It's the best holiday of the year, but we can make it better.
The jam-packed Thanksgiving Mega-edition of our Good Day digest.
Oh, boy. It’s almost time.
Everyone’s got their favorite holidays. Maybe you believe in the magic of Christmas, or throw a really great 4th of July barbecue. You might be a Halloween fanatic or a Valentine’s Day romantic.
Me? I’m a Thanksgiving Stan. It’s the single greatest holiday on the calendar — inclusive, available to everyone, no gift-giving pressure, just friends, family and food. It’s magnificent.
But could it be… even better? What this newsletter presupposes is: maybe it could.
That’s right, it’s the Thanksgiving Edition the Action Cookbook Newsletter’s Friday digest, where we supply you weekly with useful recommendations in food, drink, music, literature, and more. Normally, I’d give you seven items (reflecting our collective Friday climb out of the workweek’s Seventh Circle of Hell), with one or two of those items being food. This is Thanksgiving, though. We’re going to need more than that.
So today it’s going to be a full menu with pairings — seven good things in other areas, paired with seven ways you can level-up your Thanksgiving.
7A: Let’s Talk Turkey
It’s the central question to your Thanksgiving table, isn’t it. What are you going to do with that turkey? Perhaps you believe in brining, or dry-brining. Maybe you deep-fry it. Maybe you’re a traditionalist who doesn’t want to mess with all that nonsense. Well, I may not persuade you, but let me tell you what’s worked incredibly well for me in recent years, and upped my Turkey Success Rate (TSR) by a significant amount: spatchcocking.
Perhaps you’re familiar with the process: you get yourself a good pair of poultry shears like these. (I do not recommend attempting this without them, I tried once, it’ll be a huge struggle). You cut the turkey from end to neck on both sides of the backbone, removing it (discarding if you want, but I save it for stock later on.) Then you flip the bird breast-side up, press down firmly on the breast until the ribs crack and the bird lays flay. The whole process is rather metal, honestly. (Here’s a more detailed rundown.)
This gives you a bird that’ll cook quickly and evenly. After seasoning as you like (I rub liberally with butter and herbs after a two-day dry brine), it can go on a sheet pan into the oven or, as I do it, on the grill. I’ve done a 14-pound bird in under two hours this way, without drying out at all, and without taking precious oven space away.
7B: Thanksgiving is a time to remember the long span of history.
One of the loveliest books I’ve read in recent memory is Yaa Gyasi’s 2016 novel Homegoing. Simultaneously heartbreaking and uplifting, it’s a saga that spans generations without becoming an unbearably weighty tome. It follows the descendants of two sisters from present-day Ghana separated by the Atlantic slave trade, jumping forward a generation with each chapter. It’s marvelously crafted and absolutely worth your time.
6A: Stuffing with no bluffing.
Oh, you thought turkey was divisive? Now we’re really wading into fistfights-in-the-kitchen territory. Everyone’s got an opinion on stuffing. (You might even disagree with me calling it that instead of dressing.) Regular or cornbread? Sausage? Oysters? Stove-top out of the box?
Let’s throw caution to the wind here. It’s already a rich dish, but this is America, darnit: the rich only want to get richer. To paraphrase @dril, let’s face god and walk backwards into hell.
Who’s controlling the food zeitgeist right now? Popeye’s. (With good cause, I might add.) Now, if you’re going to spend an hour waiting in line for that chicken sandwich, you might as well do some Thanksgiving prep while you’re at it. Buy a dozen biscuits. Make this Serious Eats recipe for Popeye’s Biscuit Stuffing.
It may sound like a gimmick, and sure — it is. I can personally vouch for it, though, having made it for a work potluck last November. I didn’t tell anyone it was fast-food biscuits, and it didn’t register as such. Every last bit got eaten, though, and people just though I had special secret for extra-flavorful stuffing.
I did. Thanks, Popeye’s.
6B: Let’s chill out, it’s not dinner time yet.
On Thanksgiving, I’m usually in the kitchen from the early morning hours, happily toiling away before anyone arrives. I usually like to listen to something mellow and atmospheric while I’m working, and today I’m going with LP3 by the band American Football. Originally active from 1997 to 2000, the emo/rock band reunited in 2014, and earlier this year released this album that blends emo, shoegaze and minimalist electronic sounds. It’s a great album, but a fantastic background album.
5A: Cranberry sauce, and two roads diverging in a wood.
Okay, I’m starting to realize that every food topic is going to be somehow contentious. This is where we’re really gonna get in the weeds: cranberry sauce.
Cranberry sauce has many detractors, and its advocates split into sects of “canned” vs. “homemade”. It’s a real quagmire. In my household? I’m the only one who likes it, and mostly because I enjoy the process of making homemade. Since I’m the only one who enjoys it, I get to tailor it to my tastes.
I’m making it into hot sauce.
See, I already put hot sauce on everything, and Thanksgiving’s typically-starchy-and-savory flavor palette can really benefit from some acid and heat. It doesn’t feel quite right putting sriracha, buffalo sauce or gochujang on Thanksgiving foods, though, so we’re using cranberry as our chaperone to Flavortown. It’s shockingly easy.
Get yourself a bag of cranberries. They’re cheap. First, we’re going to make a halved version of this Serious Eats recipe with half that bag, saving the rest. (We’ll get to them later.)
It’s one of the more satisfying things I make each year, watching the berries gradually heat up and burst.
Separately, I sauteed an assortment of peppers — in my case, serranos, jalapenos and habaneros, but you could really use anything — with apple cider vinegar, garlic, and salt. (Note: do this in a well-ventilated kitchen. I neglected to turn on the fan and did sort of tear-gas the whole house. The price of greatness, I say.)
I ran the cranberry sauce and the pepper mixture through the blender separately, then together — slowly adding tablespoons of the pepper mixture to the sauce until the desired heat level was achieved.
The sweet, tart, smooth cranberry sauce hits you up front, with a slow-burning back-bite. It’ll work great on Thanksgiving Day, but even better on leftover sandwiches in the days to follow.
Look at that. It’s cranberry sauce’s evil cousin.
5B: If you don’t like what they’re saying, change the conversation.
I know it’s de rigueur to complain about the possibility of political conversations at the Thanksgiving dinner table, but it’s practically unavoidable. Given enough gaps in the conversation, someone’s going to say, “so, that Elizabeth Warren, huh?” and before you know it, Grandma’s got Uncle Jeff in a headlock and everyone’s throwing dinner rolls.
Distract them. Find something that’ll be fun to get all worked up about that isn’t explicitly political. My suggestion? The absolutely bonkers and extremely hilarious saga of sham blood-testing company Theranos and its founder Elizabeth Holmes. The six-part ABC News podcast miniseries The Dropout offers a terrifically detailed look into the company’s stunning rise and fall — even if you’re already familiar with the broad strokes of the story, it fills in with a lot of entertaining detail, and the total run time of just over four hours can fill in any icy silences that might arise because someone brought up the Green New Deal.
4A: Put some muscles to your Brussels
Do you need something green on the table? Brussels sprouts, maligned throughout many of our childhoods, have had a resurgence as people realized “oh things taste better if you roast them instead of just boiling the crap out of them”. Brussels sprouts are amazing simply halved and roasted with bacon grease, but if you want a different spin on things, you could try this slaw, which ends up on our table every year:
2 lbs Brussels sprouts, outer leaves removed and saved
1-2 apples, Gala or Fuji
6 oz slivered almonds
8 oz Parmesan or Pecorino Romano cheese, grated
6 tbsp apple cider vinegar
3 tbsp whole-grain mustard
3 tbsp olive oil
2-3 slices cooked bacon (optional)
After removing the outer leaves from the sprouts, shred the sprouts on a box grater or in a food processor. (This is a great task to keep someone busy with.) Matchstick-dice the apples, and toss with the shredded sprouts, almonds and grated cheese. Whisk the vinegar, mustard and oil together, and toss with the salad. Add the bacon. Toss the reserved leaves with oil and bake on a foil-lined sheet pan for ~10-15 minutes at 450 degrees, keeping an eye on them, until crisp. Top the salad with the crispy leaves.
It hits the holiday salad prerequisite of “it’s called a salad, but it’s not that healthy”, with the rare bonus of not being mayonnaise-based.
4B: Let us take a moment to appreciate the greatest Thanksgiving film of all time.
There are some rogue elements in retail and mass media who’ve tried to jump the Christmas season in line, starting the onslaught of holiday movies before the candy’s even gone from Halloween. While we enjoy It’s A Wonderful Life, we embrace Christmas Vacation, A Christmas Story and Die Hard, and we even recognize the inane batshit hilarity of Love, Actually… it’s not their time yet.
On Thanksgiving, we appreciate Planes, Trains and Automobiles, the timeless buddy-comedy marriage of director John Hughes with two comedic talents at the height of their powers in Steve Martin and John Candy. It’s madcap, hilarious, heartfelt and sentimental, and features this scene (audio NSFW) at a rental car counter that reportedly single-handedly earned its ‘R’ rating.
I enjoyed this Vulture write-up on the film.
3A. Want a picture-perfect pie? Say cheese.
If you’re Midwestern enough — and I am — you understand that the combination of apple pie and cheddar cheese is classic. So why not combine the two? This recipe from Food52 incorporates cheese right into the crust. It’s subtle — this isn’t a stuffed crust pizza experience — but the addition of cheese makes for a rich, buttery, crust that’ll wow your guests.
Just look at this pie I* made!
*my wife made this, I just got the sugar down from a high shelf for her
3B. I am very full, can you recommend a stylish yet forgiving pant?
I will defend the recommendation I am about to make by saying that I purchased the single pair that I own for a Halloween costume in 2010.
Zubaz are an INCREDIBLY comfortable house-pant, better than any pajamas or sweatpants I’ve ever owned. You’re among family, you can show up to dinner looking like Joey Buttafuoco. They may judge you when the meal starts, but you’ll have the last laugh when everyone else is straining against their jeans and you’re the mayor of Comfort City.
(Comfort City is on Long Island.)
3C. You’re running out of recommendations, aren’t you?
No, I seriously love those pants.
2A. Hey, you didn’t include any sweet potatoes?
I was saving them until the time was right. Do you have Jeni’s in your town? You probably do. Jeni Britton Bauer is slowly taking over the world with her farm-fresh ice cream flavors, but some of us are old-line fans who were getting fat off her work when there were just a couple shops in Columbus, Ohio.
Anyways, if you feel like getting complicated with things, you should make her Sweet Potato Ice Cream With Toasted Marshmallows, as given in her first cookbook. You should buy the cookbook, but here’s the rough idea:
1-½ cups sweet potatoes, peeled, cubed and simmered until soft in 2 cups whole milk
3 tablespoons cream cheese
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 ¼ cups heavy cream
⅓ cup sugar
⅓ cup dark brown sugar
2 tablespoons molasses
1-½ cups miniature marshmallows (she says to make your own, don’t, that’s ridiculous)
Puree the cooked potatoes and milk and return to the pan, mixing in heavy cream, sugars and molasses. Bring to a boil and hold at boil for 4 minutes. Remove from heat. Mix the cream cheese, salt and cinnamon, and whisk the hot cream mixture in slowly. Pour it all into a Ziploc bag and submerge in an ice bath. Toast the marshmallows under the broiler or with a kitchen torch. Run the mixture through an ice cream maker until thick, then transfer to a storage container, layering with toasted marshmallows as you pack. Cover with parchment paper, seal the container, and freeze at least 4 hours.
It’s as rich as sweet potato pie and it’s absolutely delicious. (The batches I’ve made, which I can’t seem to find photos of, came out far more orange.)
2B. Let us take another moment to appreciate the greatest sporting event of Thanksgiving Day.
In this household we do not recognize the Detroit Lions or Dallas Cowboys’s claims to the holiday spotlight.
In this household we celebrate The National Dog Show, which offers both better timing than Westminster (Thanksgiving morning instead of a Tuesday in February) and better emceeing (the sublime John O’Hurley).
You can have your mediocre football today. I’m with the dogs.
1A. Hey, I still have half a bag of cranberries from earlier, was I supposed to do anything with those?
We don’t have a drink yet, do we? Hmm.
Here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to take those cranberries, and put them in a jar with a tight-fitting lid. Pour a tablespoon or two of sugar over them. Now fill with bourbon. And wait. Today’s Friday, that’ll give you six days to infuse that bourbon with cranberry flavor. (Four should be enough, if you can’t get to it right away.)
Keep it in a cool place, and shake it daily.
On Thanksgiving, when we’ve made everything else complicated? We’ll keep this one simple, with a tarted-up Old Fashioned.
2 oz infused bourbon
1 teaspoon sugar
Strip of orange zest
The biggest ice cube you have the capacity to make
Dump the sugar into a rocks glass. Wet it with 2-3 healthy shakes the bitters. Drop the ice cube in, muddling the sugar with it if you can. Pour in the bourbon, garnish with the orange zest (and perhaps a couple of those drunken cranberries).
You’ve got almost everything you need for a beautiful day with family and friends.
[Steve Jobs voice] There’s just one more thing.
1B. Who’s under the table? Man’s best friend.
I didn’t forget. Let’s be thankful for our loyal canine companions, as we are every Friday in this newsletter. Today we’ve got three more coming at you (and I remind you to submit your own dogs by responding to this email).
First up, reader Scott K. shares Taco, an extremely good dog:
Next, reader Drew W. writes in:
Ordinarily I would submit our dogs for inclusion, but you actually already used Ringo and Henry in your 2017 season preview.
Instead, I'm going to submit my parents' dogs:
This is Stella, adopted as a puppy in 2005. Our best guess is that she was a hunting puppy that was abandoned because she wouldn't hunt for squat. She also got carsick extremely easily, which she never grew out of. She lived a good, long happy life full of couch hunting and looking at you with the most judgmental eyes possible. She died about a month ago from complications of old age (14).
This is Blanche, a blue tick/beagle mix. She was left tied to Stella's vet's gas meter in 2009 after being used as a puppy mill (best guess, about 3 years old at the time). The vet took care of her spaying and other related care and offered her to my parents because he saw what a job they did with Stella. Little did I know, it's possible for a dog to be even lazier than Stella. She was a massive (and yes, I mean massive) snuggle hound who typically "shared" the couch with you by jamming her elbows into your belly and laying across your legs. She had a strong moral opposition to electric beeps of any kind, especially microwaves and smoke alarms, barking her ass off any time one of those went off. She died in April of complications from old age (best guess 13-14 years old).
Finally today, reader Kevin D. shares:
I would like to introduce you to Maya. When we adopted her, she was extremely timid, to the point where we had to carry her outside to go potty. She has since, well let's say opened up. Her favorite activities are aggressive cuddling, getting pets, and puppy parkour. We don't think she really understands how to love people, though she is absolutely overflowing with the feeling. She will somersault into your side as you are petting her, making it nearly impossible to keep petting her.
We're confident that she's part boxer, because we can't think of any other explanation for how bouncy she is. She will sprint from the kitchen into the living room, leap onto the couch, and use it as a spring board to launch herself back towards the kitchen.
On the rare occasion that she is relaxing, she usually does so up on the back of the couch, as if she was a cat, keeping an eye on the neighborhood out the front window.
Every new person is her new best friend, and she is absolutely the sweetest with kids even if she has a tendency to run them over when she's doing her zoomies.
She's all legs, springs, and farts, and we wouldn't have it any other way.
I really appreciate everyone sharing their dogs with us (and if you’ve submitted one that I haven’t gotten to yet, don’t worry, I’m just pacing myself through the backlog).
I’m thankful for many things this year, but as always, I’m extremely thankful for good dogs. (They’re all good dogs.)
Thanks again for reading and supporting The Action Cookbook Newsletter. The readership has grown by leaps and bounds over the last month and I’m thrilled to see so many people responding to what I’m putting out here — the more this grows, the more opportunity I’ll have to do bigger and better things with it. If you’re enjoying it, please share:
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Hope you have a wonderful weekend and a great holiday. I’ll still be publishing on a normal schedule this coming week, so I’ll see you Monday morning.
— Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)