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At Thanksgiving, If You Take Sides, Make Sure They're As Tasty As These

Chef Mike Isabella creates alternatives to traditional Thanksgiving dishes at Kapnos restaurant in Washington, D.C.
Raquel Zaldivar
Chef Mike Isabella creates alternatives to traditional Thanksgiving dishes at Kapnos restaurant in Washington, D.C.

It's Thanksgiving, which means you'll be seeing Aunt Martha's sweet potato casserole encased in a marshmallow cloud that has drifted too close to the sun. Cousin Joe, who's just here for the game, will bring his famous can-shaped cranberry sauce that looks like it's been attacked by a Slinky. Then your sister will arrive with her sad concoction of green beans drowning in cream-of-mushroom soup, flecked with floating onion strings that have been flung like debris from the Titanic.

There's a certain charm to these standbys, and by golly, you might even like them. But maybe this year you're ready for a change. Not a big one, like subbing tofu for turkey. Just a twist, you know — one that keeps you from being accused of breaking tradition but also says "It's my kitchen and unless you're helping, go away." And, hey, wouldn't we also like to keep it simple so that we actually have some time to enjoy ourselves?

Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep spoke with chef Mike Isabella, a Washington, D.C.-based restaurateur, about how to tweak that traditional dish into one you still wouldn't mind bringing home to meet your mother.

Isabella, who is in charge of bringing side dishes to his family's Thanksgiving table every year, says he sticks to classic roots but likes to add a twist here and there. "You always want to put one or two elements in there that changes the way people think when they taste something," he says.

For the sweet potatoes, Isabella says he wants to create something a little more savory, "something you could eat not just at Thanksgiving but all the time." For cranberries, he takes a nod from ambrosia, that sweet, jiggly goo with Jell-O and whipped cream — but he makes it a cranberry dish, cooking down the berries with sugar, oranges, cinnamon, rosemary and thyme; the result is chilled in a terrine mold and topped with Greek yogurt. And for a fresher, healthier green bean dish, he blanches the beans and cherry tomatoes, sprinkles them with fried shallots, and tosses it all with a mustard vinaigrette.

When you keep things simple, Isabella says, "That makes Thanksgiving a lot more fun, and you can drink a little more that way."


Serves 6-8


2 tablespoons olive oil

2 garlic cloves, peeled

1 cup leeks, cleaned and diced

1 cup turnips, peeled

2 cups sweet potato, peeled and sliced 1/4-inch thick

2 cups sugar pumpkin, peeled, diced

2 cups purple potatoes, peeled and sliced 1/4-inch thick

1 cup celery root, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch batonnet

2 cup delicata squash, diced

2 cups chicken stock

2 cups heavy cream

1 cup mascarpone cheese

2 cups grated Gruyere cheese

2 1/2 cups breadcrumbs

2 tablespoons thyme

1/2 cup melted butter

Salt and pepper to taste


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 13-by-9-inch deep baking dish.

Saute the leeks until tender. Add garlic and thyme for one minute more until fragrant.

Mix the onion mixture with the remaining vegetables, cream, stock, 1 tablespoon kosher salt and 2 tablespoons black pepper.

Pour mixture into the baking dish.

Mix breadcrumbs, cheese and melted butter together and spread over top.

Bake for 1 1/2 hours uncovered until vegetables are tender and the top is golden brown.

Cover with aluminum foil if the breadcrumbs darken too quickly.

Orange-Cranberry Terrine

Chef Isabella's Orange-Cranberry Terrine is flavored with cinnamon and herbs and topped with Greek yogurt.
Raquel Zaldivar / NPR
Chef Isabella's Orange-Cranberry Terrine is flavored with cinnamon and herbs and topped with Greek yogurt.

Serves 6-8


16 ounces cranberries

1 cup orange segments

1 tablespoon orange zest

1 cup sugar

2 tablespoons water

3 tablespoons red verjus

1 cinnamon stick

1 sprig rosemary

1 sprig thyme

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 cup Greek yogurt


Heat water and sugar over medium heat in a nonreactive saucepan until slightly caramelized. Add verjus and melt caramel.

Put remaining ingredients in the saucepan and simmer over medium heat, stirring frequently until thickened and reduced by a quarter.

Remove cinnamon stick and cool in terrine mold until firm.

Remove terrine from mold to slice and serve with a dollop of Greek yogurt.

Warm Green Bean Salad

Serves 6


1 quart haricots verts, blanched

1 cup cherry tomatoes, peeled

1 cup shallots, sliced thin

2 cups canola oil

2 tablespoons whole grain mustard

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

1/4 cup white wine vinegar

1 tablespoon honey

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 teaspoon salt


Bring a pot of water to boil, salt the water and blanch the haricots verts until tender. Shock in ice water and drain.

Peel and blanch the cherry tomatoes.

Heat the canola oil in a deep pot until 350 degrees. Fry the shallots until golden brown, about 4 minutes. Drain to a paper towel-lined sheet tray.

Blend vinegar, mustards, honey, black pepper and salt. Stir to incorporate all the ingredients.

Toss the haricots verts with the vinaigrette and tomatoes. Sprinkle fried shallots on top.

Season to taste.

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