This is a long one, but for those of you who hang in there till the end, there is a pretty amazing giveaway!
I have posted this piece, adjusted slightly year by year, since 2009. The essentials don’t change much. The sentiment changes not at all.
This year is a bit different.
This year is dedicated to the loving memory of my grandmother Jonnie, who left us in August, I’m reasonably certain so that she could watch the Cubs win the World Series with my grandfather.
Jonnie is the reason I cook, the reason I gather loved ones around my table, the reason that when there are four for dinner I make enough for eight because abundance rules and one can always do something interesting with the leftovers. Jonnie taught me Thanksgiving, in every permutation of that word and holiday and philosophy. They say that the human body completely renews all of its cells every seven years, every seven years you essentially become a brand new person. And while my family Thanksgiving, which I have been cooking for over 20 years now, has stayed effectively the same, my recipes have slowly shifted from the ones Jonnie taught me, little changes in technique or ingredients, so that now, while the meal is effectively the same, it has also become as much mine as hers. I no longer do her turkey with the buttered cheesecloth over the breast, and I don’t stuff the bird the way she did. My mashed potatoes now include sour cream and chives, and there is significantly less brown sugar in the sweet potatoes. I’ve given up the green bean casserole in favor of Brussels sprouts or broccolini or other less gloopy options, and I make milkbread rolls instead of her yeast rolls.
Her orange sherbet jello mold recipe has not been changed a whit.
The various parts of the whole remain the same; the traditions are there, deepened a bit, adjusted, but still full of memory and still honoring what came before.
This will be the 24th Thanksgiving meal I have cooked. It will be the first one that I will have to do without eleventy million phone calls over the weeks leading up, going over the menu, telling her about some new thing, some new dish. She won’t know that this year the stuffing will include my homemade sourdough bread, although she knew that I was nurturing a starter, and saw pictures of my early bread baking efforts.
Jonnie loved this post. She re-read it every year, and every year she would call me and tell me that she just loved my Thanksgiving advice. And I always said of course she did, since most of it I learned from her. So this year, I’m extra-thankful. I’m thankful for all the usual suspects, my family and friends, my health, my home, a job I love and all of my lovely chickens who read and connect and keep me going. I’m thankful that my holiday table will be surrounded by the faces of those I love, and that the buffet will groan with deliciousness, and I’m deeply profoundly thankful that Jonnie taught me how.
Here is the advice I share with you every year. It is mine, and hers, and I hope, now, yours.
As a passionate home cook, Thanksgiving is my grail, my marathon, my Everest. The ability to pull it off well is a source of pride, and no moments of my year are as purely pleasurable as the brief silence around the table when everyone tucks into their plates, followed by gradual exclamations of rapturous delight. And while there is always something a little bit new or different every year, the basics stay the same, and I’ve gotten a lot of it down to a science.
But science doesn’t mean clenched perfectionism.
With all due respect to Martha, you don’t need twenty-four matching turkey shaped bowls for the soup to taste good, you don’t have to grow your own cranberries, or even make your own pie crust (or pie for that matter) for this day to be wonderful. Good food, prepared with love (or purchased with love), and served with a smile is all anyone needs for the holiday to be sublime…to each at the level of his or her own ability.
For those of you who are thinking of tackling the big day, I’ve got some tips to help you out. The most important thing about Thanksgiving is right there in the name, be thankful. If you burn the turkey, eat all the side dishes and proclaim yourselves temporary vegetarians and laugh it off. If you are with your people, whatever that looks like for you, then you are doing it right, the rest is just details. And if at all possible, set yourself up for success with some simple advice and simpler recipes.
Whether you are having a huge event with five generations, a gathering of your best pals who aren’t able to be with their own families, or just a small dinner with you and your sweetie, there are ways to make this day less stressful, and more joyous.
Firstly, know thyself. Do you regularly make your own puff pastry, serve towering flaming Baked Alaskas, and finish your sauces with homemade demi-glace? Then find any challenging menu that inspires you and have at it. But if you burn the toast four days out of ten, this isn’t the time to try anything complicated. Keep things simple, and don’t be afraid to get help with the hard stuff or fiddly bits. People love to participate, so let guests bring something to take some of the pressure off you. If you’ve never made piecrust, buy a good quality frozen crust. Look at local prepared foods sections of grocery stores and see who is offering side dishes and do a tasting the week before. If Whole Foods is making a killer stuffing, there’s no shame in serving it. Does gravy make you nervous? Add five or six whole peeled shallots to the roasting pan along with your bird, and simply blend them into the de-fatted pan juices or some stock to thicken it easily, add some herbs, a splash of wine or sherry, and you have a flavorful jus without all that tricky flour business.
Secondly, know thy audience. You might be a major foodie, but is Aunt Marge? No point in fussing over individual pumpkin soufflés cooked in hollowed out roasted quinces with vanilla bean tuiles unless the rest of your guests will think it as awesome as you do, and not wonder dejectedly where the Entenmann’s Pumpkin Pie with Cool Whip is this year. You can take the essentials and just make them with the best ingredients you can get, and know that you have improved, even if you haven’t monumentally altered. Or think of it as a retro meal, all the rage these days, and revel in the kitschy quality of making the recipes the old way.
Thanksgiving is also a great time to connect with your family members who cook…call Mom or Uncle Al and ask for advice and recipes, they’ll be flattered and you’ll be amazed how many great tips they can give you.
So, if you’re getting ready for the big day, here are Stacey’s (via Jonnie) Thanksgiving Commandments:
1. Thou shalt buy a fresh turkey from a butcher, and brine or dry brine before roasting.
I know Butterball seems like a good idea, and awfully convenient, but they are so filled with preservatives and water and other unnatural stuff, they don’t really taste like turkey. Call your local butcher and order a fresh turkey for pick up the Monday before Thanksgiving. The bonus will be that you won't have to thaw it! Take it home and dry brine for two days, essentially giving it a good salting and slapping it in a large Ziploc bag to hang out. I recommend the Food52 recipe for this. If you prefer a wet brine, go for it, I’ve been preferring the dry brine of late, especially since it saves a ton of room in the fridge, but do one or the other. Then cook as you usually do. You’ll be delighted with the moist, well-seasoned results.
2. Thou shalt discover how easy it is to make awesome cranberry sauce.
Cranberry sauce is not just the easiest part of the meal; it can be made up to a week in advance. It’s the perfect thing for even a reluctant cook to offer to bring to someone else’s meal, or an easy addition to your own. (and yes, I know some of you love that shimmering jiggling tube with all the ridges, and if you must, have some on hand…but do at least TRY homemade…you can always serve both)
3. Thou shalt not be ashamed to make the green bean casserole with the Campbell’s Condensed Soup.
Sure, I’m a foodie-slash-crazy-person, so I make my cream of mushroom soup from scratch before assembling the ubiquitous casserole if I’m going that direction…but honestly, it’s a tradition for a reason, the original recipe is pretty comforting and delicious in its own way, and easy to make, so even if you consider yourself a major gourmet, pull out the processed food version and serve with a smile. Ditto sweet potatoes with marshmallows. This is not the day for food snobbery or elitism, and even if you choose not to partake of one of these less elegant classics, be sure to let those who love them enjoy without commentary.
4. Thou shalt not overdo the appetizers.
And by overdo, I mean serving any if you can help it. You’re going to spend at least two days cooking for this meal. Let your guests be hungry when they get to the table. Keep your pre-dinner nibbles to small bowls of nuts or olives or pretzels or the like, think basic bar snacks…you just want your guests to have something to nosh on with their pre-dinner drinks, but if they fill up on hors d’oeuvres you’ll all be sad when you get to the table and can’t manage seconds. (this is good advice for any dinner party…either plan heavy hors d’ouevres and a light supper, or vice versa) If you must do soup, despite the fact that all good Thanksgiving soups are guaranteed to fill up your guests overmuch, plan on little espresso cups or dainty tea cups during the cocktail hour and not bowls at the table. Serving a soup course adds a level of stress to getting the buffet out that no one needs. I make soup essentially because if I don’t make the soup my family pouts, and the leftovers are pretty great all weekend. But I don’t do a soup course, they get just about three to four lovely sips to go with their pre-dinner bubbles, and when we get to the table, it is turkey time.
5. Thou shalt not bother with salad.
I know it always seems like such a good idea to make a fresh green salad. But frankly, it takes up valuable space on a plate that should be devoted to fourteen different carbohydrates, and you’re just going to throw most of it away, since it will be all wilty and depressed by the time you go to put the leftovers away. No one will miss it. Seriously. Stop even thinking about it.
6. Thou shalt not count calories, skimp on ingredients, or whine and pout about how bad the food is for you.
We are all very sensitive to healthy eating these days, and more than a few of us are dealing with the need to lose a couple of pounds. Or a couple of dozen. THIS IS NOT THE DAY TO DO IT. Thanksgiving is, at its very core, a celebration of food and the memories that food invokes and the new memories created at the table. You do yourself, your host, and the day a disservice if you think of it as anything else, or deprive yourself of the sheer joy of this meal. If you’re the cook, don’t alter recipes with low fat/low salt/low taste versions of things unless you have a guest with medically prescribed dietary restrictions. Don’t skip meals before, so that you aren’t blindly starving by the time you get to the buffet, and if you’re really concerned, fill your plate anyway you like, but either don’t go back for seconds, or on your second round, stick to the less gloopy veggies and turkey and the cranberry sauce. Any nutritionist worth their salt will tell you that one meal cannot derail your overall progress, especially if you get back to your program the next day and maybe add a workout that week. And any counselor will tell you that the surest way to be cranky is to deprive yourself while all around you are celebrating. Give yourself a break…you’ll be amazed that if you give yourself permission to have everything you want, how easy it is not to overdo it.
7. Thou shalt not stuff your bird.
I can hear you crying about it now….you are used to the bird packed with stuffing, you dream about the really crispy good part in the front over the neck, why can’t we stuff our turkeys? Here’s why….one, a stuffed bird is the best possible way to get food borne illness on the agenda. If the stuffing doesn’t get up to at least 180 degrees internally, it can breed bacteria, not fun for anyone’s tummy. Two, in order to get the stuffing to 180, you are going to overcook the crap out of the turkey itself, especially the breast meat. Three, all that moistness you love in the in-the-bird stuffing? That is all the juices from the meat that are getting sucked out by the huge stuffing sponge, and you not only dry out your bird, you have many fewer juices with which to make gravy. Make your stuffing and bake in a separate dish, and if you really miss that dense moistness, buy a couple of extra turkey wings and lay them on top of the casserole as it bakes, and/or melt a stick of butter in a cup of chicken stock and pour it over the stuffing ten minutes before taking it out of the oven. And get over it. Stuffing that wasn’t actually stuffed is always going to be better than food poisoning. We’ve started doing Julia Child’s recipe for a deconstructed turkey cooked on top of a pile of stuffing, which gives you the perfect stuffing and perfect bird, and in a fraction of the time. Cook’s Illustrated has the technique and recipe, including video, just Google it. But be prepared, it means no pan juices at all for gravy (which I love since then I can just make gravy the week before and freeze it), and no big whole bird to bring to the table.
8. Thou shalt not test more than one new recipe for this meal.
Thanksgiving is a wonderful meal to add to, but don’t do everything at once. I know that the cooking mags have all sorts of new-fangled versions of things, but they have to reinvent the holiday menu every year. Experimentation is good, but if you change the whole thing up at once, people are going to miss their old standby favorites. Pick one dish that you think is ready for a revamp, and throw in that curveball. If you love it, add it to the repertoire. But don’t do the chipotle rubbed smoked turkey, sweet potato kale bake, barley stuffing, green beans with fresh ricotta, and sherried fig cranberry coulis all in one meal. Someone will weep openly, and everyone will have to run out the next day and make a few traditional items to get them through to next year.
9. Thou shalt be neither The Thanksgiving Dictator, nor The Absent Host, nor That Annoying Guest.
If people want to help in the kitchen, let them. And don’t criticize the quality of their small dice, or the way they wash the pots. Ditto assigning specific foods to guests who want to bring something…if someone offers to bring a dish, ask them what they love to make or what they crave most about Thanksgiving and let them bring that. Who cares if you have two kinds of sweet potatoes, or both cornbread and regular stuffing? On Thanksgiving, more is more, and abundance rules. Besides, you have a three-day weekend that needs quality leftovers.
By its nature, hosting is complicated and hard work. But please do not be the host who spends the entire party in the kitchen cooking, serving and cleaning, and missing out on spending time with your guests. Make as much of the food ahead of time as possible, so that it needs only reheating to get it to the buffet. Put pitchers or bottles of water and wine all down the table for folks to serve themselves. When the food is set out, sit and eat! For the whole meal! Don’t jump up to make the coffee or organize dessert, everyone will be grateful for a brief break between the two courses. When the main meal is done, package up the leftovers, and if you are using real stuff and not disposable, scrape and stack plates, dump the silverware in a tub or pot of soapy water, and put it all to the side. Put out the desserts and then go be with your people. Until they decide to leave. In my house, the rule is no cleaning till guests are gone, even for big parties, I prefer to have the time with my Charming Suitor, we have a cleanup routine, and we know where everything goes. Put on some music, do some kitchen dancing, eat an extra cookie, talk about what worked particularly well, finish the wine, get a little snarky about your cousin Joey’s new girlfriend with the ultra tiny mini and the ultra big hair. Make it your decompression time. If you do want to have help, designate the two people who will be the easiest to work with and ask if they might stay an extra hour after everyone else goes to give you a hand. More than three people cleaning is too much, you are all elbows and there is never that much space. One person washing, one drying, one putting away or organizing it for getting put away later.
If you are the guest, offering to bring something, be clear about what you are capable of; make sure to ask how many people you are expected to serve, and DO NOT BRING ANYTHING THAT NEEDS ASSEMBLY OR COOKING ONSITE! Do you have any idea how supremely annoying it is for someone to arrive with a grocery bag full of ingredients to begin making their dish while you are doing a kitchen dance that requires logistics only slightly less complicated than the opening ceremonies for the Olympics? Or with their frozen or chilled item that they need to wedge into the one oven? Keep it simple. If your dish is to be served warm, bring it already hot in an insulated container, or in your own slow cooker so that you can plug it in somewhere unobtrusive till it is time to serve. Speaking of serving, my best trick for holidays and dinner parties alike is to bring my offering with a serving piece that doubles as my hostess gift. Target, Home Goods, etc. all sell very inexpensive serveware, and it is a huge relief to your hosts for you to hand off your contribution, already on or in its final destination, and say "The platter/bowl/basket is our gift to thank you for your hospitality." Nothing is more annoying after the meal than making sure everyone's serveware gets cleaned so they can take it back home. Ditto Tupperware, only bring something you want to leave behind. And if you bring a dish in your slow cooker, insist on taking it home dirty to clean at your house. I'm just saying.
10. Thou shalt be THANKFUL.
We are all very blessed in our own ways. Even if you are going through a rough time, there are those who have it rougher. The times in which we live are a little bit scary and sad, and we all deserve a day to focus on the good. Take a few moments to think about all of the gifts you have in your life, the family and friends who surround you, all of the wonderful things you may take for granted in the hustle and bustle of your day to day. Close your eyes, be joyful, and in all sincerity and humbleness thank the universe for your life.
I am deeply thankful for each and every one of you for reading, supporting my work, and me, and being kind and gentle ears in the world for my words.
And for sticking with me, a special treat! The lovely people at Larchwood Canada, who made my custom butcher block for me, have sent me one of their gorgeous cutting boards to give to one of you, a $220 value! And I’m doing this post early so that you can have it in time for the holiday. These handmade boards are endgrain larch wood, which is naturally anti-microbial and self-healing. Yeah, you can cut on it and it will heal itself. Magic. Plus, you know, completely gorgeous.
So, in Jonnie’s honor, just comment below with the name of the person you are most grateful for this year, and feel free to share a tip, trick, recipe, or memory. Do it by 11:59pm on November 15, and I will announce the winner by random drawing on the 16th.
Yours in Good Taste,
Here are some of my go-to turkey day recipes. Follow to the letter or use as a springboard for your own touches… All recipes are designed to accommodate 12-14 people with leftovers. And if you have recipes of your own to share, be sure to leave them in the comments section!
2 bags cranberries
1 ½ c port
1 c sugar
1 t salt
5 T orange juice
1 ½ t cornstarch
1 t ground mustard
1 t lemon juice
Zest of 1 orange
Pinch ground clove
Pinch fresh ginger
Zest of 1 lemon
½ c dried cherries-rehydrate in ¼ c port
Cook cranberries and port in a saucepan over med-high heat 10 minutes, until cranberries burst. Add sugar and salt. Whisk OJ, cornstarch, mustard, lemon juice in a bowl and add to berries. Stir to combine. Add rest of ingredients, cook 5-6 minutes more, cool.
10 lb. Yukon Gold potatoes (peeled, cubed)
2 sticks butter, cubed
1 cup whole milk, warmed (or half and half or cream, depending on how rich you like it)
1 pt. sour cream
1 tub whipped cream cheese with chives (or plain) at room temp
1 bunch chives, chopped fine
S&P to taste
Boil potatoes till soft. Drain completely. Put potatoes through ricer, or just use hand mixer to mash. Add butter first, then cream cheese, and then milk to just shy of your preferred texture. Once the potatoes are almost there, add in the sour cream, cream cheese and chives and season well. Hold in double boiler or slow cooker to keep warm. Can be held about an hour in a double boiler or up to two in a slow cooker on warm without breaking.
1 XL loaf country bread or French bread cubed and toasted till totally dry (2 lbs.) (or 2 lbs of the plain crouton cubes from the store)
1 pkg soft egg rolls or hot dog buns torn coarsely
2 ½ sticks butter
1 ½ c finely chopped onion
1 ½ c finely chopped celery
Celery leaves from 2 heads, chopped
¼ c chopped flat leaf parsley
Dried sage, thyme, marjoram (1 T each)
S/P to taste
4 lg eggs, beaten
1 32 oz box chicken stock…add as necessary to moisten
½ c toasted bread crumbs
Saute veggies and herbs in 1 ½ sticks butter. Toss with bread. Add stock slowly till moist but not overly soggy. Taste for seasoning. Stir in eggs and mix well. Put in deep foil pan. Drizzle with melted stick of butter and sprinkle of breadcrumbs.
400 degrees for 25 minutes covered, then 20 uncovered. If you want extra turkey flavor, lay the pieces of 2-3 turkey wings on top of the casserole for all but the last 10 minutes, and for extra moistness, melt another 4-8 T butter in 1 c chicken or turkey stock and pour over top when you uncover the stuffing, then continue cooking.
Can be made up to two days in advance, and reheated in a 350 degree oven for 30 minutes before serving.
Sweet Potato Casserole
8 large sweet potatoes
1 stick butter
½ c brown sugar
Cinnamon, nutmeg, s/p
1 bag mini marshmallows
Roast potatoes till soft. Mash with butter, sugar, and cinnamon, s/p, nutmeg. Mix in eggs.
Bake 350 for 25 minutes, add marshmallows to top in one layer, put back in oven for 10-15 more minutes until the marshmallows are golden brown.
Pumpkin/Butternut Squash Soup
If you want this soup all pumpkin, replace the butternut squash with fresh or frozen cubed pumpkin. If you want it all squash, eliminate the canned pumpkin and add another 2 lbs of cubed squash.
4 c cubed peeled butternut squash
2 large cans pumpkin puree (29.5 oz organic…not pumpkin pie filling!)
3 quarts chicken stock (or veggie stock if you have vegetarians coming)
1 pt. heavy cream
2 med. (or one large) yellow onions
1 stick butter
Fresh ground nutmeg
Sauté onions in butter till soft but not browned, add squash and pumpkin. Pour in enough chicken stock to cover the vegetables by about 1 ½ - 2 inches. Cook over medium heat till very soft, about 35-45 minutes. Blend with immersion blender or in batches in regular blender till very smooth, for extra velvety soup strain thru Chinois or fine mesh strainer. Add cream and season to taste with salt and pepper and fresh nutmeg.
Freezes beautifully pre-cream, I often make a double batch and freeze half without the cream in it. Is also delish without the cream if you want to be healthier J
½ c heavy cream, whipped to soft peaks
8-10 amaretti cookies, crumbled but not powdered
Blend together right before serving and garnish each bowl or cup with a generous spoon.
Have also topped with:
Crushed gingersnaps and mini marshmallows
Crème fraiche mixed with crystallized ginger
Candied orange zest and toasted pine nuts
Toasted gingerbread croutons
Whipped cream blended with cranberry sauce
Crouton with melted asiago cheese
Fried sage leaves
Curried nuts (pumpkin seeds, pecans, walnuts)
Balsamic Cipollini Onions
2 lbs cipollini onions, peeled (blanch in boiling water one minute, shock in ice water, skins should slip right off)
3 T olive oil
3 T butter
1 ½ T sugar
6 T balsamic vinegar
1 T chopped fresh parsley
Preheat oven to 500°F.
Place onions in medium bowl; toss with oil. Arrange onions on baking sheet or in roasting pan. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast until onions are brown and tender, rotating pan in oven and turn onions once, about 35 minutes (they will caramelize and be quite dark in parts but, if you have coated them well with olive oil, will not have a 'burnt' taste). Meanwhile, melt butter in heavy small saucepan over medium-high heat. Add sugar and stir until sugar dissolves. Remove from heat. Add vinegar. Return to heat. Simmer until mixture thickens slightly, about 2 minutes. Pour over onions and continue to cook in oven 10 more minutes. Sprinkle with parsley before serving.
(great pre-dinner nibble! A bowl of these and a bowl of nuts are all you need.)
1 large bag baby carrots (2 1bs)
1 bottle apple cider vinegar
1 large jar honey
4 T mustard seed
1 bunch dill
Combine vinegar, honey and mustard seed in saucepan. Add carrots and cook over med-high heat till carrots are cooked but still crisp, 5-8 minutes. Store in pickling liquid in fridge. Before serving, drain liquid, add chopped fresh dill.
Jonnie’s Orange Sherbet Jell-O Mold
A family fave, and a bit of old-school fun on the plate.
4 3-oz pks orange jello
4 cups boiling water
2/3 cup lemon juice
2 pt. orange sherbet, softened
Dissolve jello in water, add juice. Chill till jelly-like consistency. Blend in softened sherbet with electric beaters. Put in greased 2 quart mold and chill overnight. To release, dip mold in hot water to loosen and invert over plate.