Dear Prudence

Help! My Dad Is Making Brisket for Thanksgiving and I Don’t Know What to Bring as a Side.

Slate’s Jamelle Bouie takes over for a special holiday-themed Prudie.

Table at Thanksgiving.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash.

In celebration of Thanksgiving, chief political correspondent and champion pie baker Jamelle Bouie answers all your culinary questions and dilemmas. Read on for recipes.

Q. Brisket: My dad is hosting Thanksgiving this year for the whole family, and he’s going to smoke a brisket instead of having a turkey (this is Texas, after all). Any suggestions for side dishes other than the usual fare (beans, mac and cheese) that goes with brisket? Thanks!

A: I like turkey, but brisket is an excellent alternative for a Thanksgiving centerpiece. For side dishes, you should take inspiration from most barbecue restaurants, which serve brisket with pickled vegetables to compliment the fatty, smoky flavor of the meat. In addition to the usual fare, consider homemade cucumber pickles or pickled red onions, roasted vegetables tossed in a vinaigrette (like this roasted-carrot salad, sans the cumin crème fraiche if that’s not your thing), Southern-style collard greens served with plenty of hot sauce and vinegar, or green beans with caramelized shallots, toasted almonds, and fresh lemon juice. The idea for all of these sides is to brighten your plate with acidic flavors and also add a little color to the mix.

Q. Sweet Sweet Potatoes: I understand the versatility of sweet potatoes and generally enjoy them prepared in savory-forward ways most of the time. But on Thanksgiving, I just want to eat them in all their brown-sugar, marshmallow-topped glory, and then I feel slightly bad about myself for this. Is it actually so wrong?

A: Not at all! People should eat what they like, and traditional Thanksgiving sweet potatoes are a respectable option. I will say that, if I were making the dish, I would go for something with stronger savory notes, and less of the syrupy sweetness. This recipe does the trick.

Q. Pie Dilemma: Every Thanksgiving, my father and I have the same fight. I started baking pies for the extended family Thanksgiving dinner some years ago. I make at least two different pies. Every year, my father feels the need to go out and buy one or two more pies. He says it is for the sake of either “having variety” or “having enough.” I bought that the first year, which is why I started making two, sometimes three pies. I love doing this each year, but whenever my father goes out for more, it makes me feel like whatever I do is never good enough.

I’ve told him this years ago, and he said he didn’t intend to make me feel that way, just that he felt we needed more. And every year we go through the same argument. This year, I decided I wasn’t going to put myself through this again and told him he could buy as many pies as he wants and that I’m going to make a gluten-free pie for me (since I have celiac) and for anybody who wants to try it but that’s it.

Is this OK? I don’t want to leave people pie-free on Thanksgiving, but it always seems like people are too full by dessert anyway.

A: It is unfortunate that your father hears your concern but ignores it instead of stepping back or discussing another way he can contribute to the dinner. If he’s going to continue bringing pies, you might suggest a little coordination: He can bring more traditional pies, and you can bake gluten-free pies to accommodate yourself and anyone who is interested in trying something different.

If you can’t manage to coordinate, remember that his bringing pies, even if it’s against your preferences, will ensure guests have plenty of options, if they want them. And you should still bake something for yourself.

Q. Mashed Potatoes: Say the future of liberal democracy depended on the mission impossible of convincing your dinner guests that there is a better potato way than mashed. What spud-based dish do you serve instead?

A: I don’t serve potatoes at Thanksgiving. There’s already enough starch and butter in the meal, but if I did, it would be a pommes anna or potato and leek gratin.

Q. Beyond Tofurkey: I grew up in a family that starved me out of being a vegetarian, in a part of America with such a strong feeder culture it’s basically considered rude to have food allergies or restrictions. As a result, as a host and a cook, I am fiercely committed to making sure everyone at my table has something delicious to eat, and as a result of that, I have made a lot of lifelong friends with serious food restrictions who appreciate this deeply. Many of them come to my Thanksgiving because they know they won’t be poisoned by a relative trying to prove their serious allergies aren’t real (WHY IS THIS A THING) or just accidentally dosed by someone well-intentioned with no knowledge of cross-contamination.

I enjoy this—I’m an experienced cook and good at making the kinds of mix-and-match dishes to cook once but feed everyone. But where I really struggle is a Thanksgiving alternative main. I do a turkey and stuffing and heaps of all vegetarian sides. I’ve even mastered vegan gravy! But all my attempts the past few years at an alternative main have just flopped. I used to do stuffed pumpkins, but as I’ve stretched to accommodate more varied restrictions, they’ve gotten pretty sad and last year really felt like a crappy after-thought. I want to have some alternative to the turkey other than just side dishes. Any suggestions for a gluten-free, dairy-free, vegetarian, low FODMAP main dish that feels a little fancy/holiday treat–y (even if it’s not … all of those)? Or resources to explore?

A: For this particular problem, beans and grains are your friend. They’re hearty, filling, and can be combined with a variety of different vegetables, toppings, and dressings. And beans don’t have to be a problem with guests on a low-FODMAP diet; by using dried beans, soaking them, discarding the liquid, cooking them, and then discarding that liquid, you can reduce the amount of non-soluble carbohydrates.

My go-to source for beans is Rancho Gordo, which cultivates heirloom beans and offers resources and recipes. Their Thanksgiving guide, for example, features a wild rice and heirloom bean salad that should fit your bill. It involves medium-bodied beans, wild rice, roasted winter squash, winter fruits, Brussels sprouts, and a mustardy, herby vinaigrette. It’s easy to make and in my experience a crowd pleaser.

Q. Chocolate Request: For a person like me, who only likes chocolate desserts, traditional Thanksgiving desserts are gross. Apple pie, pumpkin pie, pecan pie—blech. What is a chocolate dessert that I can proudly serve on Thanksgiving without someone saying, “Brownies? For Thanksgiving???”

A: For a dessert that showcases chocolate, try this bittersweet chocolate tart, served with freshly whipped cream. If you simply want to include chocolate, I am a big fan of a French walnut tart with a chocolate bottom. It might seem similar to pecan pie, but it’s completely different, with the rich, almost savory flavor of toasted walnuts and golden brown, salted caramel. Whichever path you choose, you can’t go wrong.

Q. Traveling Side Dishes: I am traveling two hours on Thanksgiving to attend a family potluck-style meal. I have a slow cooker, a few baking pans, glass casserole dishes, etc., and I consider myself to be fairly savvy in the kitchen. But I am at a total loss for what to make for a side dish that will travel well for our two-hour journey. Ideas please!

A: For Thanksgiving, my dad makes a carrot soufflé that might be a solution to your problem. This isn’t as finicky as a traditional soufflé; it’s easy to make and will stand up to travel. You can make it the night before you travel, chill in the refrigerator, cover, and pack in a cooler for your Thanksgiving drive. It reheats well—when you reach your destination, just put it in the oven at 300 degrees for about a half-hour—and it will present well. It’s also good as hell.

Q. Post-meal predicament: What Marvel Cinematic Universe movie is most appropriate for post-Thanksgiving watching?

A: You want something that’s family-friendly and speaks to themes of the holiday. The former rules out Avengers, which has some moments that might be scary for children, the latter rules out some of the best MCU films, like Captain America: The Winter Soldier or Black Panther. I think your best bets are the Ant-Man series and the Guardians of the Galaxy films. Both are explicitly concerned with family—in both the protagonists are men trying to find a family or rebuild one—and both are basically fine for kids of all ages. They’re also pretty good and an enjoyable watch after you’ve filled yourself with food.