Having just survived another gut-busting weekend of eating, now seems a good time to reflect on some rules we live by when it comes to hosting Thanksgiving. In part, the trick to a successful Thanksgiving dinner (for us, at least) resembles the rhyme that a bride follows in dressing for her wedding. To wit, our household adheres to these rules to host Thanksgiving by: “Something old, something new, something simple, something non-turkey.”
We tend to design a fairly untraditional Thanksgiving menu, so I always try to sneak in one dish that is familiar. Last year, it was whipped sweet potato casserole. The year before, it was candied sweet potatoes with walnuts. Before that, it was sweet potato and pumpkin pie. Now that I think of it, sweet potatoes feature fairly heavily on my “something old” category. Perhaps it's because my mother-in-law is partial to sweet potatoes, or perhaps it's because they are just so tasty. In any case, this year I skipped the traditional versions of sweet potatoes since the soup course was already going to be “Warm Sweet Potato Vichyssoise” (Hay Day Country Market Cookbook by Kim Rizk, p.89). Instead, I settled for a traditional Bacon Cornbread Stuffing. The salty bits of bacon played off of the caramelized dates in the parsnip dish—and was picked up nicely by the pork roast. Also, a Thanksgiving dinner doesn't feel complete for me unless my husband Will makes his buttermilk rolls shaped in a demi-rosette…
For our main vegetable dish, I decided to go with a new recipe: “Sauteed Parsnips with Dates” (Food and Wine, December 2011, p.229-230). A few years ago when we lived in England for a year, Will and I consumed prodigious amounts of parsnip once we discovered how sweetly they roast. Since then, we roast parsnips whenever we can get our hands on them—often to make a nice fall/winter roasted root vegetable salad of beets, carrots, sweet potatoes, parsnips, and onions with feta cheese, toasted walnuts, and a balsamic glaze. For this Thanksgiving, we sautéed parsnips in garlic-infused olive oil before roasting them with Medjool dates and marjoram. The already-sweet parsnips picked up the caramel flavors of the dates while roasting, but the sweetness was nicely cut by the savory garlic-infused oil and the herbs.
Perhaps a surprise hit of the evening turned out to be the very simply prepared minted peas. As with all really good simple vegetable dishes, it’s important that you forego the frozen variety (since they get too mushy too quickly) and not even dare think about canned (and I cannot remember if I’ve ever used canned green peas). Sure, late November is not the time when you can find fresh peas at grocery stores, but I happened to find beautiful shelled fresh English peas. That’s when inspiration struck for the minted peas. Again, since this is a side-dish with a minimal list of ingredients, it is crucial that you also use the best Extra Virgin Olive Oil, sea salt, fresh lemon juice, and fresh mint. And, most of all, cook the peas only until crisp tender, with a little bite (like al dente pasta).
Since turkey is sacrosanct for many people, we tried a few different ways of making turkey work for us. We tried injecting it with a Cajun spice blend (mixed with chicken broth) one year, but that felt a little too reminiscent of high school Chemistry. Last year we tried a teriyaki lacquer, but that dried out the turkey and made it get too dark too quickly. Besides, the essential flavorlessness of turkey (apologies to turkey lovers) seemed an inadequate base for something so overwhelming as soy sauce. No, we’d happily substitute the turkey with chicken, duck, or capon. Better yet, we’ve had luck with bacon-wrapped beef tenderloin or prime rib or a pork crown roast. This year, we tried a “Fennel-Garlic Pork Roast” (Food and Wine, December 2011, p. 229). The overnight brining made the roast very flavorful, and the fennel seed and garlic paste provided a nice bit of crunchy flavor-boost that everyone enjoyed. I would suggest planning on longer than the 1 hour the recipe called for the cooking of a 4 lb pork loin, but otherwise the roast was lovely.
Of course, there are other important rules to cook by as well. You should definitely make the soup course the night before if at all possible and just reheat right before serving. Soups usually fare better with overnight blending of flavors anyway, and it really shaves an important step from your cooking on Thanksgiving Day itself.
If a guest offers to bring something, ask for dessert. Your oven gets a huge workout on Thanksgiving—regardless of what main course you are serving—so it frees up important oven space if you are not baking a delicate pastry along with your turkey or pork roast or prime rib. And unlike soups which benefit by overnight melding, dessert is usually at its best on the day baked. Our friend Debra bakes excellent pies, so she brought over a flaky traditional double-crusted apple pie. I chose Butter Pecan ice cream for accompaniment since the nuttiness and the slight saltiness of Butter Pecan nicely complement the sweetness of an apple pie.
For extra enjoyment, ask your guest to bring a friend for your pet as well (if you have one). Part of our Thanksgiving entertainment consisted of seeing which dog (Katie or Duchie) had more fun sniffing at the pork roast and hoping for food spills!