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Holiday Meal Hacks: Side Dishes

Holiday Meal Hacks: Side Dishes
Many of us would agree that meat (or perhaps a meat substitute) is the main event at holiday dinners, but side dishes are a very close second. All the variety, the mushy, gushy, creamy textures, the indulgent cheese-based dollops, and yes, vegetables are often served as well…


Just kidding! The veggies can be just as delicious as all the other options with the right herbs and spices and a nice even roast.

Is your mouth watering yet?

Me too.

We covered hacks for mastering appetizers, soups, and salads in the last post, so be sure to check that out for more tips and tricks. Today we’re keeping the holiday hacks rolling with a focus on side dishes.

Side dishes can range from the very traditional green bean casserole, to modern day classics like mac n’ cheese and cauliflower mash. Some people like rolls to help sop up the plate, while others think they’re a waste of space in your belly. Dressing, which is cooked outside of the bird, or stuffing, which cooks inside the bird, are both delicious options. While veggies can also be done in, out, or around the bird.

Like anything, you’ve got to make your sides your own, and today we’re focused on quick and simple sides that pay homage to the holiday main event. These holiday sides have been hacked so that you can spend more time enjoying company rather than stressing and stuck in the kitchen.

Now that I’ve got dressing on my mind, let’s start there…

Dressing or Stuffing:

There are basically three kinds of dressing/stuffing:

  1. Pre-baked cornbread
  2. Pre-baked artisan sourdough bread
  3. Pre-cooked multiple grains (rice, wild rice, kasha, quinoa, faro, barley, bulgur, couscous, etc.)

All three are bound with a custard base of 1 quarter heavy cream and 6 eggs (serving 6-8), along with fillers like chopped mushrooms, onion, celery, and peppers, crushed nuts, and dried fruit, among many others.

But hey, that’s if you want to cook something from scratch. If you want to hack your holiday dressing, buy it pre-made at the store and cook just before serving. You can add your own spin by topping the finished dish with fried onions, crisp bacon, or chopped herbs. And the same can be done for mashed potatoes, but I’ve got a little more to say about those…

Mashed Potatoes:

Mashed potatoes are pretty simple to make homemade because there aren’t a lot of ingredients and with the right tools, almost no elbow grease required. Another nice thing about potatoes is that you can make them a day or two before the big event, so there’s nothing to worry about on “game day.”

Of course, as I mentioned above, you can buy pre-made potatoes, but if you’d like to challenge yourself, here are some answers to commonly asked questions about this holiday staple:

My potatoes turn brown after peeling, what am I doing wrong?

Personally I prefer yellow gold or russet potatoes, but if you don’t store them correctly after they’ve been peeled they can oxidize and turn brown. To avoid dirty looking mashed potatoes I hold my peeled potatoes in a bucket full of cold water with a tight lid, outside on the back porch.

If it’s not a cold holiday where you are, you can replicate this storage method in your fridge or a cold garage. You could also use coolers, which is one of the best things to have around during the holidays! The cold water stops oxidization so you get creamy white potatoes without question.

It seems like everyone cooks mashed potatoes differently, what’s a fail-safe method?

When you’re ready to get cooking, cut peeled potatoes into large 2” chunks. Cover with cold salted water and bring to a boil in a pot large enough to hold everything. Lower the temperature a little and cook just until fork tender, then drain.

Now, just for sake of telling you, I typically dry my cooked potatoes on a sheet pan in a 350° oven until opaque. Then I put them through a ricer to make the fluffiest potatoes ever.

But, we’re all about hacking the potatoes today, so to make the most of your time, throw your cooked potatoes in a standing mixer with the whip attachment, or a bowl with a hand mixer. Add melted garlic butter and softened cream cheese and mix until smooth.

I’m sick of the same ol’ same ol’ mashed potatoes, how can I make mine special this year?

A good way to make anything special, is to make it southern style! Granted I’m from Texas and a little biased, but most people can’t argue with our flavors. Bourbon mashed sweet potatoes with toasted marshmallows on top is a great combination of new school flavors and old school tradition. Best part is, they’re super simple. So simple a holiday hacker could handle it…

[directions title=”Directions”]

  1. Preheat your oven to 400°.
  2. Pierce 4 sweet potatoes all over with a fork before baking in a 400° oven for 45-50 minutes, or until fork tender.
  3. Peel the cooked sweet potatoes with gloves on – they’ll be hot!
  4. Throw in the mixer, or use a hand mixer to incorporate 6 T. butter, 1/8 C. bourbon (plus a shot for you!), 2 t. cinnamon, and a little brown sugar.
  5. Transfer to a baking casserole dish and top with large or small marshmallows (whatever hikes your skirt).
  6. Roast until the marshmallows are golden brown on top.


And that’s a fun and easy twist on a holiday classic!

Mac and Cheese:

Of course the go-to hack with sides is to buy it pre-made, but I must tell you my dirty little secret for making ah-mazing mac n’ cheese…

I layer my macaroni with crushed Cheetos or cheese puffs and/or garlic croutons. If that wasn’t enough (and it’s not for the cheese-a-holics), I also add shredded Italian Fontina, Asiago, and white sauce (called “bechamel”) in between the layers of macaroni. Still not done…then I sprinkle the top with a light dusting of “pixie dust” (meaning the Cheetos, cheese puffs, or croutons).

Here it is step-by-step:

[directions title=”Directions”]

  1. Preheat your oven to 350° F.
  2. Boil 1 lb. macaroni pasta until al dente (or firm to the bite). Drain, rinse, and set aside.
  3. Make your bechamel white sauce by melting 1 stick of butter in a medium sauce pot. Then whisk in 2/3 cup flour to make a rue – you’re looking for the consistency of “thick wet sand on a beach”. Add milk and whisk until everything is blended while cooking over low-medium heat until you get a thick gravy consistency.
  4. Butter your casserole dish and layer pasta, shredded cheese, bechamel, Cheetos/puffs/croton mix, and repeat.
  5. Top with Cheetos/puffs/croton mix and bake until light golden brown.


Remember, calories don’t count during the holidays, and you’ll get to all that next year.

Roasted Veggies:

I’m sorry if the traditional green bean casserole is your thing because I say, “to hell with the damn green bean casserole!” It’s time to retire that dish for some easy-to-make, beautiful, and yummy roasted veggies. Here’s how…

[directions title=”Directions”]

  1. Preheat your oven to 350° F.
  2. Cut assorted veggies into 1 inch or so pieces. Veggies could include…
  • Butternut squash
  • Mushrooms
  • Peppers
  • Cauliflower
  • Onions
  • Eggplant
  • Radishes
  • Broccoli crowns
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Leeks
  • Beets
  1. Oil veggies with olive, coconut, walnut, smoked, or grape-seed oil in a large bowl.
  2. Season veggies with sea salt, cracked pepper or crushed red pepper, and the herbs of your choice (thyme, rosemary, basil, tarragon, oregano, etc.).
  3. Lay flat on a baking sheet and roast until nice and brown.
  4. Top with balsamic vinegar and/or wide shaved Parmesan cheese.


Cranberry Sauce:

This is probably the easiest thing to by ready-made or in the can. You can also use the simple instructions labeled on the back of most bagged cranberries. Or, you can make my mother’s brandy cranberries using the recipe below:

[directions title=”Directions”]

  1. Preheat your oven to 300° F.
  2. Combine 1 lb. cranberries, 1 orange zest, and 2 cups of sugar in a small roasting pan with a lid (if you don’t have a lid, use a double fold of aluminum foil). Cover tightly!
  3. Roast for 1 ½ hour.
  4. Leave covered until cool.
  5. Add ½ cup of brandy and scrape the bottom of the pan.
  6. Serve immediately or store in a glass container at room temperature for up to a week, in the refrigerator for 2 weeks, or freeze.


And there you have it…hacked up sides that will still impress without putting you in the kitchen for the whole event.

If you have ANY questions, I’m dying to here them in the comments section below or on my Facebook page, Chef Gerrie’s Chef Jungle.

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