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Traveling sideshow

(article, Matthew Card)

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Thanksgiving is all about gathering with family and friends, which, for many of us, involves travel; I haven’t been to a Thanksgiving celebration within 20 miles of my home in a number of years. Being a food writer and an ex-restaurant cook, I’m usually implored upon, even begged, to prepare as many dishes as possible. Thankfully, I haven’t cooked the turkey in years — I put my foot down on that. 

Instead, I've brought everything from soups and salads to gratins and roasted root vegetables. But what looked and tasted perfect in my kitchen when freshly prepared was not always so successful once it hit the table after being cooled, packed, transported, and reheated. Some dishes looked tired, others tasted flat, and a few were complete disasters.

What are the secrets to successful holiday side dishes that travel well?

[%image feature-image float=right width=400 credit="Photo © Culinate" caption="Roasting green beans gives new flavor to a Thanksgiving classic."]

Choose dishes based on “durable” ingredients that can withstand cooling and reheating. Think hearty, robust-flavored vegetables, like winter squashes or peppers, not delicate, mild-flavored greens or summer squashes, which are best served immediately.

The cooking method matters too. Roasted vegetables tend to taste and look fine once reheated; boiled or steamed do not. High-moisture (and big-flavor) preparations, like braising, are generally successful, as are purées. With rich dairy in a purée, there’s little chance of the dish suffering.

To keep flavors at their peak, resist adding fresh herbs or finishing touches until just before serving, and always taste at the last minute to insure that the seasoning is correct. That said, do your knifework at home and come prepared. The last thing the host kitchen (or the host, for that matter) needs in the frantic moments before the Big Meal is somebody else clamoring for a cutting board or counter space.

[%image promo-image float=left width=400 credit="Photo © Culinate" caption="Vanilla bean and bay leaf enrich whipped sweet potatoes."]

Lastly, and it might seem obviously, pack thoughtfully and cautiously. One year, I had a tub of pumpkin soup explode in the wheel well of my car; from then on the car, regardless of the season, always smelled autumnal. Invest in good Tupperware, or at the very least, wrap containers tightly — all the way around — with plastic wrap (what professionals call a “cater wrap”).

So what do I make? Three of my favorites include sweet potato gratin, roasted green beans, and braised red cabbage.

Thanksgiving wouldn’t be complete without sweet-potato casserole, but I’ve never been a fan of that sticky-sweet, marshmallow-topped classic. Instead, I prefer a simpler, more adult rendition involving puréed roasted sweet potatoes flavored with vanilla bean. A backnote of bay leaf and a sharp jolt of black pepper keeps the gratin firmly planted in the savory, despite a crunchy brown-sugar crust.

High-heat roasting renders the toughest, starchiest green beans palatable. And it couldn’t be easier: simply toss the beans with oil, salt, and pepper and blast in a very hot oven until they are withered and browned in spots. The sweet, earthy beans offer a relatively blank slate for any number of flavor combinations, though I like to keep additions fairly straightforward (but by no means boring). Roasted red peppers, thyme, hazelnuts, and sherry vinegar are the key elements in Spain’s ubiquitous romesco sauce and just happen to pair perfectly with sweet green beans. 


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Juniper-flavored braised red cabbage adds some much-needed brightness in color and flavor to the monochromatic Thanksgiving spread. Slow and low cooking gives the crunchy cabbage a silky smooth texture; a dice of tart Granny Smith apples adds a bit of bite and reinforces the tartness. Once cooked, the cabbage stores well and reheats beautifully. To keep the color bright and the flavor vivid, stir in a splash of cider vinegar or lemon juice just before serving. The pigment in the cabbage, anthocyanin, reacts with acid, effectively “fixing” the color.

Try one of these dishes — or all three — during the holidays. They just might become new household classics.

p(bio). Matthew Card, a food writer and contributing editor to Cook's Illustrated, lives in Portland, Oregon.

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