If there's one thing most everyone can agree on, it's that a great Thanksgiving celebration all comes down to the food. When you're asked to bring a dish with you on Turkey Day, the pressure is on. If you spend the other 364 days of the year using your oven exclusively for frozen pizzas in your kitchen, the thought of contributing to food's biggest holiday can be a little staggering.
Fortunately, there are some super straightforward dishes that will give your friends and family the impression that you've used a mixer before and definitely know what to do with a food processor. The great thing about these sides and desserts is that they're not just easy to make - they lend themselves to simple twists. Here's a guide to some of the best Thanksgiving dishes, and how you can make them look about a thousand times more impressive than they actually are:
1. Mashed Potato Possibilities
Mashed potatoes are probably the easiest Thanksgiving dish. At the core, it's a four-step recipe:
- Boil potatoes.
- Add butter, salt, and milk.
Just like that, you have a holiday classic ready to go.
The only drawback to mashed potatoes is that they can be boring and predictable. You don't want to be the cousin who brought the world's easiest side dish. You want to be the one who made everyone "ooh" and "aah" at your creation.
Luckily, this dish is as versatile as it is simple, so the possibilities for variation are endless. You could go the loaded route, and mix in some bacon bits, shredded cheddar, and sour cream. Alternatively, a dash of garlic powder will give potatoes a pleasant kick.
Looking to really mix it up? Try experimenting with different combinations. Maybe you could mix in dried cranberries and maple bacon, or add a touch of beef broth and throw in some figs. Because mashed potatoes themselves are so mild, you can use them as the base for nearly any flavor combos.
2. Shine with Salad
Thanks to the creation of ready-to-go salad bags, this dish lives at the intersection of low effort and high class. Simply tear open a bag, pour the salad in a bowl, and add whatever toppings you want.
Not sure where to start, topping-wise? Here's a step-by-step guide to help you design your signature salad:
Fruits and Veggies
Once you have your greens, your next step is to think vegetables. Crispy veggies like carrots and cucumber are most people's go-to toppings, since they match the crunch of the leaves. This is a good guide to keep in mind - when your salad is all ready to go, there should be more "crunch" than "chew."
Next up is fruit. Now, most veggies tend to be fairly crunchy, but fruit can go either way. Apples and dried cranberries are the perfect example of the range of textures fruit can provide. Both of these Thanksgiving-friendly treats add a sweet touch to the salad, but apples are crisp where dried cranberries have a chewy, almost candy-like texture.
You can use either (or both), but if you have other soft toppings in mind, it might be best to steer toward crunchy. It's also a good idea to skip summery fruits like berries: They don't match the event. Since they're not in season anyway, there's no real reason to use them for your Thanksgiving dish.
Once you've got the fruits and veggies sorted out, it's time to move on to cheese. Salad doesn't need cheese, and if there's a vegan at your dinner, he or she will be glad you skipped it. If you want to add cheese, however, there are some things that need to be kept in mind.
Obviously, texture is a concern. If you have a lot of crunchy toppings so far, a nice soft cheese like feta could make a great addition. If you've already added some chewier ingredients, sticking to harder cheeses, like shredded parmesan, will help keep the balance.
Cheese's flavor can range from mild to super strong, so you have to decide how big a role you want the cheese to play in the salad overall. Mozzarella isn't likely to stand out over other flavors, but boursin cheese, for example, demands attention. If you pick a cheese that's going to hog the spotlight, design the rest of the salad around that flavor.
Next, you can add nuts and grains. Walnuts are a nice autumn pick, but if you really want to dive into the harvest spirit, use roasted pumpkin seeds. After that it just comes down to the dressing. You can DIY a simple salad dressing using olive oil and balsamic vinegar, but consider this your official permission to use store-bought dressing if you don't want to bother.
3. Roast Like a Champ
You can roast basically any seasonal vegetable and look like you definitely know what you're doing in the kitchen. There are a few tricks that will ensure that your roasted vegetables come out perfectly:
- Make sure all of the veggies are about the same size.
- Match starch levels. Roast russet potatoes with sweet potatoes, or carrots with parsnips.
You can take the roasting process one step further if you're interested in really showing off. Once you remove the veggies from the oven, use a food brush to coat the top with some maple syrup. Set your oven to broil, and put the pan in the broiling rack for about two minutes. Take it out, and you have a beautifully caramelized side dish.
4. Delicious Dessert
Maybe you're just not into making sides. If you'd rather bring the sweet treats instead, consider making easy baked apples.
This recipe taps into your days at summer camp - if you can make it on a fire, it's easy. Remove the core from your apple without poking a hole all the way through. Fill the hole with a tablespoon of butter and one or two tablespoons of brown sugar. Sprinkle cinnamon over all of it, and wrap it up with tin foil.
Set your oven to the highest setting, and place however many wrapped apples you made right on the rack. After five minutes, flip the apples upside down and continue baking. After another five minutes, remove them from the oven and let them cool.
These are already delicious, but they really pop when paired with some vanilla bean ice cream. Put them in a bowl and add a single scoop: Even your fullest family members will suddenly have room for dessert.