Here we are again, the holidays… gastronomy’s ultimate do over time of the year. Everyone’s getting fired up about brining birds, smoking hogs, roasting vegetables, buttering breads and sampling sweets. But it’s the same old tired stuff as last year… and the year before that. Maybe a few culinary twists but for the most part the menu doesn’t change. We’re creatures of habit, and you know what? I’m okay with that. In the past I used to fight it, but that got me nowhere. I was thrilled when two years ago my friend made goat stew for a pot luck holiday get-together. And I told everyone “See see, isn’t that great! Something different and interesting.” Some of my guests liked it but most vetoed the notion! The holiday menu will never budge, so why bother.
So you might be asking the question “What can I do to change it up a bit...add some sass to the meal without everyone screaming foul?”
How about making a few changes to your side dishes. After all, it is really the sides that steals the show on the holiday table -- the supporting cast that props up the celebrity bird, robust ham, crab or vegetarian main-- the unsung heroes. Here are two easy-to-make dishes that will add unique yet familiar flavors to the holiday meal.
The first one is a beet salad with pear and Mandarin oranges. The pear adds a wonderfully unique texture to the salad while the floral acidity of the orange helps to complement the fatty quality of the mains. It’s a great dish for people that SWEAR that they don’t like beets.
Roasted Beet and Pear Salad with Satsuma Mandarin Orange
The beets can be cooked one or two days in advance.
3 lbs medium to large sized Chioggia beets. Conventional is fine
1 ripe pear, cut into to thick match sticks
5 mandarin oranges, 4 for salad and 2 for juice
½ red onion, thinly sliced
2 heaping tablespoons, champagne vinegar
1 tablespoon, extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees
2. Cut off beet stems and wash really well. Place beets in a baking pan and toss with olive oil, salt and pepper.
3. Cover dish with aluminum foil and bake for 1-1 1/2 hrs. At the hour mark take out and pierce with the tip of a paring knife or toothpick to check if finished. Some larger beets might need an additional 15-25 minutes depending on how stubborn they are. When cooked, remove and let cool.
4. When cool, simply take an old kitchen towel and rub off the skin. Cut off both ends and then cut beets into 4, 6 or 8 piece wedges, depending on desired size. Place into bowl.
5. Juice the 2 oranges and set aside. Peel and rough chop the other 4.
6. Slice the pear and then cut into thick match sticks.
7. To finish, place all the ingredients into a bowl and toss.
* It’s very important to not over mix the salad as it will look distressed.
* Try to mix the salad while the beets are still warm as it will absorb the juices better.
* The salad should be made and consumed on the same day as the pear will start to get mushy and discolor.
The next recipe is a breath of fresh air to the good old classic, green bean casserole. Most of us remember this dish as overcooked green beans and fried onions saturated in canned mushroom soup.
I wanted to give this dish a unique flavor without altering it too much. I found that fennel, leeks and a shot of Pernod did just that. The sweet leeks and slight liquorice flavor paired nicely with the earthy mushroom cream and fresh green beans. I also removed the tired old onions and replaced them with toasted pecans and buttery breadcrumbs. The last thing to note is that it’s not as rich and creamy as you might remember. I purposely made it so that the beans are coated in the cream but not drenched. It makes for a more vibrant textured dish.
Green Bean Casserole with Fennel, Leeks, Pernod and Toasted Stuffing
2 lbs. blue lake green beans
1 lb. button or cremini mushrooms, washed and sliced
1 bunch leeks, chopped and washed
½ fennel bulb, chopped
1-2 cloves garlic, minced
Teaspoon, fresh picked thyme
Shot of dry white wine
1 cup heavy cream
¼ cup vegetable stock
3 heaping tablespoons, Pernod
½ cup, chopped and toasted pecans
2 cups stuffing mix (cubes of bread)
Salt and pepper
1. Pre-heat oven to 450 degrees
2. Cook beans in salted boiling water, roughly 4 minutes. Remove and shock in ice water. Cut the beans in half.
3. Place a sauce pot on high heat and add a teaspoon of cooking oil. Get it super hot and then add the mushrooms. Sauté the mushrooms quickly and then remove from pan. You want them to be brown, crispy and somewhat dry.
4. Turn down heat to medium low; add another teaspoon of oil and a small amount of butter. Add leeks and fennel. And cook until soft. At that point add garlic and thyme and cook for a couple minutes more.
5. Deglaze the pan with wine. Stir and let cook for 30 seconds. Add heavy cream and turn down to low. Stir mixture and let the cream reduce by almost ¾. This will make the mixture thick and sweet! Add vegetable stock and reduce by half.
6. Season mixture with salt and pepper.
7. In another pan melt a tablespoon of butter. Cook until it starts to turn brown. Add bread/stuffing mixture and stir. Remove from heat.
8. In a large bowl toss the beans, mushrooms, fennel cream and pecans together. Add a titch more salt.
9. Place in a casserole dish and cover with stuffing mixture. Place in oven and bake for 10 minutes. Then crank up broiler and crisp up stuffing. Depending on your broiler I would think that 30 seconds would do the trick.
10. Remove and serve hot!
* The salt in the bean cooking liquid is twofold. It flavors but also helps retain the green color.
* Make sure not to overcook the beans! A little under done is better than over cooked.
* Taste the mixture before you add stuffing and bake. You might want more Pernod or seasoning.
* You can also use stale bread and make your own topping.