At Thanksgiving, If You Take Sides, Make Sure They're As Tasty As These

Nov 23, 2016
Originally published on November 23, 2016 2:09 pm

It's Thanksgiving, which means you'll be seeing Aunt Martha's sweet potato casserole encased in a marshmallow cloud that has drifted too close to the sun. Cousin Joe, who's just here for the game, will bring his famous can-shaped cranberry sauce that looks like it's been attacked by a Slinky. Then your sister will arrive with her sad concoction of green beans drowning in cream-of-mushroom soup, flecked with floating onion strings that have been flung like debris from the Titanic.

There's a certain charm to these standbys, and by golly, you might even like them. But maybe this year you're ready for a change. Not a big one, like subbing tofu for turkey. Just a twist, you know — one that keeps you from being accused of breaking tradition but also says "It's my kitchen and unless you're helping, go away." And, hey, wouldn't we also like to keep it simple so that we actually have some time to enjoy ourselves?

Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep spoke with chef Mike Isabella, a Washington, D.C.-based restaurateur, about how to tweak that traditional dish into one you still wouldn't mind bringing home to meet your mother.

Isabella, who is in charge of bringing side dishes to his family's Thanksgiving table every year, says he sticks to classic roots but likes to add a twist here and there. "You always want to put one or two elements in there that changes the way people think when they taste something," he says.

For the sweet potatoes, Isabella says he wants to create something a little more savory, "something you could eat not just at Thanksgiving but all the time." For cranberries, he takes a nod from ambrosia, that sweet, jiggly goo with Jell-O and whipped cream — but he makes it a cranberry dish, cooking down the berries with sugar, oranges, cinnamon, rosemary and thyme; the result is chilled in a terrine mold and topped with Greek yogurt. And for a fresher, healthier green bean dish, he blanches the beans and cherry tomatoes, sprinkles them with fried shallots, and tosses it all with a mustard vinaigrette.

When you keep things simple, Isabella says, "That makes Thanksgiving a lot more fun, and you can drink a little more that way."


Serves 6-8


2 tablespoons olive oil

2 garlic cloves, peeled

1 cup leeks, cleaned and diced

1 cup turnips, peeled

2 cups sweet potato, peeled and sliced 1/4-inch thick

2 cups sugar pumpkin, peeled, diced

2 cups purple potatoes, peeled and sliced 1/4-inch thick

1 cup celery root, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch batonnet

2 cup delicata squash, diced

2 cups chicken stock

2 cups heavy cream

1 cup mascarpone cheese

2 cups grated Gruyere cheese

2 1/2 cups breadcrumbs

2 tablespoons thyme

1/2 cup melted butter

Salt and pepper to taste


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 13-by-9-inch deep baking dish.

Saute the leeks until tender. Add garlic and thyme for one minute more until fragrant.

Mix the onion mixture with the remaining vegetables, cream, stock, 1 tablespoon kosher salt and 2 tablespoons black pepper.

Pour mixture into the baking dish.

Mix breadcrumbs, cheese and melted butter together and spread over top.

Bake for 1 1/2 hours uncovered until vegetables are tender and the top is golden brown.

Cover with aluminum foil if the breadcrumbs darken too quickly.

Orange-Cranberry Terrine

Serves 6-8


16 ounces cranberries

1 cup orange segments

1 tablespoon orange zest

1 cup sugar

2 tablespoons water

3 tablespoons red verjus

1 cinnamon stick

1 sprig rosemary

1 sprig thyme

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 cup Greek yogurt


Heat water and sugar over medium heat in a nonreactive saucepan until slightly caramelized. Add verjus and melt caramel.

Put remaining ingredients in the saucepan and simmer over medium heat, stirring frequently until thickened and reduced by a quarter.

Remove cinnamon stick and cool in terrine mold until firm.

Remove terrine from mold to slice and serve with a dollop of Greek yogurt.

Warm Green Bean Salad

Serves 6


1 quart haricots verts, blanched

1 cup cherry tomatoes, peeled

1 cup shallots, sliced thin

2 cups canola oil

2 tablespoons whole grain mustard

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

1/4 cup white wine vinegar

1 tablespoon honey

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 teaspoon salt


Bring a pot of water to boil, salt the water and blanch the haricots verts until tender. Shock in ice water and drain.

Peel and blanch the cherry tomatoes.

Heat the canola oil in a deep pot until 350 degrees. Fry the shallots until golden brown, about 4 minutes. Drain to a paper towel-lined sheet tray.

Blend vinegar, mustards, honey, black pepper and salt. Stir to incorporate all the ingredients.

Toss the haricots verts with the vinaigrette and tomatoes. Sprinkle fried shallots on top.

Season to taste.

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Just before Thanksgiving, we walked into a restaurant in Washington, D.C. We met the owner, Mike Isabella, in sight of the hunks of meat turning on the kitchen rotisseries.

MIKE ISABELLA: We do lamb. We do goat. We do pig. We do chickens.

INSKEEP: I just want to describe - I realized that I can feel the heat coming off of these - what'd you call them?


INSKEEP: Spits over here - there's an entire bird on that one.

ISABELLA: Yeah, that's the turkey. We're actually doing turkeys for Thanksgiving. We - people order them - pre-order them, and then they come pick them up on Thanksgiving Day. It's been a huge hit. My guys hang out here overnight and cook them all night.

INSKEEP: The restaurant is called Kapnos, and it's 1 of 9 that Mike Isabella runs. We came to the restaurant seeking help with something more than the turkey. We wanted pointers on Thanksgiving side dishes. You know, you can just eat cranberry sauce out of the can and green beans with bacon bits, but Isabella says you can stretch a bit more.

ISABELLA: Yeah. Yeah, there's - you know, I mean, a lot of people are stuck in their classic ways of doing certain classic dishes. And I took a couple of dishes and kind of - kind of recreated them as something that I would do - you know, something that chefs would do in the kitchen but also easy to make at home. So you have some similar flavor profiles, but it's also a different dish.

INSKEEP: It's a chance to be a little creative without killing yourself. Mike Isabella made a couple of dishes before we arrived, one of which updates a dish that he ate growing up.

And what have we got here - this red thing? It looks like cranberry sauce.

ISABELLA: So it looks like a cranberry sauce. So basically, you know, another dish that people talked about was ambrosia. You know, I grew up in New Jersey, so we saw that a lot.

INSKEEP: Ambrosia is a bowl of pinkish goo, typically featuring yogurt, whipped topping, mandarin oranges, even Jell-O. In Mike Isabella's hands, it completely changes to a cranberry dish. Cook your cranberries with sugar, oranges, cinnamon stick and rosemary, then cool it all in a long, rectangular dish.

ISABELLA: And you can see how it's nice and gelatinous.

INSKEEP: It's like a loaf of cranberry, actually.

ISABELLA: Yeah, yeah. And then, basically, you just - you just slice it, you know, so you have that nice texture of ambrosia. And instead of using heavy cream with this, I put on top of it a little bit of a Greek yogurt with a little bit of orange zest. So you kind of get a sweetness. This is a dish you want to eat with - with the - with the main meal, with the turkey. So you have your yogurt and your cranberry and your oranges, but it's still giving you that same texture of ambrosia, but in a chef way.

INSKEEP: And the slice will look colorful on the plate next to the sweet potatoes.

ISABELLA: I have over here - I did a sweet potato gratin.

INSKEEP: Sweet potato gratin?


INSKEEP: This is, like, in a casserole dish, I want to say.

ISABELLA: Yeah, yeah. So instead of, like, making a sweet potato puree and putting it in here and putting some marshmallows on top, we took it a couple extra steps. I sliced sweet potatoes. I also sliced some squash because it's also sweet - has a sweetness to it, but it has a little bit of a different texture. And I also have some purple potatoes in there. And then we toss that with some cream, some mascarpone cheese, a little parmesan, some herbs. And I just layer it with all the different, you know, root vegetables.

INSKEEP: Yeah, you've cut out a piece of this from the casserole dish, and so we can see in there. And it looks like layers of sedimentary rock in there.

ISABELLA: Yeah (laughter).

INSKEEP: And then a little bit of landscape on top.

ISABELLA: Yeah, a little landscape. So on top is, like, bread crumbs, herbs, lemon zest and parmesan cheese. And it kind of gets a nice crust on top.

INSKEEP: So this is just potatoes, but taking the extra step, making it a little creative. It looks great, actually.


INSKEEP: And, well, do we get to find out how this thing tastes?

ISABELLA: Yeah, we do. Yeah, we do. Want me to cut you up a piece?

INSKEEP: I would love that. This is the part where the interview comes to a halt while I eat something. Oh, yeah. Yeah, there you go. That is really - I like it a lot.

ISABELLA: You know, you get all the - all the vegetables in there, you know, with the sweet potatoes that are really thinly sliced, the squash, the purple potatoes.

INSKEEP: These are sliced like potato chips, basically.

ISABELLA: Yeah, they're slice liked - exactly like potato chips.

INSKEEP: You do notice I'm having a third bite here, right?

ISABELLA: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: So where are you usually at at Thanksgiving?

ISABELLA: I'm going to be in Pennsylvania this year - my wife's family's (laughter).

INSKEEP: So will you be cooking?

ISABELLA: Yeah, we actually do the sides every year.

INSKEEP: The very thing we're talking about here. Are people competitive in your extended family if different people are bringing the side dishes?

ISABELLA: No, they're pretty classic to what they do.

INSKEEP: You don't try to show off so much?

ISABELLA: I don't need to show off. I might hide some little things in there. I might put a little curry powder in the gravy, and they're like, oh, what's that spice in there? I always like to put one element or two elements in there to kind of change the way people think when they taste something.

So we're going to make, you know, a green - a classic green bean casserole is usually, like, kind of, like, green beans, stewed tomatoes, onions, bread crumbs on top, baked, kind of you get brown green beans after it's been cooking for so long. So I just wanted to make something a little bit more fresh, healthier, more colorful and simple. So I wanted to do, like, a warm green bean salad. So what I did is I blanched off some green beans...


ISABELLA: ...That we're just going to toss in the saute pan just to kind of warm them up. And I also have some cherry tomatoes that I peeled. I blanched and peeled them so there's no skin on them because I like - I like it a little clean. So toss a little bit of tomatoes in there. And then, to keep it healthy, what I did was I made a - I made a vinaigrette out of mustard. So it's, like, Dijon mustard, a little bit of vinegar, olive oil and some raw shallots.

And I'm just kind of going to pour that on into the pan, and it kind of sizzles. And that's all you really want to do. This dish is pretty much almost done. Just give it a little toss. I'm going to hit it with a little bit of salt and some - some fresh herbs. I got some mint, some dill, some parsley, whatever you got laying around - basil, anything - just to give us a little bit of freshness in there, just kind of lighten these flavors up.

INSKEEP: You kept that on the cooking surface for less than a minute, I'd say.

ISABELLA: Less than a minute. You just - you just want it warm. And then on top, I got some - I fried some shallots that we made in house that we slice really thin, give it a little crispiness. You could do breadcrumb.

INSKEEP: OK, this looks like a fancy dish when you put the shallots on top like that, you know? It starts to look like a fancy restaurant dish.

ISABELLA: Yeah, it's three - it's three elements.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

ISABELLA: You got a tomato, a green bean and a shallot and a mustard vinaigrette. But it looks - you know, it looks pretty. You have the reds and the greens, and it's all bright and exciting. So, you know, it's - it's just - it's a fun dish to put out. And again, it can stay out all day. It can be room temp, and it's a great dish to serve at Thanksgiving.

INSKEEP: For Washington restaurateur Mike Isabella, a Thanksgiving side dish should be easy.

That's got to be the key with all of this because there's so much cooking to do. Do things that don't take a lot of time.

ISABELLA: Yeah, exactly. And that's the way we try to do it. Like, the casserole you can pre-make, the cranberry you can pre-make. And this is just mixing it all together, kind of warming it up, and you're there. And that - and that makes Thanksgiving a lot more fun, and you can drink a little bit more that way.

INSKEEP: There you go - watch a little more football. Mike Isabella, thanks very much.

ISABELLA: Thank you very much - pleasure.

INSKEEP: You can see all of chef Mike Isabella's recipes at Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.