New takes on old holiday sides
They’ll appear on countless Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner tables throughout America, as they have for decades: green bean casserole made with canned green beans, canned cream of mushroom soup, and canned fried onions; and candied yams or sweet potatoes topped with marshmallows. Neither were part of my family’s holiday traditions, though. As regards the green bean casserole, it wasn’t because we eschewed store-bought canned food. But when green beans were in season at our organic produce farm, we ate them every night, always slow-cooked with bacon and onions. We almost never had them, fresh or canned, the rest of the year – undoubtedly because by summer’s end, we’d all gotten tired of them; I know I did.
Cooking on my own, I fixed green beans in many ways – stir-fried, sautéed, steamed – but never using that bacon-and-onion preparation. For the last few years, however, I’ve prepared them occasionally, rediscovering how delicious they are (especially when not eaten daily).
As for the candied, marshmallow-topped sweet potatoes, most of us thought they were too sweet. The exception was my dad. For years, my grandmother would make an entire casserole (sans marshmallows) for Thanksgiving, because he loved them. And every year, it went around the table and he was the only taker. After he passed away, they disappeared entirely.
Here are delectable twists on those old favorites. The green bean casserole is something old made new, based on that classic preparation with bacon and onions. And the touch of sweetness in the sweet potatoes is complemented by a touch of spicy heat.
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Traditional green bean casserole (made from scratch)
This recipe is adapted from New Orleans chef Donald Link’s cookbook, Real Cajun. Link’s three restaurants, Herbsaint, Cochon and Butcher are wildly popular – on a recent visit to Cochon, there was a crowd waiting to get in at 9 p.m. on a Monday. Some of the book’s recipes are from the restaurants, but most are, as the subtitle says, “rustic home cooking.” I’ve made many of the dishes; all have been wonderful. It’s filled with family stories and memories as well, and is the best Cajun cookbook I’ve seen since Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen more than 20 years ago.
Yes, this recipe is far more involved than the classic canned version and involves three separate preparations, although two can be made days ahead of time, leaving only the onions to fry at the last minute. But the result is definitely “kicked up a notch,” as another New Orleans chef, Emeril Lagasse says. Several notches, in fact.
For the green beans:
- 4 strips thick-sliced bacon, cut
- crosswise into half-inch pieces
- 1 c. thinly sliced onion, NOT super-sweet
- 2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced, about 1 heaping tsp.
- 2 lbs. green beans, trimmed and snapped into 2-inch lengths
- Approximately 4 c. chicken,
- pork or vegetable broth, OR water
- 1 tsp. salt, or to taste
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Tabasco or Louisiana hot sauce, optional
For the sauce:
- 6 T. unsalted butter, divided
- 1 c. finely chopped onion
- 1 tsp. salt
- pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
- 1/2 c. unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1/2 c. heavy cream
- 1 1/2 c. grated white or yellow Cheddar cheese.
For the fried onions:
- 3 c. vegetable oil
- 1 large onion, very thinly sliced and the slices separated into rings
- 1 tsp. salt
- 1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
- 1 c. unbleached all-purpose flour
Heat the bacon in a large pot over medium-high heat until lightly browned. Add the onion and sauté until tender, 6-8 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté a few minutes longer.
Add the green beans and enough broth or water to just cover, bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low, and simmer, covered, for 25-35 minutes until the beans are tender. Season with salt, pepper, and hot sauce. The beans can be made ahead to this point, and kept, refrigerated, for several days.
Preheat the oven to 350° (unless making the sauce ahead of time).
Strain the cooking liquid from the beans. Measure the liquid: you should have about 2 ½ c. If less, add more broth or water; if more, return to the pan and reduce over high heat to the proper amount. Put the green beans in a large mixing bowl.
Melt 2 T. butter in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Add the onion, salt, and nutmeg and cook, stirring, until soft, 6-8 minutes. Add the remaining 4 T. butter and stir until melted. Add the flour and cook, stirring frequently, until the mixture just begins to turn golden. Stir in the cooking liquid and cream and simmer, stirring, until the sauce is thick enough to fall slowly from a spoon, 5-7 minutes.
Remove from the heat and stir in the cheese, then add the skillet’s content to the green beans, then toss gently until combined.
Transfer the mixture to a 9-inch x 13-inch baking dish. At this point the mixture can be made ahead and kept, covered and refrigerated, for several days. If making ahead of time, remove the casserole from the refrigerator 1-2 hours before proceeding to let it come to room temperature.
Bake until the casserole is hot and bubbly around the edges, about 25-30 minutes. (A bit longer if it’s been made ahead.)
While the casserole bakes, fry the onions. Season the onion rings with salt and pepper. Heat the oil in a 12-inch cast iron skillet or other large deep pan. Place the flour in a pie plate or paper bag, add a fourth of the onions, and toss to combine. When the oil is very hot (about 350°) but not smoking, shake any excess flour from the onions and add them to the oil. Fry until golden, about 4-5 minutes, then drain on paper towels. Repeat with the remaining onions.
Remove the casserole from the oven, top with the onions. Return to the oven for an additional 20 minutes, until the onions become more deeply golden. Remove from the oven and cool slightly before serving. Serves 8-12.
Chipotle mashed sweet potatoes
Canned chipotles in adobo are available in many groceries. They’re great to have on hand, but I rarely use more than one or two at a time; I freeze the rest and dig them out as needed.
- Approximately 6 lbs. sweet potatoes, all about the same size.
- 1-2 canned chipotle chilis in adobo, or to taste
- 12 T. unsalted butter, softened
- 1 T. sauce from the chipotle chilies in adobo, or to taste
- 1/3 c. molasses, OR cane syrup, OR honey, or more or less to taste, optional
- 1 tsp. salt, or to taste
- 1/2 c. thinly sliced scallions, both green and white parts, for garnish, optional
Preheat the oven to 450°. Scrub the sweet potatoes, prick them all over with a fork and bake until they’re easily pierced with a fork. Baking time depends on their size, ranging from 45 minutes to 1-2 hours.
Mash the chipotles and butter in a bowl large enough to hold the sweet potatoes, then stir in the adobo sauce and molasses.
When the potatoes are done, cut in half lengthwise. Holding each half with a pot holder, scoop the flesh into the bowl with the chile/butter. Mash with a potato masher or electric mixer until they’re smooth and thoroughly combined with the chile butter. Serve immediately, garnished with the sliced scallions. This can be made ahead (without the scallions) and kept, covered and refrigerated, for up to several days. Spread into a buttered baking dish, let stand for a couple hours to come to room temperature, cover with foil, and bake in a 325° oven for about an hour, or until thoroughly hot. Serves 8-12.