It may be obvious to you, but if not, it should go without saying that Thanksgiving is our favorite holiday! A whole day devoted to eating specialty dishes, family recipes, and seasonal foods—how could this not be the best day ever? Just hearing the word “Thanksgiving” brings to the surface memories of specific smells, table settings, and, most prominently, tastes. For us, different childhood memories pop-up of nibbling on the “crusty” edges of mom’s baked mac and cheese, or licking the wire beaters from the electric mixer clean after they whipped together the sweet potato casserole. Of course, equally important as the food is the company. On this glorious holiday, you not only get to devour a massive meal, but you get to do it with the people you love. Again, it just may be the best day ever!
This year, we wanted to celebrate Thanksgiving with friends in Los Angeles before they scattered about the country. The perfect solution was a pre-Thanksgiving celebratory dinner. Knowing everyone has those dishes that are absolutely essential for Turkey Day, we felt a potluck was the best way to go. This way our guests could share with everyone their must-have foods. And even better, this gathering would be a great way for us to experiment with traditions and test out new recipes. We wanted to have a proper sit-down dinner. With eighteen RSVPs and a tiny condo as the hosting site, this would require some creativity to pull off. Folding chairs and card tables were brought in, and the coffee table was raised up to complete a train of mismatched furniture. Some table cloths, candles, and a flower arrangement later, we had a dinner table! There was a place for everyone.
We all have our own notions of what Thanksgiving dinner should exactly be like. In addition to the amazing food present, this whole gathering was immensely fun to experience. It was a delight to learn how and what each of our friends grew up eating this time of year. Chrystal had the family tradition of roasting chicken and eating Honey baked Hams, not a turkey, during Thanksgiving (quite different from standard practice she acknowledges). We both grew up having, as they say in the south, dressing (not stuffing) that you ate along with the bird–never stuffed inside. Cornbread was the main player on our tables, so there was cornbread galore with dinner. The dressing was even made from it because cornbread dressing is just the only way to go! And sure, we had our pumpkin pie every now and then, but the star Thanksgiving dessert was sweet potato pie. We shared with our guests a sweet potato pie made from our dear friend Bobby. We were astonished to learn that many of our friends spent their holidays without this sweet ending. Amir also grew up eating a homemade Caramel Cake for dessert every Thanksgiving. To this day, no one makes it like grandmother. No one.
Others bought along their favorite holiday recipes. Jade’s mac and cheese had large pasta shells baked in gruyere and cheddar topped with toasted bread crumbs. Our friend James tried out a new recipe. He brought two variations of stuffed pork tenderloins–one with apples and another with cranberries, and then smothered them both in mustard and horseradish, wrapped them in prosciutto, and covered them in puff pastry to make a holiday-inspired pork wellington, something we’ve never would have had the chance to eat at Thanksgiving dinner. It was so incredible, only crumbs remained on the serving platter. Just crumbs. There was also a grape and brussels sprout salad, Dutch apple pie and pumpkin pies for dessert.
This year we wanted to grill the turkey to free up oven space for cooking and reheating the other sides. The bird was brined for a day to ensure it was as moist and flavorful as possible. (Plus, we’ve never done it and simply wanted give it a try.) If you’ve never brined a turkey, it’s definitely worth a giving it a whirl, especially if you opt to grill the bird. Most specialty markets sell brining bags. We had a large cooler that worked just fine. A close friend of ours who brines his turkey every year, does it in a 5-gallon paint bucket that’s available at any hardware store. You want to brine it as long as possible so the flavors are infused into the turkey. We used a mixture of cloves, citrus, and apple cider. The sliced pieces of meat on our plates tasted like pure fall and were moist to perfection. Plus, it had that one-of-a-kind flavor from the grill. You can also throw some soaked wood chips in there to kick things up in flavor. If you don’t want to play with saline solutions, don’t worry. Your favorite rub will work just as great as any brine. Here’s a great article on grilling your turkey.
Besides the turkey, we only made a potato salad and sweet potato casserole. The potato salad we made is pretty standard, but the secret to perfect potato salad is use an even combination of Miracle Whip and regular mayonnaise. That’s how Amir’s fam does it, and you can taste the difference. The sweet potato casserole, our favorite dish of all, is also pretty standard. You can boil the potatoes if you want, but roasting them in the oven is better. The flavor is much more pronounced. Whip them with an electric mixer for a super smooth smash, and don’t forget the secret ingredient–the hint of orange. You don’t want a lot of it, just a hint to get the essence. A perfect casserole is a bright, vibrant orange. To keep the color perfect only use white sugar or a bit of maple syrup. Brown sugar tastes great, but it darkens the casserole. Make this the night before and let it rest in the fridge. The flavors will meld together, and it’ll taste that much better! Just pop it out and bake it when you’re getting ready to eat.
It’s almost Thanksgiving! We hope you have safe travels, a wonderful time with loved-ones, and get to eat until you roll over. Perhaps this entry even gave you a few ideas of new dishes to put on your table for the holiday. Have an unbutton-your-pants-and-need-to-take-a-nap kinda meal! It’s been a long year, folks. You deserve an indulgence. We sure know we do!
Spiced Apple Cider Turkey Brine – Approximately 3 gallons
- 3 cups kosher salt
- 1 gallon apple cider
- 2 gallons water, divided
- 1 cup whole cloves
- 4 oranges, sliced
- Heat 4 cups of water until it reaches a boil. Dissolve salt in water and let cool slightly.
- In a large enough container, bucket, cooler or brining bag, place completely thawed turkey. Add warm salt solution, cider, remaining water, cloves and orange slices. Cover with ice and seal.
- Let turkey rest in brine for at least 16 hours, up to 36. Cook turkey in desired method.
Sweet Potato Casserole – Serves 12
- 8 large sweet potatoes, skin on
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
- 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
- Dash of ground nutmeg
- 1 – 1 1/2 cups white sugar, depending on desired sweetness
- 1/4 cup pure maple syrup, optional
- 2 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract, divided
- 1/4 teaspoon orange zest (about the zest of 1/3 of an medium orange), or 1 1/2 – 2 tablespoons orange juice
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 cup evaporated milk
- 3 eggs, lightly beaten in a separate bowl
- 2 cups pecans, toasted and chopped
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
- 2 tablespoons brown sugar
- Marshmallows (optional)
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Wash potatoes and pat them dry with a paper towel. Using a fork or steak knife, carefully poke the surface several times around each potato. Then, place the potatoes on a foil-lined baking sheet and lightly drizzle them with the cooking oil. With your hands, rub each potato to evenly coat it with oil. Roast them in the oven for 70-90 minutes, or until potatoes are soft and fully cooked (a knife will easily cut through them, the skin will begin to wrinkle, and the tops and bottoms will be brown). Set aside and let cool to touch at room temperature.
- Meanwhile, as potatoes cook, mix together all the spices and 1/2 cup of the white sugar in a small bowl. Set aside. When the potatoes are still warm but cool enough to handle, gently peel away the skin using your fingers. Place the peeled potatoes in a large mixing bowl.
- Add butter. Using an electric mixer, beat potatoes on low speed until butter is melted. Increase to medium speed, mix in the sugar and spice mixture, maple syrup (if using), 2 teaspoons of vanilla, orange, and salt. Beat in the milk in 3 separate additions, making sure each addition is well incorporated before adding the next.
- Taste the mixture. If more sweetness is desired, add more white sugar 1/2 cup at a time (up to one additional cup). Be sure to taste the mixture between each 1/2 cup addition to ensure the casserole is not too sweet.
- When mixture is at desired level of sweetness, beat in eggs until well combined. Spread potato mixture into the baking dish. Cover and refrigerate until ready to bake.
- When ready to cook, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bake casserole uncovered for 25 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool for about 10 minutes.
- Meanwhile as casserole cools, in a medium bowl, mix together nuts, melted butter, brown sugar, and 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract until well combined and sugar is wet and completed coated on all the nuts. Top casserole with nuts and marshmallows in desired arrangement. Bake for an additional 12 minutes, or until the top of the marshmallows turn golden brown.