At the Thanksgiving table, the turkey is sacred. The stuffing is imperative, the gravy essential and the mashed potatoes a lumpy rite of passage.
But when it comes to any other side dishes, the cook is free to play. As long as it tastes good, is made of vegetables and fits on the table, pretty much anything can find a place at the feast.
In my mind, the most important considerations for Thanksgiving side dishes are practical ones. Since the rest of the day is one long marathon of turkey minding, pie tending and relative wrangling, I like to make something way in advance, or right at the last minute as the turkey rests. In either case, simplicity is everything, and using big, assertive seasonings to highlight one easy-to-maneuver vegetable gets you most of the way there.
[See how our columnist approaches Thanksgiving, at Melissa Clark’s Thanksgiving.]
Case in point: Cauliflower, which is a breeze to cut up and doesn’t shrink down to oblivion when you cook it, is a lot faster to deal with than, say, Swiss chard or kale with their fiddly stems, or mushrooms and spinach with their high moisture content.
In this recipe for a garlicky, crunchy, marinated salad filled with lemon and spices, you don’t even need to cook the cauliflower. It can be prepared entirely in advance, and gets better as it bathes in its pungent dressing. Better yet, cauliflower comes in a brilliant array of autumnal colors, making it a festive addition to the table — a bit like those ubiquitous decorative gourds, but tasty.
You can also substitute broccoli for the cauliflower. It doesn’t come in a rainbow of hues, but given the brown and beige monotony of most Thanksgiving tables, its emerald vibrancy will perk things up.
Another strategy is quick high-heat roasting, which you can do when the oven frees up, during the 30 or so minutes the turkey rests.
The key here is to prep all your vegetables in advance, so all you have to do is pop the pan into the oven when the bird comes out. You can do this with practically any vegetable, even the dense ones. Just remember: The smaller you cut the pieces, the faster they will cook (I’m looking at you, winter squash). I particularly like a combination of thinly sliced brussels sprouts and shallots, which roast quickly and get crisp at the edges. But if time is an issue, the slicing attachment of the food processor can be of help and you can slice the sprouts the day before.