Spirited Sides for Your Thanksgiving Spread

The holiday feast is all about the sides. This year, try cooking with wine and spirits to elevate the classics.
November 11, 2020 Updated: November 11, 2020

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. After all, it’s all about delicious food, family, and friends gathered around the dining table, and lots of camaraderie and laughter. It’s about sharing what we have with those around us. It’s about celebrating America and its history. It’s about continuing traditions and making new memories.

I remember the excitement of my early years in New York, the fun and rambunctious Thanksgivings with my small children in Florida, and the year we visited my mother in Madrid, when she served us hake with black squid ink sauce. There was the time I made a goose that was so dry it could’ve been shoe leather, and the year I didn’t make anything at all because the guests arrived so late that we ended up having cheese and crackers.

And there were many, many years where my house was filled with so many friends that we had to add folding tables in the entranceway.

For me, Thanksgiving is the day to splurge in all of the holiday’s wonderful traditional recipes. Roast turkey is of course an essential part of the meal—but the side dishes are where the fun really begins.

Some friends take their side dishes really seriously and always make the same classics, year after year. Others, like me, like to experiment with new additions. The popular ones stay in my repertoire and turn into classics themselves.

I love cooking with different wines and spirits, and this year, I am making a set of “spirited” sides, all Thanksgiving staples elevated with a splash or two of booze (except for the mashed potatoes, which need little doctoring to be delicious). I even use sherry to deglaze my turkey roasting pan to make a delicious gravy.

The alcohol will evaporate as the dishes cook, leaving only their wonderful essence and aroma behind, so they are totally fine to serve to children.

I adore a stuffing made with fresh sausage, apples, chestnuts, and sage, spiked with a generous pour of brandy. After baking, the texture and flavor are similar to that of a country pâté. I sometimes add a small can of preserved black truffles, sliced, along with their juice—it’s not essential, just an added bit of luxury.

A touch of port, meanwhile, enhances a classic cranberry-orange sauce. Using fresh cranberries is essential. The sauce will last for a couple of weeks in the fridge, and leftovers can double as jam the next day—so make a big batch!

For a colorful vegetable option, simply roasted carrots are drizzled with a sweet, thyme-infused red wine sauce, reduced on the stovetop until syrupy, which elevates them to grown-up status. I pick out heirloom carrots in different colors, which will look festive and taste delicious.

Finally, fluffy mashed potatoes baked in a soufflé dish are creamy and elegant, and always a crowd-pleaser. Folding eggs and Gruyère cheese into the potatoes makes them even richer. This “mashed potatoes soufflé,” as I call it, won’t truly rise like a real soufflé; it’s just going to taste and feel like one.

Need more ideas? What about creamed cauliflower with a splash of white wine in the cheese béchamel? Or, you could roast it whole and serve it with the sauce on the side.

Creamed spinach, roasted Brussels sprouts with bacon, and creamy scalloped potatoes always have room on my table, too. I also like to serve squashes simply roasted with maple syrup, or sautéed onions cooked with nutmeg, or sweet potatoes with honey roasted pecan topping, in homage to my Southern home.

Take a chance, have some fun, and make a new side dish this year. It might just become your new classic!

Planning Ahead

A bit of planning ahead is essential for having everything ready on time, and will make your life a little easier on Thanksgiving Day.

The day before, I make the cranberry sauce, which is served chilled, and the stuffing, which will improve with a bit of rest. I also like to lay the table and get the house ready for guests. I love waking up on Thanksgiving morning and seeing the table ready—it is a wonderful feeling of anticipation.

On the day of, I roast the carrots, to reheat on the stovetop with the red wine sauce just before serving. The turkey claims the majority of the oven space as it cooks, but when it’s done and resting, the potato soufflé goes in, as well as the already-cooked stuffing, just to warm up.

One last bit of advice: As the host, you set the tone. So, have fun! It will show, and all your guests will have a wonderful time and feel totally comfortable in your home. Remember that you’re providing the best memory of all: a very happy Thanksgiving!

RECIPE: Sausage and Apple Stuffing With Brandy

RECIPE: Roasted Carrots With Red Wine and Thyme Sauce

RECIPE: Mashed Potatoes ‘Soufflé’

RECIPE: Cranberry-Orange Sauce With Port

Victoria de la Maza is an award-winning cookbook author, columnist, and international TV host. Passionate about great food, she combines American traditions with her European heritage to create classic-with-a-twist recipes and ideas for stylish entertaining at home.