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TODAY

Thursday, November 23

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I have to be totally honest with you. Thanksgiving, to me, is far more about the sides than the bird. Sure I eat a little turkey — with gravy on it. So the turkey ends up being more of a conduit for the gravy. Or I'll get a little turkey plue mashed potatoes plus gravy in each bite. Cause lordy! I love mashed potatoes and gravy. We ate them a lot growing up so it wasn't a special occasion dish. I didn't realize my experience was unusual until someone told me that instant mashed potatoes were typical and real mashed potatoes were only at holidays.

And gravy! Oh how I love the gravy, too. Even though it took me a couple of years to truly get the sense for gravy down, I now really like making it. And it seems so simple now that I have to remind myself that I dumped out batch after batch of crappy gravy before finally getting the understanding and ability to make it well consistently. This list of gravy problems and solutions should help when you're just learning.

And I had a wonderful reader who emailed and said, "There has to be a better alternative to the can of sweet potatoes with marshmallows on top. But it has to be easy. Please help." Sweet potatoes, while time-consuming in the oven, are fantastically easy. And if you're cooking a turkey, your oven will be on for a very long time anyway, and a few potatoes don't take a lot of time to cook.

And dessert! How can you have a holiday dinner without dessert? Even though I'm normally fine skipping dessert, when there is pumpkin pie I can't turn it down. However, I don't have any pie crust secrets to pass on, and I'd like to make a concession to trying to reduce some of the fat in my holiday dinner. Since most of the fat in a pumpkin pie exists in the crust, a tasty pumpkin custard that just happens to be naturally low-fat (instead of manufactured low-fat) is exactly what I'm looking forward to eating as I hang out with friends this Thanksgiving.

So whether you're looking for a side dish to take along to dinner, side dishes for your own uncomplicated dinner, or planning a dinner made solely of side dishes, these vegetarian and vegan dishes will leave you satisfied and they're so simple that even a very beginning cook will have something successful at the end of the cooking time.

Mashed Potatoes
The secret to making mashed potatoes is getting the right type of potato. Waxy potatoes are wrong, but starchy is good. Russet potatoes are the most common and Yukon gold are also nice and generally easy to find. Look for a baking potato and not a boiling potato. Boiling potatoes are good if you're going to be cooking them in a soup or stew. Even though you're going to boil the potatoes for mashing, if you use boiling potatoes you'll end up with gummy and lumpy mashed potatoes instead of light and whipped.

Instead of a strict recipe, this is a list of proportions so you can scale up and down depending on the number of people you plan to serve. Purchase 1 pound of potatoes for every two people.

1 pound of potatoes
1/2 cup of dairy (2% is OK, but the higher the fat content, the easier to get a whipped texture)
2 ounces of butter or margarine
1 teaspoon of salt for the water
salt and pepper to taste
dash of nutmeg

If you're only cooking a small amount of potatoes you'll get a better texture if you steam them. For a larger amount of potatoes, you'll have to boil them in a pot of salted water.

Scrub the potatoes clean under hot water and cut them into 1-inch cubes. If you're steaming the potatoes, put about two inches of water in the bottom of the pan and place the potatoes in the upper part of the steamer. Place the pan over a medium high flame and let the potatoes steam for 35-40 minutes. You should be able to pierce them with a fork without having them fall apart.

If you're cooking more potatoes, scrub and cube the potatoes and place them in a large empty pot. Cover them with boiling water by about half an inch. Sprinkle 1 teaspoon of salt over the potatoes. Place the pot over medium heat and let it boil for about 20 minutes. The potatoes should not fall apart when pierced with a fork, but they should be easy to pierce. While the potatoes cook, put the milk into a small pot over medium heat and bring it to almost boiling. Once the potatoes are cooked, drain them thoroughly and place them into a large bowl. Use either an electric mixer or hand masher to purée or mash the potatoes. Once they are puréed you can add the hot milk, butter, and salt and pepper. (If you want to add roasted garlic or herbs, they can be added at any point during the mixing/mashing process.) Adding the liquid after the potatoes are smooth prevents lumps. Whip until the potatoes are slightly looser than you want, since they'll tighten up as they sit before you eat them.
1 pound of potatoes serves 2.

Vegan Mushroom Gravy
3 tablespoons of vegetable oil
3 tablespoons of white flour
1 1/2 cup of vegetable broth
1 small minced onion
1/4 cup of minced celery
2 tablespoons of soy sauce or Bragg's Liquid Aminos
2 tablespoons of mushroom powder
Pepper to taste

In a large skillet over medium-high heat, add the oil and flour. Use a whisk to stir constantly for several minutes. You're going to make a roux, so constant stirring is critical. The flour will soak up all of the oil and you'll get a paste. Keep stirring this until you get something that resembles light peanut butter. If everything separates and you end up with oil floating on top, throw away the contents of your skillet, reduce the heat, and start over. It may not seem like you're doing much, but you're adding a great deal of flavor by cooking the flour and oil. Once you get the peanut butter color, add the veggie broth, onion, celery, soy sauce and mushroom powder. Stir quickly to combine. Bring the contents up to a boil and stir constantly while they thicken. If it seems too thick, add more broth or soy sauce (taste to see which would be better). If it seems too thin, add more mushroom powder or a little more flour. (To prevent lumps when adding flour, scoop out a quarter cup of the gravy and add the flour to this before stirring it into the rest of the gravy.) Remove to a covered dish until ready to serve. Keep warm because once it cools it will thicken.
Serves 6-9

Baked Sweet Potatoes
1/2 pound of sweet potato per person
Vegetable oil

Wash the sweet potatoes thoroughly and scrub if necessary. Remove any eyes. Pierce each several times with a fork. Rub them in vegetable oil and place them on a cookie sheet or baking dish. Place this toward the bottom of your oven, below your turkey. When you turn the oven on to preheat to 425°, place these in the oven. They will need to cook for 45-60 minutes before they will be soft when pierced with a fork. Serve them with butter and cinnamon. Let people cut them in half and share. Or you can slice them in half and then in quarters, dot them with butter, sprinkle them with cinnamon, and serve them in a large bowl. They will stay warmer longer if they're cut right before serving.
Serving size is 1/2 of a sweet potato

Low-fat Pumpkin Custard
4 egg whites (at room temperature)
2 cups of canned pumpkin (not pumpkin pie filling)
1 1/2 cups of fat-free evaporated milk
6 tablespoons of sugar
1 teaspoon of ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon of ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon of ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon of ground nutmeg
A dash of salt

Preheat your oven to 325° F. Put the egg whites into a medium mixing bowl and beat for several minutes. You don't want to make a meringue, but you do want to see it start to get fluffy. In a separate bowl, mix the pumpkin, milk, sugar, cinnamon, ginger, allspice and salt. Stir this into the egg whites. Put a few cups of water into a teakettle to boil. Place eight custard cups or ramekins, about 6 ounces each, onto a baking dish with high sides. Pour the pumpkin mixture into the cups. Place the baking dish onto an oven rack in the center of the oven. Push the oven rack in most of the way. Pour the boiling water into the baking dish until 1-inch of the cups are covered, then push the rack in the rest of the way. Bake for 40-50 minutes. Once a knife inserted into the center comes out clean, the custard is done. Remove the cups from the tray and set to cool completely. This can be done the day before. And the best part of this dish? There is almost no fat and less than 50 calories. And it is yummina-yum-yum.
serves 8

I admit to really liking a good turkey sandwich. But there are only so many turkey sandwiches I can eat before I have had enough and have to think of something else to do with all the leftover turkey that I always end up with. Next week I'll show you what to do with those turkey leftovers and even ways to revamp a few of those side dishes so you don't end up tossing them out. Happy Thanksgiving, Chicago!

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About the Author(s)

Cinnamon Cooper is an untrained cook. Most of what she's learned has been by accident. The rest has been gained by reading cookbooks, watching The Food Network and by scouring the Internet. Oh, and she also hates following recipes but loves the irony of writing them down for others to follow.

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