Type 1 (most typical in my circles): travel far and long to gather with family. Type 2 (I know very few of these people): family lives close by, and this meal is just a bigger version of a typical family dinner.
Type 3: those who are not able to travel to their families for some reason or another. Friends and acquaintances gathering for a meal.
I can't tell you much about type 2 - the only type 2 Thanksgiving I've been involved with is my husband's family in Long Island. They're from India. They don't really get the whole Thanksgiving thing. As with any other holiday except Diwali, they pretty much eat the same thing as any other day. It's quite anti-climactic and I don't care to spend my special food superbowl that way again. I'll admit it's kind of about group-gorging... and turkey.
Thanksgiving types 1 & 3 are what I know (and the same system applies to Easter, in my experience). With type 1 you will gorge yourself among family, while catching up with cousins/aunts/uncles/grandparents who you have not seen in possibly a year (like, if they're not on facebook...). Type 3's are bringing together multiple traditions and expectations, all while getting acquainted with some new friends.
These are recipes for the latter types. You don't want to miss out on the conversation, but you also want something besides mashed potatoes and cranberry log. Maybe it's your first time cooking a big meal, or your oven is very small and filled with a bird. Maybe your friends or family are helping you in the kitchen, but you don't have time to give them complex instruction. But you still need to bring interestingness to the table - and new foods are a good conversation starter too. So here are some simple, chop-chop, sprinkle-drizzle, roast-or-boil side dish ideas to fill up that table.
If you have space in your oven, a big baking dish filled with vegetables is easy. Simple is better - stick to one star vegetable and add one or two herbs or seasonings and a bit of oil. Just set it and forget it. Remember a single layer of veg will probably take 30-40 minutes to roast at 425F. But the more you cook at once, they longer they will take. If the oven is already set lower for other things, allow extra time also. Give yourself a good 1 to 1-1/2 hours for roasting time. You can always remove and reheat if it browns too soon.
Drizzle with oil, salt & pepper. A pinch of fresh nutmeg or some orange zest will give it fresh flavor. Sprinkle on some nuts like almonds or walnuts for the last 10 minutes.
Try an unusual variety of cauliflower to make things interesting. Romesco has alien-like points, or try purple or yellow varieties.
Toss in olive oil and sprinkle with salt and a little sugar before roasting. A few tomatoes only take about 10 minutes in a 425 oven - so keep an eye on them and remove when they start to pop. Garnish with fresh basil or oregano to pump up the color and aromas.
We're quite used to throwing whole potatoes in the oven to bake, but how about other whole vegetables, like carrots? You could do the same with large wedges of winter squash or eggplant. Vegetables are more appetizing when you can still see what it is after it's cooked, instead of cut into unidentifiable cubes. Allow plenty of time for roasting large vegetables.
Roasted Brussels Sprouts
Thanksgiving is a good time to get people to try new things. People tend to think of brussels sprouts as an evil green enemy with a bitter flavor. Roast them to a crisp with garlic and lemon juice, optional rosemary and thyme, and maybe even a drizzle of balsamic vinegar before serving. Everything tastes better crispy and brown.
If the oven is full, and you've got some burner space to spare, cook up a big pot of something. As soon as your guests figure out you've got more cooking than just some potatoes, watch them sneak into the kitchen, lift the lid and say "oh wow, what's this?".
Start by sautéing something flavorful in olive oil in a soup pot. Add a bunch of cabbage and simmer away for an hour or more. It's pretty resilient.
Try toasting cumin and mustard seeds in oil, add some red pepper flakes and toss in a chopped up head of cabbage. Season with salt and pepper and add a little stock. Simmer away. This could work for broccoli, also.
Or, for a more colorful dish, use purple cabbage. Heat oil, add the cabbage, some mustard seeds, paprika, coriander, salt and pepper. Add 1/2 C Apple Cider, 2T white wine or cider vinegar and simmer. Toss in some diced apple for the last 10 minutes, or some golden raisins, for added texture.
Unconventional Mashed Potatoes
Instead of plain old mashed potatoes, try stirring in some fat-free sour cream instead of fatty butter. If you want to take it up a notch, try mashing sweet potatoes together with russet. You won't even miss the butter in these, especially if you add a touch of maple syrup, brown sugar or applesauce. You could do the same by boiling cubed butternut squash.
Green Beans with a Twist
If you don't have room for that green bean casserole in the oven, just boil 'em and add something. Try wax beans or flat beans for something different.
Green Beans Almondine is about as satisfying as the creamy casserole, but much healthier. Just stir in a dab of margarine to the cooked beans, and some toasted almond slices (which you can toast in the oven if it's on, on some tinfoil).
If you don't have nuts on hand, just season the beans up with a little lemon zest, dry mustard powder or fresh herbs like basil or mint.
You can make salad ahead of time, and it takes no space on the stove. Buying ready-to-eat greens cuts down on the work. For green salads, focus on one star ingredient like a fruit or vegetable, plus a crunchy surprise. For chopped salads, stick to no more than 3 vegetables to keep it simple.
Pear Cashew Salad
Top mixed greens with sliced pears and honey-sesame cashews (found at Trader Joe's). Dress with a vinaigrette, mix in a little maple or honey.
Indian Summer Salad
Fuyu Persimmons are in season, and look really cool and interesting sliced onto a salad. A little grapefruit, toasted almonds and mixed greens and you've got an impressive salad.
recipe via Fresh Direct,
For the Grapefruit Vinaigrette
1/4 cup fresh grapefruit juice
1/4 cup walnut oil
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon minced garlic
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the Salad
1 large bunch watercress, tough stems removed
4 ripe persimmons, peeled and sliced crosswise 1/4 inch thick*
2 pink grapefruits, peeled and sectioned
Parmesan cheese, for garnish (optional)
Freshly ground black pepper
Beet, Pistachio, Baby Spinach
Roasted beets can be found pre-cooked in the produce section of grocery stores. Slice them up and toss over spinach for a colorful salad. Toasted pistachios are an unexpected texture. Dress with balsamic vinaigrette.
Have a fun and festive Thanksgiving!