Holiday Food -November/December 2007

Side dishes and desserts that tell the story

by: MJ Mojer and Joanna Polowy

photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger

I guess you could say I’m a bit of a traditionalist. There are certain dishes that, no matter how good – or bad – must be served during the holidays. Turkey, of course, at Thanksgiving, and a roast at Christmas are more than just a custom. For some they’re mandatory. And, while the main course is important, the side dishes, at least in our family, tell the stories.

My mother was a wonderful cook, as were her mother, brothers and sisters. Cooking small portions was unheard of, which is a family trait passed down through the generations. This was even more evident during the holidays. In my parents’ home, though there were but a few of us, we always had a 25-pound turkey. The racks would come out of the oven, the industrial-size roaster used only twice a year would come out of its storage spot under the stairs (the only place it would fit) and mom would start the bird the night before. Her alarm would be set, then reset again and again so that she could baste all through the night. I grew up equating turkey with sleep deprivation and certainly did not look forward to cooking my first one. Fortunately, the store was out of 25-pounders and I had to settle on one a bit over 15 pounds. It changed my life. I tried to explain it to mom, but she’d have none of it. It seemed almost blasphemous to even suggest that you could cook a turkey and still get a good night’s sleep.

At her holiday table, there were always mashed potatoes (mayonnaise was my mother’s secret ingredient), mashed turnips, creamed onions, and of course, green bean casserole.

The cranberry sauce had to come out of a can. Mom went wild one year and made her own. The poor woman. You’d have thought she’d have said that there was no Santa Claus. She sure never did that again. When mom was getting on in years and was no longer interested in or able to cook the bird, she passed the torch on to me. I really broke tradition. My first menu featured sautéed green beans with almonds and shallots, oven-roasted fresh turnips and mashed red potatoes with skins on along with roasted garlic. The family was not happy and I knew why. First of all, the green beans were raw. And why did I waste time cutting turnips when the frozen were easier to mash? And who ever heard of leaving the skins on mashed potatoes? Ah, but the bird. I did win turkey approval, but learned my lesson about traditions and side dishes.

MJ Mojer is the executive chef at Bartlett’s Farm. She writes a regular food column for Yesterday’s Island.

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