Thanksgiving is fast approaching.
For many of us, the work week is going to wind down quickly, and our Thanksgiving preparations are already in full flush. (Thoughts and prayers to those of you who work in retail this week; I did one Black Friday as a media department associate at Best Buy in 1999 and it still informs the way I view society.)
I adore Thanksgiving—it might just be my favorite day of the year. Among the many things I love about the holiday is that—at least here in the United States—it’s more or less a universal celebration. Thanksgiving dinner transcends religion or culture or political leanings; we’re all pretty much on the same page for one day, something that almost never happens.
And yet… we’re also not on the same page, because we all have different views of what constitutes a Thanksgiving dinner.
Like—yes, there’s a better chance that not that a turkey will be involved, and probably some mashed potatoes and gravy, too. Beyond that, though? Things break down pretty quickly. Cornbread stuffing, or regular bread? Stuffing inside the bird, or out? Do you love sweet potatoes with marshmallows, or find them abhorrent? Is macaroni and cheese a Thanksgiving staple, or something that has absolutely nothing to do with the holiday?
I have a very clear vision of what Thanksgiving is supposed to look like to me, but it might be missing things you wouldn’t dream of going without, and vice versa.
Now, if you’ve read this newsletter for any length of time, you know I love to try new things, put my own clever spin on recipes. But I don’t mess around on Thanksgiving. The day comes around once a year, and there’s 364 other days where you can experiment.
In the words of Auntie Carmel: don’t experiment on Thanksgiving.
Anyways, I’d like to give a rundown on what’s usually on our Thanksgiving menu, and then I’d like to hear the same from you. What’s on your table?
No surprises here. We’re not a ham family; we stick to the traditional turkey as the centerpiece protein for the holiday, usually a 10-12 pound bird. (We’re not a big family.)
48 hours before serving—so, Tuesday afternoon—I’ll start dry-brining by patting the entire surface of the turkey liberally with kosher salt, then placing it in the fridge uncovered to rest until the day of.
I’m a fan of dry-brining for several reasons; first, I think it does deliver a nicer crispness to the skin than wet-brining, but also: it’s just easier than finding a vessel big enough to brine the bird in and a place in the fridge to put said vessel.
When it’s time to cook, I do it on the propane grill, primarily for space concerns; if I can dedicate the grill to the bird, then I’m freeing up the oven for everything else. I’ll spatchcock the turkey (my trusty OXO Poultry Shears are essential for this), place it on a sheet pan with a heat-safe wire rack set in it, rub it with butter and herbs, and grill on medium-high heat for 60-90 minutes.
(I’m tempted to try using the rotisserie attachment to my new grill this year, but I haven’t made the final decision on that yet.)
Speaking of which, if any of your Thanksgiving cooking involves using a gas grill, today is a great day to check if you need to refill your propane tanks, lest you make the mistake I did several years ago and run out mid-bird.
(My dad ran to a gas station that, remarkably, was open and had tanks available on Thanksgiving. Thanks, Dad.)
I love stuffing. I could eat nothing but stuffing on Thanksgiving and be perfectly happy with that as my holiday meal. This is big “don’t experiment on Thanksgiving” territory for me. I could give a go at a cornbread stuffing or an oyster dressing or any other manner of variation on the theme, but I won’t, because those aren’t the thing I look forward to on the fourth Thursday in November.
Every year, I make Real Simple’s “Sausage and Sage Stuffing” and it’s perfect. There is no need to tinker with a recipe that gives you exactly what you want.
This is one area where I’ve actually dialed things back a little bit in recent years, because my usual go-to recipe, a longtime family favorite, is just so indulgent: Holiday Mashed Potatoes. I love this recipe, which is essentially a large twice-baked potato so full of dairy that I can—and shamelessly do—use it as a sandwich spread in the days after Thanksgiving.
Holiday Mashed Potatoes
3 pounds (about 12) potatoes , cooked and mashed
1/4 cup butter
1 8-ounce package cream cheese
1/2 cup sour cream
1/2 cup milk
2 eggs lightly beaten
1/4 cup chopped onions (optional)
salt and pepper to taste
Add cream cheese in small pieces to mashed potatoes, then add butter.
Beat well and mix in sour cream.
Hand beat eggs, add milk and onions, and add to potatoes with salt and pepper.
Grease casserole and refrigerate or proceed to bake.
Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes or until top is browned.
Green Bean Casserole
Fight the temptation to try and make this holiday staple “better” or fancier: it is perfect as it is, and any changes would render it an entirely different dish. We use the recipe straight off the back of the can of cream of mushroom soup.
Campbell’s Soup invented the dish! Trust them when they tell you what it is.
Sometimes it’s store-bought, sometimes it’s homemade. I am an apostate who does not like the jellied stuff that comes out of the can with the ridges on it.
If you do want to experiment on Thanksgiving, you can make my Hot Cranberry Sauce from several years ago; turning the iconic side into a hot sauce unlocks a flavor dimension that’s often missing from the holiday table.
Just make sure to open some windows before cooking and blending the hot peppers.
Learn from my mistakes.
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Usually store-bought, and usually great.
There have been years where my wife—the baker in the house—has made a Chocolate-Pecan *ahem* Horse Race Pie or an Apple-Cheddar Pie. More recently, though, we’ve been graced by excellent pies my parents bring from Just Pies in Westerville, Ohio.
If you’re in the Columbus area, I highly recommend; they don’t take advance order this week, it’s first-come, first-served. (Just let my dad get in line first.)
This year, we’re also picking up dinner rolls from The Grainwright, an absolutely wonderful bakery here in Louisville’s Logan Street Market.
Red wine, champagne, and The Kids’ Table, my go-to mix of sparkling cranberry juice and gin, garnished with rosemary.
It has gotten harder, at least in my experience, to find sparkling cranberry juice at the grocery store in recent years—I swear it used to be a mainstay, but now it’s mostly sparkling cider—but Trader Joe’s has a good version.
I do not want a bespoke cocktail on Thanksgiving. I want fizzy cranberry juice and gin.
Oh, and cider for the kids.
For some people, Thanksgiving entertainment is the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. For others, it’s all about football, whether that’s the Detroit Lions, the Dallas Cowboys, or the Egg Bowl.
For me? This discussion starts and ends with The National Dog Show. It is superior to the more-prestigious Westminster Kennel Club Show because a) it’s at noon on Thanksgiving b) the whole thing is edited down to two hours and c) it’s hosted by John O’ Hurley.
But enough about me…
I want to know what your Thanksgiving traditions are—what recipes you swear by, what things you have to have on the table, what you’re looking forward to. Let’s hear it!
… what’s on your Thanksgiving table?
—Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)
REMINDER: This week’s “Friday” newsletter will come in on Wednesday morning, with a few last-minute holiday prep tips amid the usual great recommendations. There will be no newsletter on Friday, because in my historical experience no one reads stuff that day.
ANOTHER REMINDER: On Friday, I solicited suggestions for a Thanksgiving-in-the-kitchen playlist, and I’m still taking those; drop them in the comments, and I’ll share the resulting playlist in Wednesday’s newsletter.
FINALLY: as a holiday bonus, here’s a picture of Olaf, who celebrates one year as a part of our family on Wednesday. He was found on the street by Louisville Metro Animal Services last October, had one failed adoption, and finally came to us just before Thanksgiving. It was a big adjustment for both him and for us, but I can’t imagine our family without him now.
I think he’s happy here, what do you think?
Neither my wife nor I like turkey much, so we started doing a Mexican food spread for Thanksgiving some years back and never stopped. I realize this may sound sacrilegious, but consider this year our spread will include:
- Heritage pork chile verde
- Spanish rice
- Refried Rancho Gordo beans (haven’t decided which variety yet)
- Roasted honey nut squash
- Homemade churros
It’s just the two of us, and we’ll have a more traditional meal when we travel to see her family next week. But a fun alternative if you’re not super jazzed on turkey, plus we’ll get great leftovers to repurpose all weekend.
Thanksgiving was our Super Bowl, but in light of recent events I’m not cooking this year.
That said, this would have been the one time each year I got Janie’s fancy baked mac and cheese, and Pie Day requires making two chocolate pies and an apple pie.
Here’s Janie’s famous apple pie recipe:
For the crust:
1 1/4 cups all purpose flour
1/2 cup butter, diced and chilled
1/4 cup ice water
1/4 teaspoon salt
Combine salt and flour in a large mixing bowl. Cut butter in until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs.
Stir in the water 1 tablespoon at a time until the dough forms into a ball. Do not overwork the dough. Split the ball in two and refrigerate for at least an hour.
For the filling:
8 Cameo, Empire, Northern Spy or Jonagold apples, peeled, cored and sliced
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 cup light brown sugar, packed
1/4 cup water
3 tablespoons all purpose flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
Set oven to 425 degrees F.
Melt butter in a saucepan. Stir in flour to form a paste, then add the water, sugars and cinnamon and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and let simmer.
Roll crust out into two sheets sized to fit a 9-inch pie pan. Place one sheet in bottom of pan. Add apple slices, creating a mound toward the center of the pan. Gently pour butter mixture over apples and top with second crust.
Crimp edges of crust shut and cut slits in the top for steam to escape.
Bake for 15 minutes at 425, then reduce heat to 350 degrees and bake for an additional 35-45 minutes or until apples are soft.