Chicago | November 19, 2021 2:40 pm

What Four First-Generation Chicago Chefs Are Cooking on Thanksgiving

Make this the year you look beyond the green bean casserole.

Marcos Campos's butternut squash
Marcos Campos's butternut squash
Bonhomme Hospitality

Many immigrants come to this country with a bit of home tucked into a back pocket. For Chicago’s top chefs, this can inform their entire professional lives — and, on a smaller scale, make for highly personal picks for their Thanksgiving side dishes. 

We asked five imaginative, immigrant chefs — born in Spain, Vietnam, India and Mexico — from four top Chicago restaurants to share their favorite Thanksgiving side dish recipes. These dishes, which summon the flavors of their respective heritages, are bound to leave you and yours gobbling up seconds and happily stuffed.  

Butternut Squash with Coriander, Jalapeño and Preserved Lemon Labneh
Marcos Campos of Bonhomme Hospitality

Thanksgiving provides Marcos Campos, executive chef of Michelin-starred Porto and chef/partner of Bonhomme Hospitality, “an opportunity to bring family and friends — and those who might not have the economic means — together over a warm plate of food,” he says.

When you have a resumé like Campos’s — running a butcher shop in his native city, Valencia, Spain, at 15; serving as executive chef of two restaurants at 25; becoming the youngest Valencian chef in the U.S. to get a Michelin star — that “warm plate of food” is sure to be a culinary knockout.

Campos relishes using traditional ingredients and adding “little twists from different parts of the world,” he says. For this Thanksgiving side, which will serve four to six people as a side dish, he prepares butternut squash, an ingredient he notes is “super popular in the Midwest this time of the year,” using “influences from South American cuisine.”

Sautéing the coriander-seasoned squash in butter brings the dish a caramelized sweetness; jalapeño labneh, a spiciness; the preserved lemon, acidity. The finishing touch — roasted pumpkin seeds — adds “a crunchy element,” Campos says. 

That balance of sweet, spicy, and acidity creates a dish Campos says he’d eat every day — and one that is “a perfect combination for this holiday.”

Preserved Lemon & Jalapeño Labneh

Ingredients

1 quart labneh (strained Greek yogurt )
3 jalapeños, roughly chopped (no seeds)
2 preserved lemons
½ teaspoon salt

Method

Blend jalapeños and preserved lemons until it becomes a paste. Add paste to the labneh, mixing all together in a bowl until smooth. Season with salt, if needed. (Note: Some labneh brands won’t need added salt.) 

Butternut Squash

Ingredients 

1 butternut squash (medium size)
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
2 tablespoons sea salt
Canola oil
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
Roasted pumpkin seeds for garnish
Cilantro leaves for garnish

Method

Cut butternut squash into 2-inch squares; remove skin and seeds. Steam squash pieces for about 45 seconds to soften, which will make sauté process faster.

Blend salt and coriander seeds in a food processor; save to season the squash. Sauté squared and steamed butternut squash in a hot pan with a little bit of canola oil. When squash starts to get some color, add the butter and keep sautéing for about 3 more minutes. Season with coriander-salt mixture at end to ensure coriander doesn’t burn.

Plating

Place a small circle of the Preserved Lemon & Jalapeño Labneh on the bottom of the plate. Add sautéed squash to the plate and form into a “mountain shape” for optimal presentation. Finish with roasted pumpkin seeds and cilantro leaves or micro cilantro, if you’re feeling fancy!

Mary Nguyen Aregoni's papaya salad
Mary Nguyen Aregoni’s papaya salad
Saigon Sisters

Green Papaya Salad (Goi Du Du)
Mary Nguyen Aregoni of Saigon Sisters

When Mary Nguyen Aregoni, CEO and chef of Saigon Sisters restaurants, immigrated with her family to the U.S. from Vietnam, Thanksgiving reminded her of her culture’s New Year’s celebration, “where the whole family gets together and eats all day,” she recalls. 

All that eating is what makes Aregoni’s Green Papaya Salad a perfect Thanksgiving side dish. 

“It’s light and tasty — an alternative to heavier side dishes,” she says. 

Aregoni’s salad pulls together quickly and easily, featuring a sauce you can make ahead. And with layers of flavor and texture, a hallmark of Vietnamese cuisine, the dish is a crowd pleaser. It’s also infinitely flexible. Substitute pickled beets, avocado, and soy sauce or sesame dressing for the meats and fish sauce for vegetarian or vegan guests. Don’t have a lime? Use white vinegar. No Thai chilis? Swap in sambal, a Vietnamese chili paste.

Just don’t leave out the fried shallots. (You can make them yourself by deep-frying thinly sliced shallots in oil until golden brown.) “A must to add flavor and crunch,” Aregoni says. They’re “similar to the fried onions in a can” often sprinkled atop a more traditional Thanksgiving side: green bean casserole. 

Ingredients

1 raw green papaya 
2 raw carrots
½ cup cooked shrimp (sliced in half)
½ cup cubed cooked pork belly
¼ cup chopped beef jerky
¼ cup fresh mint
¼ cup fresh Thai basil
3 tablespoon fried shallots
2 tablespoon chopped peanuts (optional)

Method

Peel papaya, cut in half, and remove seeds; then shred papaya into thin strips. Peel carrots and shred into thin strips.

Combine shredded papaya and carrot strips in a mixing bowl and mix well. Add cooked shrimp, pork belly and beef jerky along with mint, basil and fried shallots.

Add a generous portion of nuoc cham dressing (recipe below) and toss together all ingredients well. Place on serving plates and garnish with peanuts (optional).

Nuoc cham

Ingredients

1 cup warm water
½ cup sugar
½ cup fresh lime juice
⅓ cup fish sauce (Aregoni prefers Red Boat, available at most groceries)
1 teaspoon minced garlic
2 fresh Thai or serrano chilies, chopped
1 teaspoon minced ginger

Method

Whisk all ingredients together in a medium bowl until sugar has dissolved. Let sit at room temperature for one hour before serving

[Note: Nuoc cham can be made and refrigerated up to a week in advance.]

Jasmine Sheth's brown butter pumpkin
Jasmine Sheth’s brown butter pumpkin
Jasmine Sheth

Brown Butter Pumpkin with Cilantro and Green Pigeon Pea Relish
Jasmine Sheth of Tasting India

Many of Jasmine Sheth’s favorite memories involve food — cooking and sharing it with family. 

“I grew up around very strong, loving female figures, each a great cook,” she says. “So for this recipe, I drew inspiration from a traditional Gujarati dish — Undhiyu — my mother makes.” 

Where Sheth, a James Beard Foundation grant winner and founder of the virtual restaurant Tasting India, grew up, in Mumbai, India, Undhiyu marked the autumn/winter season, making it especially fitting for Thanksgiving.

“It’s also an elaborate dish to prepare, so everyone gives thanks to the person who spent many hours painstakingly and lovingly preparing a Undhiyu feast,” she says.

The dish traditionally contains a cornucopia of winter produce (purple yams, eggplants, plantains, pigeon peas, broad beans, fresh green garlic). Here, Sheth pares down the ingredients and the prep, but not the flavor.

With fewer ingredients, sourcing high-quality ones is essential, she says. 

“The quality of Garam Masala you use can make or break this dish,” Sheth advises. While the Indian masala blend is available at Asian grocery stores, she prefers her own blend, based on her mother’s recipe.

Simplified presentation notwithstanding, Sheth says, “when made with love and patience, the resulting flavors are just out of this world.”

Brown Butter Pumpkin

Ingredients

2 medium acorn squash (You can use any squash or pumpkin, but Sheth recommends acorn or delicata)
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 sprigs fresh curry leaves (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste

Method

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. First, prepare the squash/pumpkin: Slice ½ inch off each end of the acorn squash to create a flat base, and then slice the squash in half to make two “bowls.” Scoop out the seeds and stand the squash on its flat base. 

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and lay the acorn bowls on it. Now, add approx 1.5 tablespoons of butter, a few curry leaves, and salt and pepper into each bowl. 

Wrap the tray with foil and bake for approx. 30 mins or until the pulp of the squash is cooked through but still holds its shape. Remove from the oven and keep aside. Chef’s note: “As the pumpkin cooks, the butter begins to brown and curry leaves begin to crisp up, imparting a nutty yet earthy flavor that is so amazing, I’ve often enjoyed this roasted pumpkin by itself!” 

Cilantro and Green Pigeon Pea Relish

Ingredients

200 grams of fresh green pigeon peas (You can substitute any peas of your choice. Fresh broad beans or fava beans work well, too!)
Pinch of baking soda (This helps retain the bright green color of the pigeon peas)
½ cup vegetable oil (You can substitute with any neutral oil, but this relish requires a good amount of oil/fat to really bring out the flavors)
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
3 tablespoons Tasting India’s Garam Masala
2 tablespoons coriander powder
2 teaspoons turmeric powder
3 tablespoons sesame seeds, lightly toasted and roughly crushed
¼ cup minced green chilies (You can skip this based on your spice preference, but Sheth highly recommends substituting with a milder chili if you can)
⅓ cup minced ginger root
½ cup minced green garlic (If this is not available, you can use a mix of equal parts regular garlic and chives instead.)
3 cups chopped fresh cilantro leaves + a couple extra tablespoons for garnish
1 cup fresh shredded coconut + a couple extra tablespoons for garnish
¼ cup of pomegranate seeds, fresh edible flower petals, etc. for garnish (optional)
Salt to taste

Method

Heat water in a large pot and once it comes to a boil, season generously with salt and add a pinch of baking soda. Now add the fresh pigeon peas to the boiling water and cook until tender. Drain and set aside.

In a separate skillet, heat the oil on low to medium. Once hot, add the cumin seeds, as soon as they begin the crackle add the green chilies, ginger and garlic and stir well. Keep stirring to cook off the raw taste of the aromatics and be mindful to not burn the mixture.

Once the aromatics start to brown slightly, add the grated coconut and sesame seeds and mix everything together. Cook this for another 2 mins. Now add all the spices: Turmeric, coriander and Garam Masala powders and keep stirring to avoid anything sticking to the bottom or burning. Cook this for another 2-3 mins. You will see the oil starting to separate from the mixture — this is a good sign and we can move on to the final step. (“If you feel the mixture is on the drier side, feel free to add a few more tablespoons of oil at this time,” Sheth advises. “Fat is your friend in this relish!”)

Add the cooked pigeon peas and cilantro and season with salt; mix everything well. This cooks for another 5-7 mins, but keep stirring every minute so nothing burns. 

The relish is now ready to be paired with the squash and served.

Assembly of the dish

Arrange the cooked squash bowls on a serving platter and fill each bowl with the pigeon pea relish. Sprinkle any leftover relish all over the platter/squash. Garnish with fresh cilantro leaves, shredded coconut, pomegranate pearls and fresh edible flower petals for added texture and color.

Serve hot as an entree or side to a Thanksgiving feast!!

Mercadito's calabacitas Mexicanas
Mercadito’s calabacitas Mexicanas
Mercadito

Papas Mexicano con Crema, Eloté Poblano Mac and Cheese and Calabicitas Mexicanas
Juan Carlos “Charly” Ascencio and Oscar Ramirez of Mercadito

As co-executive chefs at Mercadito in River North, Charly Ascencio and Oscar Ramirez put their creative spin on traditional Mexican fare. So it’s probably not surprising that, when each chef sits down to Thanksgiving dinner with his family, he also puts his own twist on the meal. 

Ascencio, who was born in Morelos, Mexico, is apt to forgo the traditional holiday turkey and instead serve chicken barbacoa, following his mom’s favorite recipe, as the main dish. And while Ramirez, who hails from Mexico City, does center turkey on his holiday table, he likes to switch up the side dishes, using Mexican chilis, spices, and flavors to combine cultures and cuisines and add variety to the Thanksgiving meal.

Papas Mexicano con Crema

Ingredients

8 ounces roasted baby potatoes
½ cup heavy cream
½ cup Manchego cheese
½ teaspoon fresh rosemary
¼ teaspoon chopped garlic
1 tablespoon crushed croutons
Salt to taste

Method

Roast the baby potatoes with garlic and fresh rosemary until they are cooked through. Add the heavy cream in a hot pan and cook until reduced by half. Once the heavy cream is reduced, add the roasted potatoes to the pan and let rest for one minute. Add the Manchego cheese, place on a serving plate and top with croutons.

Eloté Poblano Mac and Cheese

Ingredients

8 ounces heavy cream
1 whole roasted poblano pepper
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon of Manchego cheese (or cheese of your choice)
1 ounce corn
4 ounces of cooked macaroni pasta

Method

In a pot over medium heat, place the poblano in the heavy cream and heat for about 5 minutes, until the cream is reduced. Strain the sauce and then cut the poblano pepper into smaller pieces and add back in to suit your taste. Pour the strained sauce back into the pan. Add the macaroni pasta, corn and cheese, and mix.

Calabicitas Mexicanas (Mexican Squash)

Ingredients

6 ounces of Mexican squash
4 ounces of corn
3 ounces of tomato sofrito (recipe below)
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon chopped cilantro
Salt and black pepper to taste
½ tablespoon fresh chopped garlic
¼ cup of canola oil

Method

Preheat a sauté pan on medium heat. Add oil. Sauté the chopped garlic for one minute; then add the Mexican squash and cook for 2-4 minutes or until it is cooked through. Add tomato sofrito and lemon juice. Salt and pepper to taste.

Tomato Sofrito

Ingredients

6 red tomatoes (chopped)
½ white onion (diced) 
1 teaspoon chopped fresh garlic
½ teaspoon fresh chopped thyme
¼ cup of canola oil

Method

Add oil to a pan and heat. Sauté garlic for one minute. Add onion and cook for one minute. Add chopped tomatoes and thyme and cook for 30 minutes to form a paste.