratin with marshmallows can be fussier than we realize. The heavy ingredients end up competing with the real taste and appearance of the vegetable.
The summer months, with their ever-flowing bounty of produce from my garden, have taught me to keep it simple, flavorful and fresh. This is also my mantra when I plan my Thanksgiving table.
I have wasted no time in playing around with the harvest table to give it my own personal stamp. This is an interactive process with my children, who like that our Thanksgiving table meshes the traditional with elements of Indian cooking, giving the holiday an Indian-American touch.
Spice up simple side dishes with not-so-simple flavors
My Thanksgiving table gets a nice touch of Indian flavor from all the fragrant spices and herbs at my disposal. I have also worked at simplifying dishes to create an assortment of sides that get done without much fuss — but with that nice boost of flavor.
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Whole fragrant spices, such as fennel or cinnamon, tart citrus flavors, and herbs such as sage and cilantro are easy and healthy. They add loads of flavor and pizzazz to that side dish without much effort.
The purpose of the side on the Thanksgiving table is to showcase the bounty of the year — or at least, of the harvest season — and add some flair and color. I try to do that with dishes that don’t take loads of extra time. That can mean a side of serrano-spiked macaroni and cheese, kale livened up with caramelized onions and cumin, roasted beets with a fresh sprinkle of lime and black salt, and variations of sweet potatoes and winter squashes.
Winter squashes and sweet potatoes are not uncommon to Indian (especially Bengali) harvest celebrations, so I feel right at home with them. They also have been created with the perfect color coding for Thanksgiving, when orange, red and golden hues dominate. Those colors balance out the greens on the table, and they are good for you.
The cooking technique that I often favor for Thanksgiving sides is to roast the vegetables, which works very well for the squashes and roots that abound in markets this time of year. You can pop in the vegetables right alongside the turkey. An added plus: Those vegetables can be prepped and assembled ahead of time and then cooked, just in time for dinner.
Simple sides make for a happy cook
Cooking can be enjoyed best when the cook does not get too worn out or overwhelmed in the process.
I am sharing two of my favorite harvest recipes with you here. Both feature minimal prep time and mostly unattended cooking time. Both can be made ahead of time — and reheated to serve on Thanksgiving Day.
The butternut squash recipe uses sage leaves that are still growing or available in abundance in East Coast gardens — including mine — along with a nice bouquet of flavors from panch phoron or the Bengali Five Spice Blend.
The second dish features acorn squash stuffed with finely crumbled tofu, spinach, collard greens, pecans and some coconut milk. It also can be the perfect main dish for someone who is adhering to a vegan or gluten-free diet. I love to make this sometimes with mini-squashes so that everyone can have a personal squash. A dish that does double duty as a centerpiece and meal all at once!
Whole Spice Roasted Butternut Squash With Sage
(Recipe from my cookbook “Spices & Seasons: Simple, Sustainable Indian Flavors.”)
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 45 minutes (mostly unattended)
Yield: Serves 6
1 large butternut squash (about 2 pounds)
2 tablespoons oil
1 teaspoon Bengali Five Spice Blend (panch phoron)
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon ginger paste
Salt to taste (optional, I really do not think that this dish needs it)
1 tablespoon salted butter
15 fresh sage leaves
1. Heat the oven to 375 F.
2. Peel the squash, remove the seeds and cut the squash into 2-inch chunks.
3. Heat the oil in a skillet. Add the Five Spice Blend and when it crackles, mix in the black pepper and ginger paste and mix well. Add the squash and stir well to coat.
4. Place the seasoned squash on a greased baking sheet.
5. Roast the squash in the oven for about 35 minutes. It should be soft and beginning to get flecks of golden brown at spots. Taste to check if it needs any salt.
6. Heat the butter in a small skillet on low heat for about 2 to 3 minutes until it melts and gradually acquires a shade of pale gold. Add the sage leaves and cook until they turn dark and almost crisp.
7. Pour over the squash and mix lightly.
8. Serve on a flat plate to showcase the spices and sage.
Rainbow Stuffed Acorn Squash
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 30 minutes (mostly unattended)
Yield: Serves 4 to 6
4 small acorn squash or other winter squash (use evenly shaped, colorful squash)
2 tablespoons oil
1 medium-sized onion, diced
1 teaspoon grated ginger
3 cups of chopped spinach
1 cup (about 12 ounces) crumbled tofu
1 teaspoon garam masala
1 teaspoon cumin coriander powder
1/2 cup chopped pecans
Salt to taste
1/2 cup coconut milk
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice (about 1 juicy lime)
1/2 cup finely chopped cilantro
2 tablespoons pomegranate seeds
1. Heat the oven to 350 F.
2. Place the squashes in a single layer and bake for 15 minutes. Cool.
3. While the squash is cooking, heat the oil and add in the onion and cook until soft. Add in the ginger and cook for another 2 to 3 minutes. Add in the spinach; cook until just wilted. Add the tofu and mix well.
4. Stir in the garam masala and the cumin-coriander powder with the pecans, salt and coconut milk and mix well. Bring to a simmer.
5. Carefully cut the tops from the squashes using a crisscross motion to follow the grooves of the squash and remove the top.
6. Remove the seeds and scoop out the flesh, leaving the shell intact.
7. Add the flesh to the spinach tofu mixture and mix and mash. Add in the lime juice and cilantro and some of the pomegranate seeds. Turn off the heat.
8. Stuff the prepared filling into the squash shells.
9. This can be served right away or set aside and then heated for 10 minutes in a hot oven before serving.
Main photo: Simplify side dishes on your Thanksgiving table with easy-to-prepare and healthy vegetable dishes like this stuffed acorn squash. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya