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:

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baked pumpkin in slices and pureed

An example of how your pumpkin should look before you add it to the casserole in the recipe above.

layers in a pumpkin-potato gratin

An example of layering your casserole ingredients.

 

 

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:

Ingredients:

  • 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

Preparation:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
green bean and mushroom casserole

Definitely grown-up green beans.

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.

cranberry orange relish

Just as pretty to look at as it is yummy to eat. Plus, it’s incredibly healthy!

Cranberry Relish

Ingredients:

  • 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

Preparation:

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?