So Thanksgiving is right around the corner, and if you're lucky, somebody the hell else is hosting it. Lost amid all the talk in recent years of various turkey-cooking methods—the relative merits of roasting versus deep-frying; whether to brine the bird or cook it upside down or baste it every few friggin' minutes for an entire goddamn day like a sucker; whether to stuff it or to be an irredeemable, insufferable, shit-scared sack of crap—is the very simple fact that cooking a turkey is a huge pain in the ass no matter how you do it. For this reason, the people who volunteer to do so are both A) heroes, and B) not you, because to hell with all that.
Still, your presence at Thanksgiving dinner, toting a plate more laden than the entire island of Oahu, must be justified somehow, and your scintillating recap of 10 weeks of hot fantasy football action sure as shit isn't gonna do it. This obligates you to contribute a side dish to the enterprise. This is a pretty good deal, because most of the common Thanksgiving side dishes are just cheap, easily made casseroles that are good—great, spectacular, the best things ever—so long as they are familiar. After all, Thanksgiving comes only once a year, and everybody wants it to taste like what they've been fantasizing about all year, so there's a disincentive to get all cute and creative and original with things.
What a luxury that is, folks. In fact, it's possibly the best thing about Thanksgiving, apart from it being the one day of the year when you can, in full view of your extended family, eat a quantity of starchy, greasy food comparable in volume and mass to your entire torso without anyone batting an eyelash, or even noticing, because they are all too busy doing the same thing. In regular day-to-day cooking, it's important to experiment, to personalize, to branch out, for the sake of staving off boredom, and also so that you can feel good about being an adventurous person who hunts down and consumes goodness in all its many guises. On Thanksgiving, who gives a shit? It's all gonna get mashed together under a gravy blanket anyway! There's an 87 percent chance that you could stick a handful of frosted animal crackers in the middle of your Uncle Jerry's Thanksgiving plate and he wouldn't even notice.
And so, your side dish needn't be some culinary masterpiece to go off like gangbusters on Thanksgiving. Hell, it probably shouldn't be. The trick with this is, you don't always get to decide exactly what side dish to bring—some other scumbag might have already claimed the privilege of bringing a two-liter bottle of generic grape soda, you know?—so you need to have a few different options in your back pocket to choose from, just in case.
Never fear. We're going to walk through making three of 'em—green-bean casserole, candied yams, and cranberry sauce—and if it turns out that all three of these are already spoken for in your family, well, somebody's gotta bring napkins, and that person can be run off the road and over a cliff on their way to the gathering and coldly usurped in the hearts and minds of all their loved ones.
First off, preheat your oven to 350 degrees.
While the oven's heating up, thaw roughly two pounds of frozen cut green beans in the microwave. Yes, you could use fresh green beans, at one end of the dignity spectrum. And you could use sad, wan, yellowish, sulfur-tasting canned beans, down at the using-your-hair-as-a-napkin opposite end. The superior middle ground is frozen beans: superior because the degree to which fresh beans will make the casserole taste better is debatable, and also dwarfed 10 times over in any case by the degree to which they will make it costlier and more annoying and more time-consuming to prepare.
Beans all thawed and warm? Good. Dump them into a big casserole dish or deep aluminum foil roasting pan. Depending on just how big your vessel is, you might not use all two pounds of your beans: You'll want to leave, what, a couple of inches or so of room beneath the rim of the vessel, because you are not just cooking a big dish of hot green beans, because if you were to do so, if you were to take the lid off the dish at the family Thanksgiving feast and reveal a big pile of bare green beans, you would be shot before the steam cleared. Don't get shot. Leave some room in the dish. You can eat the extra beans later. Or even make another casserole!
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Now, set aside your big pan of beans for a second. In a big bowl, mix two cans of cream of mushroom soup with a cup-and-a-half or so of French fried onions. Your impulse here will be to go all spiral-eyed and use an entire lawn bag of French fried onions instead of the modest-seeming cup-and-a-half, but you must resist, because you will need some of those French fried onions for later.
Once the canned soup and onions are mixed, pour the mixture over the beans and lazily, halfassedly toss the beans and soup mixture together using a rubber spatula or big wooden spoon or your hands or a Darth Vader figurine. You don't need perfect evenness; all you're aiming for is to make sure that you won't have separate layers of beans and oniony mushroom soup when your casserole is cooked, because then no one would be able to pretend that the beans aren't just a delivery vehicle for breaded onions and creamy mushroom soup.
Stick this creation into your preheated oven and bake it for a half-hour or so. No need to worry about internal temperature with this: Everything in it is already cooked, so you're just giving it time to heat thoroughly and for the beans to soften up so that they're easier to ignore.
So. A half-hour has gone by, and the casserole is bubbly and hot; it's now time to pull it out of the oven, take it outside, and give the signal to the waiting dumptruck driver that he may now dump another three tons of French fried onions on top of it. (If the logistics of this are impracticable for you, it's OK to just spread another cup or two of French fried onions on top instead.)
Now, stick 'em back in the hot oven for another 10 minutes to get the top layer of French fried onions all hot. The casserole's done. Please note that if you're making this dish at home and then schlepping it across town to your aunt's house for Thanksgiving, you can reserve this last step for when you get there, and bump it up from 10 minutes to 15 to ensure that the casserole is nice and warm when it's served.
Once again, preheat your oven to 350 degrees or, if some inexplicable bout of generosity has compelled you to make two Thanksgiving side dishes, and you've already made green-bean casserole, leave your oven on.
Drain the liquid out of two big 20-ounce cans of yams. Yes, that's right, canned yams. You can skin and chop and boil to softness a couple of pounds of the real thing if you like, so long as you acknowledge upfront that you are doing this to satisfy your ego and not because it will yield a tastier Thanksgiving side dish. The rest of us will be over here, waiting for you to catch up, and whiling away the time by making dismissive wanking motions in your direction.
All caught up, wieners? Good. Dump the yams into a foil-lined casserole dish or a foil roasting pan and kind of break them up a little bit with a knife or other utensil so the chunks aren't too large to wrangle with a fork. Don't mash them. Or, hey, mash them if you want to. But, really, don't mash them. They're better un-mashed.
Now, top the yams with an obscene amount of dark brown sugar and butter. Really, just go ahead and go nuts here: You're not going to eat candied yams again for a year, so make them the candied-est candied yams that ever yammed candiedly. If you also want to add some orange zest, nutmeg, cinnamon, and/or vanilla extract, that's fine too, but if you just go with brown sugar and butter, nobody's going to be all, "These sweet, buttery candied yams that I am attempting to insert directly into my stomach through my navel because my mouth is not big enough for how fast I want to eat them are total bullshit!"
They're ready for cooking. Bake 'em for a half-hour, or until the sugar is all melted and the yams are hot and smell downright indecent in there and the front of your shirt is all soggy with drool. Now, pull the dish out of the oven and scatter enough marshmallows across the top to make yourself feel slightly ridiculous, like maybe this is a sign of a more general failure to truly stride forward into adulthood, especially when looked at in light of the Darth Vader figurine you have taken to using as a spatula.
Shove the pan back into the oven until the marshmallows are all melted and have just started to brown here and there—this should be just a few minutes. As with the green-bean casserole above, you can save this step until you are at the site of your Thanksgiving celebration, if you wish, to ensure that everything's all freshly melty and hot when you serve it.
From what I understand, some horribly misguided folks like to serve candied yams after the main Thanksgiving meal as though they are dessert. These people are replicants; we have entire law-enforcement agencies devoted to their destruction. Candied yams belong on your plate with the turkey, the stuffing, the potatoes, the green-bean casserole, the gravy, all that stuff; the sweetness harmonizes with the saltier flavors and makes you do that thing where your eyelids and shoulders droop suddenly and your eyes roll back and go all glassy and out of focus and you go, "Oh, fuuuuuck," and you grandmother gasps and clutches the lacy fringe of her olde-tymey collar, which is as much as part of Thanksgiving as the bird itself.
To begin with, open a can of cranberry sauce. No, seriously. Every Thanksgiving, in every family's grand feast, there's somebody who puts together some earnest, gorgeous relish made from fresh cranberries and hand-squeezed cranberry juice and orange zest and lemon juice and friggin' organic raw sugar he carried on his back in a sealed plastic bag as he swam back from his illegal trip to Cuba where he harvested it himself with the campesinos, oh the hale and humble campesinos and their merry field songs, and that's wonderful and all—and then you eat it and it's tasty and tart and bright, but it's not right, because it's not the can-shaped log of cranberry-flavored jelly and what you really want is the can-shaped log of cranberry-flavored jelly because the can-shaped log of cranberry-flavored jelly tastes like Thanksgiving, which is what you want Thanksgiving to taste like.
Open a can of cranberry sauce. Upend the can over a plate. After the log slides out and plops onto the plate, tip it onto its side and slice it into discs about as thick as your middle finger, which you will extend in hearty holiday greeting to anybody who gives you any side-eye about bringing a can-shaped log of cranberry-flavored jelly to Thanksgiving.
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Cover your side dish with foil (or, [sigh], an attractive matching lid, [eyeroll]) and schlep it across town to Aunt Louise's place. (Or, if you went the cranberry sauce route, um, put the unopened can in the pocket of your ratty coat.) You are now ready to contribute something more to your family's Thanksgiving feast than a misguided drunken wager that Robert Griffin III is going to throw an 82-yard touchdown pass to himself against the Cowboys. And that's a good thing, because you know your grandmother isn't supposed to gamble anymore anyway. Congratulations, and happy eating to you.
Albert Burneko is an eating enthusiast and father of two. His work can be found destroying everything of value in his crumbling home. Peevishly correct his foolishness at email@example.com. Image by alexa627/flickr.