Christmas Dinner: The Sides

In my opinion, the sides make the Christmas dinner. I don’t dislike turkey, but I’m not its biggest fan (except this Expertly Spiced and Glazed Roast Turkey might have changed my mind) so I like to focus on the side dishes. There are too many delicious sides I like so the problem turns out to be which ones to make. The list starts out long, is cut, grows again when I ask the family if I’m missing anything (why do I ask them?!), and then finally reduced to something manageable and not too gluttonous.

I make all the sides the day before and heat them up on Christmas. I used to make them the day off, but that’s just insane. Nothing was ready on time and I would end up running around like a crazy woman with my family telling me to sit down. Sit down? This food doesn’t make itself! Do you want dinner or not?! See the tension I’m talking about? Ahhhh! No, thank you.

This year I trimmed the list down to cranberry sauce, dressing, mashed potatoes, mac and cheese, and a salad. There’s only five of us this year so this was plenty. We also had gravy (from a jar doctored with turkey drippings), brioche rolls (from the store), and my MIL’s famous Frozen Cranberry Salad. Five days later, we’re still eating leftovers.

I’ve made these recipes a few years in a row because I’ve found they are the best of the best. I really don’t need to go any further and they are not complicated to make.

Let’s start out with the cranberry sauce. It sounds fancy, but it’s the easiest thing to make. You just need fresh cranberries, juice, and honey. It’s also so much better than store bought cranberry sauce. You won’t go back.

Simmer it down. Cranberry sauce.

Told you it was easy.

Get the recipe: Alton Brown’s Cranberry Sauce. BTW, I’ve never found a recipe of his that I didn’t like. He’s goofy, but smart, backing up his mad methods with science.

Speaking of Alton and his mad methods, he taught me how to make the best mashed potatoes. I used to cringe when people said that mashed potatoes are so easy. If they’re so simple, why do mine come out so gluey? Science. I was using the wrong potato and the wrong mashing method. Yes, you can use russet potatoes, especially if you like fluffy mashed potatoes, but if you like creamy mashed potatoes like I do, go with Yukon gold potatoes. It has to do with the amount of starch in the potatoes. Russets have more starch than Yukon gold potatoes. Using Yukons makes for a creamier, less fluffy mashed potatoes. Like I said, science.

A potato masher works, but you know what works better? My new best friend, the potato ricer.

With these two tools in my back pocket, my mashed potatoes are now amazing. Creamy, buttery, with a hint of pepper…everything mashed potatoes should be.

Get the recipe: Alton Brown’s Creamy Mashed Potatoes.

While I do love mashed potatoes, I love love LOVE mac and cheese. I rarely eat pasta (carbs) so this is a decadent treat for me that is worth every calorie. This recipe requires a little extra work, but it’s well worth it. It has both Gruyere and cheddar cheeses. This turns out to be the perfect marriage of cheeses. Cheddar is gooey and buttery, but needs another cheese to melt properly. Meet Gruyere, which is mild, nutty, tangy, AND melts easily. Mmmmm…cheese.

The recipe calls for 12 ounces of Gruyere to 8 ounces of cheddar, but you can use any amounts of each that you happen to have as long as it adds up to 20 ounces of cheese. I discovered this when this year, I might have accidentally nibbled on too much Gruyere and noticed I bought a little less than I should have. Doh. So there was more cheddar than Gruyere this year. It’s all good.

This recipe also makes a lot of mac and cheese so I split the recipe and we still have leftovers. Feel free to make the whole recipe if you have a ton of guests. All this cheesy goodness will disappear quickly.

Get the recipe here: Macaroni and Cheese. It’s another good recipe from Ina Garten. I prefer it without the tomato breadcrumb topping, but I encourage you to try it either ways. I think the Gruyere is the secret, but give credit to the nutmeg that brings it all together. This is not your Kraft mac and cheese.

Now speaking of Ina Garten, she makes the best turkey dressing. I’m super picky about my dressing. I’ve tried a million different ones: store bought (ugh), cornbread (too crumbly), sage (not exciting enough), whole wheat (too healthy), cauliflower (not authentic)…you get the idea. Although I adore her (who doesn’t?) and think her recipes are spot on, I had been disappointed so many times that I had low expectations when I tried her recipe. Wrong. This dressing is amazing and gets rave reviews by everyone at home. It doesn’t have any unusual ingredients. I just think it’s the right mixture of everything you’d expect, but using toasted sourdough bread cubes and dried cranberries puts it over the top.

Along with your standard ingredients of celery and onion, use apples, which adds sweetness and prevents a dry dressing.

Using a VERY generous amount of butter (let’s not talk about how many sticks of butter today), saute the veggies and apples in a pan.

Ten minutes later, every will be soft and yummy. I could probably eat this straight out of the pan, but I used some self-control, unlike the Gruyere cheese incident.

In a very large bowl with the bread cubes, add this mixture along with browned crumbled sausage, broth (homemade if you want to show off), and dried cranberries. The cranberries add another dimension of sweetness against the onions and a chewy texture that complements the toasted bread. Plus cranberries scream turkey so you gotta have them.

Mix well and plop it into a baking dish.

Because I bake it the next day, I add additional broth right before it goes into the oven to ensure it won’t dry out.

Get the recipe: Sausage and Herb Stuffing. As Ina would say, “How easy is that?”

With all these heavy side dishes, I wanted to make a salad to balance it off. Well, this salad wasn’t exactly as light as I originally planned, but it turned out to be clever. You see, I love cute food. My crazy smooshed looking Spooky Peppers is evidence of my insanity. I came across the cutest idea for a caprese salad so I decided to make my own Caprese Christmas Wreath Salad.

Caprese Salad Wreath

Caprese Christmas Wreath Salad

Ingredients
  

  • fresh basil
  • cherry tomatoes
  • small mozzarella balls marniated in herbs and olive oil

Instructions
 

  • Remove the basil leaves from the steams. Use the larger leaves to create a ring around the plate.
  • Using a toothpick, skewer a tomato, a basil leaf, and a mozzarella ball.
  • Arrange in a circle on the basil leaves. Continue until you've created enough circles to fill the wreath. Add small basil leaves to fill in the wreath as needed.

Merry Christmas! I hope I made your dinner a little easier with these dependable side dish recipes.

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Christmas Dinner: The Turkey

On Thanksgiving, I made a turkey for dinner. Now, this is a daring feat for me. Turkey is my nemesis. It’s never done according to plan. I’ve followed recipes. Doesn’t matter. The white meat cooks faster than the dark meat. In fact, the thighs are usually raw while the breast meat is perfectly done. I’ve tried tenting the breast and continue roasting, but I just end up with dry meat. One year was so bad that I ended up hacking up the turkey after the breasts were done and finished off the legs and thighs separately. Ugliest. Turkey. Ever.

I’m a faithful reader of Bon Appétit. When they published this year’s turkey recipe, Expertly Spiced and Glazed Roast Turkey, not only did I trust them, I saw the brilliance in their method. It was similar to my hacked up turkey, but done in a much smarter, less critical way. You ask the butcher to cut it up for you into five pieces that not only solves when the turkey is done problem, but also the carving issue (which I haven’t even delved into). Each piece cooks at the same rate because the meat is properly distributed. Wow. Why didn’t I think of that?

So when I made it for Thanksgiving, everyone agreed that this non-traditional turkey was amazing and should be repeated on Christmas. I was a bit worried that my Thanksgiving success was a fluke, but I put on my big girl pants and decided to try it again. I was so brave that I didn’t even buy a backup ham. Fortunately, I didn’t need it.

It uses a dry brine instead of the messy wet brine that requires you to soak your turkey in a bucket for a couple of days (what a mess that was…never again).

Let me interject that you need to have a meat thermometer, preferably an instant read one. If you are roasting a turkey without one, you are very confident. Me…not so much.

This recipe suggests that you preorder your turkey and nicely ask your butcher to cut it up into five pieces plus remove the backbone. You can purchase a frozen turkey, thaw it, and cut it up at home. Alas, I’m not that patient or talented. Therefore, I used the humorous script Bon Appétit prepared for me, “Hello, talented and smart and underappreciated butcher [pause for uncomfortable laughter], I’d like to purchase a 10-to-12-pound turkey, cut into five pieces: the legs, wings, keep the breast whole, backbone removed. Yes, I’m doing that ridiculous Bon Appétit recipe. Yes, it better not suck.” I love Bon Appétit. My butcher thought I was a little weird.

Back safely at home, away from the deadpan eyes of my quizzical butcher, I made the rub for the brine: pepper, kosher salt, garlic powder, onion powder, smoked paprika, and brown sugar. I don’t have a spice mill or mortar/pestle so I used ground pepper, and it turned out fine. I used a 10-12 pound turkey and had plenty of rub, but I used it all. Can one have too much rub? Don’t answer that.

Sit your turkey on a cookie rack on a baking sheet. This helps circulate the air to the bottom of your turkey and later, you’ll use the same set-up to roast it. Rub the seasonings on the turkey. I know. This can be unpleasant, but (and I mean this in the best way possible) get over it. It’s better than if it was a whole turkey where you have to dig around for those mysterious parts you won’t be using. Ick. Did I mention turkeys are my nemesis?

Now the fun part. Shove everything to the corners of your fridge to make way for this bird to habitat your fridge for the next two days. Don’t cover it either. I was less than thrilled of the smell it left behind, but it will go away. After two days, the rub will be absorbed and the skin will be dry. This is a good thing because dry skin will make the skin crispy and beautifully brown.

Pull it out of the fridge. Let it sit for 2-3 hours. Don’t worry. Bacteria will not grow and give your guests food poisoning. The turkey should not go from a cold refrigerator to a hot oven. It’ll freak out and not cook evenly. You need to bring the bird up to room temperature first. I recommend putting your dog outside if you have one.

The turkey will roast in two phases, first at a high heat to brown it and then at a lower heat for longer to cook it through. During the first phase, make the glaze, which you’ll baste on the turkey every 20 minutes during the second phase. I have to admit that got distracted while eating the Brie appetizer and only basted once. It turned out delicious anyway.

The glaze is essential and gives it that sweet, Christmas-spiced taste, which is pretty amazing considering there are no spices in the glaze. I attribute this to the brown sugar and garlic, with some help of the sage.

Combine all the glaze ingredients and simmer for 10-15 minutes until it’s slightly thickened. After I removed it from the heat, I found that it continued to thicken so take this into account when you are determining if it’s thick enough. I made a double batch because I didn’t want to run out, which I did the first time. Then again, the first time I remembered to baste it every 20 minutes. Doh!

The recipe also calls for adding water to the baking pan. This helps it cook and keep it moist. Sorry. I had to use that word. There’s no other way to describe it. Let’s move on.

Using an instant-read thermometer (but any meat thermometer will do…just have one…trust me on this one), start checking on the turkey at the 50 minute mark. Make sure that the thickest part of the breast is 150F and the thigh is 170F. If it’s not, glaze it again, and check every 5-10 minutes.

When it’s done, tent (aka cover) it with foil to keep it warm and let it sit for 30-60 minutes. I like to take this time to heat up the sides I made the day before. When everything is ready, slice up the white meat and separate the leg from the thigh. The easiest way to cut the leg and thigh is to find the joint by bending it a couple times and cut there.

The turkey was so good that I nearly forgot to take a picture of the final product. Everyone was already digging in.

Get the recipe: Expertly Spiced and Glazed Roast Turkey. You won’t be disappointed.

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