One of the best food books I read last year but rudely never got around to telling you about (in my defense, this time last year was a little nuts) was a 135-page, photo-free and straightforward guide called Thanksgiving: How To Cook It Well by the New York Times former restaurant critic and sometimes newsroom editor Sam Sifton. And although I realize there is barely a page on the internet or of printed matter near you right now not currently angling to be the one that gets to walk you through the biggest home cooking holiday of the year next week, I like this one more. Maybe it’s because one of the earliest lines in the book is “You can go your whole life and then wake up one morning and look in the refrigerator at this animal carcass the size of a toddler and think: I have to cook that today. There is no need to worry. Thanksgiving does not have to be a drag,” and continues in that empathetic but not remotely patronizing tone for the remainder of the book, cheering you on through turkey purchases and homemade stock, classic sides and newer ones worthy of consideration, game plans and even tidbits on seating, such as whether it’s okay to separately seat the Republican, Marxist and Free Spirit factions of your extended family (in short: yes, absolutely yes).
But it’s more likely because the book is compact, something you could drop in your bag and read later on the subway and be transported away from the crowds and airlessness to a glowy evening late in every November when you can shed all the crutches usually required to get through the day (shortcuts, irony, rushing, a mega-latte in a to-go cup, permanently adhered to your hand), set a table (any plywood over milk crates will do), forgo the appetizers (Sifton is adamantly anti-salad or anything else on Thanksgiving that will take up valuable stomach space better saved for foods draped with butter, cream, maple syrup and bacon*) and reminisce about that silly time you spent half the day making an gourmet sous-vide vegetable confit when all anyone really wants is the casserole they’ve always secretly loved and only get to revisit once a year.
Speaking of, I don’t think before reading this book I would have ever considered making a green bean casserole at home, as I didn’t much care for them. The book doesn’t even include a recipe for it; maybe Sifton was suspect of canned or frozen green beans mixed with canned condensed cream of mushroom soup and topped with canisters of crispy fried onions? I can’t imagine why. But reading this book will get you caught up in nostalgia for even the most picked on (second only to marshmallow-topped sweet potatoes, and yes, I have plans for those too this week) of Thanksgiving dishes, and got to wondering if it deserved reconsideration.
To wit: Green beans needn’t come from the freezer, in fact, the little market by my apartment has been piled with perfect ones all month, and they take five minutes to cook. Thus: this dish is seasonal. The sauce needn’t come from a can; in fact, if you think about it, it’s really a mix between a velouté (that gorgeous broth-based sauce that makes pot pies so wonderful) and a bechamel (think: great lasagna or mac-and-cheese, minus the cheese), and mushrooms give it a hearty depth of flavor almost unimaginable from a meatless dish. Thus: this dish is actually a gratin; we like gratins. Finally, I probably don’t need to tell you that onions, cut thin, coated in a little flour, salt and breadcrumbs before being fried or baked until they’re crunchy like stringy potato chips are astoundingly good when homemade. You cannot even imagine the deliciousness inside a sandwich of turkey leftovers. Finally, if you’re thinking that it would be pesky to take the simplest of Thanksgiving sides and make it complicated, consider that this can be made in one skillet, if you’re into that kind of thing. Thus: I think you know what needs to be done.
* And I quote, “nothing is more annoying at Thanksgiving than spending an entire day cooking for people only to see them crush their hunger an hour before dinner by inhaling a pound of cheese, olives, or deviled eggs. Nothing is grimmer than seeing someone forgo a second plate of dressing and thigh meat and yams and Brussels sprouts in the name of a thatch of arugula dressed with nuts and cheese, slicked down with olive oil.” (p. 48-49)
Thanksgiving recipes: All of my favorites are right here. But if you think I’ve missed something, head to the search box (top right) and type in the ingredient — I bet we have something.
One year ago: Cauliflower-Feta Fritters with Pomegranate
Two years ago: Dijon-Braised Brussels Sprouts
Three years ago: Sweet Potatoes with Pecans and Goat Cheese
Four years ago: Swiss Chard and Sweet Potato Gratin
Five years ago: Pepita Brittle
Six years ago: Simplest Apple Tart
Seven years ago: Dreamy Cream Scones
Green Bean Casserole with Crispy Onions
Adapted a little from Alton Brown and a little from trial-and-error
Serves 6, or more if you: a) have a lot of sides on the table, which I bet you will, or b) use the higher amount (1.5 pounds) of green beans
2 medium yellow onions, halved and thinly sliced
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons panko or plain breadcrumbs
1/2 teaspoon table salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Canola, safflower, peanut or other high-heat oil, for deep-frying
3 tablespoons butter
12 ounces mushrooms, thinly sliced or coarsely chopped
Few gratings fresh nutmeg (optional)
Freshly ground black pepper
3/4 teaspoon table salt
2 garlic cloves, minced
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups vegetable or chicken broth
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 to 1 1/2 pounds green beans, trimmed and halved (see note about volume)
Make the crispy onions: Toss onion with flour, breadcrumbs, salt and pepper. Heat a 1/2-inch or so of oil in a 12-inch cast iron skillet until a drop of water flicked into it will hiss and sputter. Add onions, just a handful at a time in something close to a single layer, and fry until a light golden brown (they’ll get more color in the oven; I overcooked mine a bit, forgetting this). Remove with a spider or large slotted spoon, let oil drip off a little, back into the skillet, then spread onions out on paper towels to drain. Repeat with remaining onions. Set aside until needed; this makes a lot.
Heat oven to 400 degrees F.
Prepare the beans: Bring a large pot of salted water to boil and boil greens for 5 minutes (for standard green beans) or 2 to 3 minutes (for haricot vert, or skinny ones). Drain beans, then plunge them into ice water to full stop them from cooking. Drain again, and set aside. (If you are adamant about only using one pot, you can boil them in your 12-inch cast iron skillet that you use for the other steps. But a saucepan can be easier.)
Make the mushroom sauce: Over medium-high heat, melt butter in the bottom of a 12-inch cast iron skillet. Add the mushrooms, salt and pepper and saute them until they start releasing their liquid, anywhere from 3 to 5 minutes, depending on how they were chopped. Add the garlic and saute one minute more. Add the flour and stir it until it fully coats the mushrooms. Add the broth, 1/4 cup at a time, stirring the whole time. Simmer mixture for 1 minute, then add cream and bring back to a simmer, cooking until the sauce thickens a bit, about 5 to 6 minutes, stirring frequently.
Assemble and bake: Add cooked greens beans to sauce and stir until they are coated. Sprinkle crispy onions over the top. Bake for 15 minutes, or until sauce is bubbling and onions are a shade darker. Eat at once.
Do ahead, a few ways: Onions can be made long in advance (up to a day) and keep at room temperature, loosely wrapped (they’d get soggy in an airtight container). Green beans can be cooked and kept in fridge until needed, at least two days. Green beans can also be combined with mushroom sauce and kept refrigerated for up to two days.
To reheat: Reheat the green beans and sauce in a covered dish until hot. Add the onions only for the last 5 minutes.[Reheating chilled green beans/sauce takes much longer than cooking them while already warm and if the onions are on the whole time, they will burn.]
A few notes:
- I made a half-recipe of this dish (in a 9-inch skillet) as there are only three of us. Yours will be bigger. It was so good, we wished we had more.
- I recommend a range of quantities for the green beans; if you like your casserole to be heavier on sauce and lighter on vegetables, use the lower amount. If you’d like a more vegetable-heavy dish, light-to-moderately coated with the sauce (as mine is in the photos), use the higher amount.
- This makes a loooot of crispy onions. We didn’t mind. But you could probably stretch half the onion volume more thinly over your whole casserole (saving the other half for snacking/sandwiches), or you could just say, “It’s Thanksgiving. Let’s do this,” and use them all. Either way, you win.
- [Apologies, this was originally in the recipe and I’d meant to make it a footnote due to the unevenness of the results.] If you’d like to bake the onions instead of frying them, Alton Brown recommends spreading them on 1 to 2 oiled baking sheets (but I’d use parchment paper next time) and baking them at 475 (but I might try a lower temperature) for approximately 30 minutes (though I’d check it at 20 minutes), tossing them around a few times to ensure even cooking. However, I found this a little pesky — it’s much harder to get them crisp and golden and they’re prone to getting too dark before most of them are cooked. I ended up deep-frying the rest and have zero regrets. It’s Thanksgiving. Let’s do this properly.
- About the sauce thickness: Alton’s original sauce was on the thin side (2T butter for 2T flour). I thickened it when I made it so that it is a moderately thick sauce — it coats the beans (as you can see in the photos) but it does drape a little bit once baked (i.e. there will be more on the lower half of the pan than the top half when it comes out of the oven). If you’re nervous and want to make sure that your sauce is definitely very thick, you can do so by using 1 extra tablespoon butter and 1 extra tablespoon flour in the sauce — i.e. more roux makes thicker sauces. Draining your green beans well and even patting them out on towels will help ensure they don’t “liquefy” the sauce too much.