I come from a large family of adventurous eaters. For the great majority of us, excluding myself, there is no such thing as too spicy or too aged. I’m generally the only one to abide by the old “When in Rome” mentality of ordering fish and chips at the fish and chips joint- my mom will have the moussaka, thanks.
Except for holidays. On holidays our preferences run more toward the fiercely traditional, almost militant, idea of what turkey dinner should look like. Particularly if certain uncles are invited. There are no variations, no substitutions. For it to be truly pure, my grandmother, Kay, must prepare the bulk of it (or at least all of the things that aren’t just boiled vegetables. And they can only be boiled.)
Over the last couple of years my diet has presented a number of challenges to our holiday table that have really rocked the family to its core (I’m talking to you Uncle G). The contents of the stuffing. The thickening of the gravy. The flake of the pumpkin pie crust. Changing them? What are we all doing here? What is the meaning of life? At first we were making all separate stuff just for me, to preserve the integrity of the Official Turkey Dinner for the sake of the rest of the family. But it was just too much work, so we had to switch everyone over. Sacred side dishes were now being altered on my behalf; suddenly no one was safe from my soggy stuffing.
But then my mom and I figured it out and it’s awesome again and nobody knows the difference.
I am a big fan of trying new recipes and cooking techniques. Especially when I’m entertaining. Unknown result + guests? So fun! I’m pretty sure Kay has actual nightmares about this. But seeing as I was in charge of Thanksgiving this year and was feeling emboldened by my Uncle Gord’s absence, and the fact there were only going to be 13 victims at the table, I thought I would switch it up and try some all-new recipes to see if maybe there were some traditional items that could be tweaked.
My first ambition was to brine my turkey. This initial compromise of the main event itself, a bird I christened Ted Baker (after the host of my favourite food network show, Chopped) was immediately met with resistance from the team. At least three times, my dad begged “don’t do itttttttt,” when I mentioned my big plans. I finally asked him why and he said “… because my mom never did.” Huh. Leah took a more aggressive “NO, Al. NO.” but couldn’t give even a reason as legit as my father’s. I was partially stalled by this opposition, and by the fact that the brine required 72 hours soaking time (my personal hesitation was more to do with poisoning the whole family than breaking with tradition). I knew my grandma would just drop dead if she knew. She has poultry paranoia. But I was more curious than scared, and soon Ted was well on his way to brine-dom.
The The Menu/Verdict:
Ted himself turned out very tasy. I didn’t notice a very different flavour in the meat from having soaked it with the vegetables/herb/seasoning mixture, but other people said they did. For this reason, I probably wouldn’t bother with the 3-day brine again, but I will do a dry brine next time or just a 24-hr one. What did make it worth it was that I got incredible gravy out of that thing. I was a little worried when Ted came out of the oven and it didn’t look like I was gonna have a ton of dark drippings to work with, but it was seriously flavourful. So I’d brine again just for that.
Showtime!!! Unfortunately somewhere along the way I lost a bit of Ted’s skin.
Cornbread Stuffing with Bacon, Onions, and Apple (Food52)
The reason I chose it over the 4,350 other cornbread recipes on the internet is because the recipe for the actual cornbread didn’t include flour, so I knew that my final product would be the same as Food52’s. I was hesitant to rely on my old cornbread recipes because then I would need to sub out regular flours for gf and I didn’t want my little cornbread croutons disintegrating into mush once I combined them with all the other ingredients. It was pretty well received but if I made it again I would reduce the bacon and increase the apple. I was going for that Kraft Stove Top vibe and it didn’t quite hit the mark for me. I missed my gran’s Irish potato/bread stuffing that we usually have so I whipped some up the next day to supplement our leftovers (potato stuffing is great if you’re a celiac, and if you’re not. But especially for celiacs. I wonder if it was invented because so many Irish people are celiac and they can’t have Stove Top? Not sure why I’m still so obsessed with boxed stuffing?)
Grilled Brussels Sprouts with Chanterelles (Bon Appetit)
I was excited by the prospect of thick-cut applewood smoked bacon on our Thanksgiving table, so naturally I took it too far and decided to work it into another recipe in addition to the stuffing. These dirtballs (as my family calls them) were a big hit. I sautéed instead of the prescribed grilling, because I just had too many irons in the fire to be running outside tending the barbecue. The mushrooms were beautiful and an exotic addition to the meal. We never have mushrooms at Thanksgiving! Wild.
Cranberry-Orange Relish with Mint (Bon Appetit)
Those mavericks at Bon Appetit were just a little off with this one. Thankfully I made our traditional cranberry sauce to accompany the experimental one (I’m brave, but not brave enough to face the mob without the classic cranberry sauce that is a nonnegotiable requirement of any turkey dinner at my house.) I thought the relish got luke-warm to positive reviews (I always know when people refer to my cooking as “interesting” or “different” that I’ve missed), but next time I would rather put my energy towards elevating other basic dishes and stick with the recipe on the back of the bag for this one.
Roasted Cauliflower with Parmesan
Because this Thanksgiving was as much about Leah being home for the weekend as it was the holiday, I thought I’d do some fancy cauliflower in her honor. I broke down two heads and spread them out on a cookie sheet to roast away with some sliced onion, garlic cloves, olive oil, S&P, and parmesan cheese. Another unorthodox thanksgiving vegetable! She approved.
Rounding out the meal we had “Sweet Potato Supreme” (mashed sweet potatoes and yams with a topping of maple syrup, brown sugar, and toasted pecans), carrots, peas, mashed potatoes, and black olives (don’t know why these need to be on the table… they just do).
Dessert: Pecan Pie with Cream Cheese Crust
This was delicious, however at this point we were all dying from such a heavy dinner. The filling was super rich and syrupy and sweet. I had to convert the crust into gf using my trusty Cup4Cup flour, and I thought it could have been a bit more pliable. The dough was very dry when I was rolling it out and I should have known to add more liquid, but I went along with it anyway and it still turned out okay. I would totally do this again and eat less dinner so I could fit more pie.
Kay brought her classic pumpkin pie, which I probably still prefer to, well, pretty much any other food in the world. I also made one batch of buttermilk pecan fudge, which I’ve made several times and is indescribably good. Have you tried crack? It’s crack.
Success! Overall it was a success. Nobody died from trying new stuffing, or from eating a three-day-thawed turkey, for that matter. I just got my Thanksgiving issue of Bon Appetit and am already planning out my Christmas menu (stay tuned for a spatchcocked bird).
Note: This was so much work! I think about my gran doing it single-handedly with 30+ people coming over… a huge undertaking. As we got closer to sitting down to eat, I had more and more things on the go that needed to be cooked and garnished and steamed and rested and carved. It was a bit of a circus. For this reason, I enlisted the help of Jaime and Daniel to take all photos of the meal and its prep for the blog. I hope you enjoyed their artistic, at times downright avant-garde eye for food photography.
Some of my favourites that didn’t quite make the storyline: