We all know turkey is the main attraction on the biggest food holiday of the year. But the side dishes can steal the show.


With a big meal to tend to, gratins are a good choice for a side dish. They are comfort food at its best. Most can be assembled in advance and can feed a crowd.


Gratins are basically casseroles with a crusty, crunchy topping. Underneath that topping are layers of vegetables (and sometimes fruits such as apples and pears) in a creamy, rich and often cheesy sauce.


To create a great gratin, follow this four-step process:


Step 1: Choose and prepare your vegetables. Hearty vegetables work best, which is why potatoes (regular and sweet) are a popular choice. They provide a sturdy layer to hold the gratin together, and their starch can thicken the sauce. Choose waxy varieties like Yukon Gold or russets. Cook them slightly beforehand or slice them thinner. Brussels sprouts, celery root, parsnips, squash and carrots are also gratin favorites. Slice or chop the veggies in advance.


Step 2: Make a basic béchamel -type sauce. Make a roux with butter and flour and then add heavy cream, half-and-half or milk (regular or reduced fat) as your base for the sauce. Infuse the sauce with fresh herb sprigs (remove after simmering) and aromatics like leeks, onions, shallots, garlic and other favorite seasonings. Once thickened (it should thickly coat the back of a spoon), pour the sauce over the layered vegetables. You can also add cheeses to the sauce.


Step 3: Choose a topping. Fresh or dried bread crumbs from your favorite bread (white, wheat, rye, baguettes) are an easy option. Mix the crumbs with butter, seasonings and even cheese. Or you can have a cheese topping alone. Try cheeses such as Gruyère, Gouda (smoked and regular), fontina, Parmesan and Parmigiano-Reggiano. To make fresh bread crumbs, remove crusts, tear the bread into pieces and whirl in a blender or food processor. For ease, consider panko bread crumbs — toast them if you like — or even bread stuffing mixes with the smaller crumbs.


Step 4: Assemble and bake: Layer your vegetables and sprinkle the bread crumb mixture and your favorite cheese in between if you like. You can assemble most gratins in advance; just make sure any precooked or partially cooked vegetables and sauces are cooled before assembling. Or you can bake and cool them. Refrigerate and then reheat the next day.


Check out today’s gratin recipes. Though some may look long, they’re really quite effortless.


Sweet Potato-Russet Potato Gratin With Horseradish And Dijon Crust


Serves: 8


Preparation time: 25 minutes


Total time: 1 hour, 45 minutes


To make this in advance, cool the cooked components of the gratin before combining and assembling. Leave off the topping. Bring to room temperature, about 45 minutes, before topping with bread crumb mixture and baking.


Topping


1 ½ cups lightly toasted panko bread crumbs or coarse fresh bread crumbs


2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted


Pinch of kosher salt


1 tablespoon Dijon mustard


2 tablespoons Parmesan cheese or Parmigiano-Reggiano


2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley


Gratin


2 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus ½ teaspoon for the dish


1 cup thinly sliced shallots (6- 7 large)


Kosher salt


2/3 cup heavy whipping cream


2/3 cup fat-free, less-sodium canned chicken broth


2 tablespoons prepared horseradish


Freshly ground black pepper


1 large russet potato (12 ounces), peeled


1 large sweet potato (12 ounces), peeled


1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese or Parmigiano-Reggiano


In a bowl, combine all the topping ingredients and set aside.


To prepare the gratin: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a shallow 2-quart gratin dish with ½ teaspoon of the butter.


In a small saucepan, melt the remaining 2 tablespoons butter over medium heat. Add the shallots and a big pinch of salt; cook, stirring frequently, until softened, limp and somewhat golden. Whisk together the cream, broth and horseradish; add to the shallots. Season with salt and pepper, stir to combine and take off the heat.


Peel both potatoes. Cut each in half lengthwise, and slice each across into thin half moons. In a large bowl, combine the potato and sweet potato slices, 2 teaspoons salt, Parmesan and shallot cream. Mix gently but thoroughly and scrape into the prepared gratin dish, smoothing and pressing until evenly distributed. Cover with the bread crumb topping.


Bake until the crust is deep golden brown, the juices around the edges have subsided and the potatoes are tender when pierced with a fork, about 1 hour. Remove from oven and let rest for 15 minutes before serving.


Adapted from www.finecooking.com. Tested by Susan M. Selasky for the Free Press Test Kitchen.


280 calories (48 percent from fat), 15 grams fat (9 grams sat. fat), 32 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams protein, 790 mg sodium, 45 mg cholesterol, 3 grams fiber.


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Green Bean Gratin


Serves: 8


Preparation time: 20 minutes


Total time: 1 hour


Note: You can substitute a mix of broccoli and cauliflower (use about 4 cups of each) for the green beans in this recipe.


2 ½ pounds trimmed green beans cut into 2-inch pieces


2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil, divided


1 medium sweet onion, peeled, thinly sliced


3 tablespoons all-purpose flour


¾ teaspoon salt


¼ teaspoon white or black pepper


2 ½ cups 1 percent low-fat milk


1 tablespoon fresh, chopped thyme or parsley, optional


1 ½ cups fresh whole wheat bread crumbs or 1 ½ cups panko bread crumbs or ½ cup shredded fontina or Italian blend cheese


Position racks in upper and lower third of oven; preheat to 425 degrees.


Place the green beans on a baking sheet and drizzle with 1 tablespoon of the oil. Roast the vegetables, stirring once and until just tender and beginning to slightly brown, about 15 to 20 minutes.


Meanwhile, heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add onion and cook, stirring frequently, until very soft and golden brown, 5 to 8 minutes. Add flour, salt and pepper; cook, stirring, for 1 minute more. Add milk and continue to stir, scraping up any browned bits. Cook, stirring, until the sauce bubbles and thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon, about 4 minutes. Remove from the heat.


When the vegetables are done, remove from the oven. Preheat the broiler.


Transfer half the vegetables to a 2-quart, broiler-safe baking dish. Spread half the sauce over the vegetables. Add the remaining vegetables and top with the remaining sauce.


Combine bread crumbs and the remaining 1 tablespoon oil in a small bowl. (Skip this step if you are topping with cheese).


Sprinkle the bread crumb mixture (or cheese) over the gratin. Place under the broiler and broil, watching closely, until the gratin is bubbling and beginning to brown on top, 1 to 5 minutes, depending on your broiler. Let stand for 10 minutes before serving.


Cook’s note: You can roast the vegetables up to 30 minutes ahead. Prepare the sauce, cover and refrigerate for up to 1 day. Reheat gently over low heat until steaming before combining with the vegetables. For a cheesy sauce, add ½ cup shredded Gruyère, Swiss or cheddar.


Adapted from www.eatingwell.com. Tested by Susan M. Selasky for the Free Press Test Kitchen. 170 calories (37 percent from fat), 7 grams fat (1 gram sat. fat), 23 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams protein, 303 mg sodium, 4 mg cholesterol, 5 grams fiber.


Smoky Brussels Sprout Gratin


Serves: 8


Preparation time: 35 minutes


Total time: 1 hour


There are two cheeses in this gratin: smoked Gouda in the sauce and salty aged Gouda sprinkled on top. Other melting cheeses, such as Gruyère and fontina, won’t have the same smoky flavor but are good alternatives to the smoked Gouda. You also can use freshly grated Parmesan.


Béchamel Sauce


2 tablespoons unsalted butter


2 tablespoons all-purpose flour


2 cups 1 percent milk


Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper


2/3 cup (2 ounces) grated smoked Gouda cheese


Brussels Sprouts


1 tablespoon canola oil


1 bag (12-16 ounces) frozen pearl onions


Coarse salt


1 ½ pounds brussels sprouts


2/3 cup (2 ounces) finely grated aged Gouda


2/3 cup panko bread crumbs or fresh bread crumbs


Smoked flaked sea salt, optional, or regular sea salt


Preheat oven to 375 degrees.


To make the béchamel: In a saucepan, melt butter over medium heat. Add flour and whisk until mixture bubbles slightly but has not started to brown, about 2 minutes. Gradually whisk in milk. Raise heat to medium high and bring to a boil, whisking often. Reduce heat to low and cook, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon, until thickened, 12 to 15 minutes. Season with coarse salt and pepper. Remove from heat. Add smoked Gouda and stir until melted.


Meanwhile, heat the oil in a skillet over medium heat, add the pearl onions and sauté for 5 minutes until lightly brown.


Blanch the brussels sprouts: Bring a medium pot of salted water to a boil. Cook brussels sprouts until just tender when pierced with the tip of a paring knife, 3 to 4 minutes. Drain and transfer to an 8-cup (8-by-12-inch) baking dish.


Assemble the gratin: Mix brussels sprouts and onions in the baking dish. Pour béchamel over the mixture and sprinkle with aged Gouda, panko bread crumbs and a pinch of smoked sea salt. Bake, uncovered, until bubbling and golden, about 25 minutes.


Cook’s note: You can make the béchamel up to 4 days in advance; cover and keep refrigerated. Blanch and cool the brussels sprouts ahead and refrigerate up to 1 day. The assembled gratin can be refrigerated overnight. Bring to room temperature before baking.


Adapted from Martha Stewart Living magazine, December 2011. Tested by Susan M. Selasky for the Free Press Test Kitchen.


181 calories (39 percent from fat), 8 grams fat (5 grams sat. fat), 19 grams carbohydrates, 10 grams protein, 673 mg sodium, 27 mg cholesterol, 4 grams fiber.


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Celery Root, Potato And Pear Gratin


Serves: 8


Preparation time: 40 minutes /


Total time: 1 hour 30 minutes


Unsalted butter for the baking dish


1/2 large celery root (about 1 pound)


6 tablespoons olive oil, divided


1 pound red bliss potatoes


2 medium Bartlett pears,


Sea salt and freshly ground pepper


¾ cup heavy whipping cream


1 clove garlic, smashed


1 cup (about 3 ounces) grated Gruyère cheese


2/3 cup (about 2 ounces) grated Parmesan cheese


1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme


¾ cup toasted panko bread crumbs, optional


Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Lightly butter a shallow 2-quart baking dish.


Line a baking sheet with paper towels.


Peel the celery root, then quarter and slice ¼-inch thick. In a large skillet heat 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat. Working in batches, add the celery root to the skillet in a single layer and cook, turning, until browned, about 6-8 minutes per batch. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on the paper towels.


Meanwhile, peel the potatoes and slice them ¼-inch thick. Add another 2 tablespoons olive oil (if needed) to the skillet. Working in batches, add the potatoes in a single layer and cook, turning, until browned and almost tender, about 10 minutes per batch. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on the paper towels with the celery root.


Meanwhile, peel the pears, core and slice ¼-inch thick. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil (if needed) to the skillet. Add the pear slices in a single layer and cook, turning, until browned, about 6-8 minutes; transfer to the paper towels. Lightly season the celery root, potatoes and pear with salt and pepper.


In a saucepan, heat the cream and garlic over medium-high heat until just simmering; remove from the heat.


Combine the Gruyère, Parmesan, thyme and 1 teaspoon each salt and pepper in a bowl.


Spread the celery root in the prepared baking dish. Sprinkle one-third of the cheese mixture on top. Remove the garlic from the cream, then pour one-quarter of the cream over the cheese. Layer the potatoes on top, then sprinkle with another one-third of the cheese mixture; pour another one-quarter of the cream on top. Top with the pear slices and sprinkle with the remaining cheese mixture. Pour the remaining cream over everything.


Cover the dish with aluminum foil and bake 30 minutes, then uncover, sprinkle top with toasted panko bread crumbs if desired and bake until the gratin is bubbly and browned, 5 to 10 more minutes. Let cool 15 minutes before serving.


Adapted from Food Network Magazine, November 2012 issue. Tested by Susan M. Selasky for the Free Press Test Kitchen.


369 calories (48 percent from fat), 20 grams fat (8 grams sat. fat), 39 grams carbohydrates, 11 grams protein, 515 mg sodium, 38 mg cholesterol, 7 grams fiber.