Occasionally it's important to introduce reluctant diners to interesting vegetables such as Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi and kale. But the holiday table might not be the place. Just as we want Bing singing "White Christmas" this time of year, we like our holiday side dishes classic and familiar — green bean casserole, broccoli-cheese casserole and creamed spinach. We make these beloved dishes year after year because they're gooey, creamy and rich. But I find these old standbys in need of a facelift, which is why I'm offering three better classic holiday side dishes.
My goal in updating these three popular veggie dishes was to make them as irresistible and comforting as the originals, eliminating unnecessary calories without making them feel austere — it's the holidays, after all! — and making sure the dishes were bright, fresh and quick.
My creamed spinach is ridiculously simple. The ingredient list is short. Besides salt and pepper, there are just five of them: spinach, cream cheese, garlic, nutmeg and Parmesan cheese. Start by thawing the spinach — you don't need fresh for a dish like this — but don't squeeze out and toss the liquid, as many recipes instruct. Instead, use it to thin the light Neufchatel to sauce consistency. The creamed spinach instructions are equally short — heat flavors, melt cream cheese, add spinach, cook five minutes and stir in Parm. Classy enough to serve with your best prime rib, this creamed spinach is also quick enough to pull off with your humble weeknight chicken breast.
With green bean casserole my goal was to freshen this dish, but there was the time factor. Was it possible to make a casserole with fresh green beans, shallots and mushrooms, and still have it on the table in the same time as one calling for canned green beans, French-fried onions and canned cream of mushroom soup? Yes! Here's how: The time I spent preparing the fresh ingredients, I made up in cooking time because my "casserole" made with fresh ingredients cooks stovetop in just minutes — there's no oven to preheat, no long baking time as with the classic casserole. And the taste difference is huge between a casserole made with fresh ingredients and one made with canned.
As much as I love frozen spinach, I'm not a fan of frozen broccoli, heavy on chewy stem and filled in with waterlogged florets. Instead I choose fresh broccoli crowns, meaning almost no stem in this casserole. I flash steam the broccoli in a small amount of water. It cooks very quickly, but keep your eye on it. If the pan goes dry, it will scorch. (The same is true for the green beans.)
Instead of heavy cream or half-and-half, I use lower-calorie but equally rich evaporated milk, and I flavor the casserole with way less cheese than most recipes call for — but you don't need as much when you call for bold extra-sharp cheddar. I bake it in a wide shallow pan to decrease baking time and to keep the broccoli from languishing in the oven.
When I first set out to develop these three side dishes I meant them for celebratory meals. Turns out they're simple and reasonable enough to enjoy at any meal any time of year. So take the test — try these updated classics. Next Christmas you may still be listening to Bing, but in the holiday vegetable department, I'll bet you've moved on.
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