Ethnicity makes for special side dishes

For many of us, it just wouldn't be Thanksgiving dinner without the traditional side dishes -- green bean casserole; potatoes candied with brown sugar, butter and those itsy-bitsy marshmallows; creamy mashed potatoes. They're as American -- and familiar -- as the holiday itself, which was declared a national day of celebration by President Lincoln in 1863.

But what if your culinary traditions aren't 100 percent "American"? Christel Van Maurik of Ross would argue there's nothing wrong with a little ethnic variety.

Ever since her first Thanksgiving in the U.S. in 1954, Mrs. Van Maurik's Thanksgiving table has included rotkohl, a red cabbage dish that's a classic in her native Germany. Unlike the more familiar sauerkraut, rotkohl has a tart-sweet flavor that pairs nicely with roast turkey. It's equally delicious with those round German noodles known as spaetzle or on top of mashed potatoes.

"Even though my mother-in-law was the cook for the holiday, everyone liked it so much I have been making it ever since," says Mrs. Van Maurik, whose husband, Cornelius, is president of Teutonia Mannerchor, a 150-year-old German social club on the North Side.

Josephine Coletti of Ben Avon is another who'll pay homage to her ethnic roots when cooking for the family next Thursday. Native Italians -- even ones who spent most of their adult lives in the U.S. -- famously have pasta with almost every meal. So in addition to the candied sweet potatoes and homemade cranberry sauce, Mrs. Coletti will serve imported Italian tortellini in cream sauce. What makes the dish so especially suited to the American holiday is that the pale orange half-moon pasta, which she buys fresh at Pennsylvania Macaroni in the Strip District ($7.99 per pound), are filled with a savory pumpkin mixture rather than cheese. The simple white sauce, meanwhile, is infused with soft, fuzzy leaves of fresh sage -- what many consider the quintessential Thanksgiving herb. It's typical of dishes served in the mountainous region of Abruzzo, where Mrs. Coletti and her husband, Joe, grew up.

"It's so easy," she says, "and delicious."

Lisa Oddo's recipe for pastitsio, an oven-baked meat and macaroni dish that's popular in the Greek Islands, is a bit more involved, both in the number of ingredients and time it takes to prepare. But there are no "crock pot" recipes in traditional Greek cooking, she points out.

Mrs. Oddo's father is from the island of Samos and her mother, from Sparta. So she grew up first eating, and then learning to cook the many family recipes that have been handed down from generation to generation.

"To me, no other food is as tasty," she says.

Thanksgiving then, would be strange without it.

"When I see my children eating and enjoying these meals, I feel that they are getting some 'generational' love," says Mrs. Oddo, who lives in Ohio Township. "It's a connection to my relatives who are no longer with us, but have left behind wonderful memories."

TORTELLiNI DI ZUCCA alla crema (PUMPKIN Tortellini in Cream Sauce)

PG tested

Fresh sage and a sweet pumpkin filling give this simple dish its distinctly Thanksgiving taste. It takes just a few minutes to prepare, so you literally can throw it together while the turkey rests before carving.

  • 1 pound fresh pumpkin tortellini (available at Pennsylvania Macaroni in the Strip District)
  • 1/2 stick butter
  • 4 ounces heavy cream
  • 4 to 5 fresh sage leaves
  • 1/4 cup grated Parmagiano-Reggiano cheese, plus more for passing

Bring a pot of salted water to boil. Add the tortellini and cook for 3 to 4 minutes, or until just tender. Drain.

Melt butter in a heavy frying pan over medium heat. Add cream and sage leaves and bring to a simmer. When sauce starts to thicken, add grated cheese and give the pan a swirl. Add cooked tortellini and gently toss to coat. Serve immediately, with extra grated cheese for passing.

Makes 4 to 6 side servings.

-- Josephine Coletti, Ben Avon

Pastitsio (Baked macaroni with meat sauce)

Lisa Oddo often makes this popular and tasty Greek dish at Thanksgiving as a side, but it also can be served as a main course with a salad. Different islands add or change something in the recipe to make it their own, and every family -- the Oddos included -- thinks their version is the best.

  • 2 large onions, finely chopped
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 2 pounds ground beef
  • 2 8-ounce cans tomato sauce
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • Cinnamon to taste
  • 1/2 cup red wine
  • 1 pound dry macaroni
  • 8 tablespoons (1 stick) melted butter
  • 1 1/2 cups milk
  • 4 eggs, beaten

To prepare meat sauce: In a large frying pan over medium heat, saute onions in butter until light brown. Add meat and stir. Add tomato sauce, salt, cinnamon and wine and stir well. Cover and simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat.

While meat sauce is simmering, cook macaroni according to package; drain. Place in bowl and add melted butter, milk and eggs. Gently toss to coat.

Spread half of the macaroni in pan, cover with meat sauce, and then add rest of macaroni. Sprinkle with some grated Romano cheese, if you have it.

For bechamel sauce
  • 1/2 pound butter
  • 12 to 15 tablespoons flour
  • 4 cups milk, brought to a boil
  • Salt to taste
  • 4 eggs, beaten

In a medium pan over medium heat, melt butter and blend flour. Gradually add hot milk and salt, stirring continually until sauce is thickened. Slowly add beaten eggs and cook until mixture thickens.

Pour bechamel sauce over pan of macaroni. Bake at 375 degrees for 1 hour. This can be prepared in the morning and reheated when ready to serve.

Makes 8 to 12 side servings.

-- Lisa Oddo, Ohio Township

"Rotkohl (German Red Cabbage)

Sugar balances the tartness of the vinegar in this authentic German side dish, which is often served at Erntedeankfest, an annual fall celebration in which farmers give thanks after all the crops are in.

  • 4 tablespoons bacon fat or oil
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 1 large head of red cabbage, stem removed and finely cut
  • 2 tart apples, pared, cored and chopped
  • 1 tablespoon of sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon pepper
  • 1/4 cup of red wine vinegar
  • 2 bay leaves
  • A pinch of ground cloves

Melt bacon grease or oil in large pot. Add onions and sauté until golden.

Add remaining ingredients, cover and simmer over low heat for about an hour, stirring occasionally until cabbage is soft. Add additional vinegar or sugar to taste.

Serves 8.

-- Christel Van Maurik, Ross

Gretchen McKay can be reached at or 412-263-1419.


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