These four side dishes will be stars on your Christmas dinner menu

By this time, you've cast the leading player for Christmas dinner. • You've likely settled on one of the traditional entrees: turkey, ham, beef or pork roast. I suppose some of you might even be doing it up big with a leg of lamb or even a goose. • Now the supporting cast needs your attention and, truth be told, the bit characters can upstage the star. Lots of people love the side dishes more than the roast beasts. • I've got four worthy suggestions if you've got a little wiggle room in the Christmas dinner menu and the fortitude to brave the grocery store. They can be carted to a potluck feast by those lucky enough to have an invitation. I've noted the steps needed to make them perfectly totable. • Pick one for the Christmas table, and make copies of the recipes. Someone will ask you to share, I promise.

n Crispy Potato Roast

This dish is as delicious to look at as it is to eat. Crispy Potato Roast comes from Everyday Food magazine and it definitely has Martha Stewart flair.

I like it for its simplicity, and as an accompaniment for juicy roast beef or pork. The crispy potatoes will soak up any jus that's rolling around on the plate. This side dish is lower in fat than other traditional holiday potato dishes, a nice way to mollify the guilt from overindulgence.

The trick to making the paper-thin potato slices is to use a mandoline, if you dare. I practically took a finger off with one of those several years ago so I used my trusty and sharp chef's knife to slice the peeled russets. Not as paper-thin as Martha's but still attractive and slender enough to get crispy. Keep the slices together as you cut the potato so they can be arranged neatly in the baking dish.

Portability: Can be made a day ahead. Cool and refrigerate. To reheat, bring to room temperature then place in a 350-degree oven for about 15 minutes. Cover loosely with foil if you think the potatoes are browning too much. Don't cover tightly or the potatoes will steam and lose their crispiness.

n Roasted Brussels Sprouts With Pomegranate Seeds

People either love them or hate them, but nearly everyone agrees that Brussels sprouts are better roasted. The dry heat sweetens the wee cabbages, softening their bitter attitude. This is a simple side dish that adds lots of color and flavor to the Christmas dinner menu.

The addition of pomegranate seeds as a garnish turns the sprouts festive. Pomegranates are in season and one fruit yields many more seeds than you'll need here. To use up the crimson gems, add to salads and yogurt or pop them in your mouth and crunch away. (I had a college roommate who used to eat them while watching TV. Healthier than chips, I guess.)

To extract the seeds from a pomegranate, pull apart the leathery outer layer over the sink. The red juice can stain clothes so be careful. You can pick out the seeds or immerse the fruit in a bowl of water and gently pry them out. They'll sink to the bottom of the bowl. Discard the outer layer and the white, spongy part that holds the seeds.

Portability: Brussels sprouts can be made in advance and reheated in the oven or in the microwave on half power. Add the pomegranate seeds right before serving; do not heat.

, Roasted Stuffed Pears and Apples

Are the stuffed, baked fruit halves side dishes or desserts? You are the ultimate judge, but I think they'll stand out on a table of savory sides. They'll get along amiably with any meat you decide to serve. (Or think about serving them warm with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.)

The pears are stuffed with blue cheese, pecans and dried cranberries, the apples with cheddar cheese, dried cherries and almonds. Both have the same apple cider, port and brown sugar glaze. You could make a selection of each in a 9- by 13-inch baking pan.

Make sure you slice a narrow sliver off the uncut side of the fruit so that the halves sit squarely in the pan. Also, cube, rather than shred, the cheddar cheese for the apples. This prevents the cheese from melting too fast and slipping into the bottom of the pan.

I made these twice, the first time cooking them so long that they looked unappetizing. Don't let them go longer than 25 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature. Once they get cold, the glaze hardens almost like caramel and they are more difficult to eat.

Portability: Plan on serving the same day you bake them. If you are taking them as a potluck offering, under cook by about 10 minutes. Transport them in the baking dish and reheat, covered, in a 350-degree oven for about 10 minutes. Transfer to a platter to serve.

n Yukon Gold Potato and Watercress Mash

This side dish was a happy accident. The original recipe called for the mashed potato mixture to be formed into patties and sauteed in oil to make savory cakes. I liked the idea, and the photo in Fine Cooking magazine, but found the exercise unsatisfactory and, ultimately, unnecessary.

The mashed mixture is wonderful on its own. (I am making this for my family's Christmas dinner to accompany beef tenderloin, but it would pair well with anything.) Wilted, peppery watercress and sauteed onion and garlic mixed with buttery baked Yukon Gold potatoes and thick Italian mascarpone cheese is one of the best savory dishes I've eaten in ages. The sauteed cakes stripped the mixture of its charm and never did look as pretty as the magazine picture. I say forget it.

The most time-consuming task here is picking the watercress leaves from the stems. Enlist some help because it's an irritating job. The leaves are small and tender, and can't be cut from the steams as easily as parsley. It has to be done by hand. Worth the effort, though. You could substitute Italian flat-leaf parsley or even ribbons of fresh, baby spinach leaves. The spinach will change the flavor somewhat, and I would add less of either if I made the switch.

Portability: The potato and watercress mash is best served the day it's made. Prepare it a few hours before serving and keep the bowl or serving dish covered until ready to serve or transport. Reheat gently in the microwave or oven. Do not let it come to a boiling bubble because the high-fat mascarpone will separate, changing texture, look and taste.

Janet K. Keeler can be reached at jkeeler@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8586.

>>moderate

Crispy Potato Roast

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

4 pounds russet potatoes, peeled

4 shallots, peeled and thickly sliced lengthwise

Coarse salt

1/2 to 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional)

8 sprigs thyme

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. In a small bowl, combine butter and oil. Brush bottom of a round 9-inch baking dish with some of the butter mixture. With a sharp knife or mandoline, slice potatoes very thinly crosswise.

Arrange potatoes slices vertically in dish. Wedge shallots throughout. Sprinkle with salt and red pepper flakes (if using); brush with remaining butter mixture. Bake 1 1/4 hours. Add thyme and bake until potatoes are cooked through with a crisp top, about 35 minutes more.

Note: The thinner the potatoes are cut, the crispier they'll become in the oven. Keep the slices together as you cut them so that you can arrange them easily in the dish. Also, you could sprinkle the dish with dried thyme rather than using fresh sprigs.

Serves 8.

Nutritional information per serving: 151 calories, 6g fat, 3g protein, 25g carbohydrates and 5g fiber.

Source: Everyday Food, December 2009

>>moderate

Yukon Gold Potato and Watercress Mash

1 1/4 to 1 1/2 pounds medium Yukon Gold potatoes

Kosher salt

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 large yellow onion, cut into 1/4-inch dice

2 medium cloves garlic, minced

1 bag (4 ounces) watercress, stemmed

1/2 cup mascarpone

Freshly ground black pepper

Position a rack in the center of the oven and heat the oven to 375 degrees.

Scrub the potatoes and pat them dry. Put them on a baking sheet and lightly sprinkle with salt. Bake until tender when poked with a skewer, 40 to 50 minutes. Remove from the oven and set aside until cool enough to handle.

While the potatoes are cooling, heat the olive oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and a pinch of salt and cook, stirring often, until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute, then add the watercress. Season to taste with salt and pepper and cook, stirring, just until the watercress wilts, 1 to 2 minutes.

Put the potatoes in a large bowl and break them into small chunks with a spoon or mash coarsely. Add the watercress mixture and the mascarpone, mix to combine, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Keep warm until ready to serve.

Serves 8.

Note: If you make the dish ahead, reheat gently on the stove or in the microwave. It's best served soon after being made.

Source: Adapted from Fine Cooking magazine, December 2009

>>easy

Roasted Pears With Blue Cheese, Cranberries and Pecans

3 ripe but firm pears

Freshly squeezed lemon juice (2 lemons)

3 ounces coarsely crumbled sharp blue cheese such as Stilton

1/4 cup dried cranberries

1/4 cup pecan halves, toasted and chopped

1/2 cup apple cider

3 tablespoons port

1/3 cup light brown sugar, lightly packed

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Slice pears lengthwise into halves and remove stems. With a small, sharp paring knife and a melon baller or spoon, remove the core and seeds from each pear, leaving a round well for the filling. Trim a small slice away from the rounded sides of each pear half so that it will sit in the baking dish without wobbling. Toss the pears with some lemon juice to prevent them from turning brown. Arrange them, cut side up, in a baking dish large enough to hold the pears snugly.

Gently toss the crumbled blue cheese, dried cranberries and pecans together in a small bowl. Divide the mixture among the pears, mounding it on top of the indentation.

In the same small bowl, combine the apple cider, port and brown sugar, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Pour the mixture over and around the pears. Bake the pears, basting occasionally with the cider mixture, for 25 minutes, or until tender. Set aside until warm or at room temperature.

Serves 6.

Source: Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics by Ina Garten (Potter, 2008)

>>easy

Roasted Apples With Cheddar,

Cherries and Almonds

3 medium sweet red apples such as Honey Crisp or Gala

Freshly squeezed lemon juice (2 lemons)

3 ounces cheddar cheese, cut into 1/4-inch cubes

1/4 cup dried cherries

1/4 cup almonds slices, roughly chopped

1/2 cup apple cider

3 tablespoons port

1/3 cup light brown sugar, lightly packed

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Cut apples in half lengthwise, remove stems. With a small, sharp paring knife and a melon baller or spoon, remove the core and seeds from each apple half, leaving a round well for the filling. Trim a small slice away from the rounded sides of each apple half so that it will sit in the baking dish without wobbling. Toss the apples with some lemon juice to prevent them from turning brown. Arrange them, cut side up, in a baking dish large enough to hold the apples snugly.

Gently toss the cubed cheddar cheese, dried cherries and almonds together in a small bowl. Divide the mixture among the apples, mounding it on top of the indentation.

In the same small bowl, combine the apple cider, port and brown sugar, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Pour the mixture over and around the apples. Bake the apples, basting occasionally with the cider mixture, for 25 minutes, or until tender. Set aside until warm or at room temperature.

Serves 6.

Source: Janet K. Keeler,

St. Petersburg Times

>>easy

Roasted Brussels Sprouts With Pomegranate Seeds

2 pounds Brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved if large

1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil

Seasoning salt or coarse kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons pomegranate seeds for garnish

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Arrange Brussels sprouts on a baking sheet. Drizzle with the oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. Using tongs, evenly coat the sprouts with seasonings and oil.

Roast, turning sprouts once with the tongs, for about 25 minutes, or until golden brown and cooked through. The timing depends on the size of the sprouts.

Transfer to a serving bowl, garnish with pomegranate seeds and serve immediately.

Advance preparation: Make up to 4 hours ahead through the roasting step. Cover and keep at room temperature. Reheat in a 350-degree oven for about 10 minutes. Add pomegranate seeds just before serving.

Serves 4 to 6.

Source: Seriously Simple Holidays by Diane Rossen Worthington (Chronicle Books, 2009)

These four side dishes will be stars on your Christmas dinner menu 12/22/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 23, 2009 7:43am]

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