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Three Food Writers Battle Over Thanksgiving Side Dishes In This Cooking Challenge

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It’s almost Thanksgiving and you don’t need an intro from me. Let’s get right to the main course (which happens to be side dishes)!

— Steve Bramucci, Managing Editor, Uproxx Life

PAST RESULTS:

BLT Showdown — 1) Vince 2) Zach 3) Steve
Mac & Cheese Showdown — 1) Vince 2) (tie) Zach, Steve
Taco Showdown — 1) Steve 2) Zach 3) Vince
Winter Stew Showdown — 1) Zach 2) Steve 3) Vince
Date Night Showdown — 1) Zach 2) Vince 3) Steve
Pasta Showdown — 1) Steve 2) Zach 3) Vince
Hot Beef Showdown — 1) Zach 2) Vince 3) Steve
Shellfish Showdown — 1) Vince 2) Zach 3) Steve
BBQ Showdown — 1) Steve 2) Zach 3) Vince
Pumpkin Spice Showdown — 1) (tie) Vince, Zach 2) Steve

CURRENT SCORE:

We’re giving three points to the winner and one to second place for each round. As it stands, the score is:

ZACH: 18
VINCE: 14
STEVE: 12

ZACH’S PUMPKIN FONDUE

Side dishes are tough around Thanksgiving. It’s always so regionally based that you have to wonder — is there really a wrong answer to the “great side dish at Thanksgiving” debate? Basically, no. Anything will do as long as it’s at least tangentially based on autumn and local harvests. Besides, most of what we consider “classic” Thanksgiving side dishes are just foods Ogilvy and Bernays crammed down our throats to sell more shit during the last century. So, there really is no wrong answer here.

(Watch your toes, I’m about to drop a mic) You know what’s really not a wrong answer? A vat of melted cheese, that’s what. I give you a baked pumpkin filled with baked-in-the-pumpkin three cheese fondue.

The Pumpkin

This recipe is kinda perfect for Thanksgiving. One, you’ll need something for your oven to do while the turkey rests for an hour or two. Two, it’s a really high-quality side with a very low impact preparation.

I used a Muscat Pumpkin here because, yes, I live in Europe which is somehow bafflingly a negative (I secretly tell myself that you’re all just painfully jealous). Anyway, you want to choose one about the size of a bowling ball for this recipe. Muscat’s have a rich, deeply orange, and savory flesh that’s only slightly sweet. It’s also thicker on the inside giving you plenty of heft.

Open that sucker up, scoop out all of the seeds and sinew, and pop it in the oven on a high-ish temperature (400F) for about 30 minutes or until the inner flesh is fork tender. I do sprinkle some sea salt on the inside of the pumpkin. It helps bring out the flavors. I use my cast iron skillet here. That’s the only cooking platform you really need. A baking sheet is fine too. Whatever works for you.

You can also totally bake the pumpkin ahead of time to free up your oven on Thanksgiving. It’ll get reheated when you bake in the cheese anyway. In that case, all you’ll do to finish this on Thanksgiving is 30 minutes of oven time.

The Filling

So, while your pumpkin is baking, make your fondue. I use 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of each full fat crème fraîche, young gouda from Holland, vintage white cheddar from Scotland, and funky aged gruyère from the Swiss Alps. I grate the cheese and put into a mixing bowl. Then I add one large tablespoon of cornstarch and mix until the cheese is well coated.

Next, I add the crème fraîche, one very finely diced shallot, and one clove of crushed garlic along with a good glug (one-third cup if you’re pedantic) of very dry white wine and mix thoroughly. In this case, I used a nice German Grauer Burgunder from Baden which is a Burgundy-style Pinot Gris. It’s very tart and has a smooth dry white finish.

Once the pumpkin is nice and tender, remove it from the oven. Scrape out any extra stringy sinew and make sure the inside is nice and smooth. Fill the cavity with the cheese mix and place back in the oven for 30-ish minutes on 375F-400F depending how hot your oven runs. I’m using a gas oven, so I tend to go with higher heats.

That’s it.

The Finish

While the pumpkin fondue is bubbling away in the oven, make some crispy garlic toast. I use a rustic spelt/rye mix baguette here — and, no, I didn’t bake it myself. I have an awesome bakery one block from me that’ll always be a far better bakery than my kitchen.

I slice off large chunks and then heat up duck fat with some garlic in a skillet. The crushed garlic infuses nicely in the unctuous and delicious duck fat. You can use butter or even olive oil instead — but I figured at this point, you may as well go all in the winter fats.

After 30 minutes, the cheese should be bubbling and starting to crisp around the edges. Take it out and let it rest for at least ten minutes.

Sprinkle some finely chopped chives over the top along with a few pumpkin seeds and serve right in the cast iron skillet.

Serve

Fuuuuuuuuuuck is this good. The fondue is a gooey, stringy, messy delight of smooth and deeply flavored cheese. The minced shallot and soft garlic add a light spice heat. And the wine really ties it all together in a nice package of funk, tart, heat, and cheese. Scoop out some soft, delicious pumpkin along with it, and you have an awesome side dish that works on its own or with anything else you’re serving.

Why is this the best side dish? Because, yes you can just dip duck fat garlic bread and have a whale of a time. And, yes, duck fat garlic bread is as amazing as it sounds. But you can also put delicious fondue on everything else. Fondue on the turkey. Fondue on the stuffing. “Hey, you wanna make those boring ol’ mashed potatoes pop? Put some of this amazing fondue on there!” Because, what doesn’t melted cheese make one-million times better?

I rest my case.


Steve on Zach’s Dish: Look, this is the exact dish I’d love to see on a ski lodge in the Alps. I’d then pressure the table to order it, hammer the cheese like a madman and sit back while my friends stared longingly at the pumpkin husk.

“Eat some fondue!” I’d say. “I’d love to have more, but I don’t ever want to take more than my share.”

Deep down, everyone would know that I did take more than my share… of the cheese. But they wouldn’t verbalize it, because there was clearly a large mass of pumpkin on the table and I was clearly not hogging it.

Which brings us to how this dish fell victim to one of the classic blunders: The famous Bread Bowl Corollary. The concept is simple: Chowder in bread bowls is amazing, but no one needs that much sourdough. Besides, you can’t access it until the soup is gone, thus defeating the purpose. That’s the problem here. Yes, Zach, I want your gooey cheese in my gaping maw — but the last thing I need is to eat roast pumpkin husk when there are candied yams and pumpkin pie on the table.

If I made this, my mother in law would be forced to toss the pumpkin carcass in the trash after dessert while shaking her head and speaking in Farsi about how she wished I’d just stuck to my incredible, life changing scalloped potatoes.

Still… I like the herbs, my dude.

Vince on Zach’s Dish:

Pumpkin fondue? How ’bout fonDON’T, homey? Dish look like you socked a pumpkin in the belly and it puked on itself. For real, I trust you when you say this is good, but if it was on a menu I probably wouldn’t order it. I like pumpkin and I like cheese, but pumpkin + cheese… I don’t know, it just doesn’t sound like more than the sum of its parts. That said, it’s definitely a statement dish. And I liked your seed and chive garnish. And I can’t deny duck fat toast. Anything tastes good on duck fat toast. I’m just not sure you needed an entire pumpkin to make this work. Do you even bother eating the pumpkin after all that cheese? I’m guessing that gets thrown away nine times out of 10. It’s November, man, show that pumpkin some god damned respect.

That being said, I do appreciate your use of creme fraiche.

STEVE’S FOUR CHEESE POTATOES AU GRATIN

I have been in a serious slump lately. Last round, my spaghetti was summarily crushed by a rice ball and some un-herbaceous mole. Then Vince gave me a “DQ” in this morning’s stuffing challenge. And my use of my THREE WEEK OLD CHILD as an excuse is clearly wearing thin.

Which is why, this go around, I decided to bring it. I’m employing high-level technique like Zach, keeping it simple like Vince, and pandering desperately to the crowd like… the good old Steve you know and love.

This dish is my Thanksgiving go to. It has secret cheffing moves, four cheeses, and a huge Game of Thrones shout out. If this isn’t the fan service you’ve been looking for then I’m at a loss.

To begin…

I cut my potatoes paper thin on the mandoline. As thin as I would for making chips. I used russets, Yukon gold, fingerlings, and a few fingerling whites. None of those huge potatoes that look like Harvey Weinstein, they’re whack.

This next step is crucial: I soaked my potatoes in an ice water bath for two hours. Every time I thought of it, I’d strain them and add fresh water, then back into the fridge. This is a move used in making potato chips and I apply it to my au gratin. It removes the excess potato starch, so that the potatoes can get crisp.


The base:

Bacon, parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme. That’s pretty much the essence of Thanksgiving right there. It can’t be messed with. Once again, this round I went with fresh, local, quality ingredients. That’s fresh thyme, friends, grown at Casa Bramucci. The bacon is antibiotic free from Whole Foods.

You always know Steve isn’t messing around when he spends money like a madman in order to claw back some cooking cred.

I’ve GoT this…

Ba-ba! Bada-da-da! Bada-ba-ba! Bada-daaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa! Ba-ba-bada-da-dada-daaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!

That, friends, was me humming the Game of Thrones theme with the same precision that I show in the kitchen. Why? Because I started glugging Brewery Ommegang’s new Red Ale brewed with ancho chilies into my pan. See where we’re going with this: It’s going to be like a beer, cheese, potato chowder.

Am I also hitting this mix with some onions and my beloved bone broth? Believe it. These flavors run deeper than Jon Snow’s love for Dany. They’re also every bit as incestous, meaning that they just sort of “fit together”… but not in a weird way.

Sorry, fam — that’s my delicious red ale flavor-steam fogging up the camera lens. My bad.

Heat check

Okay, now I’m giving the potatoes a little cooking, so that they don’t need quite as long in the oven and they’re fully imbued with the flavors I’ve worked so hard to develop. Just writing this, I’m getting A) hungry and B) incredibly cocky.

It’s dangerous, but no matter — I’m the father of Dragons, the sun cannot scorch me. And as we’ve seen on GoT, there’s no penalty for extreme arrogance.

Four cheeses:

  • Aged gouda.
  • Aged cheddar.
  • Aged Swiss.
  • Aged parm.

I like my cheese like I like my incredible disses of Vince’s cooking: Sharp as hell and plenty pungent.

What else… Little hit of paprika. Some nutmeg.

I’ve got layers

I layer the mix — cheese, potatoes, cheese, potatoes, etc. Top with cheese and slivered almonds. Into the oven!

Meanwhile, on the next burner:

Bone broth, turkey necks, some crumbled Gorgonzola, dried cherries, red wine. All flavored to taste. if you’re clamoring for specifics here, you’re out of luck. Making gravy should leave you with fifty used tasting spoons.

Yes, it’s a little odd to make gravy for our potatoes au gratin. But if you were at Thanksgiving, tell me you wouldn’t gravy-ize them.

This is what the dish needs: A hit of tart to lighten all the umami richness. I would drink this mix like Powerade.

Sealed with cheese

Baked at 350 for an hour. Topped with fresh thyme sprigs.

Come. At. Me.

Or check it on Insta. @Tronner_the_awesome gets it:


Vince on Steve’s Dish:

When I heard Steve was cooking scalloped potatoes I was a little bummed. I love scalloped potatoes (anyone who would choose mashed over scalloped is a damned fool) and if someone takes scalloped potatoes (or potatoes au gratin, whatever) in a game of Thanksgiving side bingo you’re already working from behind (not to mention, my real go-to Thanksgiving side is raviolis, but I already made that for a cooking challenge). Halfway through this, I thought I was beat. I mean personally I don’t think you need to wash and soak potatoes you’re just going to cover with cheeses, and I think russet potatoes are mealy garbage, but these I can overlook. I also would’ve used some gruyere in there (this is a perfect situation for gruyere!), but hey.

Thank God Steve just couldn’t resist being Steve, and he brought dried cherries, gorgonzola, and slivered almonds to a potatoes au gratin dish. Always with the nuts and the dried fruit! Christ, man, not everything is a tagine. Potatoes au gratin is an all-time top 10 side.

You have made potato bacon nut casserole with turkey blue cheese cherry gravy. Do you ever just say these things out loud to see how they sound before you cook them? That might save you some trouble.

Zach on Steve’s Dish:

I know Steve saw I used three cheeses (in a cheese gravy no less) and was like, “I can out cheese Zach with my spuds. I’ll show him!”

Now, I’m not saying I wouldn’t eat these potatoes. As we all know, au gratin is the quality-est of sides. But, man, this is peak Steve on brown acid descending into one of the southern California valleys with kitchen knives out and not everyone comes out alive. I was so overwhelmed reading this recipe I legit needed a break. Also, where’s your presentation, son? That looks like a glob a Gremlin would give sideeye to. Padma would just pass out like a southern belle in Tennessee Williams novella if you plopped that in front of her.

That said, I bet these were amazing as leftovers.

Vince’s Yorkshire Pudding With Chives And Gruyere

Chances are, you’ve heard of Yorkshire Pudding but you don’t really know what it is. That’s because it’s not really “pudding,” in the American sense — a creamy or possibly kind of lumpy sweet gooey thing you eat for dessert. It’s more like a popover. Basically an eggy batter, kind of like pancake batter, that you cook in the oven with meat drippings.

I chose this because when we talk Thanksgiving sides, let’s be honest, we’re basically talking gravy delivery devices, right? I have to think that’s the only reason anyone would ever eat mashed potatoes. I discovered Yorkshire pudding at House of Prime Rib here in San Francisco and it was kind of life changing. It also makes sense because if I have any say in Thanksgiving dinner, we’re doing some kind of rib roast instead of a turkey.

Aaaanyway. Yorkshire puddings are mostly giant air holes, specially designed for soaking up gravy and/or jus. And they consist almost entirely of butter, eggs, and flour, so they’re really good, even plain. They’re also insanely easy.

Here’s your full list of ingredients for the batter. Ready?

5 eggs
1 and 1/4 cup flour
2-3 tablespoons butter
1 and 1/4 cup whole milk
1 tsp salt

Melt the butter, put all of the ingredients in a blender, and blend it up. Cool off the batter for about 10-20 minutes.

Once that’s cool, I add some gruyere and a handful of chives for flair. Why? Gruyere because why not let cheese get in on this party, and chives because Steve is always whining about not enough herbs.

HERE YOU GO, STEVE. GOT ENOUGH PLANT CLIPPINGS FOR YOU?!? Jk, chives are great.

I added them to the pre-mixed batter instead of blending them together so that I would have chunks of cheese and bits of chives and not light green puddings, in case that was unclear.

Now all you have to do is cook them. Preheat a muffin sheet (or a Yorkshire pudding sheet if you have one of those) to 425 with about a tablespoon of meat drippings in each well until it’s good and hot (batter should sizzle when it hits the tray). I used some duck fat for this batch, but you can use any kind of meat drippings. Then bake for about 20 minutes.

Serve it dressed or undressed!

They’re like light, fluffy, buttery, just-a-tiny-bit-crunchy pillows of air. Sometimes they collapse in the middle giving you a perfect gravy bowl. I defy you to find a better gravy delivery system. They taste light, even though they’re 90% eggs and butter and fat. My favorite side dish for a big turkey or roast.

Zach on Vince’s Dish:

I’m not going to lie. Vince killed this challenge. I married an English woman and spend an inordinate amount of time round Manchester way, so I love, love Yorkshire Puddings. The addition of cheese and chives, inspired.

But, goddamnit, Vince, who brings the dish of the enemy to Thanksgiving dinner? Thanksgiving is about English separatists breaking free of the yoke of the English who foolishly didn’t want their country to turn into a fundamentalist theocracy! I suppose you’d bring a bubble and squeak or toad in a hole to the Fourth of July?!? Next, you’re going to tell me you want steak and kidney pie for Christmas. What is this madness? Yorkshire puddings are for Sunday roasts in some pub in merry ol’ England, dude, not Thursday Thanksgiving roasts in ‘Murica! If you’re serving these, you’re begging for your drunk, patriotic relatives to break into America The Beautiful around the table as a protest of English tyranny. And we don’t need to rehash the American Revolution or War of 1812 on Thanksgiving.

Steve on Vince’s Dish:

First off: Mancini herb game on point! I love it.

Second: My god would I murder a plate of these. I mean, I’d shovel them in two at a time. But like the puddings themselves, I find the whole approach a bit airy. Are these really a side? Aren’t they in lieu of rolls? It’s not a Vince-fundamentally-not-understanding-stew level disaster, but I think my car ride home would go something like this:

The GF: “What was the best side dish tonight?”

Steve: “Not sure, but those weird cheesy pillows were delightful.”

The GF: “I thought your scalloped potatoes were the best!”

Steve: “You’re so right and I completely agree. Also, I put 15 Yorkshire puddings and a gallon of Zach’s cheese in your purse, just FYI.”

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