I hosted my first Thanksgiving dinner this year, a small gathering with a few close friends. Plans were up in the air until a few days before, so I hadn’t thought much about what to make until it was time to go shopping.
Thanksgiving dinner with my family in Minnesota has always been strictly regulated by Midwestern, midcentury tradition: there must be turkey, sausage and sage stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, sweet potatoes with marshmallows, green bean casserole with cream of mushroom soup and French fried onions, Jell-o fruit salad, cranberry sauce from the can, and Grandma’s homemade lefse and rolls. For dessert there is pie: pumpkin, apple, and Mom’s banana cream (three of those). Every dish has a champion, and without any of them, something just seems off.
Don’t get me wrong, I love watching the cranberry sauce jiggle as much as anyone else, and missing out on lefse and banana cream pie (with homemade custard, always) made me especially nostalgic. But as I began thinking about my own menu, it dawned on me that I was no longer bound by these rules. For the first time, I was free to bring my own Thanksgiving fantasy to the table.
The trouble is, it worked. Thanksgiving may never be the same again.
The first and easiest decision was nixing the turkey. It is an unwieldy bird that’s hard to prepare well and is almost no one’s favorite part of the meal. I opted for duck instead: over the phone, a chef friend guided me through the process of cutting up the bird, brining the breast and curing the legs in salt overnight in the fridge, then slow-roasting the legs in duck fat and searing the breast in a dry pan just before dinner.
Next, the stuffing. I’d always wanted to try a cornbread stuffing, and Martha’s with bacon and pecans hit the spot. Next time, I’d substitute lard for some of the butter and add a little additional stock or cream to moisten it, but I’ve been happily eating the leftovers for the past week. (The recipe makes enough for 8 people.) It was especially good with Joy the Baker’s cranberry sauce: I cut down the sugar a bit, skipped the orange zest, substituted vanilla extract for the vanilla bean, added a hint of powdered ginger, and simmered it with two cinnamon sticks.
Last year I remembered wishing for something green and crunchy on the Thanksgiving table, so I tossed together a bunch of raw kale and some briefly blanched, crisp-tender green beans, drizzled them with sesame seed oil, and mixed in a clove or two of minced garlic, kosher salt, and black pepper.
Instead of marshmallows, we topped our sweet potatoes with a “salad” of finely chopped celery, flat-leaf parsley, and goat cheese (among a few other things), based on a recipe from smitten Kitchen. The crunch of the vegetables and creaminess of the cheese set off the richness of the sweet potatoes elegantly. Next time I might add in hint of crushed red pepper flakes. These would make a unique passable appetizer, if you do that kind of thing on Thanksgiving.
A friend brought over a warm quinoa salad with butternut squash, dried cranberries, and pecans, based on a recipe from the New York Times. It calls for both regular and black\ quinoa, which she couldn’t find, so she substituted a box of “rainbow” quinoa instead. Most mentions of quinoa make me roll my eyes, not because I don’t like it but because the idea of a “hip” grain seems inherently absurd to me. (And here I don’t intend to imply that said friend chose to make it for its trend value.) In spite of myself, I will absolutely make this dish again. Out of everything on the table, this is what had me coming back for seconds.
She also made this recipe for roasted Brussels sprouts with pistachios and cipollini onions, which we gobbled up on the spot. It’s from a book entitled Crazy Sexy Kitchen, by a woman who adopted a plant-based diet after learning she had Stage 4 epithelioid hemangioendothelioma (yikes!) and has been fighting it publicly with exuberant, mouth-watering veganism.
I’m not sure where I’ll be for Thanksgiving next year, but watch out, traditionalists: I’m already planning the menu.