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Tried-and-True Traditional Thanksgiving Side Dishes

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. Tantalizing odors oozing from the kitchen. The laughter and gentle buzz of family gathered around the dinner table. It is a meal I prepare with loving care. Thanksgiving is not only a time to gather and give thanks but a time to enjoy traditional foods that span generations.   

Although turkey is the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving meal, the sides are equally important—fluffy mashed potatoes, rich, thick gravy, and caramelized sweet potatoes. The following are my family’s favorite recipes for traditional sides.

I spice up my mashed potatoes with jalapeños, green onions, and cheddar cheese. They are to die for! My mother taught me to save the water used to boil potatoes for making gravy. It adds flavor and gives gravy a nice consistency.

My mother never wasted anything—she cooked the turkey giblets, diced them, and added them to her gravy. She saved the giblet water as well to add more flavor to her gravy. Reserved potato and giblet water are the Steele family secret ingredients in gravy. Making gravy can be a bit tricky; and, sometimes, it comes out either too thick or too thin. I’ve included Mom’s tips for fixing gravy when it isn’t the consistency you want.

My family has been eating candied yams for as long as I can remember. As a young girl, I got my start in the kitchen basting yams as the women in the family fluttered about taking care of all the last minute preparations a holiday meal requires.

There are several last minute steps to perfecting these side dishes, so I’ve included hints on delegating tasks to the entire family. Everyone gets to contribute to the meal’s preparation.

Garlic Mashed Potatoes with Jalapeños and Cheddar Cheese

Serves 8 to 10

While some cookbooks recommend using a potato ricer for a smooth purée, I like a few lumps in my mashed potatoes. In my opinion, food processors or mixers only beat potatoes into tasteless submission.  I much prefer the wooden spoon method. My grandmother Gladys always said the secret ingredient in mashed potatoes is elbow grease. The longer and harder you beat potatoes by hand, the fluffier and smoother the results. Mashing potatoes is the perfect job for teenage boys. They love showing off their muscles by giving the potatoes a good whipping. 

3 pounds russet potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks (or leave the skins on)
Dash salt
2 tablespoons canola oil
6 teaspoons minced garlic
1 cup green onions, thinly sliced
1 to 2 jalapeño peppers, stemmed, seeded, and minced
1 cup half-and-half
4 tablespoons butter
1 cup grated Cheddar cheese
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon large grind black pepper

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. In a heavy saucepan, place potatoes and salt with just enough water to cover. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer until tender, about 20 to 30 minutes.

While potatoes are cooking, in a medium-sized skillet, heat canola oil over medium-low heat. Add garlic and green onions and sauté for 5 minutes. Stir in jalapeño peppers and sauté for another 3 minutes. Remove from the heat, cover to keep warm, and set aside.

To test potatoes, pierce with a fork. Potatoes should be soft when ready to mash. Drain, reserving potato water for making gravy. Return potatoes to the saucepan and mash with a potato masher. Add half-and-half and butter and beat constantly with a wooden spoon until potatoes are light and fluffy. Add the garlic mixture to mashed potatoes. Blend well. Add Cheddar cheese, salt, and pepper and blend thoroughly until cheese melts. If mixture seems dry, add a bit more half-and-half. Transfer to a large ceramic ovenproof baking dish. Bake until hot, about 15 minutes. 

Tip for keeping mashed potatoes warm:  It’s best to serve mashed potatoes right away. To keep mashed potatoes warm on holidays when there are lots of last minute preparations, I put mine into my slow cooker on low for no more than 30 minutes rather than baking them in the oven.  

Tips on shopping for potatoes: Select firm, smooth, clean potatoes that have few eyes and good color. Potatoes should be blemish-free. Russets should have a net-like textured skin, oval shape, and brown color. Irregular-shaped potatoes produce more waste when peeling. Do not buy potatoes with wrinkled or wilted skin, sprouts, or cut surfaces. Avoid potatoes with soft, dark spots.

Tips on storing potatoes: Potatoes will keep up to 2 weeks when stored in a cool, dark, well-ventilated place. Prolonged exposure to light will turn potatoes green. Green potatoes contain solanine, which has a bitter flavor and can be toxic if eaten in large quantities. When stored at temperatures below 40 degrees F, potatoes become sweeter.

Pauline’s Old-Fashioned Giblet Gravy
    Makes about 3 cups

Thanksgiving never seems the same to me if my mother’s recipe for gravy is not on the table. Gravy can be tricky to prepare. It takes a lot of tender loving care. I always give gravy duty to the most senior cook in the family. She/he has the patience and experience to produce perfect gravy. 

To prepare giblets:

4 cups water
Giblets from turkey cavity—heart, liver, gizzard, and neck
1 stalk celery, cut in half
1 carrot, chopped
1 small onion, chopped
1 tablespoon fresh parsley, diced

In a large kettle, place water, giblets, celery, carrot, onion, and parsley over a medium-high heat. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low, and simmer 1 hour. Remove the kettle from the heat, remove giblets and set aside, discarding vegetables. Reserve broth for making gravy. Pick meat from neck and finely chop all giblets and neck meat. Place in a covered container and refrigerate until time to make gravy.

For the gravy:

Pan drippings
Reserved giblet stock
3 tablespoons flour
Reserved potato water
Chopped giblets and neck meat
Salt to taste
Large grind black pepper to taste

When turkey is done, remove both turkey and the rack (if you use one) from the roasting pan. Transfer turkey to a serving platter or cutting board that has a lip. Let turkey rest 15 minutes before carving. Use the same pan as you used to roast your turkey. Skim excess fat from juices. Place the pan over 2 burners on the stovetop over a medium-high heat.

Add 1 ½ cups reserved giblet stock and bring to a boil. Using a wooden spoon, scrape drippings and crunchy bits from the sides and bottom of the roasting pan. These bits give gravy its flavor. Place flour in a glass jar that has a tight fitting lid.  Make a slurry by adding 1 cup warm reserved potato water to jar, close tightly, and shake until flour is well combined. Pour slurry slowly into the roasting pan, stirring to combine. If gravy thickens before all slurry is added, do not add more.

Cook over medium-high heat, stirring constantly, until flour is cooked through, about 4 minutes. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally to thicken, about 10 to 15 minutes. Add giblets and heat through. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Tips on troubleshooting gravy: If lumps develop, use a wire whisk to remove them. If this doesn’t work, strain the gravy through a fine sieve. If the gravy is too thin, simmer it over medium-high heat until it thickens to a good consistency or make a paste of equal parts flour and cold water and add it a little at a time until the gravy is the right thickness.  If the gravy is too thick, add reserved giblet stock or milk a little at a time and whisk until it reaches the desired consistency.

Old-Fashioned Candied Yams

Serves 6

As a young girl, I got my start in the kitchen basting yams as the women in the family fluttered about taking care of all the last minute preparations a holiday meal requires. Basting yams is the perfect job for kids. In fact, that’s how my kids started in the kitchen. Give the youngsters in your family a sense of contributing to the Thanksgiving meal by basting simple yams into a candied feast. It’s important to supervise closely to be sure they don’t get burnt.

4 whole yams
½ teaspoon salt
1 ½ sticks butter
1 cup lightly packed brown sugar

Scrub yams thoroughly with a vegetable brush, cut off woody ends, and leave skins on.  In a large heavy kettle, place yams with just enough salted water to cover and bring to a boil over a high heat. Reduce the heat to medium and cook yams for 30 to 40 minutes at a gentle boil, or until yams are done. Test for doneness by piercing with a fork. Yams will be soft yet still firm. Drain yams and cool. Peel skin from cooled yams with a paring knife and cut yams into halves both lengthwise and crosswise. In a large electric skillet, melt butter over a medium-low heat. Add brown sugar and bring to a boil until brown sugar and butter begin to candy, stirring constantly. Add yam pieces to candied butter, reduce the heat, and simmer slowly, basting yams often. Turn occasionally and continue basting. Yams should be simmered and basted in the candied butter sauce for 15 to 20 minutes. 

Tips on shopping for sweet potatoes: Look for firm sweet potatoes, with smooth skin that are free of bruises and cracks. Avoid wrinkled or sticky sweet potatoes or ones that have sprouts.

Tips on storing sweet potatoes: Do not refrigerate sweet potatoes, but keep them in a cool, dark place. This vegetable will keep for 1 to 2 weeks.

Carol Ann

Carol Ann Kates is the award-winning author of cookbook, Secret Recipes from the Corner Market and Grocery Shopping Secrets. She’s an expert in how to shop, select, and store produce for maximizing home cooking outcomes and minimizing time and money spent. As a former supermarket and deli operator, Carol Ann shares grocery-insider wisdom—the same expertise you used to receive when patronizing a mom-and-pop establishment. Contact her at CarolAnn@CarolAnnKates.com and explore her website, www.CarolAnnKates.com.

Copyright 2022 All Rights Reserved Carol Ann Kates

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