Hello and welcome back to Kitchen Catastrophes, I’m your host and recent paper-cut survivor, Jon O’Guin. Last week, we talked about how the holidays can cause people to put on a little extra weight, and I presented a recipe of Fried Tofu to help trim some of that Thanksgiving weight. Today’s post is going to be in a related, but not quite so virtuous topic: Holiday Vegetables, and how to make them “Sexy” again.
Really quick, lest you think I derive erotic satisfaction from foliage and fodder, I’m referring to my suggested concept of “Sexy foods” back in KITCHEN CATASTROPHE 30: The Wake-Up Call. If you don’t want to use that link, because you prefer to keep a linear flow of thought, here’s a quick recap: There are a variety of foods that, for one reason or another, are viewed as “sexy”, in that their visceral appeal is disproportionate to the time or skill required to produce them, and frequently in opposition to their nutritional value. Dinner is sexy. Dessert is sexy. Breakfast is not. Nor are holiday vegetable sides.
Despite the phallic nature of the leek, this is not a sexy start. In fact, it's mostly crying, which is very not sexy.
Roots in a Rut
I’m going to make a potentially offensive guess and assume your family is somewhat like mine. Within the five members of my immediate family, there is relatively little unity of thought on foods. I don’t like seafood, but my mother and brothers do. I like spicy foods, while the majority of my family taps out much sooner. And, as I have addressed before: my father prefers things he’s had a dozen times and understands, while I like new things. Nowhere is this more prevalent than Thanksgiving.
If you shook me awake on a May morning and demanded “JON, QUICK, what is your family going to eat for Thanksgiving?” I’d say “What? Wait, WHAT? What the hell does-“ “NO TIME” you’d snap. “JUST ANSWER THE QUESTION.”
“Jeez, okay. Um, probably…turkey. And the wild rice dressing my grandma makes, roasted yams with marshmallows on half of them because my mom doesn’t like the marshmallows, probably Stovetop stuff, canned cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, and giblet gravy.” At this point I’d blink, rub my eyes, and say “Maybe green beans cooked with onion and bacon, or Brussels sprouts cooked with bacon, or something like that.”
Always gotta be the center of attention, hey, Turkey?
Historically, my family has had more variety in “ways we prepared the turkey” than in “side dishes we ate with it”. We’ve fried the turkey, smoked the turkey, brined and roasted the turkey with different brines, bastes, and stuffings. I wouldn’t even think of holiday vegetables until after CONDIMENTS for the meat and potatoes. And I’ve often felt it’s something of a shame. My family, enlightened gastronomes that we are, order our turkeys fresh from local butchers. We view our jerkies with an appraising eye, and are almost always willing to pay more for better products. which is why it’s weird that one of our go-to thanksgiving sides is “a can of green beans tossed with fried bacon and chopped softened onion”.
So this year, I said “You know what? I’m gonna make a stand here. I’m going to make the veggies this year.” And they were universally…accepted as being completely adequate. Like I said, it’s hard to get people to really care about this sort of thing.
Easy Does It
Now, as I said in my Thanksgiving note, when you make a change like this, you likely want to keep things easy and easy to accept. So, when I picked my holiday vegetable dishes, I tied them to dishes that were already popular with my family. I made Charred Onion Dip, and a more involved Green Bean Casserole. (I actually made three dishes, but the last one isn’t very photogenic, and would drag out the note, so we’ll leave it for another time.) The Charred Onion dip was real simple. The Green Bean Casserole’s a touch more difficult, but pretty easy to handle. So, without further ado, let’s get into it.
Charred Onion Dip is based on a simple idea: firstly, that dips are universally pretty easy to make and tasty. A mixture of sour cream and mayonnaise, seasoned with salt and pepper, and lemon juice. Boom. That’s the basic mixture of like, half of all cold dip recipes. It works. Now, my family are big fans of Spinach dip, which adds some water chestnuts, chopped spinach, and vegetable mix to that base. Charred Onion dip adds technically only one ingredient: charred onions. Well, aliums.
It's always a good time when the first step is "Burn your food." Hard to mess that up.
So, you start with leeks, green onions, and shallots. Slice them up, toss them in olive oil, and broil them for about 12 minutes. The point here is to get a solid amount of char among the sliced onion-brothers. This will create a flavor and texture contrast to the parts that have merely roasted. Just use your own judgment on how much is a good amount. Let them cool before the next step, which is also the final one.
While they cool, throw together the dip base, and grate a clove of garlic. Then throw it all together, and let it refrigerate for an hour or two. Boom. Dip’s done.
Or maybe this is tartar sauce. You don't know.
The Lean Mean Bean Machine
No doubt many of you have had green bean casserole around this time of year. It’s a go-to holiday vegetable dish. I’m also willing to bet that your version was mostly store-bought ingredients: french’s onion, Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup. I’m willing to make that bet because I know the origin of Green Bean Casserole: it was invented by Campbell’s, in order to SELL cream of mushroom soup.
Yeah, back in the 50’s, Campbell’s and several other food manufacturers made cookbooks focused on their products, in order to develop a loyal and returning customer base. While not all of the meals they invented were hits, this one definitely was. My take is more work than theirs, but despite its many steps, it’s not actually that much work. I assure you, I’m quite lazy, and it was fine.
Laziness is something of a congenital trait in my family. Here's how my brother struck a compromise between me asking him to grate some garlic, and his desire to ignore me and watch the game.
The first step is to parboil your green beans. Don’t blanch them, as a linguistic argument between my family illustrated, because if you don’t ice shock the beans after, it’s not a blanch. So you boil your green beans about 3-5 minutes, and then set them aside. Then, you turn to the other main ingredient. Cream of Mushroom soup. Here’s the thing about Cream of Mushroom soup: It’s stupidly easy to make. It’s just a béchamel with mushrooms in it. If you’ve forgotten, a béchamel is a simple cheese sauce made with roux, milk, and the cheese of your choice. To make sure the mushroom flavor cuts the cheese, so to speak, we gotta get them browned up.
"Browned Up" sounds like the awful sequel to White Chicks.
Now, I got this recipe from Bon Appetit, and they said brown your mushrooms in batches. Me, I got a HONKING big pan, so I did them all at once. It’s a simple mix of oil, butter, thyme, and mushrooms. Then you make the béchamel, toss your mushrooms and green beans in a casserole dish, pour the sauce on top, and bake it. The baking has a couple of those nitpicky steps like “Bake covered for 30, then remove the cover and bake 20 more, then add the topping and bake another 5.” But once it’s in the oven, you’re pretty much done.
The Pay-off or Ho Ho Holiday Vegetables
Did this grand experiment make holiday vegetables truly sexy? No. But it made some progress. Personally, I really enjoyed the green bean casserole. It lacked the soggy heaviness of the canned variety, while still being cheesy and crunchy and mushroomy. The charred onion dip, in my opinion, needs a little fine tuning. It’s got fine flavor, but it’s a little one-note, and there’s not as much texture contrast as you could hope. As far as looks go, the Green beans walked away the easy winner, looking much more like a real recipe than its predecessor.
This picture would be clearer, but I have a weird habit of taking pictures of food through the steam they emit.
In the end, I urge you to find your own recipes you like for holiday vegetables. And don’t think I’m done trying either. I just recently got a tip on the secrets of parsnips, so maybe I’ll have another new dish for Christmas. Until next time, this has been Kitchen Catastrophes. NEXT TIME: JON GOES MORE IN DEPTH ON WATER WORDS, AS CULINARY COMPENDIUM RETURNS.
Charred Onion Dip
Serves a small crowd (14 2-tbsp servings)
1 shallot, thinly sliced
1 leek, thinly sliced
2 scallions, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 garlic clove, grated
½ cup mayonnaise
½ cup sour cream
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme, plus more for serving
2 tablespoons buttermilk (Or just add 1 tsp lemon juice to 2 tbsp milk and wait 5 minutes)
Freshly ground black pepper
- Toss the leek, shallot, and green onions in the olive oil, and broil for 10-15 minutes, tossing once during broiling. Let cool 10 minutes
- Mix remaining ingredients in a medium sized bowl, add charred onions, and mix to combine. Refrigerate 1 hour to meld flavors, and serve.
Green Bean Casserole
2 pounds Green Beans, trimmed
1 pounds crimini mushrooms, sliced
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 tablespoons butter
4 sprigs of thyme
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
1 ¼ cup whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
4 cloves garlic, grated
½ cup grated parmesan
¾ c French’s Fried Onions
- Preheat oven to 375. Heat a large pot of water to boil, and parboil your green beans in 3 batches, boiling for 3 minutes a batch. Set aside.
- Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. Add the mushrooms and fry 2 minutes without stirring, to get a good brown on the bottom. Toss and cook an additional 4 minutes. Add butter and thyme sprigs, cook another 3 minutes until butter and mushrooms are both browned. Season with salt and pepper, and transfer to a plate. (Note: if you want, this mushroom mixture alone would make a serviceable holiday vegetable)
- Make the béchamel. Melt the butter over medium low heat. Whisk in flour and cook until mixture is brown and smells nutty. Whisk in mlik, then cream, making sure to break up roux. Bring to medium heat, and a simmer. Cook until sauce is thicky and bubbly, around 5 minutes. Add garlic and parmesan, and stir thoroughly.
- Put the green beans and mushrooms into a 2+ quart baking dish, toss to combine. Pour in the béchamel. Cover with foil and bake for 30 minutes. Remove the foil and bake another 20, until lightly browned. Add French’s onions and bake until onions are also browned, roughly 5 minutes. Remove from oven, and let sit 10 minutes before eating.