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The Front Burner

Rooting for creative side dishes with carbs on Thanksgiving

By Donna Ellis

November 15, 2012

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For many of us, cranking out Thanksgiving dinner is like being the chef at a restaurant whose menu never, ever changes. And that's fine, we guess. But sometimes the family cook dreams of shaking things up a bit. Of course, the turkey is – you should pardon the expression – the sacred cow. It ill behooves you to mess with it. Oh, you may have tried deep-frying it, or brining it, but you were probably roundly scolded for trying to "sabotage" your family.

If menu-malaise has set in after all these years, though, consider doing something creative with the side dishes this year. After all, candying yams can get boring after decades of fixing them. And mashed potatoes – yawn -- especially if you're fixing them for people who pretty much ignore them anyway – unless you have gallons of gravy available.

So, this year, how 'bout updating tradition by whipping up at least one "new" side dish? Do something a little more interesting (if only to you) with the basic ingredients – namely the carbs you're expected to provide as foils for the turkey, stuffing (also a carb) and gravy. Which exercise just happens to be our topic du jour.

We begin…

Sweet potato puree

This dish combines traditional yams/sweet potatoes (let's not have that discussion) with parsnips (to celebrate the cool weather harvest season) in an easy-to-eat medley. Interestingly, it comes off nicely sweet, without the cloying taste of maple syrup and/or marshmallows.

4 medium-size sweet potatoes, peeled, cut into half-inch pieces

8 parsnips, peeled, sliced one-fourth inch thick

6 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/2 cup whole milk

1/3 cup packed light brown sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt, if you must

About 1/2 teaspoon coarse black pepper.

In a large saucepan, bring some lightly salted water to a boil. Add potatoes and parsnips and boil gently until tender, about 14 minutes. Drain well, cool somewhat, and transfer to a food processor, in batches if need be. Add butter and puree until smooth. Add milks, brown sugar and salt, if using. Blend well. Add pepper and blend again. Makes about 8 servings.

Skillet turnips

When mom served turnips (usually in a boiled dinner), every bite made us young'uns shudder. Some of us have done a 180 on that reaction, and actually have grown quite fond of them. This simple preparation can have the same effect on your brood.

4 pounds small to medium size (2-inch) turnips, peeled, halved horizontally, then the halves quartered

About 3 and 1/4 cups water, divided

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided

2 tablespoons sugar. divided

1 teaspoon salt, divided

1/2 teaspoon coarse black pepper, divided

6 tablespoons water, divided

Chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley, garnish

In each of two large, heavy skillets, arrange half of the turnips in one layer. Add 1 and 1/2 cups water to each skillet (enough to reach half-way up the turnips). Divide butter, sugar, salt and pepper between skillets. Cover and cook over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes. Uncover skillets and boil turnips until tender and water has evaporated, about 8 minutes. Now, sauté turnips, stirring, until golden brown, about 5 minutes more. Add 3 tablespoons water to each skillet, then stir turnips to coat with "glaze."

To serve, remove turnips to a large, heated bowl or platter and sprinkle with parsley. Makes 8 servings.

Squash 'n apple medley

Here's a shocking thought. What with the apples in this dish, and all, it might just take the place of cranberry sauce, for a bit of sweet to off-set the (once) gamey flavor of the turkey. Pre-peeled and cut butternut squash make this exercise easy.

About 2 and 1/4 pounds peeled, seeded butternut squash, in uniform bite-size pieces

3 medium apples (we like Gala), peeled, cored, cut into 1-inch cubes

2 medium red onions, cut lengthwise into 1/3 inch julienne

Extra-virgin olive oil

Pepper and salt (if using)

Glaze:

1/3 cup raw sugar

1/4 cup balsamic vinegar

1/4 cup reduced-sodium soy sauce

1 and 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, chilled, cut into 1-inch chunks

3 tablespoons chopped, fresh tarragon

3 tablespoons chopped, fresh flat-leaf parsley, garnish

For the squash mixture, heat oven to 425 degrees. Toss squash, apples and onions with olive oil to coat lightly. Season with pepper, and salt. Arrange squash mixture in a shallow baking pan. Roast until slightly golden and tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Stir once.

For the glaze, in a small saucepan, over medium heat, combine sugar, vinegar and soy sauce and bring to a simmer. Simmer about 5 minutes, until liquids are reduced by about one-third. Add butter to liquid, a piece or two at a time, whisking occasionally. Taste for salt and pepper. Add tarragon.

To serve, when squash-apple mixture is done, remove to a large, heated bowl. Add glaze and toss gently to coat. Garnish with parsley. Makes 8 servings.

Rutabagas, plus

Here's another side dish that combines a seasonal root vegetable with a seasonal fruit. Try it; everyone will like it. (Well, most everyone.)

P.S. In case you're wondering, rutabagas are a hybrid of parsnips and kale. (Go figure.)

4 pounds rutabagas, peeled, cut into 1-inch cubes

Vegetable oil spray

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1 tablespoon peeled, fresh ginger

1 and 1/2 teaspoons sugar

4 d'Anjou pears

1/3 cup heavy (whipping) cream

5 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme

Sea salt

In a pot of boiling, lightly salted water, cook rutabagas until tender, about 35 minutes.

For the pears, heat oven to 400 degrees. Peel, core and cut 3 of the pears into three-fourths inch cubes. Leave the peel on the fourth pear, slice it in half lengthwise and remove core, then slice pear into small wedges (about 1/3 inch wide); this will be reserved for garnish..

Spray-coat a large baking sheet. In a bowl, combine oil, lemon juice, ginger and sugar. Add pears and toss to coat, Arrange pears on prepared baking sheet and roast until tender, turning every 10 minutes, for about 35 minutes total.

To finish, drain rutabagas, then return to the same pot and mash to a coarse puree. Stir over medium heat until excess moisture evaporates, about 5 minutes. Add whipping cream, butter and thyme. Mix in the 3 roasted, cubed pears and any juices from baking sheet. Taste for salt and pepper. Remove to a large heated bowl and garnish with the roasted pear wedges. Makes 8 servings.

This makes 'em sit up and take notice. We combine baking potatoes with root vegetables to create savory pancakes that are yummy on their own, but you can always use a bit of your turkey gravy drizzled over them.

The latkes can be made ahead and re-heated gently for about 5 minutes. (Even if you're letting the turkey rest a while before you carve it (and you should), there'll probably be enough heat left in the oven to re-warm the latkes.

5 cups shredded baking potato (about 2 large), no need to peel, just scrub

2 and 1/2 cups shredded parsnips

2 and 1/2 cups shredded (peeled) sweet potatoes

1 teaspoon salt

2 cups chopped onion

1/2 cup flour

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

4 large egg whites, beaten

About 1/3 cup (6 tablespoons) peanut oil, for frying

In a colander lined with paper towels, combine baking potatoes, parsnips, sweet potatoes and salt. Let stand 20 minutes. Drain and squeeze excess moisture from potato mixture. Squeeze again, using more paper towels if need be. In a large bowl, combine potato mixture with onions, flour, pepper and egg whites.

In a large, nonstick skillet, over medium-high, heat about 2 tablespoons of the oil. Spoon about 1/3 cup batter for each of 4 latkes into pan. Cook 4 minutes on each side, until nicely browned. Remove to paper towel-lined baking sheet to drain. Repeat procedure with remaining batter, adding more oil as needed. When ready to serve, arrange on a pretty platter. Makes about 16 ( 2 latkes per serving). Serves 8.