Chefs' Picks: Favorite Thanksgiving Sides

A few chefs from across the country share their favorite Thanksgiving side dishes, and the picks include a jazzed-up gravy and two ways to update seasonal sweet potatoes.
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When it comes to Thanksgiving feasts, the turkey is pretty non-negotiable, so side dishes are where chefs get creative with their homemade spreads. We asked a few chefs from across the country to share their favorite Thanksgiving supporting players, and the picks include a jazzed-up gravy and two ways to update seasonal sweet potatoes.

Gravy

Gravy is much more than a simple sauce to Chef James Rigato from Mabel Gray and The Root Restaurant & Bar in Michigan. His version channels summer, thanks to fresh fruit and his secret ingredient, the aperitif Lillet Blanc. He adds a half cup of the alcohol and some orange zest and juice to the traditional ingredients. “The crisp, citrus undertones brighten up the entire meal,” he says.

James Rigato’s Lillet Blanc Turkey Gravy
Yield: 3 cups
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons flour
3 cups turkey stock
1/2 cup Lillet Blanc
1/2 tablespoon cracked pepper, plus extra for seasoning
1/2 orange, zested and juiced
Salt

In a saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter. Whisk in flour and cook about one minute until golden brown. Slowly add stock and Lillet Blanc, whisking until incorporated. Continue cooking, mixing occasionally until thickened, about 5 minutes. Add pepper, orange juice and zest. Season with salt and additional pepper. Keep warm until ready to serve.

Sweet Potatoes

Move over, marshmallows. When Ghyslain Maurais of Ghyslain Bistro, in Louisville, Ky., makes Thanksgiving sweet potatoes, he goes the savory route with his sweet potato salad. I season sweet potatoes with herbes de Provence, cilantro and, for a bit of spice, some diced piquillo peppers. And it can be made ahead, the day before Thanksgiving!”

Iron Chef Marc Forgione, of New York steakhouse American Cut and Restaurant Marc Forgione, prefers to serve his sweet potatoes whipped with maple syrup. “This side dish is simple, festive and won’t leave candied yam lovers disappointed,” he says. “It was one of the first dishes I ever learned how to make — and it was a staple on my Thanksgiving table.”

Maple Whipped Sweet Potatoes with Hazelnut Butter
4 large sweet potatoes
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 tablespoons sour cream
2 tablespoons pure maple syrup
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Hazelnut Brown Butter
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
1/4 cup hazelnuts, chopped
1 small shallot, minced
2 tablespoons fresh Italian parsley leaves, finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

Pierce the potatoes with a fork or knife. Bake for 45 to 50 minutes until soft. Let cool slightly.

When the potatoes are cool enough to handle, cut them in half and scoop the potato pulp into a bowl. Add the butter, sour cream and maple syrup. Transfer the mix to a food processor and pulse until smooth. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Transfer to a covered casserole dish and keep warm.

Melt the butter in a medium-size, heavy saucepan over medium-low heat until pale golden (about 4 to 5 minutes). Add the hazelnuts and cook, stirring, over medium heat until golden and fragrant, 2 to 3 minutes longer.

Add the shallots and parsley, and cook until just softened, about 1 minute. Season with salt and pepper. This sauce can be rewarmed just before drizzling over the potatoes.

Butternut squash ready for roasting

Butternut squash ready for roasting

Butternut squash ready for roasting horizontal

Butternut Squash

Fall harvest generally inspires much of the Thanksgiving spread. For Chef Doug Psaltis, who oversees several Chicago restaurants, including RPM Italian, RPM steak and Ramen-San, squash is a must. In the fall you’ll find it on a few of his menus, in arancini and simply roasted. For his Thanksgiving table, he serves butternut squash “steak” for all to enjoy.

Spice-Roasted Butternut Squash "Steak" with Hazelnuts and Preserved Lemon

Yield: 1 “steak”
1 large butternut squash
1 tablespoon coriander seeds, coarsely ground
1 tablespoon black peppercorns, coarsely ground
1 tablespoon Szechuan peppercorns, coarsely ground
Sea salt
1/4 cup butter, divided
2 sprigs thyme
1 preserved lemon
1/4 cup hazelnuts, chopped

Peel and cut the squash into 1 1/2-inch-thick slices, removing all the seeds.

Season the squash with the spices, making sure to press the spices into the squash to ensure a coating, then salt it.

Add half of the butter to a cast-iron pan over medium heat. When the butter foams, add the squash to the pan.

Cook the squash slowly, trying not to move it too much, so that the spice coating remains.

After 4 minutes, flip the squash, then add the thyme and remaining butter.

Allow to cook for another 4 minutes, then transfer the squash to a serving dish, leaving the butter in the pan.

Chop the preserved lemon, making sure there are no seeds, then add to the pan with the hazelnuts.

Finish the dish by scattering the hazelnuts and lemon over the squash and drizzling the butter around the plate.

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Cornbread

If anyone can appreciate the importance of having a variety of sides at a big meal, it’s a barbecue pitmaster. John Stage, of Dinosaur Barbeque, takes full advantage of his restaurants’ offerings; for Thanksgiving, he takes home popular restaurant sides, including Honey Hush Cornbread.

Honey Hush Cornbread
Yield: 9 servings
1 1/4 cups yellow cornmeal
1/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup buttermilk
2 eggs, slightly beaten
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 cup melted butter
2 tablespoons honey

Heat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease an 8-inch square baking pan. Pop the pan in the oven to heat while you’re mixing up the cornbread.

Mix the cornmeal, sugar, flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, eggs, vanilla and melted butter. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry, then give the whole mix a good stir, just until everything is moistened.

Pull the hot greased pan from the oven and pour in the batter. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. Take the cornbread out of the oven and brush the top with honey.

Cool for 10 minutes in the pan before cutting into squares.

Variation: Cheddar-Jalapeno Honey Hush Cornbread

Follow the original recipe, stirring 1 cup cubed extra-sharp cheddar cheese and 2 seeded, minced medium jalapeno peppers into the batter right before pouring it into the pan. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, then glaze with honey in the same way.

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