If you are a vegetarian, one of your biggest culinary thrills of the season is the elevated side dish. Since turkey is taboo, ham ain’t happen’n, and roasts are right out, I savor every sautéed Brussel sprout, caramelized baby onion and creamed asparagus spear. But for lots of folks, the holidays are about comfort and tradition more than anything else; people expect their favorites, even if those favorites are BC-boxed scalloped potatoes and fresh-from-the-can green bean casserole. Sigh.
So to make everybody feel welcome at the table, I’ve taken two very familiar holiday traditionals and ramped them up this year–just enough to be great without being discomforting. It’s my green-gal take on Au Gratin Potatoes and Green Bean Casserole.
A couple of weeks ago, I was eating breakfast at Sacred Grounds, where the food is always amazing. They served a potato and pumpkin gratin that was absolutely to die for. And absolutely had to be on my table Christmas day. I have one last pumpkin and a bunch of potatoes still in the basement, so I figured the Universe was sending a sign.
Since I didn’t have the Sacred Grounds recipe and needed to be extra careful about adding only certain kinds of dairy (My daughter and I are dairy-sensitive.), I came up with my own plan… and here it is:
- One medium pie pumpkin, washed. (Consider preparing your pumpkin one to two days in advance in order to minimize preparation when things get busy in the kitchen. You need a fresh pumpkin for this; canned won’t work here. In the end, you want to end up with one half cup pumpkin puree and about three to four cups pre-baked thin pumpkin slices.)
- One half cup unsweetened organic coconut cream (I really like Native Forest.)
- One half cup unsweetened Greek yogurt (Ours comes from our own local Windcrest Dairy.)
- Herb sachet of fresh sage leaves, if possible. Thyme also would be a good choice but go with sage, if you can.
- Two large cloves of garlic, minced
- About a quarter to half teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- Two pounds potatoes, washed and cut into thin slices (Russets will work best for this dish.)
- Two large shallots, vertically sliced
- Salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste
- One cup white cheddar cheese, grated large
- One half cup very good quality Parmesan Reggiano, grated fine
- Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
- Prepare the pumpkin first by cutting off its stem and then cutting it in half, making sure the bottom half is bigger than the top half—one quarter top to three quarters bottom. Scoop out the seeds and place the pumpkin halves cut-side down on a rimmed baking sheet. Bake the bottom-half of the pumpkin only long enough to make it easy to peel and slice, about 20 minutes or so. What you are looking for are slices equal to your potato slices in size and soft enough to completely cook through with the potatoes in the assembled casserole. Continue baking the top of the pumpkin until completely done so that you can puree the flesh in your blender or processor. You need about one half cup of puree for the sauce.
- On the day you plan to serve the dish, in a medium sauce pan, whisk the pumpkin puree, the coconut cream, the yogurt, garlic, and nutmeg. Add the fresh sage sachet. Warm and simmer on low until you can smell the sage—about the time it takes you to assemble the rest of the dish. The sauce should cook but not boil.
- For the casserole assembly, grease a 13 x 9 casserole dish with butter or oil. Using the potato slices, pumpkin slices, shallot slices and white cheddar cheese, create alternating layers beginning and ending with potatoes. Sprinkle the layers as you go with salt and pepper to taste—remember cheese adds saltiness.
- Pour the warm sauce over the entire casserole and place in a 375-degree oven for 50 minutes.
- Remove from the oven and sprinkle the top with the Parmesan Reggiano. Return to the oven for an additional five minutes to let the Parmesan melt and brown a bit. Best served hot.
Note that the prep time does not include preparing the pumpkin. It will take about an hour and a half from start to finish to get the pumpkin ready to be incorporated into the dish. I strongly suggest doing this as much as two days ahead and just store in the refrigerator until needed. The casserole will be good reheated.
While discussing the dilemma of being innovative in the kitchen and still pleasing “the family,” Debbie Ward and I lamented the ever-present, never-interesting green bean casserole—you know, the one with the can of crunchy, greasy onions on top? Debbie had come across a little stroke of culinary genius from a way-back issue of Better Homes and Gardens. I’m thrilled she shared it with me.
To make your green beans as festive as possible while maintaining a level of “comfort,” try the following:
- One large yellow onion, cut in one-inch wedges
- One quarter cup butter
- Three tablespoons packed dark brown sugar
- Two pounds fresh or frozen green beans, trimmed (Mine were fresh-frozen from the market and my own garden this past summer.)
- Two cups fresh mushrooms (I used fresh oyster mushroom, chopped in big pieces, that came from my friend Leo.)
- Two tablespoons olive oil
- One tablespoon Tamari
- Two tablespoons balsamic vinegar
- Six ounces good-quality goat cheese (I suggest using goat cheese in a log, sliced for easier mixing.)
- Two to three tablespoons almond milk
- In a large skillet, cook the onions, covered, in butter over medium-low heat for about 15 minutes or until the onions are tender. Uncover and add the brown sugar. Cook and stir over medium-high heat for three to five minutes, until the onions are golden and caramelized. Set aside.
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. In a large saucepan cook the green beans in boiling water for two to three minutes, depending on how done you want your beans. For me, less is more. Drain.
- In a 13 x 9 casserole, combine the green beans and mushrooms. Combine the olive oil, Tamari and balsamic vinegar. Pour over the vegetables, tossing to coat. Roast for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring once until tender-crisp.
- Meanwhile, in a medium mixing bowl, beat together the goat cheese and the almond milk with an electric mixer on medium speed. Spoon cheese in lengthwise mounds along center of the baking dish in two rows. Top with the caramelized onions. Return to the oven and heat five to eight minutes or until the cheese and onions are heated through.
My final bit of comfort has come as a request from my daughter for her favorite cranberry dish—a raw-food relish that is as fresh as a summer day in December. It’s one of the most simple dishes you will ever make, and it’s intentionally made in advance in order to let all the flavors marry, so there’s nothing to do on Christmas day but transfer it to a pretty crystal dish.
- One large organic orange, unpeeled and cut into sections with seeds removed
- One large organic apple, core and seeds removed, cut into sections
- Two to four tablespoons of high-quality honey (We like raw honey for this recipe. How much you use depends on how sweet you want the dish. We like ours tart.)
- One quarter to one half teaspoon ground cardamom
Put all the ingredients in a food processor and pulse until finely ground, but not pureed. Should be made at least three days in advance so flavors have a chance to deepen and blend. Store tightly covered in the refrigerator.
What side dishes are in the center of your holiday table?