Carla Hall is the Queen of Thanksgiving Side Dishes

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.

When Carla Hall was growing up in Nashville, Thanksgiving at her grandmother's house included turkey, country ham, chicken, multiple desserts, and plenty 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. She'd also 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."

Carla Hall at cutting board laughing and clapping hands
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 in June 2018 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.

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

Tablescape of Carla Hall Thanksgiving side dishes
Tablescape of Carla Hall Thanksgiving side dishes.

Carla molds her tender yeast rolls into a pull-apart wreath for both the beauty of the presentation and so the family literally breaks bread together during the meal. "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. Carla wouldn't consider hosting the meal without making these soft dinner rolls, as her grandmother did. Carla adds a sprinkle of benne (sesame) seeds as a nod to the Southern specialty benne wafers.

When deciding on her sides, Carla opts 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."

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