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Thanksgiving | It’s All About the Sides

Chef Network Partner Mary Ann Esposito is the host of PBS's Ciao Italia, America's longest running cooking show. With Thanksgiving fast-approaching and tensions running high, Mary Ann encourages you to slow down, enjoy the madness and focus on the real stars of the Thanksgiving show -- family, friends, and side dishes!

Many of us dream of serving a perfectly bronzed looking Thanksgiving turkey just like the one that artist and illustrator Norman Rockwell painted in Freedom From Want, his endearing painting of a family gathered at the holiday table.

And while the turkey is the iconic centerpiece in the painting and the object of everyone’s admiration as it is laid before them, dare I venture to say that today’s holiday table focuses a lot more attention on the sides. Surely the staple sweet potato casserole with marshmallow topping is here to stay as tradition dictates, as well as the green bean casserole almandine and jellied canned cranberry sauce but since Thanksgiving is about celebrating bounty, gratefulness and family, why not add some new sides to your standard menu. Here is a great side from my new book Ciao Italia: My Lifelong Food Adventures in Italy, a colorful tomato gratin made with Backyard Farms cocktail tomatoes. (See recipe below)

If you are having a crowd, think of balancing out your menu with five or six sides. That way, there will be enough for guests to choose from. Include a couple of familiar casserole type dishes that many people like and that can be made ahead. Have some colorful and in season vegetables like a layered vegetable casserole, which in itself makes a statement about the harvest. Think about vegetables with different textures too like Brussels sprouts, one of those gorgeous fall and winter vegetables that often needs coaxing for some people to appreciate. They are simply delicious when roasted or combined with leeks in a delicious and easy to make cream sauce.

Sides can often be meals in themselves and the best part is that many of them can be prepared ahead of time, refrigerated and reheated, leaving the cook to focus all the attention on getting that bird roasted just right.

While tradition may call for that perfectly roasted Rockwell-ish turkey on the Thanksgiving table, the sides can be the start of something new and enduring for future holiday gatherings.

Tomato Gratin

This tomato gratin made with sweet, plump Backyard Farms cocktail tomatoes serves four and makes a great side dish for your Thanksgiving table and is so easy to put together.

Extra virgin olive oil
4 cups 1-inch diced ciabatta bread cubes
2 cloves garlic, minced
4 cups cut in half Backyard Farms cocktail tomatoes
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
Grinding black pepper
1 cup diced Swiss, Montasio or Italian Fontina cheese
2 tablespoons fresh chopped basil


Preheat oven to 350F

Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a stovetop to oven casserole dish and brown the bread cubes in batches; transfer them to a bowl; add more oil as needed to brown the remaining bread cubes.

Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in the same pan and cook the garlic until golden; stir in the tomatoes, salt, sugar and pepper and cook until the tomatoes exude their juices. Return the bread cubes to the pan and press them down into the tomatoes. Sprinkle the cheese on top and bake until set and nicely browned about 12-15 minutes. Sprinkle basil over top and scoop from pan to serve.

Recipe from CIAO ITALIA (My Lifelong Food Adventures in Italy) by Mary Ann Esposito, Nov 1, 2018