November 21, 2011

The vegetable, the meat and the pasta

Ever since my first Thanksgiving dinner in the U.S., I thought that side dishes are as important as the turkey.  After all, the turkey on its own is just plain, old, dry, boring meat.  It needs something to bounce it out of the ball park and make it shine.  And there is where side dishes rush in.  Growing up, my grandma Vicki always served a side next to a meat dish in order to balance out the richness of the meat, the colors and, why not, the healthy aspect of the dish.  You had the starch, a role usually played by the always fabulous potatoes; you had the meat, whether it was pork, chicken, turkey, duck or beef, it had to be present; and then, you had the vegetable.  My favorite side dish was always peas.  I love peas!  Those small, sweet pearls are not only good looking, but also healthy and delicious.  Dress them up in a nice, sweeter sauce and you can make them spectacular!   

I’m a big fan of the show The Next Iron Chef on Food Channel.  I guess that by now you have realized that I watch the Food Channel religiously.  On this show, the judges continuously remind the contestants (who in this season are all famous chefs) that less is usually more in this competition and in Kitchen Stadium.  If a chef cooks two or three different dishes on the same plate, he allows the judges to critique his dishes individually, which is usually a recipe for disaster.  Basically, the chef is evaluated against himself. 

Anyway… you sometimes have to take risks in order to succeed.  This is exactly what chef Beau MacMillan did on a recent episode.  Chef MacMillan and Chef Hughes were in the bottom two and had to face each other to remain in the competition.  The two chefs had to cook a dish in 30 minutes using a secret ingredient, which this time was tofu.  Tofu…really?  I usually get out of my way to stay away from tofu.  Personally, I think that tofu is a very difficult ingredient to work with, and especially to make it the star of your dish.  However, Chef MacMillan did it flawlessly.  And on top of that, he cooked the tofu three different ways.  He actually had three different dishes on the same plate.  Nonetheless, those three different, creative dishes, cooked beautifully helped him remain in the competition and gave him another chance to be the Next Iron Chef. 

So, having Chef Beau MacMillan as my inspiration, I’ve decided not to stop with just one recipe, just one suggestion for your ultimate Thanksgiving side dish, but to offer you three different and absolutely delicious options.  Please feel free to pick your favorite.  In the end, they are all sensational Thanksgiving sides!  First up are the sweet green peas.  They are my favorite side dish! 

Sweet Green Peas
By Simply Romanesco inspired by my Grandma Vicki

Serves: 4 servings


·         3 Tablespoons vegetable oil
·         1 pound (500 grams) frozen peas
·         1 teaspoon kosher salt
·         2 teaspoons sugar
·         1 heaped Tablespoon all-purpose flour
·         ¼ cup fresh parsley, chopped


In a medium saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat.  Add the peas and cook until the ice melts and the water starts boiling.  Cover the peas halfway with up to 1 cup of water.  Bring to a boil over medium heat and cook the peas for about 5 minutes.  Season with 1 teaspoon of salt and 2 teaspoons of sugar and stir well.  Add the chopped parsley and stir.  Add the flour and stir until you get a nice sauce consistency.  Cook for 2-3 minutes more.  Carefully season with more salt and sugar, if necessary, to get the perfect balance between salty and sweet.

These peas are salty-sweet and creamy, but light at the same time.  The parsley is a fresh finishing touch, which brightens up the entire dish.  Moreover, I know that green beans are very popular on the Thanksgiving table.  But if you want to switch it up a bit and try something new this year, these green peas are the perfect substitute!

If you want a meaty side dish, I have the perfect ball…that is the perfect meatball.  These Romanian meatballs are a great appetizer or a great side dish for Thanksgiving.  They are dense, rich, flavorful and, oh, so delicious.  Once you’ve tried one, you’ll be eating them by the dozen.  

Chiftele – Romanian Meatballs
By Simply Romanesco inspired by my Grandma Vicki

Serve: 20+ regular size patties or 30 small meatballs  


·         Up to 1 cup vegetable oil
·         2 pounds (1 kilogram) ground pork
·         4-5 slices of bread
·         1 medium yellow onion, grated
·         2 russet potatoes, peeled and grated
·         5 garlic cloves, minced
·         2 eggs
·         1 Tablespoon kosher salt
·         ½ teaspoon black pepper
·         1 Tablespoon fresh parsley, chopped
·         1 Tablespoon fresh dill, chopped
·         ¼ teaspoon dry oregano
·         ¼ teaspoon dry thyme


Put the ground pork in a large bowl.  Soak the slices of bread in water and then squeeze out the extra water.  Add them to the meat.  Add the grated onion, grated potatoes, minced garlic, eggs, salt, pepper, parsley, dill, oregano and thyme.  Mix them all together.  Don’t be afraid to use clean hands.  It will make the job a lot easier!  Using your wet hands, make 2x1 inch patties or roll small portions of the meat mixture between your palms and form 1 inch balls.    

In a skillet, heat up the oil over medium heat.  Turn the heat down to medium-low.  Add the patties or the meatballs and cook them for 8-10 minutes (the patties) on each side, 6-7 minutes (the meatballs), or until they are browned well on all sides.  Enjoy and have a ball!   

OMG!  I made my first pasta from scratch, the other day!  How awesome is that?  And I didn’t even need a pasta machine!  I made Giada’s Sweet Potato Gnocchi with Maple Cinnamon Sage Brown Butter recipe.  Sweet potatoes are a traditional side dish for Thanksgiving and it’s a crime, literally, to leave them out!  This wonderful recipe is the perfect alternative to serving just plain sweet potatoes.

Sweet Potato Gnocchi with Maple Cinnamon Sage Brown Butter
Adapted slightly from Sweet Potato Gnocchi with Maple Cinnamon Sage Brown Butter by Giada De Laurentiis

Serves: 6-8 servings (about 100 gnocchi)

Ingredients for the Gnocchi:

·         2 pounds sweet potatoes or yams (about 3 medium potatoes)
·         2/3 cup ricotta cheese
·         1 ½ teaspoons salt
·         1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
·         ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
·         1 ¼ to 2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for the work surface

Ingredients for the Maple Cinnamon Sage Brown Butter:

·         ½ cup unsalted butter (1 stick)
·         20 fresh sage leaves 
·         1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
·         2 Tablespoons maple syrup
·         1 teaspoon salt
·         ½ teaspoon black pepper


For the Gnocchi:  Preheat the oven to 425°F.

Pierce the sweet potatoes with a fork.  Bake the sweet potatoes (I used yams and the gnocchi still turned out great) until tender and fully cooked, between 40 to 55 minutes depending on size.  Cool slightly.  Cut in half and scoop the flesh into a large bowl.  Mash the sweet potatoes and transfer to a large measuring cup to make sure the sweet potatoes measure about 2 cups.  Transfer the mashed sweet potatoes back to the large bowl.  Add the ricotta cheese, salt, cinnamon, and pepper and blend until well mixed.  Add the flour, ½ cup at a time until a soft dough forms and the mixture is not sticky.  Lightly flour a work surface and place the dough in a ball on the work surface.  Divide the dough into 6 equal balls.  Roll out each ball into a 1-inch wide rope.  Cut each rope into 1-inch pieces.  Roll the gnocchi over the tines of a fork.  Transfer the formed gnocchi to a large baking sheet.  Continue with the remaining gnocchi. 

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat.  Add the gnocchi in 3 batches and cook until tender but still firm to the bite, stirring occasionally, about 5 to 6 minutes.  When they are about done, the gnocchi will float to the surface.  Drain the gnocchi using a slotted spoon onto a baking sheet.  Tent with foil to keep warm and continue with the remaining gnocchi. 

For the Brown Butter sauce:  While the last batch of gnocchi is cooking, melt the butter in a large sauté pan over medium heat.  When the butter has melted, tear up and add the sage leaves.  Continue to cook, swirling the butter occasionally, until the foam subsides and the milk solids begin to brown.  Remove the pan from the heat.  Stir in the cinnamon, maple syrup, salt, and pepper.  Careful, the mixture will bubble up!  Gently stir the mixture.  When the bubbles subside, toss the cooked gnocchi in the brown butter.  Transfer the gnocchi to a serving dish and serve immediately.  

With this recipe you get the sweet potatoes and the pasta all in one dish, as well as an abundance of traditional Thanksgiving flavors.  You get the earthiness from the sage, the spiciness from the cinnamon, and the smokiness from the maple syrup.  The gnocchi just melt in your mouth and the whimsical aromas of the brown butter infuse the entire house. 

So, here you have it: three different, yet all decadent and superb side dishes.  Whichever one you pick for your Thanksgiving feast, will be a hit!  Guaranteed!  Poftă Bună! (Bon Appétit!)  

1 comment:

  1. So glad you included your grandma Vicki's pea recipe! I've been wanting it ever since you made them with me. Yay peas! :)