There’s been some debate about whether or not you should serve salad at Thanksgiving.
My stance? A traditional salad — with wan lettuce leaves from a bag, dried cranberries (the most clichéd Thanksgiving salad ingredient), and toasted pecans — is a pretty depressing thing to see on the table, TBH. But, as I get older, my body does crave some kind of crunchy vegetable situation if I’m going to eat a lot of heavy food (turkey, stuffing, gravy, etc). So what’s a Thanksgiving chef to do? Enter the shaved Brussels sprout salad.
Maybe this is a weird thing to be proud of, but I didn’t write any lead-up to Thanksgiving post this year and it felt really nice. So much of the writing about Thanksgiving is unnecessary: seriously, anything you need to know about turkey or cranberry sauce or stuffing has already been written. The fact that it’s a “new spin” on whatever is really just an opportunity to get you to click, buy, forward, ReTweet, etc. So I avoided all that and then went to Boca Raton, Florida where my family lives and where I promptly fell ill with a mini-flu—chills, sweats, the works–and laid on the couch while my mom got me chicken soup from Too-Jay’s to supplement the bagels and rainbow cookies from Way Beyond Bagels. As for Thanksgiving dinner, it was a simple one this year, and that was a good thing. Mom brought in food that I helped heat up and everyone was happy; Thanksgiving really isn’t about reinventing the wheel, it’s about hitting the marks. This meal did that and my plate shows you what you want to see: the turkey, the stuffing (cornbread-based), mashed potatoes, mashed sweet potatoes, and vegetables that I infused with a little garlic and olive oil (OK, I didn’t just heat everything up). Here’s our whole family in one picture that my dad arranged with a timer:
In the top row that’s me, Craig, my uncle Mark, yet another Craig Johnson (my sis-in-law’s dad!), my dad, my mom, my brother, his wife Tali, their dog Lulu, Tali’s mom Gila, then moving left my grandfather, my grandmother, and my aunt Ellen. Despite my illness, it was a lovely Thanksgiving and way more fun to talk about after the fact! Hope yours was great too.
Today’s lesson in Thanksgiving prep (are you sick of Thanksgiving yet? Tough!) concerns what is, in my opinion, the best part of the Thanksgiving table. No, I’m not talking about the napkin rings shaped like little turkeys, I’m talking about that glistening bowl of ruby red cranberry sauce. Its combination of tongue-tickling tartness and mouth-warming sweetness makes even the dullest bird sing. Sure, you could get it out of a can, but I won’t be coming back to your Thanksgiving table if you do that. My kind of cranberry sauce is the kind you make yourself and, frankly, it couldn’t be easier.
Now let’s get to the serious business at hand: Thanksgiving dessert.
Oh, I know what you’re going to tell me, that this is a pie holiday and that offering up a cake at Thanksgiving is like offering up a latke at Christmas. Well you’re speaking to a latke person at Christmas, so of course I’m going to steer you in a cake-direction—especially after that discussion in one of my podcasts where we determined that Christians are pie people and Jews are cake people. And if there’s one cake that Jews do better than anyone else, it’s cheesecake. And this one, with its combination of a pumpkin and chocolate is a whopper of a Thanksgiving dessert. It’s so good, your guests will actually be excited to eat it, which is more than I can say for pumpkin pie.
Here’s the thing about turkey. If I were making it for my family, this year, I’d go the Gina DePalma route (click that link for her excellent essay on how to keep it simple): a whole roasted bird, some butter, some stuffing, the end. But, as it happens, I’m not cooking for my family this year (we’re going out! “It’s just easier”) so last week I made a pre-Thanksgiving Thanksgiving for some friends and threw tradition out the window. The first thing to go? The white meat. Sure, you can monitor the temperature and hope that it doesn’t taste like sandpaper when you roast it in the oven, but why bother when the dark meat–legs and thighs–are so much better? (Note: if you must have white meat, slow-roasting the breast is best.) Best of all, if you braise them, you can do everything the day before and it will only taste better. Let me repeat that. You can have all the turkey cooked the day before and don’t have to stress on Thanksgiving Day. That’s worthy of a parade right there.
Most food blogs and websites have inundated you with Thanksgiving recipes for WEEKS and here I am, the day before Thanksgiving, offering you up a recipe for cobbler. But maybe you’re still figuring out dessert? And maybe you haven’t heard about Sam Sifton’s Thanksgiving book yet? If the latter is true, you better hurry out and score yourself a copy. What the former New York Times restaurant critic has written is pretty much the essential Thanksgiving cookbook. It’s full of good advice and smart, straight-forward recipes for turkey (roasted, brined, deep-fried, smoked), cranberry sauce, the works. My eye, of course, went straight to dessert where a pear cobbler caught my fancy. And last weekend I served it for dessert at a dinner party, to lots of acclaim.
Finally, there’s the turkey itself. For years my mom tried to convince me to make just a turkey breast for the Thanksgivings I’d make at home. And for years I refused because I’d never made a whole turkey before and wanted to document that experience for the blog.
But because I was cooking a pre-Thanksgiving Thanksgiving for just Craig and his aunt and uncle on Saturday, I knew a whole turkey didn’t make sense. And so it was that I bought a 2 1/4 pound turkey breast at Gelson’s already tied up and everything.
I love cranberry sauce. You can keep your stuffing, your gravy (blech!), as long as you give me my cranberry sauce, I’m happy.
What’s astonishing to me about cranberry sauce is how insanely easy it is to make. The idea that people open a can of that gelatinous mound of cranberry goop is mind-blowing to me. If you buy a bag of cranberries (and Ocean Spray pretty much has them in every grocery store this time of year) and add them to a pot with sugar and a splash of water, turn up the heat, you’ll have a cranberry sauce in five minutes. It’s really that simple.