Turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, cranberry sauce, green bean casserole, sweet potato pie — we all know the traditional Thanksgiving meal, and some of us are sick of it. But invariably, whenever a host attempts to tweak the feast someone at the table is going to hate it — vociferously.
Hang that! You’re the one cooking. If you want to break away from the same-old Thanksgiving chow, don’t let someone’s lame palate stifle your creativity, just keep it in moderation. There is a limit to how much change a guest should be expected to handle on Thanksgiving, a celebration already tense with family obligation, things left unsaid or said way too much, and closed liquor stores.
I’ll never forget the year my grandmother, in her late 80s, decided Thanksgiving didn’t need a turkey anymore and she prepared some lemon pepper whitefish instead. It has gone down in family record as the Worst Thanksgiving Ever. See, while serving savory bread pudding instead of stuffing can be exciting, serving fish instead of turkey just goes too damn far.
So, as you begin to plan your Thanksgiving holiday, here are some Dos and Don’ts that should help you add some twists to the feast that won’t ruin it:
DO serve appetizers. In the excitement before dinner: shut everyone up with a fried snack, like fried green beans, sweet potato fries, or potato chips topped with cheese and chives. A cheese plate with some grapes and crackers is a quick way to sate guests who have been saving their appetites since the night before. And it’s unlikely to dampen their hunger for turkey.
DO try a new rub or marinade. There’s more than one way to cook a bird. Roasting with olive oil, salt, and pepper is awesome, but if you’re looking to add a new flavor to the turkey try adding a little five spice to your salt rub to give your turkey a touch of Asian flavor.
DO make your own butter. Thanksgiving is a time to be liberal with the butter. Fresh butter tastes better — it’s bright and smooth, sweet and milky — and it’s easy to make. Just pour some whipping cream into a stand mixer with a pinch of salt, maybe a drizzle of honey, and let the beaters do their thing until the cream starts to look like butter. Mash some into little bowls sprinkled around the table and you’re done. People will be calling you Martha Stewart all day.
DO mix up your sweet potatoes. Are they better with marshmallows or butter, sugar, and pecans on top? Put this perennial question to the test by making a half-and-half sweet potato casserole. Whichever side gets eaten first (come on, it’s going to be sugar and nuts) is the best for all time.
DO serve cocktails. How about pairing a cranberry fizz made with vodka, ginger beer, and fresh cranberries with your Thanksgiving this year?
DON’T flake on the salad. Yes, the side dishes and turkey are the stars of this meal, but without the salad there’d be no fresh element to clear your palate before pie! Punch up your leafy greens with goat cheese, roasted beets, cranberries and pistachios, fennel and orange, or wild mushrooms.
DON’T serve canned cranberry sauce. Okay, maybe the canned cranberry sauce might have to be on the table because it’s someone’s favorite, but making your own is easy. Look for recipes that play with spices like cloves, nutmeg or star anise, fruits like apricot, strawberry, raspberry, or lemon, out-there flavors like vanilla, jalapeño, or horseradish, or a touch of liqueur — Gran Marnier, anyone?
DON’T put walnuts on the pumpkin pie. It tastes amazing, but everyone will be mad that you messed with the pumpkin pie on this sacred day. Don’t bother with this experiment on Thanksgiving, save it for Christmas.
DON’T use fresh green beans in the green bean casserole. No one will be able to tell, and the fresh beans are far more expensive than the canned. Likewise, frying your own onions for the topping will not be appreciated.
DON’T forget dessert. The sweet end to a meal can fall by the wayside, but do not let it! Pumpkin and pecan pies can be made in a single bowl and dumped into a frozen pie shell then baked. There are also some excellent Valley bakeries that make amazing apple pie. Don’t just stick to the traditional, though. Make or buy a key lime pie, banana cream, cherry, strawberry — as long as it’s sweet and crusty it’ll do. If you’re not into baking, and can’t get anyone of your guests to bring pie, place your order now with a local bakery. Do it early. November is high pie season.•