The big day is just around the corner. Turkey day, as they call it. And yes, while turkey is very much at the center of many people's Thanksgiving tables, it's certainly not everyone's favorite dish. Because, let's face it: Side dishes are the real stars of the show on the penultimate Thursday in November. Unlike turkey, sides welcome endless customizations and flavor profiles. They have the ability to show a family's personality and culture. Grandma likely didn't hand down a turkey recipe, but she definitely passed down a cherished casserole of some sort, right?
Think of stuffing, mac and cheese, green beans, mashed potatoes, squash, sweet potatoes and salads as your base. On that foundation, you can build whatever you want using the flavors you love.
With that in mind, TODAY Food presents the United Sides of Thanksgiving, where chefs with all different family traditions come together to share the recipes for their most-treasured Thanksgiving side dishes. From Marcus Samuelsson's berbere-roasted carrots and Alejandra Ramos' mofongo stuffing to Eric Kim's Stouffer's-style mac and cheese and Siri Daly's "cloud nine" mashed potatoes (from Carson's late mother Pattie), these dishes each tell an important story about each chef.
More than anything, these recipes show that humble ingredients can create vivid food memories. So there's no need to break the bank at the grocery store during a time of soaring inflation to create a special meal. With these recipes in your back pocket — who knows — you might not even need the turkey.
"The cocktail is a twist on the classic lemon drop cocktail with the addition of Meyer lemon," says Martha Stewart, Queen of Thanksgiving. "It's a great way to celebrate the start of citrus season. Rimming the glass with sugar adds an elegant sparkle to the cocktail, and a final squeeze of Meyer lemon zest adds a bright and fragrant note."
Martha's tip: You can batch out the cocktail in advance but shake right before serving so that each cocktail has shards of ice in the glass.
"After making your own glazed nuts, you will never be satisfied with the store-bought variety again," says Bobby Flay. "Preparing them yourself allows you to control the levels of sugar and spice, choose the nuts that you like, and leave out the ones that you hate. Also, there's nothing like eating glazed nuts still warm from the oven, toasty and flavorful through and through. They're perfect served with a cocktail for an easy appetizer and will elevate any cheese-and-fruit plate to new heights.
Bobby's tip: Make a double batch and keep half on hand for a topping for breakfast yogurt or oatmeal. Just make sure to store them in an airtight container — they will last all week.
Stuffing and casseroles
"The terms 'stuffing' and 'dressing' are often used interchangeably, but they do have different meanings: Stuffing is cooked inside the bird, dressing on its own," explains Martha.
Martha's tips: You can use this to stuff the inside of a turkey or bake in casserole dishes instead. You can also use dried cherries instead of apricots. The best use for stale bread is to make stuffing. If bread has not dried out overnight, place in a low-heat oven to dry out for a few hours.
"This recipe is inspired by Stouffer's macaroni and cheese, and delivers the best of all worlds: creamy, saucy, comfort, with a consistency that's slightly more set than a stovetop version, thanks to a final bake in the oven," says Eric Kim. "It stays voluptuous and molten as a result of a higher ratio of sauce to noodles, which are cooked completely so they don't soak up as much liquid. For me, it does come from an emotional and personal place. I grew up eating Stouffer's mac and cheese and it was always my idea of what a mac and cheese should be: heftier than a stovetop mac and more voluptuous than a classic Southern baked mac (which is also so, so delicious and very important to many people, but I didn't grow up with that).
"I think what makes a Stouffer's mac and cheese special from a regular stovetop or baked mac and cheese is that it exists somewhere between the two. It's creamy, but it's also a little set with those baked edges, which you can take as far as you like. You get the best of both worlds, I think."
Eric's tips: You can make this in a slow cooker to free up space on your stove top. Cook noodles until al dente so they don’t overcook when combined with the cheese sauce. Use a processed cheese, such as Velveeta or easy cheese, to ensure a creamy sauce.
"My family has been making this every year since I can remember. My grandmother came up with the recipe," says Esther Choi. "The inspiration came from a classic Korean-style chicken soup dish called 'samgyetang.' When she immigrated over from Korea and had her first Thanksgiving meal, she came up with this recipe, and it has been a family tradition for over 30 years. All of our friends and family are obsessed with this unique stuffing lathered with butter. It's truly life-changing."
Esther's tips: Wash rice well before cooking to remove excess starches. Use a steamer basket to make rice. Use any type of nuts or dried fruits to flavor the rice.
"This is one of my favorite recipes that my mom makes every year," says Ayesha Nurdjaja. "Coming from an Italian family, pasta was always a course on the Thanksgiving menu. We usually had lasagna, but by the time we got through the pasta course, no one had any room for the turkey (my favorite part)! So my mother had to pivot, and she came up with this recipe. It has the same crispy edges that are the best part of the lasagna, but is lighter, which leaves room for us to enjoy the bird."
Ayesha's tips: Squeeze out excess liquid from the spinach after its thawed. Use a packet of dried soup mix to easily flavor the casserole.
"This is the best spin on a classic Thanksgiving dish that I've ever made," says Darnell "SuperChef" Ferguson. "Everyone talks about it, everyone asks for it, and it combines two of my favorite Southern staples into one dish."
Darnell's tips: Add cheese slowly to ensure the cheese sauce does not break. Use canned sweet potatoes to make cheese sauce extra creamy. Make in advance, keep in the fridge and bake day of serving.
"For a Meatless Monday when you want to stick to the script, or for any day you prefer vegetables to meat (including Thanksgiving!), this creamy potpie is the perfect meal. The flexible mix of vegetables means you can try something new from the farmers market or use up any veg-drawer stragglers," says Antoni Porowski. "Baking the puff pastry separately keeps it from getting soggy. For an added creative twist, sprinkle the top of the pastry with everything bagel seasoning mix, which can be found in the spice section at Trader Joe’s and other grocery stores."
Antoni's tips: Use frozen mixed root vegetables in a pinch. Frozen puff pastry makes a perfect topping for this potpie. Add turmeric to make filling a warm golden color and for an anti-inflammatory boost.
"Mofongo — a Puerto Rican recipe of fried green plantains mashed with garlic, pork and seasonings — could easily claim the title of the island's national dish. Mofongo is enjoyed throughout the year as a side for everything from sautéed shrimp to grilled steak, but for Thanksgiving, we add broth and a few other ingredients to turn it into a moist and savory stuffing that's right at home next to the turkey," says Alejandra Ramos. "For Puerto Ricans both on and off the island, Thanksgiving has always brought together the best of both worlds by combining traditional mainland dishes like turkey and stuffing with local island flavors and ingredients, and this savory plantain stuffing is one of the tastiest examples of this cultural mix."
Alejandra's tips: In Puerto Rico, mofongo is made using a wooden mortar and pestle called a pilon, but here, I recommend using the pulse button on a food processor, which will allow you to control the texture of the stuffing. Alternatively, you can mash the ingredients by hand using any type of mortar and pestle or even a potato masher. Make sure to use green plantains, which are not sweet.
"These biscuits are the business!" says Maya-Camille Broussard. "The secret is the cream cheese. It helps the biscuits retain their moisture and bake up a crunchy exterior and a soft, melt-in-your-mouth interior. Billowy biscuits are my favorite for both sweet and savory dishes, but sometimes I want biscuits with a savoriness that also offers a more aromatic experience. Adding chives and goat cheese to the biscuits does just that while retaining the crunchy exterior and light, airy interior."
Maya-Camille's tips: Use a drinking glass to cut out biscuits. Make biscuit dough, cut and freeze biscuits; bake when you are ready to serve them. You can add any herbs such as parsley, basil or scallions. Try with any cheese you have on hand.
Potatoes and squash
"I love the way it makes the house smell!" says Bobby Flay. "These are some of my favorite fall flavors and the recipe comes together easily and is a crowd-pleaser every time I make it."
Bobby's tips: You don’t need to peel acorn squash; you can roast with the skin on. If you are a fan of brown butter, make a batch and store it in your refrigerator for up to a week and just warm some up when you want it. It is a game-changer ingredient in so many dishes (cookies, cakes, topping for fish and beef, in pasta, etc.).
"Carson's mom made these for us every Thanksgiving!" says Siri Daly. "It's still up for debate whether the booze was intentional or not, but the fact is: These are buttery, creamy potatoes with an extra special twist."
Siri's tips: Definitely mash by hand with a potato masher or use a ricer — never use a food processor or blender — you'll end up with a gluey mess! You can peel the potatoes before boiling or you can let the skin easily fall off after. Use Yukon Gold or another starchy potato for the creamiest mashed potatoes.
"Here's a simple way prepare a favorite Thanksgiving side," says Melissa Clark. "Just bake the potatoes, peel and slice, then drench them in a butter-cider-maple syrup mixture that's been seasoned with cinnamon, cloves and orange zest. Bake until bubbly and the edges brown. If you want to top these with marshmallows, you can add some mini ones to the top, then broil until they brown."
Melissa's tips: Choose sweet potatoes that are about the same size, so they cook evenly and look uniform in the baking dish. You can bake the sweet potatoes and make the syrup up to two days before making the dish; slice and broil the day of Thanksgiving.
"Parmigiano and olive oil put an Italian spin on classic French pommes Anna," says Anne Burrell. "The cheesy Parm adds flavor to the tender interior of the potato cake while the olive oil ensures and extra crispy exterior. It's a three-ingredient dish that is super simple to make, but the result is really delicious and impressive."
Veggies and greens
"Thanksgiving meals are hearty and heavy, which is why we look forward to them so much every year, but it's also important to break up those nap-inducing dishes with some fresh citrus flavors, mint and veggies," says Marcus Samuelsson. "This recipe incorporates one of my favorite spices, berbere, a staple in any Ethiopian home. And as delicious as it is, it's also extremely simple to make in a pinch when you have a big family to feed!"
Marcus' tips: If you don't have berbere at your local grocery store, you can make your own blend with red chili peppers, fenugreek, cardamom, coriander and ginger. You can use this dressing for other items you are serving to double down on prep. Roast the vegetables up to a day in advance since this recipe is served at room temp — which frees up oven space for the turkey.
"Give your homely side dish of green beans an Arab-style makeover," says Reem Assil. "This dish is deep and flavorful and can be served over rice or with bread. Beans are the star of the show; tomato sauce, caramelized in its own natural sugars, makes the beans pop. A hit of lemon and douse of olive oil at the end ties this beautiful dish together."
Reem's tips: In a pinch, you can use canned roasted tomatoes with chilies to save time instead of roasting whole tomatoes. Caramelized onions add a depth of flavor with minimal effort.
"Every meal Daddy has ever prepared began with this salad," says Elizabeth Heiskell. "Daddy would take out the wooden bowl that he and Mama got as a wedding gift. This simple salad taught me so much about cooking. The simplicity is the key just a few ingredients treated very well can produce amazing results. Not everything needs to be fancy!"
Elizabeth's tip: Layer lettuce on top of dressing and veggies to prevent lettuce getting soggy, then just toss everything together before serving.
"When my nonna would finish working the farm in the morning, she would almost always reach for braised beans with crusty bread and fennel for lunch," says Stefano Secchi. "I must've eaten this 40 times with her, whether I wanted to or not. Needless to say, this became part of our Thanksgiving. We add Swiss chard at my house and it can be vegan if Parmigiano rinds are left out. It's really, really satisfying — tanta roba."
Stefano's tips: Have fresh squeezed lemon juice on hand. We always finish our beans, greens, braises, etc. with a hint of lemon juice before serving to bring brightness and cut through the fat. You can use dry beans here if you soak them in two times the water for 24 hours.
"Thanksgiving in the Naik household looks very different from any other household — you won't find a turkey and you likely won't even find any meat," says Priyanka Naik. "I am vegan and I grew up vegetarian, so my family is primarily vegetarian. We use this time to make dishes that have the essence of Thanksgiving but with a spicy Indian flavor (because who doesn't like some spice in their life?). And that is how this cranberry sauce was born — a little sweet, a little tang from the tamarind and a little spice from dried red chilies."
Priyanka's tips: Make this cranberry sauce today and keep in the fridge until Thanksgiving. Don't have fresh cranberries? Frozen work just fine! Just make sure to thaw them before cooking. Additionally, leftover cranberry sauce can be turned into a Cranberry Gin Spritz!
"Turn leftover cranberry sauce into a flavorful fall cocktail!" says Priyanka. "The fragrant gin and fresh mint play perfectly with the sweetness of the cranberry and orange. Any type of cranberry sauce will work, but something with added spices — like my Indian-Spiced Cranberry Sauce — will make this drink even more flavorful and nuanced."