Thanksgiving and Christmas pose a problem for the adventurous cook: expectations and tradition in the guise of large poultry. Embrace the constraint, I say. It’s good to know the classics and perform them well.
But that doesn’t mean one can’t paint for themselves in the corners. Turkey and stuffing are expected, sure. Beyond that, it’s up to you.
And I have just the thing.
I have five Thanksdinners notched on my cutting board and a couple of Christmases. There is a half hour before everyone sits down where you are in the shit. It is chaos. You are grumpy. People are just standing around, doing nothing, but you’re too busy to give them stuff to do. The turkey’s resting, but potatoes aren’t coming to a boil, the bacon’s burning, the gravy’s about to boil over and you want to know what you can help with?! I don’t know, get out of here!
Then it comes together, people are tucking in, the table got set, but you don’t remember how.
That’s what it was like for the first few years, but eventually, things clicked in my mind. There is another way.
I have two things to share that will make holiday cooking a lot less stressful, should you choose to heed them.
The first: pick dishes that scale. You want to be able to know how much to make given how many you are serving. Think in units per person. I’ll demonstrate below.
Second: in that last half hour, you want to be assembling, not cooking; so choose dishes that can be prepared ahead, like a day ahead, if needed.
We can argue whether the sides should change every year; I think they should not, to build, in small humans, those expectations I mentioned earlier. My two standby side dishes for holiday meals are sweet potato mash (we can cover that later) and Brussels Sprouts with bacon and pine nuts. Both dishes abide by the two rules above.
For the first point: 4-5 brussels sprouts, 1 tbsp of pine nuts and a rasher of bacon per person. I make it for four below. And for the second, you can blanch the brussels sprouts early in the day and let them sit until you’re ready.
The Thanksgiving that just passed was my first where I took those two principles to heart.
And I nailed it. Now you can too. Get going.
- 20 medium brussels sprouts
- 1/4 cup pine nuts
- 4-5 slices bacon, chopped
- 1/2 red onion, diced
- salt and pepper
- 2 tbsp maple syrup
- 1 tbsp rye whisky or bourbon
First, prep your sprouts: bring a pot of salted water to a boil. While that heats up, cut a bit off the non-leafy end of each sprout. When ready, boil your sprouts for about 7 minutes, but no more than eight. Prepare an ice bath (just a bowl full of ice water) to shock them once the eight minutes is up. You want the cooking to stop immediately once the sprouts come out of the boiling water. Drain. Cut each sprout in half. Leave on paper towels to dry. When you’re ready to finish the dish, carry on to the next step.
In a dry pan on medium heat, toast the pine nuts until golden, if you wish. This is entirely optional. Once golden, remove them to a dish to cool.
In a pan on medium heat, render the bacon until just starting to get dark and chewy. Add the onion, saute til soft and the bacon is cooked, about 5 minutes. Add the sprouts. Saute until golden around the edges.
Add the pine nuts and toss (or stir). After another 30 seconds, add the maple syrup and whisky. Toss or stir to coat everything.
Place in a serving dish and cover with foil until everything is ready to serve.