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.
Quick and Fresh Green Bean "Casserole"
Serves 6 to 8
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
4 medium shallots, peeled and sliced thin
1 ½ pounds green beans, trimmed
½ pound baby bella mushrooms, sliced thin
2 garlic cloves, minced
½ teaspoon dried thyme leaves
1 cup chicken broth
½ cup sour cream
Ground black pepper
Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a small skillet over medium heat. Add shallots and cook, stirring occasionally at the beginning and then reducing heat to low and stirring constantly as they start to color, until caramel brown, 7 to 8 minutes. Turn shallots onto doubled paper toweling to cool and crisp. (Can be wrapped in foil and stored at room temperature a couple of days ahead.)
Meanwhile, place green beans, 1/2 cup water and sprinkling of salt in a large skillet; cover, turn burner on high, and cook until water has almost, but not completely, evaporated and beans are bright green and tender-crisp, about 5 minutes. Turn onto doubled paper toweling to cool. (Can be covered and refrigerated a couple of days ahead.)
Return skillet to burner and heat remaining 1 tablespoon of oil. Add mushrooms, saute until golden, about 4 minutes. Add garlic and thyme; continue to sauté until fragrant, about 1 minute longer. Add chicken broth; simmer until it forms thin gravy, 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in sour cream; cook until heated through. (Can be covered and refrigerated a couple of days ahead.)
When ready to serve, heat green beans and mushroom sauce in a large covered skillet over medium-high heat to blend flavors and slightly soften beans, about 5 minutes. Remove cover and continue to cook until sauce is thick enough to coat beans, a couple of minutes longer. Turn into a bowl, top with shallot crisps and serve immediately.
The Best (and Simplest) Creamed Spinach
2 teaspoons olive oil
3 large garlic cloves, minced
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 package (8 ounces) light (Neufchatel) cream cheese
2 packages (16 ounces each) frozen chopped spinach, thawed, reserving juice
½ cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Heat oil, garlic and nutmeg in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat until garlic starts to sizzle and turn golden. Add cream cheese and as it starts to melt, add spinach and its liquid; cook until sauce is thick and bubbly and spinach is tender yet still green, about 5 minutes. Stir in cheese, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve.
A Better Broccoli-Cheese Casserole
2 pounds broccoli crowns, cut into florets
4 large eggs
¼ cup all-purpose flour
1 can (12 ounces) evaporated milk
Ground black pepper
4 ounces (1 generous cup) extra-sharp cheddar cheese
1 tablespoon butter, melted
12 saltine crackers, crumbled
Place broccoli, 1/2 cup water and sprinkling of salt in a large skillet; cover, turn burner on high and cook until water has almost, but not completely, evaporated and broccoli is bright green and tender-crisp, about 5 minutes. Turn onto doubled paper toweling to cool. (Can be covered and refrigerated a couple of days ahead.)
About 45 minutes before serving, adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and heat oven to 425 degrees. Whisk flour into eggs until smooth and then whisk in milk, along with a light sprinkling of salt and pepper. Place broccoli in a single layer in a 9-inch casserole or a baking dish of similar size — I used a gratin pan. Sprinkle with half the cheese, then pour the egg mixture over the broccoli. Top with remaining cheese. Mix butter and crackers and then sprinkle over casserole. Bake until custard is set and crackers are golden brown, about 30 minutes. Serve.