Seriously underrated holiday foods

The holidays: A time for giving and gratitude, yes, but also a time for food, food, and more food. Let's face it — as soon as we hand out that last piece of Halloween candy, we're already thinking about what to serve at our holiday feasts.

It's always a conundrum: Go ultra-modern or stick with the classics? Sure, we could serve up an impressive plate that showcases our molecular gastronomy skills, but does anyone really want to eat gravy foam atop thinly sliced sous vide turkey breast spritzed with fresh cranberry juice? Whether or not you're into foam and Michelin stars doesn't really matter when it comes to holiday dinners — it's the tradition that's important, and it's time we started appreciating those traditional dishes more. Don't worry, we're not talking about Grandma's slightly suspect mayo-laden jello salad recipe… things have come a long way since the '60s. 

From the perennial classics to the usual-but-often-overlooked standards, these are the most underrated holiday eats, and the ones you should strongly consider adding back to your menu.

Green bean casserole

If it seems like green bean casserole has been around forever, that's because it has — since 1955, anyway. That's when Campbell's employee Dorcas Reilly invented the holiday staple that, according to the company, makes an appearance on almost 30 million tables each year. 

With 30 million families serving the classic dish, it's obviously a common sight at holiday dinners, but oftentimes it gets passed from person without much love. And that's unfortunate, because green bean casserole happens to be one of the tastiest sides out there. Can it be a little gloopy, with its canned green beans? Sure, but there's nostalgia in that gloopiness. And that's also where the french fried onions come in. With enough of those crispy, crunchy morsels adorning the top of the dish, it really doesn't matter what's underneath — seriously, french fried onions could make dog food taste good.

Pro tip: Fresh beans go a long way in elevating this old-school side, while allowing the original flavors to shine through. Suddenly, it's gone from gloopy to glorious, and you won't be passing the dish at all — you'll want to park it right in front of you.  

Jell-O salad

We've all browsed — slightly horrified and slightly intrigued — through the vintage gelatin ads showcasing cringe-worthy delights like Silhouette Salad (a mouthwatering chicken-gelatin concoction), and vegetable rice medley (a tasty melange of ingredients like lime Jell-O, onions, pimentos, celery, and peas). These dishes are what nightmares are made of, and have made us all repulsed by the thought of a Jell-O salad gracing our holiday tables. 

But it's time to rethink that stance. Today, Jell-O salads are a dish to be celebrated. Stuffed only with fruit, and nary a spoonful of mayo in sight, they happen to be the perfect holiday dish. Not only are they a light and refreshing palate cleanser among a sea of heavy, rich foods, they're also an almost-dessert before the real dessert is served, and who doesn't want two desserts? 

This year, consider taking a slice of that fruity Jell-O salad, but if Grandma happens to serve a macaroni loaf (complete with mustard, cabbage, and pasta), run.

Creamed pearl onions

Each holiday, as the creamed pearl onions get passed around, you can hear the chorus of not-so-muffled groans, and watch the eye rolls that move around the table from person to person like the wave. But really, creamed onions don't deserve their bad rep.

These pungent pearls go from sharp and intense to savory and sweet in the cooking process, and practically melt when they hit your tongue… ideally, that is. Now, if you've ever popped one of these little babies into your mouth expecting a soft, creamy bite, but instead were met with an undercooked onion, then your aversion to the dish is warranted. Of course, nobody wants to chomp down on a raw onion, but pearl onions that are cooked to creamy perfection should grace every holiday table. 

Just one bite of properly prepared creamed onions will eliminate the groans and eye rolls forever, that's a promise.

Canned cranberry sauce

When it comes to canned cranberry sauce versus fresh, the debate can become quite contentious, but it's canned that gets the most hate

Those who favor from-scratch cooking insist that there's no place for that ridged blob of jelly on their table, and say that freshly-made anything is better than already prepared. But believe it or not, there are plenty of professionals who disagree, according to Food & Wine. David Bancroft, executive chef at Bow & Arrow and Acre, told the publication, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it! I was so proud of my homemade cranberry sauce. I found it pushed to the farthest corner of the table where it was in nobody's way."

There's a certain nostalgia that comes with canned cranberry sauce, and there's also comfort in knowing that every can you open is going to taste the same, which means there's absolutely no risk of a recipe fail. That's reason enough to stick to the store-bought stuff.

Scalloped potatoes

Mashed potatoes get so much love at the holidays, and there's no doubt that they're delicious in all their creamy, fluffy, buttery glory. But we forget about those other worthy potato dishes that just might be better than their mashed cousins — like scalloped potatoes. 

See, scalloped potatoes offer a couple things that mashed potatoes do not — texture and flavor. Is there anything more drool-worthy than a casserole dish filled to the top with thinly sliced potatoes, cooked to tender perfection in an ungodly amount of cream, milk, butter, and cheese, with just a hint of nutmeg? Actually, yes, it turns out there is: The burnt, crispy edges of those creamy, cheesy potatoes.

But what about the gravy, you ask? Do you want to smother scalloped potatoes in gravy? Probably not. But that's not a knock on them. Mashed potatoes might get points for serving as a vehicle to consume more gravy, but scalloped potatoes already come with their own heavenly sauce. 

The winner is clear when it comes to this side dish throw-down, and the title goes to scalloped potatoes, hands down.

Ambrosia salad

Although ambrosia salad has been around since the late 1800s, and some of us will remember the dish as a staple on Grandma's buffet in the '80s, it seems to have fallen out of favor on today's holiday tables. It's time for an ambrosia salad resurgence. 

Typically made with mandarin oranges, canned pineapple, maraschino cherries, coconut, pecans, whipped topping, and mini marshmallows, it might sound a bit overwhelming. But all these components come together to form a light and fluffy "salad" that's unlike anything else we serve at our holiday dinners. Is it a side dish? Is it dessert? Ambrosia salad can be whatever you want it to be — that's part of its charm.

One warning about this sweet and fruity concoction: It can be a bit polarizing. Can you guess which ingredient causes the divide at the dinner table? It's always the coconut. Coconut is a non-negotiable ingredient to its haters — even one shred in a dish and those who are coconut-averse won't touch it. That's okay, more for the rest of us.

Stove Top Stuffing

The holidays can be a stressful time in general, but nothing is quite as stressful as cooking a big holiday dinner. That's why this holiday season, it's time to abort your mission at becoming the next Martha Stewart, and grab a few boxes of good ol' Stove Top Stuffing. 

Don't scoff — Stove Top has a lot going for it. 1. It requires only water and butter, something you cannot say about homemade stuffing. 2. It only takes five minutes to make, another thing you cannot say about homemade stuffing. This frees up your time to focus on the rest of the dinner, or you know, drink a few glasses of wine.  And 3. It tastes good. Homemade stuffing is one of those holiday dinner risks — it might come out soggy, it might come out dry, it might come out flavorless. But with Stove Top, you know what you're getting every time: That delicious savory flavor you remember from your childhood. 

Cheese balls

No, not the puffy neon orange balls you get in the giant plastic tub… delicious cheese balls made with actual cheese and spread onto crackers. 

The cheese ball's popularity has had its ups and downs since its inception in 1801, falling in and out of favor from decade to decade. Some years it's the en vogue appetizer, some years it's passé. But why in the world wouldn't you want to eat cream cheese plus more cheese rolled in nuts, no matter what the trend?

These days, gourmet cheese ball recipes abound on the internet, and whether you want smoked salmon or bacon or ham, Gruyere or cheddar or Gouda, there's a recipe for it. In fact, an entire cookbook full of cheese ball recipes debuted in 2013, hopefully a sign that they're here to stay. 

No matter which iteration of the cheese ball you choose, it definitely belongs in the holiday spread.

Eggnog

There's really no in-between when it comes to this holiday drink — you either love it or hate it. But those who choose not to partake are missing out. It's time to give this once-a-year classic another try.

It's true that there are plenty of good reasons not to like eggnog, but these are all solvable problems. Yes, store-bought versions can be a gamble, and are usually not worth drinking. Yes, real eggnog can be a pain to make, especially if you don't have a surplus of eggs laying around. And yes, eggnog has a thick consistency that some find unappealing. 

So how does it go from "no thanks" to "I have to have it"? Skip the store-bought and authentic versions altogether, and follow the melted ice cream approach from Leite's Culinaria. Good vanilla ice cream, plenty of rum and bourbon, and a few pinches of nutmeg and cinnamon make a faux nog that nobody can pass up. And as for that thick consistency problem, it's really just a matter of adding more booze. Enough brandy and we're all eggnog lovers.