Put away the Halloween costumes, take down the spider webs, and let’s welcome back Virginia Willis and her delicious southern twist on seasonal eats! – Ty
Thanks for the Sides
The turkey may be the centerpiece, but for me, the sides are the best part about a Thanksgiving feast. Each family member has that one side dish that is their favorite. For some, the entire holiday is in danger of ruin if the sweet potatoes are topped with something other than toasty brown marshmallows or the squash casserole is missing from the table.
Traditions Are Cherished
I learned the hard way that side dishes can be added, but nothing can be removed from the menu. As a chef, and unofficial person in charge of the of the Thanksgiving meal, I have tried to branch out a bit. This doesn’t mean I’ve been successful. An attempt to put panko breadcrumbs on the squash casserole deemed me an enemy of the state.
Without fail, I have enjoyed some form of cooked winter greens at every Thanksgiving meal for my entire life. My grandmother, whom I called Meme, cooked them for hours until they were meltingly soft. They were indeed appropriate as pabulum for an infant. During the fall, I generally like them to have a bit more toothsomeness, but for Thanksgiving, I cook them just like Meme did, for hours and hours. The potlikker is perfect for sipping and enjoying with a wedge of cornmeal. In late November, just as the fields have been kissed with a touch of frost, marks the beginning of their peak. Meme said it is the frost that brings out the sweetness in the bitter collard, kale, or mustard greens. The epitome of eating local and in season.
Here are a few of my favorite side dishes for your fall and Thanksgiving menus.
Butternut Squash Gratin with Herb & Georgia Pecan Crumble
Serves 4 to 6
Sweet, nutty butternut squash is one of fall’s most delicious vegetables and pairs wonderfully with pecans, one of fall’s most delicious nuts! If you want to take a serious shortcut for this dish you can substitute one 29 oz can of pumpkin puree. The Herb Pecan Topping tastes equally great with both.
Ingredients For the Squash
- 1 tablespoon olive oil, more for the baking dish
- 1 shallot, finely chopped
- 3 pounds butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
- 1 teaspoon firmly packed dark brown sugar
- Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
- 2 1/2 cups homemade chicken stock or low-fat reduced-sodium chicken broth
- Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Ingredients For the Topping
- 1/2 cup coarsely chopped pecans + ¼ cup tablespoons whole pecans
- 1/2 cup unbleached all-purpose flour, more for your hands
- 2 tablespoons freshly grated parmesan
- 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 3 tablespoons low-fat milk
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage
To cook the squash: In a large saucepan, heat the oil over medium-low heat. Add the shallot and cook until translucent, about 3 minutes.
Add the squash cubes, brown sugar, and nutmeg. Add chicken stock and season with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil over high heat then reduce the heat to simmer. Cover and simmer until the squash is tender, about 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, brush a 1-quart shallow baking dish with oil. Set aside. When the squash is almost tender, prepare the herb-crumble topping: In a small bowl combine the chopped and whole pecans, flour, parmesan, baking powder, salt, and pepper. Stir to combine. Add the milk, oil, and sage. Stir until well combined. Set aside.
Heat the oven to 350°F. Drain the squash and return it to the saucepan. Smash the squash with a potato masher until chunky. Season with salt and pepper.
Transfer the squash to the prepared baking dish. Lightly flour your hands and crumble the topping in small cherry size pieces on top of the squash. Transfer to the oven and bake until golden brown, about 30 minutes. Serve immediately.
Smoky Collard Greens
Serves 4 to 6
You simply won’t believe your mouth when you taste these greens. They smell like bacon and taste a lot like bacon, but there is no bacon. The flavor comes from smoked salt. In its pure state, salt is a simple chemical compound, sodium chloride. There are many types of salt from all over the world that contain different elements and minerals. But things get really “fired up” when salt is smoked. The smoke permeates the salt crystals, infusing them with a rich, distinct smoked taste, and transforms their color from a light toasty brown to deep amber. This ingredient adds a unique flavor to a wide range of dishes, including beef, pork, duck, chicken, and fish. I use it most often in Southern-style vegetables, to replicate that smoky taste evocative of hog jowl or bacon without the fat, and it is great for vegetarians.
- 2 tablespoons canola oil
- 1 onion, preferably Vidalia, chopped
- 1 clove garlic, finely chopped
- 1 medium bunch collard greens (about 11/2 pounds), cleaned tough stems removed and discarded, and leaves very thinly sliced in chiffonade
- 4 cups water
- 1 tablespoon Smoked Salt
- 2 teaspoons apple cider vinegar
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Hot Pepper Vinegar, for accompaniment
Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onion and saute until soft and translucent, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, 45 to 60 seconds. Add the greens, water, smoked salt, and apple cider vinegar. Season the mixture with pepper. Increase the heat to medium-high and bring to a boil. Decrease the heat to medium-low, cover, and cook until the greens are tender, 20 to 25 minutes. Taste and adjust for seasoning with smoked salt and pepper. Serve immediately with the hot pepper vinegar on the side.
photo by Ellen Silverman
Bourbon Sweet Potatoes
Serves 4 to 6
Only a Southerner and inheritor of the infamous Southern sweet tooth, would add massive quantities of butter and sugar to a dish and still regard it as a vegetable. Add a shot of bourbon? No problem.
- 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, plus more for the baking dish
- 4 to 6 sweet potatoes, peeled and sliced about 1/2 inch thick
- Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
- 1/2 cup bourbon
- 2 tablespoons sorghum, cane, or maple syrup
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter an ovenproof gratin or casserole dish. Arrange the sweet potato slices in the prepared dish and season with salt and pepper.
In a large saucepan, combine the sugar, 4 tablespoons butter, bourbon, and syrup and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. As soon as the sauce is boiling, pour it over the sweet potatoes. Bake the casserole, basting and turning the potatoes occasionally, until the sweet potatoes are soft and tender, 45 to 60 minutes. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper.
Old-Fashioned Macaroni and Cheese
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- 2 cups elbow macaroni
- 2 cups two percent or whole milk
- 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
- 8 ounces extra-sharp Cheddar cheese, cut into 1/4-inch cubes (about 2 cups)
- Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter an ovenproof casserole dish. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook until tender (a little more than al dente), about 12 minutes. Drain well in a colander.
In a large bowl, combine the drained macaroni, milk, eggs, and cheese. Season with salt and pepper. Transfer to the prepared dish. Bake until golden brown and bubbly, 25 to 30 minutes, or longer if you like a dark, chewy, cheesy topping. Transfer to a rack to cool slightly before serving.
Makes about 28
When yeast begins to ferment and grow, it converts its food to alcohol and carbon dioxide. The gluten sheets that form when water is stirred into flour trap the carbon dioxide and allow the dough to rise.
- 3 packages (63/4 teaspoons) active dry yeast
- 1/2 cup warm water (100° to 110°F)
- 2 cups hot water
- 1 cup dry milk
- 1 cup sugar
- 1/2 cup corn oil, more for brushing
- 4 large eggs, lightly beaten
- 4 teaspoons fine sea salt
- 9 to 10 cups all-purpose flour
To activate the yeast, combine the yeast and warm water in a large bowl. Set aside to proof. The mixture will become creamy and foamy after about 5 minutes.
To make the dough, combine the hot water and dry milk in a liquid measuring cup; let cool slightly. Add the reconstituted milk to the yeast. Stir to combine. Add the sugar, the 1/2 cup of oil, eggs, salt, and 4 cups of the flour. With a wooden spoon, hand-held electric mixer, or large heavy-duty mixer fitted with the dough hook at medium speed, beat very hard until smooth, 3 to 5 minutes. Gradually add additional flour, 1 cup at a time, beating hard after each addition. When the dough is too firm to stir, using your hand, work enough of the remaining flour into the dough by kneading and turning the dough until it becomes smooth and elastic.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Knead, using the heel of your hand to compress and push the dough away from you, then fold it back over itself. Give the dough a small turn and repeat. (The dough is ready if it bounces back when pressed with your fingers.) Return the dough to the bowl.
Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a dry towel and place in a warm, draft-free spot to rise until doubled in size, about 2 hours.
Lightly grease a baking sheet. Punch down the dough with your hands, then turn out onto a lightly floured surface. Flour your hands and pull off equal pieces of dough about the size of apricots and shape into balls. (If you are using a scale, 3-ounce portions will make 28 large rolls.) Place them on the prepared baking sheet about 1/4 inch apart. Brush off any excess flour from the rolls and brush their surfaces with oil. Cover and let rise again in a warm place until doubled in bulk, 1 to 11/2 hours.
Preheat the oven to 375°F. Bake until brown, 12 to 15 minutes. Transfer to a rack to cool slightly, then invert the rolls onto a rack so they won’t become soggy on the bottom. Enjoy!
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Virginia Willis Culinary Enterprises, Inc ©
original content posted in November 2013; updated November 2018