Non-Traditional Thanksgiving Sides

Thanksgiving is such an all-American holiday it's easy to forget not everyone celebrates it the same way or embraces the traditional sides with the same enthusiasm. In some families, heirloom recipes are trotted out year after year, regardless of who wants to eat them. It just wouldn't be Thanksgiving without Grandma's recipe for mincemeat pie or Aunt Lulu's stuffing. And who can image a Thanksgiving table without green bean casserole or marshmallow-covered yams?

But maybe change is in the air this year. Before you drag out that tired old family recipe book, take a detour and explore a few non-traditional side dishes that will liven up the meal and give everyone's palate a break from monotony. The USA is a nation of immigrants, so the world is your oyster. Putting a new spin on classic ingredients can be a welcome change — even for a family that's been serving the same thing for decades. 

Native American dishes

As kids in school, most everyone heard the story about the first Thanksgiving and how Native Americans kept the pilgrims from starving by sharing their food and farming expertise. If you want to honor that history, consider serving a Native American side dish like wild rice with cranberries. The Anishinaabe peoples of northern Minnesota and other tribes have harvested wild rice for hundreds of years and have plenty of ways to cook it.

This recipe takes advantage of the cranberries, mushrooms, and wild rice that are in season and is a delicious, colorful mix. The wild rice is rich in nutrients, including zinc and manganese. So are the cranberries, which contain a ton of dietary fiber and a healthy dose of vitamins C, E, and K.

Wild rice (which you should buy from native suppliers like Native Harvest) may take a long time to cook, but it's worth the wait. When finished, this simple combination of rice and cranberries develops richer notes from the addition of onions and garlic. And if you want to be creative, consider adding toasted or spiced pecans, pine nuts, walnuts, shredded carrots, and other ingredients. Pair this dish with turkey, but try it with ham, roast beef, venison, and any other side dishes on your menu. Your guests will love it.

Savory pumpkin souffle

Just because pumpkin pie is a Thanksgiving staple doesn't mean it wouldn't benefit from a makeover. Consider going posh with the pumpkin by serving this savory souffle recipe from Serious Eats. Put aside any fears you might have of deflating souffles or hard-to-prepare dishes: souffles are not hard to make and can wow your guests.

As a former pastry chef with hundreds of souffles under my belt, trust me, chefs don't want you to know how easy it is to make souffles or that they can be prepared entirely in advance and baked to order. In reality, a souffle is a lighter, fluffier version of an omelet lifted by the addition of whipped egg whites stabilized with a soupcon of bechamel, a classic French mother sauce. You can make this with nary a worry, so go ahead, dare to impress.

You won't regret it because this recipe hits all the right flavor notes you expect from a great Thanksgiving dish. It has the silky pumpkin puree plus a sage-infused bechamel, crumbled amaretti cookies, grated Parmesan, bourbon, nutmeg, and egg whites. It's wonderfully rich with herbaceous notes from the sage, has hints of caramel from the bourbon, and is luxuriously sophisticated from the Parmesan and nutmeg.

Cheesy grits

Southern cooks with any sense of pride or cooking know-how will tell you the best grits are slowly cooked from scratch and aren't fussy with too many ingredients. (Grits are sort of a love-it-or-hate-it dish, though, so maybe do a test run before the big day.) What are grits? If you're asking this, you probably haven't been to the South. Grits are as Southern as magnolias and collard greens. They're a smooth porridge made from the ground dried hull of corn kernels, or hominy, which can be bought whole in cans or sold dried and ground.

Grits come in white or yellow corn variations in three grinds: coarse, quick or regular, and instant. Coarse grits are usually only available from specialty suppliers like Anson Mills. Quick or regular grits are widely available in stores and cook in anywhere from 5-15 minutes, depending on the supplier and the cooking temperature. And instant grits wouldn't have been found in the cupboards of any true Southerners, but times have changed. This precooked, dehydrated version of the original may not be as authentic, but it's a godsend for busy cooks.

If you want to take the plunge and add a true Southern classic to your menu, consider serving Alton Brown's recipe for cheesy grits. He's a good Southern boy who knows a thing or two about cooking grits, and his recipe may go a long way to appeasing people who aren't grits fans. Full-fat butter makes it extremely creamy, and the smooth, velvety texture of whole milk laced with the intense tang from the sharp cheddar cheese is all you need.

Middle Eastern stuffed squash

Fall is the perfect time to try your hand at some new squash dishes and give your Thanksgiving meal a bit of Eastern flair with mouth-watering kusa mahshi — stuffed zucchini. Try your hand at this recipe made with ground lamb, rice, allspice, cinnamon, onions, parsley, and mint. You can prepare it with yellow or green squash or zucchini; both are perfect vehicles for the stuffing and are easy to find in the store in fall.

In Persia, Turkey, and the Middle East, sheep and goats easily foraged in arid regions and the Atlas mountains. They were a much-needed source of protein for the people, so the culinary repertoire of the region includes dozens of beautiful recipes for stuffed vegetables or dishes that make the most of small amounts of flavor-packed lamb. Recipes are often laced with aromatic, zesty notes of cinnamon, allspice, and other exotic spices that perfectly complement the spices typical at Thanksgiving.

Green lentils

If you're on the hunt for a side dish that is off the radar, check out lentils. Lentils originated in North Africa and parts of Asia and are a hearty food that has been eaten by humans for about 11,000 years. This sustaining pulse (which is the seed pod of legumes like chickpeas, peas, and beans) has been a significant source of low-fat protein and a super source of folate, dietary fiber, and other nutritious things our bodies need to stay healthy.

Before you start planning your shopping list, look for Puy lentils from the Auvergne region in France, which are considered the finest in the world. These tiny green lentils are spicy, tender, and creamy like a lima bean when cooked. This recipe for herbed lentils with spinach and tomatoes is similar to many of the rustic dishes traditionally served in the Auvergne. The short list of ingredients, which includes tomatoes, spinach, fresh parsley, lemon juice, and shallots, lets the little green lentils be the focus and keeps this relevant with a host of other sides dishes you may want to serve.

Balsamic-roasted Brussels sprouts

Despite turkey's top billing at Thanksgiving, if most people are honest about why they love this holiday so much, they'll tell you it's all the fun side dishes. A properly planned menu gives you a choice of something sweet, sour, crispy, creamy, cheesy, salty, savory, tangy, and opulent. Brussels sprouts may turn off a lot of folks, but they can be a showstopper with the right recipe. This Brussels sprouts recipe, prepared with balsamic vinegar and pancetta, is sure to please. Pancetta caramelizes beautifully in the oven when combined with the balsamic vinegar and Brussels sprouts.

Ina Garten's recipe hits a lot of the bases in the list of tastes and textures and transforms the nearly bitter taste of Brussels sprouts into a classic sweet/salty harmony as the vinegar caramelizes, turning the exterior of the Brussels sprouts into crisp little orbs with tender centers.

Potatoes dauphinoise

No Thanksgiving meal is complete without potatoes. If you want to serve something other than mashed, look to the doyenne of French cooking in the U.S., Mrs. Julia Child. In her famous cookbook, "The Way to Cook," she included her tried and tested recipe for potatoes dauphinoise, similar to potatoes au gratin. This no-fail recipe is delicious.

This traditional French country dish used to be a regular Sunday dinner staple and was often prepared in a gratin dish, dropped off at the village communal oven to cook while the women went to Mass, and then picked up on the way home. It's made with thin slices of golden potatoes (which have thin skins and powdery starches, making great roasting potatoes) layered with milk or cream and half-and-half seasoned with tiny bits of garlic clove, salt and pepper, and cheese.

As the potatoes cook, they release their starches, which coagulate with the milk and form a creamy coating that is absorbed right through the potatoes, turning them into buttery, smooth, tender bites that melt in your mouth. Let's be thankful for that.