At TV personality and cookbook author Carla Hall's Thanksgiving table, start with the side dishes—then see if you still have room for turkey.

By Joe Yonan

When Carla Hall was growing up in Nashville, Thanksgiving at her grandmother’s house included turkey, a country ham, chicken, multiple desserts, and lots of side dishes. There was corn bread dressing, mac and cheese, sweet potatoes, bitter greens, green beans, and “always some kind of pickle.”

By the time Carla hosted the meal for the first time—a Friendsgiving-type gathering in Washington, D.C.—she had been through culinary school and worked in restaurants, had traveled the world as a model, and had recently started her first catering company. “I remember thinking, I have been French trained, so let me cook outside the traditions I grew up on,” she says. “You know what? It didn’t feel like Thanksgiving.”

The turkey is the turkey, but for Carla Hall, "Thanksgiving is all about the sides." she relies on ones that pay homage to her Southern roots, with a sprinkle of global flavor.

These days Carla, longtime cohost of The Chew (which wrapped this past summer after seven seasons) and a two-time favorite on Top Chef, marries nostalgia and modernity on the holiday table. She does the same in her new cookbook, Carla Hall’s Soul Food: Everyday and Celebration, tracing foods from Africa and the Caribbean to the American South and recasting the dishes of her heritage with an eye toward lightness and variety, without losing sight of cultural connections.

Related: Take a Sneak Peek Inside Carla's New Book

Left to right: Carla takes Southern spoon bread (think of it as corn pudding meets soufflé) and adds celery and poultry seasoning to give it the flavor of Thanksgiving dressing; Humble baked new potatoes become something special and surprising with a brown butter-mustard seed vinaigrette and crispy fried sage leaves
Left to right: Carla takes Southern spoon bread (think of it as corn pudding meets soufflé) and adds celery and poultry seasoning to give it the flavor of Thanksgiving dressing; Humble baked new potatoes become something special and surprising with a brown butter-mustard seed vinaigrette and crispy fried sage leaves

When she and her husband, Matthew Lyons, host the holiday, Carla reinvents the standard corn bread dressing from her grandmother’s buffet as a fluffy spoon bread and the sweet potato casserole as pan-roasted root vegetables. Instead of traditional mashed potatoes, she flattens whole baked new potatoes and drizzles on a vinaigrette made with whole mustard seeds that pop deliciously in your mouth.

Carla forms her tender yeast rolls into a pull-apart wreath both for the beauty of the presentation and because she loves the idea of friends and family literally breaking bread together during the meal. 

On the more nostalgic side, she wouldn’t consider hosting the meal without making soft dinner rolls, as her grandmother did. Carla forms hers into an impressive pull-apart ring and adds a sprinkle of benne (sesame) seeds as a nod to the Southern specialty benne wafers. “There’s nothing like that delicious yeasty smell when you pull those rolls out of the oven,” she says. “You look at everybody and say, ‘Come on, give me props.’” Also, the bread is essential for sopping up the meal’s juices.

When deciding on her sides, Carla goes for a vibrant mix of flavors, textures, and colors. “Every great side dish fits into a category: sweet, creamy, savory, nutty, bitter, or sour,” she says. “I want a little bit of everything.”

Related: Get all of Carla Hall's recipes from our November 2018 issue

Source: Better Homes & Gardens November 2018
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