Tuesday, November 21, 2006

the Thanksgiving menu

Thanksgiving menu

menu with sweet little turkey from the New York Public Library digital image gallery

My family doesn't really have an iron-clad Thanksgiving menu - there is always a big turkey, gravy, stuffing (cooked outside the bird every year in recent memory, so technically it's dressing), mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie for dessert, but the other dishes tend to vary, and even for the staples we don't use the same recipes every year. The one exception is my stepfather's mashed potatoes, which no one in their right mind would ever fiddle with. I have mentioned them here before, even though this blog wasn't yet around last Thanksgiving.

It's hard not to think about past Thanksgivings at this time of year. One of my most memorable - not at all in terms of menu - was the Thanksgiving near the end of my college semester abroad in India; several of us did independent study in Kathmandu, Nepal for the last month of the program and Thanksgiving dinner was, I think, "Italian" pasta at a rich-white-people hotel, followed by drinks at a bar called The Blue Note. (I can't remember whether the place indeed played jazz; I do recall, however, a restaurant named Alice's Restaurant that played the song Alice's Restaurant at least once every 30 min., and a restaurant proudly named Typical Nepali Restaurant). A few of us had rented the ground floor of a preposterously-American-style home for one month; it had marble floors and a maid who made good milky tea every morning but not much furniture or personality, and the only thing to do, really, was lie on the floor and smoke hash and listen to the landlord's family whooping it up upstairs. They were sort of nouveau-riche carpet merchants and they loved to blast Hindi movie soundtracks. There was a badminton net in the front yard and a green American-ish lawn, but outside the gate were trash heaps, packs of wild dogs, and vendors hawking everything from flip-flops to freshly-slaughtered goats. The contrast depressed me in a way that the sights of India never did.

Another memorable Thanksgiving — totally because of the food; emotionally I was numbed by my first year of law school — I had an amaaaaaazingly delicious early dinner with a friend and her family at Danube, and then somehow went home and cooked a vegetarian feast for a small group of friends with nothing more than 4 burners and a rickety toaster oven. (That's at my ex-BF's apt.; the toaster oven has since died and been replaced by a panini press). I hadn't taken up cooking more than a few months before that, and I dutifully noted my menus: we had dumpling squashes with wild mushroom and cranberry stuffing, sweet potato and yam galette, celery root-pear remoulade, honey-roasted pumpkin salad with sage croutons, and pumpkin mousse.

Thanksgiving ragamuffins No.43-45

Thanksgiving ragamuffins No. 43-45, also from the NY Public Library digital image gallery

Even when I wasn't blogging I tried to keep menu notes for major dinners, and I see that this year's menu isn't all that different from last year's, or the year before that. Both years I went to my parents' house in Connecticut and helped cook, and the routine this year will be the same: I will make most of the side dishes and desserts, and the grown-ups will make the turkey and the gravy. (I did once assist a friend in the preparation of a Thanksgiving turkey and gravy so it's not a totally mysterious process to me, but my mom's turkey and gravy are always delicious and I'm more than happy to stand around and remind her to stop opening the oven door so often!).

So, the menu:


Thanksgiving hors d' ouevres should pique one's appetite efficiently, in one or two bites; I think it's best to keep pre-dinner munching to a minimum unless people will be arriving several hours in advance. I also think there should at least be one crisp thing, since so many of the dishes that follow (stuffing, mashed potatoes, etc.) will be on the soft/mushy side.

  • Thyme-toasted almonds — I've made these before and they're delicious. I have probably tried at least five different recipes for herbed/spiced nuts of one type or another and I feel like every one has been a big success - really, how often does someone serve you a bowl of warm well-seasoned almonds or walnuts or cashews, made with fresh herbs and maybe an interesting, carefully-chosen salt? They are appealing to just about everyone and you should set them out in small bowls because it is too easy to gobble up handfuls. (Constantly replenish the bowls, though, unless you are going for a gulag atmosphere). Any of the recipes I linked to can be prepared earlier in the day or even a day or two ahead of time and warmed just before serving - 5 or 10 minutes in a medium-hot oven is perfect. If you are going to try the thyme-toasted almonds, just quadruple the recipe and make a pound of them; they'll be eaten long before they go bad. You don't need to quadruple the olive oil or the salt — 3 tablespoons of oil for a pound of almonds is plenty, and salt them to your taste. The nuts won't absorb the oil; it just helps the thyme stick to them.

  • Apple, red onion and blue cheese tart in a caraway crust — I've made this tart before and it's excellent and not too filling. I'm going to make one and cut it into small squares.


  • Herbed Sally Lunn Rolls and Sweet Potato Biscuits — I made both of these the year before last and was very, very pleased with them. The herbed rolls left an impression on me as the most professional-looking (and -tasting) things I'd ever baked, even though I'd become exhausted and left the dough to rise overnight. Apparently it has enough butter in it to keep it from drying out; the delay didn't seem to hurt it at all. The sweet potato biscuits are a nice textural contrast and the leftovers are great for making midnight-snack sandwiches or for breakfast the next morning. I am not at all an Emeril fan and found this recipe only after noticing that the one I first intended to use seemed to call for too much liquid, but it's a good one and you can go ahead and quietly tuck it away for future reference with nary a Bam!

    sweet potato biscuits

    sweet potato biscuits from a past Thanksgiving

  • Brussels Sprouts with Chestnuts and Bacon — I contemplated using this Chow recipe but 1 1/2 lbs. of brussels sprouts to serve 8 sounds stingy. To serve 8 who, Blue States Lose regulars? ("Leotard Fantastic, could you pass the brussels sprouts? Or the blow, whatever?") Williams-Sonoma has a similar recipe that reads better, and that's the one I'm going with. We'll be 8 rather than 6 so I'll sort of 1 1/2 it. I should add that I have roasted my own chestnuts twice, but only because I'm an idiot and it took me that many times to understand what a terrible, tedious, uncomfortable process it is and that the $10-$15 jars of roasted and peeled ones are so totally worth it. Maybe it's not so bad with one of those new chestnut-cutters but both times I ended up really, really cranky and with sore fingertips.

  • Sweet Potato Puree with Brown Sugar and Sherry — I made this at least once before, maybe twice, and *loved* it. Everyone else seemed to like it too, although I don't think we have anyone who likes sweet potatoes as much as I do.

  • Mashed Potatoes — see above. I don't know what else is in them besides celery salt but I promise to document the process this year if at all possible.

  • Roasted turnips and/or celery root or parsnips with horseradish-herb butter or turnips Anna — Depends what looks good at the greenmarket. Last year I came across beautiful baby turnips and roasted them with thyme and honey — very good.

  • Maple-glazed carrots &mdash This recipe is very similar in technique to the Marcella Hazan one for braised carrots that I've come to love, only with maple syrup rather than parmesan for flavor. I don't know if anyone but me really likes carrots but I am on a sort of one-woman mission to make Properly Cooked Carrots fashionable.

  • Stuffing — As I mentioned we cook ours outside the bird, and I really think it's best that way. It gets crispy on top and, as Bittman noted in the article I linked to above, you have a lot more control over the moisture. It's hard to find a recipe that doesn't have eggs or cream in it (my mom is allergic to both) but this one from Food & Wine looks good. So does this one from the Times. I'm going to make a sort of combination of the two, with sourdough bread, sausage, apples, celery, onion, herbs, and maybe chestnuts if there are any left over from the brussels sprouts.

  • Turkey and gravy — My mom makes both and they're always delicious. I intend to take lots of photos this year to document how they get that way.

  • Cranberry sauce — Mom is making this, I think with the F&W recipe for cranberry-bourbon-relish that I sent her. This one for chunky apple-cranberry sauce sounded good too. I was hoping there would be nice shallots at the greenmarket so that I could also make some sort of shallot confit, but there weren't many to choose from.


  • Pumpkin pie — I think I'm going to go with this very simple recipe for brown sugar pumpkin pie. In the past I've made this one with rum; one year it was excellent and one year it just wouldn't set. I think my mom's oven (since repaired) was to blame, but I'm not stuck on it enough to keep making the same one every year.

  • Mincemeat pie — My mother is making this. I think tartlets are preferable because mincemeat is way too sweet and too chewy to eat a whole slice of, so I'm going to bring a set of tiny tart shells (about 1 1/2" diameter) with me and make my case against The Pie as best I can. A flurry of comments agreeing with me would be a nice Exhibit A, don't you think?

  • Apple crostada with brown butter streusel — I think we usually have a pecan pie but this recipe sounds so good and I can't wait to try it.

It's a lot of food, but I think everyone invited to a Thanksgiving dinner should be sent home with leftovers, both because it's in the spirit of the holiday and because the leftovers are so uniquely perfect together. A sandwich made with sliced turkey, a few spoonfuls of stuffing, and a thin layer of cranberry sauce — and maybe some gravy, or a good, hot Dijon mustard — is something everyone should try at least once. Leftover mashed potatoes or sweet potatoes are good for breakfast, patted into little cakes, dusted with flour, sauteed until crisp on the outside, and served with eggs, or with the sausage that didn't get used in the stuffing. Roasted vegetables keep well and are perfect for lunch the 2nd day after, when you are not up to eating anything besides vegetables. Leftover desserts will give you nothing but grief (either because you'll eat more of them than you should or because you'll let them go to waste) and should be generously divvied up among everyone who walks out the door.


  1. Your Thanksgiving menu looks fabulous. It must have been a spectacular meal.

    I picked up a jar of celery salt last time I was at the store with your mashed potatoes in mind. Any words of advice on making them?

  2. Thanks Julie!
    I have never seen my stepfather measure the celery salt or anything else that goes into his mashed potatoes - I think he just adds that, plus plenty of butter, plus regular milk.
    I wonder if the celery salt is a Maine thing? His parents were both from there and I remember that when we'd vacation there when I was young some of the pizza shops would have shakers of celery salt along with the usual grated parmesan and red pepper flakes to shake onto pizza.