Thanksgiving Sides are Rooted in Tradition and Regions

Southern Sausage Dressing

a.k.a. My Mother’s Thanksgiving Dressing


Sweet Potato Bourbon Mash


    My first job after college was managing and promoting the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line.  I came to the job a big fan of Thanksgiving and left with it being my favorite holiday—it’s the only holiday that we have in the USA that revolves solely around the food.  Spending seven seasons celebrating Thanksgiving with America gave me a much broader perspective than just giving thanks with my family.  

    The first thing that I learned was that my favorite side dish was very personal and very regional—the sage-sausage rich “dressing” of my Southern childhood was the bread-based “stuffing” of the Midwest.  Personal variations of oysters, cornbread, apples, pecans, wild rice etc abound.  In most of the country, it’s stuffed inside the cavity of the turkey. In the South, it’s baked in a casserole dish and served on the side and called dressing.  

    Most of us gravitate to what we grew up with so it’s no surprise that I prefer my Thanksgiving dressing served on the side.  I love the contrast of the crispy, crunchy top and the moist interior.  It also cuts about an hour off the cooking time if you roast an unstuffed bird.  Friends of mine from the Midwest feel equally strong about stuffing their Thanksgiving turkey and love the wet stuffing seasoned by the bird’s juices as it roasts.

    My time studying Thanksgiving traditions also taught me that potatoes are very regional.  I grew up with “candied yams,” a dark molasses, sugar and aromatic spice sauce poured over sliced sweet potatoes and baked until bubbly.  No mashed potatoes at our table.  As I got older, and started experimenting with food, I created a hybrid of the two.  A sweet-potato bourbon mash that has the buttery goodness of traditional mashed potatoes and all of the molasses, sugar and spice of the sweet potatoes whipped to a luxurious, and what I think, is a tastier and superior mash.  I make it and serve it all year long with roast—or beer-can—chicken, hearty fish, beef and pork.  It is very versatile and adds a beautiful vibrant color to the plate, perfect for Thanksgiving.  

    As much as I love the sweet potato mash, dressing and specifically, my mother’s dressing is my favorite part of Thanksgiving.  Even if I go to someone else’s house for dinner, I have to make dressing and share it or make it and have a second Thanksgiving at home—I can’t celebrate the holiday without it.  

    This Southern Sausage Dressing, a.k.a., My Mother’s Thanksgiving Dressing is baked in a casserole dish and served on the side, but if you love to stuff your turkey, try this recipe and stuff it into your bird.  After all, Thanksgiving is about tradition and we are all partial to our own traditions.


Southern Sausage Dressing

a.k.a. My Mother’s Thanksgiving Dressing

My favorite sausage is the bulk Neese’s brand available in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia. Check out their website  

If you can’t find Neese’s buy any good quality bulk sage sausage for best results.


Serves 8


1 large package Pepperidge Farm, herb-seasoned stuffing (Blue Bag)

½ loaf of favorite bread, crumbled

1 pound bulk hot sage sausage (preferably Neese’s brand)

Olive oil or butter for sautéing

1 bunch celery, chopped

2 large yellow onions, chopped

1 stick butter, melted

1 15-ounce can low-salt no-fat chicken broth or up to 2 cups of homemade stock, plus more to taste

Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper


Mix package of stuffing mix and fresh breadcrumbs and set aside, tossing occasionally so all crumbs dry out.  Meanwhile, cook sausage in a skillet until completely cooked through and drain on paper towels.  Remove excess grease.  Add a little butter or olive oil to sauté vegetables and allow it to melt before adding vegetables.


In the same skillet, sauté celery and onions until soft and onions begin to caramelize.  Mix vegetables, sausage and melted butter in with the breadcrumbs until well combined.  Moisten with chicken broth until stuffing holds together but is not too wet.  Place in a buttered casserole dish and bake at 350 F for 35-40 minutes or until top is browned.  


Alternately you can stuff the turkey just before cooking but this will make it stuffing. If you stuff your turkey, place the stuffing in the turkey immediately before placing in the oven and make sure that the stuffing reaches 165 F before serving it.  If the turkey cooks faster than the stuffing, remove the turkey and as it rests, bring the stuffing up to temperature in a casserole dish.


Carving the Turkey Sidebar:

Carving the turkey looks romantic in the Norman Rockwell paintings, but it strikes fear in the hearts of American men (and women) hosting Thanksgiving.  Try this simple carving method that I learned years ago from my friend Jeff Belmonti. His approach is easier and smarter than the traditional method; it keeps the turkey juicier (because the pieces are smaller and denser), avoids shredding the meat, and the turkey looks better when presented.  To carve the turkey:  Instead of cutting large slices from the breast lengthwise, remove the whole breast from the bone and cut across it to make crescent shaped chunks.  Put it back on the platter as the whole breast and then cut off and add the drumsticks, thighs, and wings.  And, make sure you always have a sharp knife.  A sharp knife will make carving the turkey a breeze.  If you don’t know how to sharpen your knives, invest in an electric Chef’s Choice knife sharpener.  I was skeptical until I tried it, but now I have razor-sharp knives in a minute at home—much more convenient than dull knives or taking them to a knife sharpener—and it is impossible to ruin your knives.

Sweet Potato Bourbon Mash with Praline Topping

This decadent and divine sweet potato mash is one of my favorite side dishes. It is made with gorgeous deep orange Garnet sweet potatoes and a generous snort of Bourbon. The Garnet variety is sweeter and brighter in both color and flavor, and has a more delicate texture that makes a creamier (and superior) mash.

Serves 8

Mash_2 copy.jpg


8 large sweet potatoes, roasted in the oven

1 pint heavy cream

½-3/4   cup Bourbon, such as Maker’s Mark

½ cup dark brown sugar

½ cup molasses

1 teaspoon sea salt, or more to taste

3 dashes of Tabasco, or more to taste

Freshly grated nutmeg, about 1/8 teaspoon


Make sure to prick the potatoes with a fork before roasting.  When done and cool to the touch, peel potatoes and cut them in quarters.  Put in a large stockpot or Dutch oven.  Add cream, Bourbon, sugar, molasses and salt to potatoes.  Simultaneously, mash potatoes with a large fork or potato masher and mix all the ingredients together.  If the potatoes need more liquid, add a little water.  Stir until smooth.  


Simmer covered, over medium low heat for 30-40 minutes or until potatoes are so soft that they resemble a puree.  This second cooking makes the potatoes foolproof since any hard (under-cooked) pieces of sweet potato have a chance to cook before serving.  When potatoes have cooked down, add the Tabasco and nutmeg and taste.  Adjust salt as necessary. Serve immediately and refrigerate any leftovers.  Alternatively, make mash a day in advance and re-heat before serving.  


If desired, place mini-marshmallows on top just before serving and place under the broiler for 1-2 minutes or until golden brown and puffy.

Pat Nunnari