If last year’s Thanksgiving represented a reset, this year’s is an opportunity for a refresh. Supply-chain-related issues may make sourcing the meal’s centerpiece ingredients hard to find and, if you do, leave you with a hefty price tag. There’s also the chance that someone at the table will have become vegan-curious over the course of the pandemic. An unanticipated guest or two may arrive as a result of disrupted holiday travel.
All of which threatens to make Thanksgiving more chaotic than ever before. To the rescue, for the food portion of the day, anyway, is Melissa Clark. The food columnist for NYT Cooking is also the author of 45 cookbooks as well as a turkey-day pro. By the time the holiday arrives, she has recipe-tested more turkeys and pies than most people do in a decade.
With so many variables in play, Clark’s advice is to go big on side dishes. “People will be mixing up their Thanksgiving table this year. The best, easiest way to do that is with the sides,” she say. They’re “the heroes of the holiday table.”
Her strategy is to go with dishes that are a bit unexpected, without being completely left field. Choose things that won’t compete with standards, whether you’re hosting or bringing a dish to someone else’s house. “You don’t need one more mashed potato at the table,” she says. Her top three picks for the Thanksgiving 2021 hall of fame: a crispy, cheesy potato gratin; roasted carrots; and squash pizza.
First, the pizza, which comes from her cookbook Dinner: Changing the Game (Clarkson Potter; $35). “Squash pizza is not intuitive for Thanksgiving, but it’s actually perfect,” Clark says. “It checks boxes for a main course for vegetarians. It’s festive. And you get to take advantage of delicious seasonal squash.”
It’s a brilliant new holiday standard that layers ribbons of sweet butternut squash with a little melted pecorino cheese and lemon to refresh it. It also cooks in minutes and is great at room temperature, which makes it the dish to bring along to a potluck.
Clark also highlights roasted carrots, which are finished with toasted walnuts, a sprinkling of feta, and a drizzle of balsamic. (The recipe is also found in her Dinner cookbook.) She highlights their simple ability to make an impact. “You need something orange on the table, as a contrast to all the brown foods. Carrots are just so easy they don’t need prep; they don’t need peeling.”
Her recipe is brightly flavored with the crunch of walnuts and the sweet-tangy punch of balsamic, as well as the freshness of dill—a superb contrast to all the mellow food on the table.
The closest Clark gets to tradition here is with her potato gratin. But it’s not any old gratin: She makes hers in a sheet pan. It also looks glorious at the table: a sea of shingled potatoes in a garlic- and herb-infused custard with a tantalizing cheese crust. Because the potatoes are thinly sliced, they don’t have to be peeled. The recipe is from Dinner in French: My Recipes by Way of France (Clarkson Potter; $38 ).
“There’s less of the gooey center, but what it loses in ooze it makes up for in increased surface area for the crisp-edged baked cheese,” writes Clark in the book.
It’s a memorable dish, the kind that makes people remember the meal. “All these dishes stand out more than a turkey,” Clark says. “Everyone will remember the Thanksgiving they got to have pizza.”
Roasted Carrots With Walnuts and Feta
Testers Note: This recipe is easily doubled.
1 lb medium-size carrots, halved lengthwise
1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil, more as needed
½ tsp kosher salt
½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup walnuts
2 oz feta cheese, crumbled (optional)
1 tbsp chopped fresh dill or parsley
Balsamic vinegar or pomegranate molasses, for drizzling
Heat the oven to 425F. Toss the carrots with 1 tablespoon oil, salt, and pepper. Arrange on a rimmed baking sheet. Roast, tossing after 15 minutes, until the carrots are almost tender and golden, 25 to 30 minutes. Add the walnuts to the baking sheet and continue cooking until golden and fragrant, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a platter, sprinkle the nuts and crumble feta over the top. Finish with dill and a good drizzle each of olive oil and pomegranate molasses or balsamic. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Scalloped Potato Gratin
2 tbsp unsalted butter, plus more for the foil, room temperature
3 cups heavy cream
One-fourth cup chopped fresh sage leaves
4 fat garlic cloves, finely grated or minced
One-fourth tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1-half tsp fine sea salt, plus more as needed
4 large eggs
4 lb (about 6 large or 8 medium) russet potatoes
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 and one-fourth cups (about 6 oz) grated Gruyère cheese
Heat the oven to 350F and brush the butter on a rimmed 17-by-13-inch baking sheet. Brush one or two pieces of foil (enough to cover the top of the pan) with more butter.
In a medium pot, bring the cream, sage, garlic, nutmeg, and a pinch of salt to a simmer. Cook until reduced by one fourth, about 15 minutes. In a large heatproof bowl, lightly beat the eggs. Beating constantly, gradually add a little of the hot cream to the eggs, then slowly pour in the rest, whisking to prevent the eggs from curdling. Reserve.
Using a mandoline or a sharp knife, slice the potatoes into ⅛-inch-thick rounds. (Don’t worry if the slices brown as they sit.)
Arrange one layer of potatoes on the buttered baking sheet, slightly overlapping the slices. Sprinkle with three-fourth teaspoon of salt, add pepper to taste, then pour half the egg mixture over the potatoes. Top with half cup of the cheese. Repeat the layers of potato, seasoning, and egg mixture. Top with the remaining 1 and three-fourth cups cheese. Cover the baking sheet with the foil (buttered-side down) and bake for 20 minutes. Remove the foil and bake until the potatoes and cheese are browned and bubbling, about 30 minutes. Let cool slightly, then serve. (The gratin can be made several hours ahead and reheated.)
Squash Pizza With Lemon and Sage
Two 8 oz balls pizza dough
1 small Meyer lemon, sliced paper thin, or 1 and half tsp finely grated lemon zest
1 small butternut squash
Half cup coarsely grated young pecorino (such as pecorino Toscano) or young manchego
2 tsp finely chopped sage
Extra-virgin olive oil, for drizzling
Coarse sea salt to taste
Preheat the oven to 500F. Preheat a pizza stone or baking sheet in the oven. Let the pizza dough stand at room temperature for 30 minutes.
If using Meyer lemon, bring a small pot of salted water to a boil. Drop in lemon slices and cook 2 minutes; remove with a slotted spoon and drain well. Taste a piece of lemon, if it seems bitter, boil again.
Using a vegetable peeler, remove the squash skin, then peel away long strips of flesh from the neck. You will need about 4½ ounces of sliced squash for 2 pizzas. Reserve the remaining squash for another use.
Overturn a rimmed baking sheet and dust generously with fine cornmeal or flour; use a pizza peel if you’ve got one. Stretch and pull out one of the pizza dough balls to a 12-inch round and set on the baking sheet. Scatter half the pecorino over the crust. Top with half the lemon slices (if using), the half the squash, and half the sage. Drizzle with oil and sprinkle with coarse salt. Jiggle the pizza gently on the pan to make sure it’s not sticking.
Starting at the back of the pizza stone or baking sheet, slide the crust onto the hot surface. Cook the pizza for 3 to 4 minutes. Turn on the broiler and broil until golden, crisp and blistered in places, 2 to 4 minutes. If you don’t have a broiler in your oven, continue baking the pizza until golden. Slide the pizza onto a large platter and sprinkle with half the lemon zest, if using.
Repeat the process with the remaining dough and topping ingredients. Serve the pizzas hot or at room temperature.