Thanksgiving Across America
Thanksgiving is the most truly American holiday, a celebration that unites grateful families in every corner of the country regardless of background, religion or politics. But that doesn't mean that every table looks the same. There are constants, yes: It wouldn't be Thanksgiving without that big beautiful bird. Get beyond the turkey to the sides, however, and regional tastes and family traditions take over. We asked great chefs from coast to coast to share their favorite — from crunchy, fresh, fruit studded-salads in California to rich, fragrant oyster dressing in the Gulf Coast to tart fresh cranberry-nut chutneys in New England. A feast of local foods prepared with love: That's America the beautiful. — Sarah Karnasiewicz
Traci Des Jardins is a California native and the James Beard Award-winning chef/owner of Jardinière, Public House and Mijita in San Francisco.
"I always, always barbecue my turkey. I grew up in California's Central Valley in a family of hunters, and Thanksgiving was a huge holiday for us — we started Wednesday night and went until Sunday. The barbecue was constantly going, and that's a tradition I've hung onto. Also, it helps clear up oven space! Otherwise, I like to try and put a unique California spin on my menu by counterbalancing the rich, heavy mainstays like turkey and stuffing with lots of fresh, seasonal salads."
Serve it with: "When green beans are available, I love combining them with Fuyu persimmons and a light vinaigrette. I also do a warm dish of Brussels sprouts tossed with brown butter and whole-grain mustard. And my stuffing has evolved over the years, but it is so fantastic now, I'm not changing it: It's full of chanterelles, chestnuts, leeks and gizzards from ducks raised by Liberty Farms, which is a great producer here in California."
Pro tip: "Thanksgiving tends to be an all-day affair — so it's good to offer a light lunch or simple starter. I sometimes make a big crudite platter alongside cracked Dungeness crab with Sriracha mayo."
Martín Rios is chef/owner of Restaurant Martín in Santa Fe, N.M., and was a 2011 semi-finalist for the James Beard Best Chef: Southwest Award.
"I always make an organic turkey, a cornbread and sage stuffing with dried figs, and a pumpkin pie with a pine nut streusel — but my favorite part of the meal is my bourbon-vanilla sweet potatoes in ancho chile butter, which have a great balance of sweetness and heat. I use New Mexican dried red chiles, grind them and then stir them into the butter and maple syrup. Since we're in chile country, sometimes I add green chiles to the stuffing, too. Starting in October, roasters start appearing in parking lots all over town, and the whole city smells like chiles. I buy a big sack and use it for the whole month!"
Serve it with: "My wife makes an amazing sangria for the holidays. It's easy: Mix orange juice and lime juice with 1/3 blackberry puree, 1/3 apricot puree and champagne. It's a little tart, a little sweet and has a great, festive fizziness."
Pro tip: "To me, Thanksgiving is simple: People just want a nice meal with their family, they don't want it to be complicated. For my turkey, all I do is brush the bird with butter, sprinkle with salt and pepper, put a little water in the pan, wrap it in foil and roast it until the flesh reaches 145 degrees. Then I quickly brush the skin with the juices, remove the foil and let it cook a bit longer and crisp up. That's it. Just let your ingredients and your oven do most of the work."
Lenny Russo is the chef/proprietor of the award-winning Heartland Restaurant & Farm District Market in St. Paul.
"In November in St. Paul, cooking seasonally means working with storage crops, whole grains, dry beans, winter squash and preserved fruit, like dried cranberries, raisins and cherries. One of my favorite ingredients is soft wheat berries — they're locally grown at Natural Ways Mills here in Minnesota. I can use them as you would an arborio rice for a risotto or like a farro in a nutty stuffing studded with preserved cranberries. The stuffing goes great with game bird like duck or quail but works well with turkey, too — especially if you're cooking a wild turkey or a heritage breed, because it can stand up to some gamey-ness."
Serve with: "Buttermilk parsnip mashed potatoes. Parsnips are misunderstood by most people, so I like to combine them with more common things to get people to try them. Buttermilk is a natural byproduct of the dairy we buy from local farms, and its tart lactic quality balances the richness of the potatoes and complements the zing of the parsnip. It's a delicious twist on the standard Thanksgiving side, without being too out there."
Pro tip: "Everything tastes better cooked in duck fat — and it's better for you than butter because it's higher in beneficial unsaturated fats. If I need to bring a dish to dinner at someone else's house, I just take whatever potatoes I have in storage, season them with salt and pepper, and roast them in duck fat. That's it. Everyone who tries them wants to know what I did — and I say, 'I just cooked them.'"
Kelly Liken is the chef/owner of Restaurant Kelly Liken in Vail, Colo.
"I grew up in Pittsburgh and my family did a really traditional Eastern Thanksgiving, but since I've been living out West my menu has changed a lot. Mostly, I'm psyched to do the sides — I always make, like, 20 of them. At that time of year in Colorado we're still getting really beautiful beets grown under cold frame and carrots and parsnips, so I like to roast them and make a hearty room-temperature salad. Everyone thinks of Idaho potatoes, but Colorado also grows some of the best potatoes in the world — so I like to put them in the spotlight with a simple dish like boiled red skin or fingerling potatoes dressed simply with just herbs and butter. I'm also a big fan of apple and sausage stuffing with lots of onion and celery. I use cellared Colorado apples and toasted pecans and sourdough bread that I've diced and dried out for a couple days. It gets this amazing texture when it bakes: crunchy on top and custardy like a bread pudding inside."
Serve with: "At the restaurant, we make a pumpkin pie martini from roasted pumpkin puree, maple syrup and pie spices shaken with a Colorado bourbon-style whiskey and topped with champagne. It's such a nice way to start the meal — you get the flavors of pumpkin without the heaviness."
Pro tip: "Lists, lists, lists! Last year I cooked Thanksgiving with my mom and sister, which I hadn't done in probably 20 years — so I speak from experience when I say you have to make a list and a multi-day plan. If you don't think about it a week ahead, you're shooting yourself in the foot."
Roberto Trevino is executive chef at Casa Lola, Budatai, Bar Gitano and Barril in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
"Pasteles are a Caribbean version of a tamale and a beloved holiday and festival dish here in Puerto Rico. These could be served as a twist on the traditional main — but they could also be a great way to use up leftover turkey! There are quite a few steps in the cooking process, so you need to gather some friends and family and give yourself a couple of days to get it done. First, grind green plantains, yucca and taro root with a box grater until is like a thick paste. Add achiote oil and salt to season, then let it rest. Brine and roast turkey breasts, shred them and then stew them with cilantro, peppers and onions so they get really tender and full of flavor. If you want to get really traditional, add raisins and some green olives. Then fold the filling into banana leaves and steam them. Folding takes practice, but once you get the hang of it, it's easy. When they're done you unwrap them like a little gift. The trick is to make a lot at once because they keep wonderfully in the freezer."
Serve with: "In Puerto Rico, the usual accompaniment to a big roasted main course is arroz con verdures — rice and pigeon peas. But my grandmother always wanted to bring a little bit of traditional American thanksgiving to our Latin table, so she would make a cranberry sauce that included an escabeche of onion and vinegar. It was real New World, 'coming to America' cuisine. As for what to drink, I'm a strong believer in a nice beer, like a cold Medalla, with pasteles. I'd have about six while I was making them and six more while I was eating!"
Pro tip: "The best advice I have is to not be afraid to season aggressively. You can get so many great salts these days. And salt can really just take flavor the extra mile."
Vitaly Paley is the award-winning chef/owner of Paley's Place in Portland, Ore., and the author of The Paley's Place Cookbook: Recipes and Stories from the Pacific Northwest.
"Using chapelure de legumes, or vegetable 'crumbs,' is a technique I learned in France when I worked there in the early 1990s. I just love the way the crunchy little flecks cover the roast and perfume the dish, add some color and accent the already crispy skin of the bird. I often use little guinea fowl because they cook up into a great one-pot meal, but it's easy to apply the same technique with a chicken, a turkey, a duck — almost anything. And if you have any 'crumbs' left over, you can mix them with cider vinegar and buttermilk to make a fantastic ranch dressing."
Serve with: "A friend of mine who is a baker taught me to make an incredible potato galette that's perfect for holiday meals. Basically, you take homemade puff pastry and layer it with thinly sliced potatoes, parsley, thyme and cream, and then top it all with pastry, seal it up and bake. When it's done, you pierce the top so steam comes out and dollop it with creme fraiche, which gets all wonderfully oozy. I slice it into wedges and serve it as a side. It's so decadent and well-presented but also totally simple. The ooohs and ahhhs don't stop for hours."
Pro tip: "Two things: plan ahead and ask for help. Get those guys off the couch, give them a beer and say, 'Help me chop these onions!'"
Tony Maws is the winner of the 2011 James Beard Award for Best Chef: Northeast and the chef and restaurateur behind Craigie on Main in Cambridge, Mass.
"As a native New Englander, I love cranberries, and where I live I'm lucky to be able to find great fresh, heirloom ones. A friend of mine up in Bourne, Massachusetts, has bogs at the back of his farm — and not long ago bogs were common up and down the coast. But I realize that in other parts of the country good fresh cranberries can be hard to come on, and the thought of having to resort to sauce from a can is just sad. This dried fruit chutney is a great alternative that you can make with preserved fruit no matter where you are and is super versatile. I usually make a version with cranberries, figs, pistachios, walnuts and port — but you could substitute all sorts of nuts and fruits according to what's available. Fruit and roasted poultry is a time-honored pairing, and the flavor of cranberries is a classic nod to the traditions of the Northeast."
Serve with: "On Thanksgiving you're eating a lot, so you don't want to drink anything that's too heavy. We usually stick to beer, Riesling and Beaujolais. We might bust out a magnum of some fun burgundy for giggles, but it's mostly about finding something light and drinkable that makes you happy."
Pro tip: "These days, I close the restaurant and host my dinner here. It cleans up much faster with my industrial Hobart dishwasher! But if you don't have that luxury, I'd say just remember it doesn't have to be a race to the finish line. A lot of food — like this compote — can be done ahead, in fact it's even better that way."
John Besh is a native of Louisiana, the author of My New Orleans and My Family Table and the award-winning chef behind nine acclaimed restaurants, including August and Borgne.
"Down here in New Orleans we make a turkey for Thanksgiving like everyone else, but it's our unique sides that set us apart. Take oyster dressing: In the Gulf South you can't have a holiday without it and every family has their own version. You're talking about gulf oysters stewed down and folded down into French bread, dressing with a little cream and, of course, butter. (It's the holidays — you have to splurge!) At that time of year, oysters are at their peak season, and it is remarkable how well they work together with the turkey — they sort of elevate the bird. Another common side is mirliton dressing, which is super regional because mirlitons, or chayote squash, are really only popular in and around New Orleans. Their flavor is faintly sweet and almost similar to pumpkin, which works really well with sweet crabmeat and a little spice. Mirliton dressing is one of those dishes that if I see it on a menu, I know I'm in New Orleans."
Serve with: A really simple fall salad of endive and roasted pears scattered with pecans and blue cheese is a full of great contrasts: bitter greens, sharp, creamy cheese, crunchy nuts and sweet, soft fruit. And it's pretty.
Pro tip: "Pulling off a big meal always comes down to the planning — chefs are able to cook that way not only because we have a team behind us but because we have learned to prep ahead. So think about what you can get done in increments; prepare your stuffing ahead, wrapped but not cooked, so it's ready to go into the oven at a moment's notice. Doing things bit by bit also gives you time to deal with cleaning up the mess — because there's no way the mess will not happen!"