Even if you're the kind of person who types out production schedules for holiday meals -- the days laid out according to brining times and baking itineraries -- and especially if you aren't, the day before Thanksgiving can bring on a sudden crisis of faith. Will there be enough food? Where are the dessert plates? Did I forget the mashed potatoes?
Well, thankfully, there's a whole category of dishes that slides easily into this penultimate time slot: simple sides that can be accomplished with basic ingredients, dwindling free time, low-stress recipes.
Make these the day before or even the morning of the big meal, to fill in the gaps of the feast. A tray of whole-grain mustard rolls, warm from the oven. A pot of braised cabbage, fragrant with juniper berries and caraway seeds. A bowl of, yes, mashed potatoes, laced with brown butter and crispy sage.
This is food on the unfussy end of the spectrum. Because for all the fanfare -- the showstoppers and signature dishes, the labor-intensive birds and the artfully decorated desserts -- it's sometimes good to have a little comfort food to round out a perfect meal.
So, pause amid last-minute errands and the careful orchestration of the day, and make a batch of simple yeast rolls. Bread can sometimes get forgotten, between the catalog of pies and side dishes, yet it's the perfect bridge to the meal. Pair a whole-grain mustard roll with a slice of cheese before everyone sits down, or add one to your plate with a nub of butter.
This recipe is one for a basic bread dough, laced with whole wheat flour and whole-grain mustard for an earthier note that stands up to the heady flavors of the feast.
Mix the dough by machine if you're feeling pressed for time, or knead it by hand for a bit of occupational holiday therapy. Then just let it rise in a warm part of the kitchen -- odds are you'll have lots of those -- like a happy afterthought.
Divide the risen dough into rounds, then brush them with a quick honey glaze for rich color and a hint of sweetness that highlights the subtle notes of mustard and wheat. Warm from the oven, or even reheated the next day, a basket of pretty rolls is better than any centerpiece -- and it's edible too.
Braised red cabbage has a warm, slightly acidic note that works as a welcome counterpoint to the richness of the bird, the platters of stuffing and root vegetables. The cabbage is laced with red wine and cider vinegar, with hints of spice from juniper berries and thyme, then cooked slowly on the stove top. After an hour or so with the cover on, it's done.
Toast a few caraway seeds at the last minute and stir them in, then top the dish with toasted hazelnuts. The caraway bridges the distance between the subtle bite of the cabbage and the soft notes of the nuts, and -- an aesthetic plus -- the dark magenta of the dish plays beautifully against the golds and browns on display with the rest of the meal.
And then there's mashed potatoes, a homey dish that deserves not to be forgotten. In fact, it deserves to be elevated, celebrated even -- although without losing its basic nature.
Simply boil a pot of baking potatoes. Don't peel them, as the skins provide a bit of color, a wealth of nutrients and some welcome texture. Fry a handful of whole sage leaves in a little butter. Well, a lot of butter; this is Thanksgiving dinner, not spa food. Remove the crisp sage -- don't throw it away -- and brown the butter until it is golden and scattered with a confetti of dark brown flecks.
A touch of sage
What you'll get is a saucepan of pure gold, far more complex than ordinary melted butter and with an earthy, nutty flavor imbued with sage.
Drain the potatoes and mash to the consistency of your liking, then stir in the brown butter (yes, all of it), milk, Greek yogurt, salt and black pepper to taste. The milk smooths out the texture, the thick yogurt provides both creaminess and a subtle tart kick, and the fried sage leaves provide a crisp counterpoint to the velvety potatoes. They look strikingly pretty perched on top of the dish too.
Though they may not be the focal points of your holiday table, these homey dishes are the measure of a balanced menu. They provide ballast to the beautiful architecture of the bird, the catalog of elegant sides, the ritual of pies. And they're easy and quick to make, which can be a welcome reprieve in the hours counting down to the big meal.
Because sometimes a basket of warm rolls -- or a bowl of homey potatoes -- is both an offering and a thanks in and of itself.
Scattergood is a Times staff writer.