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Last Chance Foods

Last Chance Foods: Thanksgiving is All About the Sides

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It’s Tuesday already, which means Thanksgiving is looming just a few days away. Hopefully, the grocery shopping is done at this point and plans of attack are being formulated. Deb Perelman of the blog Smitten Kitchen says now is the time to get cracking on Thursday’s meal — and she suggests starting backward with desserts first.

“On Tuesday, I would probably start assembling things that can be cooked ahead,” said Perelman, referring to Thanksgiving dessert fare like cheesecake, pie crusts and cookies. “Maybe it’s not as dreamy as it was [if it were] made that morning, but it’s fine.”

Biscuit dough can also be made ahead.

“I’m a big fan of making biscuits because you actually make them, you know, roll them out, or cut them, put them on a tray in the freezer," she said. "And then bake them directly from the freezer when you need them.”

Perelman said one of her favorite Thanksgiving sides is a casserole or a gratin because either can be assembled in one oven-safe, easy to reheat dish, which cuts down on Thanksgiving day dishes that clutter up sinks.

“People think that gratins have to be really, really heavy, and they don’t,” she said. “A basic gratin is just something cooked in a stock, or maybe a thickened stock like a velouté, or, you know, maybe it’s just milk. It doesn’t have to be a heavy cream bomb. It doesn’t have to have a ton of cheese.”

That’s not to say that heavy cream and cheese bombs don’t have their place at the Thanksgiving table. (We all know that this is not a holiday that lends itself to calorie counting.)

“If you’re doing that cream and potato [gratin], I’m pretty sure you can freeze it for a day or two without getting into too much trouble,” Perelman added. But stay stay away from making casseroles with bechamel or corn starch–thickened sauces ahead of time because they do not freeze well.

The Wednesday before Thanksgiving, Perelman recommends brining your turkey, making vinaigrettes and assembling vegetable gratins. Only absolute last-minute tasks should be done Thursday like baking biscuits, reheating grains, roasting the turkey and setting out food.

"I am no fan of roasting vegetables at the last minute," Perelman said. "No frying crab cakes at the last minute. Nothing that has to be done right before people eat it, because then you have people waiting and you’re in the kitchen and you’re not having fun. You’re standing over a frying pan and that’s not a good time."

Save time by allowing family, friends and guests to assemble appetizers themselves.

When asked what her favorite Thanksgiving side is, Perelman was hard-pressed to choose just one. She's a fan of tart cranberry sauce that can also be eaten after Thanksgiving has passed with plain yogurt or on top of ice cream. Perelman also likes spicy roasted sweet potatoes topped with a chunk of tangy goat cheese. And then there's her Swiss Chard and Sweet Potato Gratin, which is an easy way to include greens in what can often be a starch-heavy Thanksgiving meal.

Swiss Chard and Sweet Potato Gratin
by Deb Perelman, Smitten Kitchen
Serves 12

I won’t lie, Swiss chard can be a real pain to prep, what with the rib-separation and rendering of unfathomable volumes down to a few measly cups of cooked greens. I like to chop, wash and dry mine the day before, but if you’re especially in a rush, I see no reason you can’t swap pre-washed (3 pounds) or even frozen spinach (about 5 to 6 cups). I also don’t see why you can’t swap the sweet potato for thin slices of butternut squash but then you will have less of an excuse to say “yam-yam” to the baby over and over again until he laughs. Finally, if my gratin looks a little “wet” to you, don’t worry, yours — providing you squeeze your greens out well — should not. I just mindlessly baked mine for half the time covered with foil which is not a bad idea for all-potato gratins, not drying enough for greens. —Deb Perelman

  • 1/4 cup (1/2 stick or 2 ounces) butter
  • 1 small onion, finely chopped
  • 3 pounds Swiss chard, leaves and stems separated and both cut into 1-inch pieces
  • Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
  • 2 cups heavy cream or whole milk
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 2 pounds medium red-skinned sweet potatoes (yams), peeled and cut into 1/8-inch thick rounds
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh Italian parsley
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme
  • Fine sea salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 1/4 cups (about 5 ounces) coarsely grated Gruyére cheese

Prep greens: Cook onion in 2 tablespoons butter in a wide 8-quart heavy pot over moderately low heat, stirring, until softened. Add chard stems, pinch of nutmeg, and salt and pepper to taste and cook, stirring, until vegetables are tender but not browned, about 8 minutes. Increase heat to moderately high and add chard leaves by large handfuls, stirring, until all greens are wilted. Season with salt and pepper then transfer greens to a colander to drain well and press out liquid with back of a large spoon.

Make sauce: Combine cream or milk and garlic in small saucepan; bring to simmer; keep warm. Melt two tablespoons butter in a medium heavy saucepan over moderate heat and stir in flour. Cook roux, whisking, one minute, then slowly whisk in warm cream/milk and boil, whisking, one minute. Season sauce with salt and pepper.

Assemble gratin: Preheat oven to 400°F. Butter deep 9×13 baking dish. Spread half of sweet potatoes in the prepared baking dish. Sprinkle with salt, pepper, a quarter of the herbs and a 1/4 cup of the cheese. Distribute half of the greens mixture over the cheese, then sprinkle salt, pepper, a quarter of the herbs and 1/4 cup of the cheese over it. Pour half of bechamel sauce over the first two layers then continue with the remaining sweet potatoes, more salt, pepper, herbs and cheese and then the remaining greens, salt, pepper and herbs. Pour the remaining sauce over the top of the gratin, pressing the vegetables slightly to ensure that they are as submerged as possible. Sprinkle with the last 1/4 cup of cheese.

Bake gratin for about 1 hour until golden and bubbly, and most of the liquid is absorbed. Let stand 10 minutes before serving.

Do ahead: You can make the entire gratin but not bake it up to a day in advance and keep it in the fridge. You can also make and bake the gratin and reheat it. Gratins reheat well, but they take almost as much time to gently heat through as they do to bake in the first place, especially deep ones like this. As for reheating, already baked and frozen, I will find out very soon! But I am near-positive it will be fine.