A New Side of Holiday Dinner


We all love our traditions for holiday feasts, especially as they come around only once a year. But whether you are hosting or contributing to the meal, you can easily mix up the side dishes a little with a fresh take on the classics. 

Stuffing—or dressing if it doesn’t see the inside of a turkey—can be a savory/sweet take with a cornbread version. Here, I highlight two options, depending on whether apples and sage or bacon and mushrooms sound like a twist you’d like to try. Use squash in a sweet and peppery salad—tender squash cubes, crunchy walnuts, and pops of cracked black pepper are presented in little lettuce cups. Sweet Potato, Pear, and Walnut Gratin offers a lovely merge of flavors and a unique addition to your holiday table. Freshly prepared green beans can be a welcome change from the oven casserole, and the dollop of cranberries on the plate can be a fresh, sprightly relish that cleanses your palate as it adds color to the meal. These recipes, which appeared in Real Food, can take you from Thanksgiving through New Year’s for the many dinners that could benefit from just a little shaking up.

Cornbread Stuffing with Dried Apples, Pecans and Sage

Makes 12 servings • Recipe by Rick Rodgers

For the best Southern-style stuffing, it’s best to make your own cornbread from scratch, as packaged cornbread mixes may be too sweet. Let the cornbread dry out before using, as fresh bread makes soggy stuffing. Always make stuffing right before filling the bird—warm stuffing will heat more efficiently to the safe temperature of 160°F than cold.

For the Cornbread
2½ cups yellow cornmeal, preferably stone-ground
1½ cups all-purpose flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups milk
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
2 large eggs, beaten

For the Stuffing
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, divided
4 celery ribs, chopped (2 cups)
4 medium leeks, white and pale green parts chopped (2½ cups)
1½ cups (6 ounces) pecans, toasted (see note), and coarsely chopped
1½ cups (6 ounces) coarsely chopped dried apples
3 tablespoons chopped fresh sage
2 large eggs, beaten
2 cups hot turkey or chicken broth, as needed
¾ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1. To make cornbread, preheat oven to 400°F. Lightly butter a 15×10-inch baking dish.

2. Whisk cornmeal, flour, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl. Make a well in dry ingredients, and add milk, butter, and eggs. Stir just until smooth (batter may look slightly lumpy). Spread in pan. Bake until top is golden brown and bread springs back when pressed in center, about 20 minutes. Cool completely. Remove from pan and crumble on large baking sheet. Let stand, uncovered, overnight. (Or, to use immediately, bake crumbled cornbread in 350°F oven until edges of crumbs feel crisp, about 20 minutes; cool completely.)

3. Melt 4 tablespoons of butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add celery and cover. Cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 8 minutes. Add leeks and cover. Cook, stirring occasionally, until leeks and celery are tender, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a very large bowl. Add remaining 4 tablespoons of butter to skillet and melt. Set aside to cool slightly.

4. Add cornbread, pecans, apples, sage, eggs, and melted butter to bowl containing celery and leeks. Stir in enough stock to moisten cornbread. Season with salt and pepper. Use immediately to stuff turkey. (To prepare any leftover stuffing, spread stuffing in a buttered shallow baking dish, cover with aluminum foil, and refrigerate until ready to bake. When ready to bake, moisten stuffing with an additional 1/3 cup stock. Bake, covered, in preheated 350°F oven until heated through, about 20 minutes.)


Cornbread, Bacon and Shiitake Stuffing

Makes 8 servings • Recipe by Rozanne Gold

It might seem labor intensive to make your own cornbread, but this recipe is a cinch. It can be done way ahead of time and frozen, if you wish. Make the cornbread at least 1 to 2 days before using as it’s best if the cornbread is a bit dry to better absorb all the delicious juices. You can use an equal amount (16 ounces) of store-bought cornbread or corn muffins, but the result will be sweeter. The stuffing can be made a day ahead and reheated.

For the Cornbread
1 cup flour
1 cup yellow cornmeal, fine or medium
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 cup milk
1 extra-large egg, beaten
4 tablespoons (½ stick) unsalted butter, melted

For the Stuffing/Dressing
4 tablespoons olive oil
3 cups chopped onion
2 cups chopped celery
2 teaspoons fresh rosemary, finely chopped
5 slices bacon, cut into ¼-inch dice
5 ounces sliced shiitake mushrooms
2 extra-large eggs, lightly beaten
2 cups chicken stock
salt and pepper, if desired

1. For the cornbread: Preheat oven to 400°F. Mix together in a bowl flour, cornmeal, sugar, salt, and baking powder. Stir in milk, egg, and butter. Stir well and pour into well-oiled, 8-inch square pan. Bake 20 to 25 minutes until firm. Let cool.

2. For the stuffing: Heat oil in a 6-quart pot. Add onions and celery and cook 15 minutes over high heat, stirring, until softened and golden brown. Add rosemary, bacon, and mushrooms and cook 10 minutes until mushrooms are soft and bacon is cooked.

3. Cut cornbread into ½-inch pieces and add to pot. Stir and cook 5 minutes. Whisk together eggs and stock; pour over cornbread mixture and stir. Add salt and pepper if desired.

4. Bake at 400°F for 30 minutes and serve.


Maple Roasted Squash and Kale Salad in Lettuce Cups with Maple Black Pepper Vinaigrette

Makes 5 Servings • Recipe by Robin Asbell

This sweet and peppery salad is packed with tender squash cubes, crunchy walnuts, and pops of cracked black pepper. The squash salad is delicious on its own and gets a special presentation in little lettuce cups. These can also serve as “finger food” as you can pick them up and finish them in a couple bites. To make ahead, you can bake the squash cubes and make the dressing up to two days ahead of time. You can prep/massage the kale four hours prior to serving.

2 pounds butternut squash, cubed (6 cups)
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, divided
2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaf, coarsely chopped
1/4 cup pure maple syrup, divided
1 teaspoon salt, divided
4 ounces baby kale (4 cups)
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1/2 cup walnuts, halves and pieces, toasted
1/2 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
1 teaspoon cracked black pepper
2 heads baby Bibb lettuce

1. Preheat the oven to 400°F. Peel, seed and cube the squash. Spread 2 tablespoons of the olive oil on a sheet pan and place the cubed squash on it, then sprinkle with thyme and drizzle with 2 tablespoons of the maple syrup. Sprinkle with half of the salt and toss the cubes to coat. Bake for 20 minutes, until a paring knife inserted into a squash cube meets no resistance. Remove from oven and cool completely on a rack. Chill, if desired. This can be done up to 3 days ahead, and kept, tightly covered, in the refrigerator.

2. For the salad: Sliver the kale with a sharp knife and place in a large bowl. Whisk the remaining olive oil, maple syrup, salt, and lemon juice in a cup. Pour over the kale and massage the leaves, vigorously squeezing and kneading the mixture until the kale softens and turns dark green, about 3 minutes. Add the cooled squash, walnuts, Parmesan, and cracked pepper and toss to mix.

3. Carefully separate the lettuce leaves, and gently swish them in a bowl of cold water. Pick out the 12 smallest, most cupped leaves, and save any leftover for another salad. Use a spoon to place a heaping 1/4 cup of kale salad in each lettuce cup, then place the lettuce cups on a platter, or individual plates. Serve immediately.


Sweet Potato, Pear, and Walnut Gratin

Makes 8 servings • Recipe by Rozanne Gold

This is a lovely merge of flavors and a unique addition to your Thanksgiving table. It is delicious with—or without—the decorative layer of sliced Muenster cheese tucked between the layers of sweet potatoes. The spices add a gentle perfume to the cream base, which bathes and softens the vegetables. This can be prepared one to two days ahead and reheated.

3 pounds sweet potatoes
1 large pear, firm and ripe
3 cups half-and-half
1½ teaspoons curry powder
¹⁄8 teaspoon chipotle chili powder, or more to taste
1 large clove garlic, smashed
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 cup walnut halves
salt and pepper
6 ounces thinly sliced Muenster cheese
2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1. Preheat oven to 350°F.

2. Peel potatoes and slice very thin across the width. Peel pear and thinly slice lengthwise, removing pits as you go.

3. Combine in a medium saucepan half-and-half, curry powder, chili powder, and garlic. Bring just to a boil. Lower heat and simmer 5 minutes. Set aside; remove and discard garlic when ready to use.

4. Put Parmesan and walnuts in bowl of a food processor and process until finely ground.

5. In a very large, shallow, ovenproof, 12-cup casserole, arrange half of potatoes in overlapping slices to form a cohesive bottom layer. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Arrange pears to cover potatoes. Arrange Muenster cheese over pears. Arrange remaining potatoes in an overlapping pattern to form a cohesive top layer. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Pour cream over and around potatoes. Cover top of potatoes with walnut-Parmesan mixture. Dot with butter.

6. Bake 1 hour and 15 minutes and serve hot. If reheating, cover and bake at 400°F for 15 minutes then uncover and bake 5 minutes longer.


Green Beans with Caramelized Shallot Butter

Makes 8 Servings • Recipe by Rick Rodgers

Freshly prepared green beans can be a welcome relief from the parade of warmed oven casseroles at Thanksgiving. Make the caramelized shallot butter ahead, trim the green beans the night before, and you’ll have very little work to do when you’re ready to serve.

For the Caramelized Shallot Butter
5 tablespoons unsalted butter (4 tablespoons softened)
4 shallots, chopped (1 cup)

1½ pounds green beans, trimmed and cut into 2-inch lengths
salt and pepper, to taste

1. To make caramelized shallot butter, heat 1 tablespoon of the butter in a medium skillet over medium-low heat. Add shallots and cook, stirring occasionally, until shallots are lightly browned and tender, about 20 minutes. Transfer to a small bowl and cool. Add softened butter and mix to combine. (The shallot butter can be prepared up to 3 days ahead, covered, and refrigerated. Bring to room temperature before using.)

2. Bring large pot of lightly salted water to a boil over high heat. Add green beans and cook until just tender, about 5 minutes. Reserve 1/3 cup cooking water. Drain green beans. Return to pot and add shallot butter and reserved cooking water. Mix well, until butter melts. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Transfer to warmed serving bowl and serve immediately.

Cranberry-Lemon-Apple Relish

Makes 8 servings • Recipe by Rozanne Gold

This is a fresh, sprightly relish that cleanses your palate and adds great verve and color to each of the meal’s components. In addition, you could serve a jellied block of cranberry sauce straight from the can if it’s a tradition you would never change.

12 ounces fresh cranberries
²⁄3 cup turbinado sugar
2 lemon wedges, pitted and skin intact
½ large Gala apple, in large chunks
¹⁄8 teaspoon ground allspice
large pinch salt

1. Pulse all ingredients in food processor until finely ground. Cover and refrigerate until chilled.


Nutrition info (per serving):
• Cornbread Stuffing with Dried Apples, Pecans and Sage: CALORIES 516 (247 from fat); FAT 27g (sat. 11g); CHOL 110mg; SODIUM 751mg; CARB 59g; FIBER 6g; PROTEIN 11g
• Cornbread, Bacon & Shiitake Stuffing: CALORIES 397 (213 from fat); FAT 24g (sat . 9g) ; CHOL 117mg; SODIUM 696mg; CARB 36g; FI BER 3g; PROTEIN 11g
• Squash & Kale Salad: CALORIES 326 (179 from fat); FAT 21g (sat. 4g); CHOL 8mg; SODIUM 645mg; CARB 32g; FIBER 7g; PROTEIN 8g
• Sweet Potato, Pear, & Walnut Gratin: CALORIES 471 (276 from fat); FAT 32g (sat. 16g); CHOL 71mg; SODIUM 436mg; CARB 33g; FIBER 5g; PROTEIN 17g
• Green Beans: CALORIES 103 (67 from fat); FAT 7g (sat. 5g); CHOL 19mg; SODIUM 93mg; CARB 9g; FIBER 3g; PROTEIN 2g
• Cranberry-Lemon-Apple Relish: CALORIES 89 (1 from fat ) ; FAT 0 g (sat . 0g ) ; CHOL 0mg; SODIUM 41mg; CARB 23g; FIBER 2g; PROTEIN 0g

Mary Subialka is the editor of Real Food and Drinks magazines, covering the flavorful world of food, wine, and spirits. She rarely meets a chicken she doesn’t like, and hopes that her son, who used to eat beets and Indian food as a preschooler, will one day again think of real food as more than something you need to eat before dessert and be inspired by his younger brother, who is now into trying new foods.