A generation (or two or three) ago when we were all culturally and physically connected to the farm, rather than to the Food Network, dining was about unbridled, unpredictable celebration. You didn’t just serve a main course accompanied by the token salad and customary peas-and-carrots mix. You laid out a spread made up of eclectic side dishes — generous portions of rustic vegetables that blended all sorts of tastes and textures. These dishes, testaments to the land’s fertility, never played second fiddle and could easily be meals on their own.
Of course, this tradition of passing around heaping platters that pay homage to the harvest still exists today. But now the ritual is confined to that frantic six-week marathon between Thanksgiving and New Year’s known as “the holidays.” And those festive “sides” of yore have been replaced by seasonal menus as predictable as they are unhealthy: the ever popular marshmallow-glazed sweet potatoes swimming in butter and sugar; oyster chowder fortified with heavy cream; and, of course, Grandma’s classic green bean casserole filled to the brim with canned cream of mushroom soup and topped with a crown of French’s fried onion crisps.
It doesn’t have to be this way. There’s no rule that says you can’t buck convention and serve up holiday sides the way they used to be — hearty and wholesome. It doesn’t have to break the bank or your back, either. In fact, just roasting a basket of wild mushrooms and serving them alongside a gratin of spaghetti squash, a bowl of sweet potato hash, a platter of sweet and sour beets with pearl onions, or curry-glazed carrots is more than enough to create a unique and spectacular feast.
What’s more, you can indulge without unraveling a year’s worth of sensible eating. The best turn-back-the-clock side dishes rely on farm-fresh produce and natural ingredients like herbs, spices and oils (no processed soup, please) that bring out individual flavors rather than hiding them under multiple layers of sugar and fat. So you can go back for seconds or even thirds without worrying about “filling up.” And that alone is worth celebrating.