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Thanksgiving Guide Sides, Desserts

Updated on October 5, 2014

The Thanksgiving Guide to Sides, Desserts & Beverages

What would Thanksgiving be without side dishes and desserts? Not to mention the perfect wine (or something for the kids). In our third segment of the Complete Thanksgiving Guide, we're covering all those favorites, plus some. After visiting, you may even decide to ditch the bird and just dive into the sides all by themselves. (We doubt it!)

If you need more information on planning a Thanksgiving gathering, visit Section One.

For every last detail on choosing and cooking the bird, go to Section Two.

How do you say Potato-Sweet or Mashed?

Potatoes are a star attraction at Thanksgiving - they are usually mashed with butter, sour cream, or cream cheese. Sweet potatoes, which are not related to their white counterparts in any way, make their appearance in many forms at the annual feast. While you may not want to raise this discussion at the dinner table, sweet potatoes are not yams, either.

Perfect mashed potatoes are not always quite so perfect. They can be gummy or lumpy and too thick or too thin. Flawed potatoes are difficult to hide, even with a great gravy. Do you leave the skin on or off? Boil or bake? Add milk or cream?

Our quick tips for great mashed potatoes:

-- Russets only, for their high-starch content.

-- Cut cubes in a uniform size for even baking or boiling.

-- Baking makes potatoes fluffier; boiling is easier for smaller quantities.

-- Avoid the blender and use a rice masher; over blending creates the gummy texture.

-- Skin off is preferred; skin on can be unattractive.

-- Creaming option is purely preference: milk, cream, butter, buttermilk, cream cheese.

-- Some lumps are acceptable - and proof that it's a "real" potato!

Basic Sweet Potato Pointers

-- Store in the pantry and not in the refrigerator, which affects the taste.

-- Sweet potatoes can generally be substituted in any recipe that calls for baking potatoes.

-- They are easier to peel following boiling or baking. After removing skin, place in cold water with a bit of lemon juice to prevent discoloration.

-- Slice with a stainless knife; other types of blades (carbon) will react to darken the flesh.

-- Lighter varieties require longer cooking times and should not be mixed with dark orange sweet potatoes.

The Great Debate: Stuffing or Dressing

Everything begins with the turkey, which is probably why the debate remains in high gear regarding stuffing versus dressing. Before we start, however, the general rules are: if it goes inside the turkey, it's stuffing; when it is baked in a separate dish, it is known as dressing. Depending on family traditions, the terms are often interchangeable, regardless of where the mixture bakes. Food safety experts continue to warn us about the dangers of filling the turkey cavity. There are many cooks, however, who say a bird would be bland and character-less without a rich concoction inside.

Beyond the serious issues of where the stuffing or dressing is actually cooked, the second line of heated discussions continues with ingredients. Cornbread (in the South) and white bread crumbs (in the North and possibly everywhere else, including the Midwest). Other ingredients receive the same attention - oysters (in Boston) and sausage (in Atlanta); no celery (in Kansas).

When you are entertaining Thanksgiving guests from both sides of the Mason-Dixon, we would suggest alternatives:

-- Serve a blend of stuffing/dressing by mixing equal amounts of cornbread and white bread.

-- Prepare two separate dressing dishes, one with cornbread and one featuring white cubes.

-- Cook two smaller birds; one stuffed and the second un-dressed with a casserole on the side.

There is no end to great ideas for stuffing or surrounding the turkey with a great "dressing."

Catching the Gravy Boat

Ahhh - perfect gravy with no lumps, not too much salt, the right shade of tan, and not too thick or too watery. Sounds like heaven, doesn't it? While we don't typically serve up this rich sauce on an everyday basis, Thanksgiving is the one day of the year for total indulgence. Who doesn't want to ladle a dripping-based helping over a slice of turkey? What kid will not make a game out of cratering mashed potatoes for a fill-up?

The difficulties in making the best gravies - even for experienced cooks - lie in the fact that the process is an annual event and not a daily one. Trends have changed from the days when Mom or Grandmother served up homemade biscuits and gravy for breakfast, or it was a staple for the evening meal. (That's not to say that in the southern U.S., there remains a preponderance of gravied meals, including fried steak and chicken-fried-chicken.)

The advantages of any gravy are many. They can forgive the sins of a too-dry turkey and correct too much cumin in a dressing. In fact, you should prepare plenty of gravy; it's a fix-all for many Thanksgiving day errors.

Gravy tips for great flavor and for quick repairs:

-- Lumps - whisk or strain them out

-- Too greasy - allow to cool and skim the fat (if time allows)

-- Too thick - add a little canned chicken broth (or broth from turkey)

-- Too salty - add a small pinch of light brown sugar

-- Homemade broth is much better than canned

-- When adding liquids to a gravy, warm them first in the microwave

-- Add a few veggies in the bottom of the turkey roaster for richer drippings

Rolls & Breads
Rolls & Breads

Bountiful Breads and Buns

No Thanksgiving table will be complete without breads, buns, and rolls, all warmed and fresh from the oven. Pile them high in a basket and keep them coming. Who can resist slathering too much butter on top or inside and carefully placing this treasure safely out of harm's way from mashed potatoes?

The key to serving terrific breads, buns, and rolls at the table is to keep them light. Heavy doughs will detract from the fun of filling up on other goodies. These should simply do their jobs by providing great aroma and terrific taste. Then, they should carry on with absorbing tons of butter - and maybe a little honey. Yes, some of your guests will use them for "sopping up" extra gravy, too.

Breads are also easy to prepare ahead of time. Some can be frozen a few weeks in advance while others may be refrigerated up to four days. Even if you plan on warming previously prepared rolls, there is nothing better than the fusion of breads, turkey, dressing, and side dish aromas wafting from a warm and busy kitchen!

Photo courtesy Stock.xchng

Thanksgiving Entertaining the Williams Sonoma Way

Fizz and Spice and Everything Nice

As family gathers at the homestead, you'll have a wonderful reason to break out a punchbowl for some delightful Thanksgiving beverages. Hot drinks do well in a crock-pot; just be sure to follow instructions regarding safe temperatures.

Try some old favorites, including spice-laden ciders along with some amazing punches that are full of fizz and fruits.

Adults may appreciate a little pick me up with cider nog, mimosas and Bloody Marys

Kids (of all ages) will love classic cider and berry-flavored juices.

If you prefer your cranberries as a liquid libation, try punches and coolers.

In the South, iced tea will be served – in some regions it is always made presweetened while a few hosts actually allow you to add your own sugar. You can also serve tea hot. Spiced tea mix or a chai blend will also be a welcome addition.

For after-dinner enjoyment, you'll want to offer coffee. If you typically serve caffeine in your home, keep some instant decaf on hand, and vice versa; not quite as good, but it will suffice in a pinch. Include cream and sugar on the table and spoons for stirring. Post-turkey treats can also include some alcohol-infused coffee beverages.

Wines: Reds, Whites, and Sparklers that will Light up the Turkey Table

Wines will always add sparkle at the Thanksgiving table. This is one day when you can celebrate casually with a number of bottle choices and are not required to follow the rules of formal dining. The only adages that apply are to not overpower the food and don't create contrasts that will shock the tongue.

With those thoughts in mind, enjoy the many fine spirits available in reds, whites, and rosés. You can never go wrong with champagne, either. It is the bubbly fit for any turkey table. Stay with an extra dry - not a brut - and you won't offend any palate-teasing side dishes.

The wonder of a laden Thanksgiving table includes all the taste sensations: sweet, salty, spicy, and acid. Now, that's a blend that will challenge any vino. Your best bet is to choose wines that "don't offend." They will be all-around companions to the many food groups – and group of guests – making an appearance for this great feast.

Avoid heavier reds – they'll compete and someone is bound to fall asleep at the table. Any wine that's high in tannins will create an acid war on the tastebuds. Pass by varieties that are higher in alcohol content. The one exception would be a Zinfandel, which is a terrific blend for all the trimmings. Another tip: choose wines for their compatibility with the sides. The turkey can fend for itself, and in many cases will be covered in gravy or cranberry sauce, anyway.

A good selection of reds might include Pinot Noir, Beaujolais, and a Shiraz. In the whites, you can include Rieslings, dry Chardonnays, Chenin Blancs, and Sauvignon Blancs.

A few more tips:

-In particular, Pinot Noir will be a delightful choice for appetizers

-White Zinfandels and Rieslings are excellent for any dish with a strong onion flavoring as well as sweet potatoes and cranberry sauces.

-Beaujolais for sausage-based dressing

All-around champions

Chardonnay is the best choice for turkey as is a Pinot Noir.

Sauvignon Blanc and Rieslings bring out the best in dressing and most side dishes.

Ros̩s Рon the dry side - can also complement almost any meal.

After-dinner drinks should include a reasonably priced port or dry sherry for any nut-based dessert, including an all-time favorite, Pecan Pie. Pumpkin pie is known for its friendly nature when it comes to wines and aperitifs. Try a Sauterne, for instance. A wine that is just a touch sweeter than the dessert will be a great choice.

Pumpkin Cheesecake Pie

Pumpkin Cheesecake Pie
Pumpkin Cheesecake Pie

This tasty Thanksgiving dessert is almost sugar-free, too! Click on the photo for a full recipe.

Traditional Pumpkin Pie
Traditional Pumpkin Pie

Perfect Pumpkin Pies and Other Perennial Post-Dinner Delights

While everyone claims they are much too full for Thanksgiving dessert, it seems a little space can always be made for a "bite or two," "maybe just a sliver," and "oh, how could I possibly?..." of pumpkin pie.

Invariably, when extended family gathers, the march of the pies begins - and much more. What a beautiful sight - a designated table just for desserts. They seem so much prettier on Thanksgiving, don't they?

Remember, pumpkin pie is not so much sweet as it is flavorful. Too much sugar in other desserts can be overbearing. When baking, think about offsetting some of the sucrose saturation with a little bourbon (for another type of saturation) or, at the very least, extra whipped cream.

Other delights for the dessert table might include:

The sweetest sweet potatoes: There is some debate over whether sweet potato pie dares to compare with its same-colored counterpart in taste. Some say yes and some fiercely suggest there are no similarities.

And a big thanks to the nut family: Where would we be without the standard pecan pie and other delights?

Cranberries will add color: Bring some rich burgundy colors from one of America's few native fruits to the dessert table with cranberry-infused goodies.

Photo courtesy Stock.xchng

Thanksgiving - From the Beginning

Find the old favorites and discover new dishes with an expert at your side

When it comes to Thanksgiving sides and desserts, the menu gets really exciting. If you want to know more about planning an event, check out Section One. If you need details on choosing and preparing a turkey, go straight to Section Two.

Let's Talk Gravy (& Dressing & Pies)

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      anonymous 6 years ago

      Really great dishes. I love it.