In a decade of owning and operating The Willows Cooking School, chef Sandy Dowling has done mashed potatoes "like 10 different ways" for Thanksgiving.
"I like to have something new for my own tastes," she says of the holiday menu, as well as side-dish classes she presents almost every year.
Cooks yearning for a bit of diversity in their holiday dishes still can use a few pantry staples to enliven ingredients they've already purchased for the feast. Instead of simmering a cranberry sauce, Dowling made a fresh relish in the food processor with the whole berries, pears and horseradish.
"It's good with beef; it's good with turkey; it's good with ham," she says. "It's so Rogue Valley. It's all gone two days later."
The turkey need not be plain, either, says chef Constance Jesser, whose Thanksgiving side-dishes class last week at Jacksonville Mercantile sold out a month in advance.
"More people are willing to try something new ... like Indian spices on your turkey," says Jesser.
"Try using garam masala."
The same goes for mashed potatoes to which cooks easily can add roasted garlic, wasabi or any number of fresh or dried herbs.
"I'd still try something," says Dowling. "Add a little mustard."
A small amount of a specialty ingredient, such as truffle salt, can impart big flavor in any number of dishes. Dowling and Jesser both like it in root-vegetable gratins. A sweet-potato gratin with truffle salt is one of the few dishes that Jesser says she makes every year.
"That just completely changes it," says Jesser.
"You can taste the truffle in it," says Dowling.
Truffle salt also seasoned one of two variations on Brussels sprouts in Jesser's side-dishes class. Cooks planning to steam or roast whole sprouts can, with a little more effort, saute the individual leaves and sprinkle them with a high-end salt like black-truffled ones available at specialty-foods stores. Jesser likes to use coconut oil for sauteing the sprouts both for its high smoke point and to banish any trace of bitterness.
"It actually makes it look a lot more generous," she says of the vegetable's presentation.
Small adjustments to the menu are perfectly doable the day before Thanksgiving — in most cases without an extra trip to the grocery store — say both chefs, provided cooks have laid in fresh ingredients. There isn't much anyone can do to alter the taste of canned green beans and cream-of-mushroom soup topped with french-fried onions.
"It's a good recipe if we have Armegeddon or something, and you have 'em in your pantry," says Dowling.
Instead, she planned to make a mustard-infused butter for blanched green beans, another simple twist that requires merely a condiment and spice that most cooks have on hand. Yet she wonders how her family, fans of the canned-bean casserole, will receive the dish.
"If they have to have those stupid onions on top, fine."
Dowling and most chefs do sanction at least one canned item: pumpkin puree. Ubiquitous this time of year, canned pumpkin — not "pie filling" — can be folded into bread doughs and batters of all types. Dowling features it in a muffin that pairs perfectly with an early-morning cup of coffee the day after the big feast.
"Those are actually great for the day of the sales."
Try these recipes from this year's Thanksgiving side dishes class at The Willows in Central Point.
Reach Food Editor Sarah Lemon at 541-776-4487 or email email@example.com.