When it comes to Thanksgiving menu items, my family is the type that prefers tradition to experimentation. Throughout my childhood years, we ate nearly the same meal. A turkey, prepared and stuffed with seasoned bread cubes from Pepperidge Farms. Mashed russet potatoes with butter. Hubbard squash, steamed, drained of extra liquid and creamed with butter, salt, and freshly grated ginger. Briefly blanched green beans, dressed with more butter and toasted almond shards. Canned cranberry sauce. And two pies (apple and pumpkin) with vanilla ice cream for dessert.
It’s a fairly traditional spread, with just one glaring omission. There are no sweet potatoes to be found. My mom, unimpressed with the classic casserole constructed of canned potatoes, brown sugar and marshmallows she had been forced to eat as a child, banned orange tubers from her holiday table.
However, in recent years, there has been some softening when it comes to the annual spread. Homemade cornbread cubes have become the stuffing of choice. Pan roasted Brussels sprouts with toasted walnuts were recruited to play the role of green vegetable. And the canned cranberry sauce was booted in favor of a quickly simmered sauce of whole berries.
I saw this period of holiday meal adjustment as my opportunity to redeem the sweet potato and so started plotting. The first year of my campaign, I made a bowl of roasted sweet potatoes, pureed with milk, vanilla seeds and orange zest. It was a hit. The next year, I tried a casserole (yes, that dirty word), but one that was kept firmly on the savory side of things with heaps of caramelized onions and smoked paprika. This year, I’ve come up with a panade, made from cubes of baguette, wilted chard, grated gruyere and big hunks of peeled sweet potato. Pre-Thanksgiving trial runs have proven it to be a winner as well.
Does your family do sweet potatoes for Thanksgiving? What’s your favorite preparation?
Vanilla and Orange Sweet Potato Puree
- 3 pounds sweet potatoes, scrubbed clean
- 1 cup whole milk
- 1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise and seeds scraped
- 1 orange zested and juiced
- Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Give each potato a few pokes with a fork (to allow the steam to escape) and place them on a foil-lined baking sheet. Roast for about an hour, or until they are tender and yielding when poked with a fork.
Remove from oven and let cook until warm enough to handle. Peel and discard the skin. Put the potatoes in the bowl of a food processor.
While the sweet potatoes are cooling, pour the milk into a small pot and add the vanilla bean and its seeds. Bring to a simmer and cook for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and fish out the vanilla bean. Pour the mixture over the potatoes in the processor and add all the orange zest and half the orange juice.
Puree the mixture until smooth. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Add more orange juice, should you desire.
This sweet potato puree can be made a day ahead and reheated just prior to serving.
Sweet Potato and Caramelized Onion Gratin
- 3 tablespoons butter, plus more for greasing the pan
- 3 medium onions, thinly sliced into half moons
- 4 pounds sweet potatoes
- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- 1/4 cup fresh sage leaves, finely chopped
- 1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
- 1 1/2 cups heavy cream
- salt and pepper
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 2 tablespoons sage leaves, finely chopped
- 1 cup fresh breadcrumbs
- 1/2 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese
- Olive oil
Heat the oven to 350°F and lightly grease a 9×13 casserole or gratin dish with butter. Set aside.
Heat the butter in a large, heavy skillet over medium-high heat. When it foams up, add the onions. Reduce the heat to medium and slowly cook the onions until they’ve reduced by approximately half and are deeply caramelized. Give yourself plenty of time, as this will take 30-40 minutes.
While the onions are caramelizing, peel and slice the potatoes in thicknesses of about 1/4-inch (this is most easily done in a food processor or with a mandoline). Tile a third of the sweet potatoes across the bottom of the prepared casserole dish in overlapping rows. Season them with salt and pepper.
When the onions are dark brown, add the garlic and cook until fragrant. Add the chopped sage, smoked paprika and cream. Increase heat to medium-high, bring to a simmer and cook until the cream is slightly reduced.
Using a slotted spoon, lift approximately half the onions from the cream and spread them over the sweet potatoes in the casserole dish. Add a second layer of sweet potatoes and top with remaining onions. Add the final layer of sweet potatoes and season with salt and pepper.
Pour the cream over the top of the layers of sweet potato and onion. It will not cover the potatoes entirely and that is how it should be.
Place the dish into the over and bake, uncovered, for 30 to 35 minutes, until the potatoes are becoming tender and the cream has gone golden.
While the casserole bakes, prepare the topping. Heat butter in the skillet (to save on dishes, use the same one that caramelized your onions) and add the breadcrumbs and sage. Cook until the breadcrumbs are golden and the sage is fragrant. Scrape crumbs into a small bowl and allow to cool for 2-3 minutes. Add cheese and stir with a fork until combined.
Sprinkle topping over the gratin and drizzle with a little olive oil. Return to over and bake until golden and crisp (approximately 10-15 minutes).
Let this casserole rest for at least 15 minutes before slicing.
Sweet Potato and Chard Panade
- 6 cups cubed baguette
- 3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
- 2 pounds sweet potato, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
- 2 medium onions, thinly sliced into half moons
- 1 large bundle of chard
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage
- 2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
- 1 1/4 teaspoons salt
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 4 cups chicken stock
- 1 1/2 cups grated gruyere
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Spread baguette cubes on a rimmed baking sheet and bake for 8-10 minutes, until they are well-toasted. When bread is brown, scrape cubes into a large bowl.
Wipe off the baking sheet to remove any stray crumbs and then spread the sweet potato cubes on it. Drizzle them with two tablespoons of olive oil and toss to coat. Place in the oven and increase the heat to 400 degrees. Roast for 20-25 minutes, until the sweet potato cubes are fork tender, but not mushy.
While the sweet potato cooks, heat the remaining tablespoon of olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add onions and cook, stirring regularly to soften and brown.
Wash the chard well and remove leaves from the stems. Chop the chard well and add it to the pan with the onions. Add the sage, thyme, salt and pepper at this time as well. Cook, stirring regularly, until the chard is wilted and the onions are brown.
Once the sweet potatoes, onions and chard are all finished cooking, scrape them into the bowl with the toasted bread cubes and gently combine (careful not to break up the sweet potato too much).
Grease a 13 x 9-inch casserole dish with olive oil. Spoon the sweet potato, onion, chard, and bread cube mixture into the prepared pan.
Slowly pour in 2 cups chicken stock over top, allowing bread to soak up stock and pressing with the back of a spoon. Add enough stock so that it comes up to 1 inch below the rim of the casserole dish. Top with an even layer of grated gruyere.
Cover with aluminum foil and place on a baking sheet to catch any drips. Bake, covered, 30 minutes. Remove foil and bake an additional 25-30 minutes, until it bubbles and the cheese has turned golden brown. Let the panade rest for at least 15 minutes before serving.