by Michael Vyskocil, photography by Tara Hope Cofiell

The side dishes at Thanksgiving dinner are often upstaged by the roasted, barbecued or deep-fried turkey. But they are just as important to the meal as the main course itself.

If your definition of a side dish constitutes the ubiquitous green bean casserole or marshmallow-topped sweet potatoes, you have barely scratched the surface of what a Thanksgiving menu can offer your guests.

Pair green beans with fennel–not fried onions. Pay homage to the first Thanksgiving feast with succotash at your table. Save your marshmallows for cocoa and turn those sweet potatoes into a delicate and delicious spoon bread. And cap off a royal feast with a calorie-conscious dessert of poached pears with raspberry jam.

Sweet Potato Spoon Bread
Sweet potatoes always seem a requisite part of the Thanksgiving dinner repertoire. This spoon bread, a cross between a pudding and a custard, brings out the inherent sweetness of the potatoes.

3 large sweet potatoes
2 cups milk
1/3 cup yellow cornmeal
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for baking dish
1/2 cup light-brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
3/4 cup water
4 large eggs
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup maple syrup
3/4 cup heavy cream

  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Place sweet potatoes on a parchment-lined baking sheet and pierce the skins in several places with the tines of a fork. Bake until the tip of a sharp knife can be easily inserted into the potatoes; about 45 to 50 minutes. Remove sweet potatoes from oven and let stand until cool enough to handle. Remove and discard skins; transfer flesh to the bowl of a food processor.
  2. Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees F. In a medium saucepan over medium heat, combine milk, cornmeal, butter, sugar, nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon, salt and water. Cook, stirring frequently, until the mixture is slightly thickened, about 10 to 12 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool.
  3. Butter a 2-quart baking dish and set aside. Add eggs to the sweet potatoes and process until the eggs are incorporated into the sweet potato flesh. Transfer sweet potato mixture to a large mixing bowl and stir in flour, maple syrup, heavy cream and cooked cornmeal mixture. Blend until the mixture is smooth. Pour mixture into prepared baking dish. Bake until the spoon bread is golden brown on top, about 45 to 50 minutes. Serve warm. Makes 8 to 10 servings.

Green Beans and Fennel with Lemon Butter
With accents of citrus and anise, this dish takes less time to prepare than a traditional casserole.

3 fennel bulbs (about 1 pound each)
2 pounds fresh green beans, washed well and trimmed
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 teaspoon fennel seeds, crushed
1 teaspoon freshly grated lemon zest
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

  1. Prepare the fennel bulbs: Cut off and discard the fern-like stalks from the fennel bulbs. Remove any wilted outer layers of the fennel bulbs and cut off thin slices from the bases. Wash fennel bulbs well and cut each bulb into quarters. Cut out the cores and discard. Cut fennel lengthwise into 1/4-inch-wide strips.
  2. Bring a 4-quart saucepan filled with water to a boil over medium heat. Add green beans to saucepan and cook for 4 to 6 minutes. Add the strips of fennel to the saucepan with the beans. Cook for another 6 to 8 minutes or until the vegetables are just tender. Drain cooking water and transfer green beans and fennel to a large mixing bowl.
  3. In a small mixing bowl, combine melted butter, fennel seeds, lemon zest, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Pour butter mixture over cooked green beans and fennel, and toss lightly to combine. Transfer to a serving dish and serve immediately. Makes 10 to 12 servings.

This colorful vegetable medley traces its origins to the Narragansett Native Americans. There’s even a Succotash Point on Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island.

4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, cut into 1/4-inch dice
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 red bell pepper, seeded and cut into 1/2-inch dice
1 green bell pepper, seeded and cut into 1/2-inch dice
2 medium carrots, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch dice
1 cup frozen lima beans, thawed
2 cups fresh or frozen corn kernels (thawed, if frozen)
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme leaves
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh Italian flat-leaf parsley leaves

  1. In a skillet over medium heat, melt butter in olive oil. Add onion and cook until the onion is translucent, about 2 minutes. Add garlic, bell peppers, carrots, lima beans and corn. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
  2. Cook, stirring frequently, until vegetables are tender, about 10 to 12 minutes. Stir in thyme and parsley, and serve. Makes 8 to 10 servings.

Poached Pears with Raspberry Sauce
After all the feasting, a serving of poached pears signals a light, luscious finale to a holiday meal.

10 cups water
1 tablespoon whole cloves
2 large cinnamon sticks
2 cups sugar
Juice of 1 lemon, plus outer peel of 1 lemon, cut into strips
12 large Bosc pears
1 1/2 cups raspberry jam
Fresh sprigs of mint, for garnish

  1. In a large stockpot over medium heat, combine water, cloves, cinnamon sticks, sugar and lemon peel strips. Bring liquid to a boil, stirring until sugar dissolves. Reduce heat, cover and let the mixture simmer for 5 minutes.
  2. Peel pears, taking care to remove any discolored spots from the flesh, leaving the stems intact. Place peeled pears in two large mixing bowls filled with water. Divide the juice of 1 lemon between two bowls. Keep pears in bowl until ready to poach.
  3. Add pears to simmering poaching liquid and cover pears with a layer of cheesecloth. Place a plate on top of pears, if necessary, to keep them submerged in the poaching liquid. Simmer for 20 minutes, or until the pears are tender to the point of a sharp knife.
  4. With a slotted spoon, carefully remove pears from stockpot and transfer to a serving dish.
  5. In a small saucepan over medium heat, heat raspberry jam until melted. Press raspberry jam through a sieve. Spoon poaching liquid over pears and then spoon raspberry jam over the pears. Serve at room temperature or chilled. Garnish with fresh mint leaves. Makes 12 poached pears.