I love Thanksgiving. It is the best food holiday on the calendar. However, one thing has always bothered me. Even the most accomplished cooks take unnecessary short cuts when it comes to preparing the Big Meal.
My mother, who cooked most of our meals from scratch throughout the year, used canned or boxed ingredients in preparing the Thanksgiving feast. I would watch her break down whole chickens, dredge them and fry them from scratch on any given Sunday, but when Thanksgiving came around, she would rely on cans of cream of mushroom soup to make her green bean casserole or cans of pumpkin puree for a pie. We should be putting more love and attention into this meal. Why use a bag of bread cubes for stuffing? Making cornbread from scratch is simple and much more delicious.
Now that I have a family of my own, Thanksgiving falls exclusively on me. It's a responsibility that I savor each year. I've learned to use some of the tricks I picked up from my mother, but I've also learned that nothing tastes better than homemade. This year, I'm getting away from the prepackaged shortcuts that many of us traditionally use. I won't be using any canned ingredients. At the same supermarket where I buy canned soup, I can get the raw ingredients to make my own.
The most important part of cooking Thanksgiving from scratch is to prep extensively. Many recipes can be cooked days in advance, so get a jump on the cooking and you won't even notice a difference in the workload. The Thanksgiving meal averages 3,000 calories, so put your best effort into each of those.
Presumably, none of us will use turkey from a can. The sides, however, are where you can make a big difference. Fresh just tastes better. That's not to say that eating the cranberry sauce from a can is a terrible thing. I still have one on the table each year because it reminds me of home.
There are more complicated recipes out there, but this is my standard recipe. It always delivers. I fall into the category of Southerners who prefer "cat-head biscuits." Once the dough has been formed, you'll want biscuits that come out to be the size of a cat's head. This is the recipe that my mother always made for me when I was young. Once you master this recipe, you'll never again pop open a tube of biscuit dough.
Makes about a dozen biscuits
2 cups all-purpose flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
Pinch of salt
2 tablespoons cold butter cut into cubes, plus 2 tablespoons melted butter for finishing
2 tablespoons vegetable shortening or lard
1 cup buttermilk
Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 450 degrees
In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Using a pastry blender or your hands, press the butter and shortening into the dry mixture as rapidly as possibe. The goal is to prevent the butter and shortening from melting. When it's fully incorporated, add buttermilk. Use your hand to mix it into the dry ingredients. Do not overwork the dough.
Turn dough onto a floured surface and fold over itself enough times to make it workable. This shouldn't be more than 7 or 8 times. Again, do not overwork the dough. Roll dough out to about 1/2-inch thick on a floured surface. Using a biscuit cutter, knife or overturned coffee mug, shape biscuits into rounds or squares and place on a large baking sheet. Continue the process until you've used up all the dough.
Bake 15 to 20 minutes. About 5 minutes before biscuits are done, brush with melted butter and sprinkle with salt and a tiny bit of pepper.
There seems to be a Mason-Dixon line debate over the name of this dish. In the South, it's dressing. Everywhere else, it's stuffing. I would argue that if you aren't actually putting it into the bird, you aren't stuffing it into anything, so in my house, it's dressing. Cornbread is so easy to make you'll never again buy a bag of stuffing mix. Make the cornbread for the dressing the day before. This recipe is based on one by New Orleans chef Emeril Lagasse.
Makes 8 servings
1/2 pound andouille sausage, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 1/2 cups chopped yellow onions
1 cup chopped celery
1 cup chopped green bell peppers
1 tablespoon minced garlic
Basic Cornbread (recipe below)
3 slices white or whole wheat bread, torn into 1/2-inch pieces
1/2 cup chopped green onions
1/3 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon cayenne
2 large eggs, beaten
1 to 2 cups chicken stock, as needed
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Generously butter a 13-by-9-inch baking dish and set aside.
In a large skillet, cook the sausage until brown and the fat is rendered, about 5 minutes. Add onions, celery, bell peppers and garlic, and cook 2 minutes. Remove from heat and transfer to a large bowl to cool.
With your fingers, crumble the corn bread into the bowl, add bread, the green onions, parsley and thyme, and mix well with your hands. Add salt, pepper, cayenne and eggs and mix well with your hands. Add enough broth, 1/2 cup at a time, to moisten the dressing, being careful not to make it mushy.
Transfer to the prepared dish and cover with aluminum foil. Bake until heated through, about 25 minutes. Uncover and bake until golden brown, about 15 minutes.
1 tablespoon plus 1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 cup yellow cornmeal
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
1 cup buttermilk
1 large egg
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Pour vegetable oil into a 9-inch baking pan or heavy cast iron skillet. Place pan into the oven as it preheats, allowing it to heat for at least 10 minutes.
In a large mixing bowl, combine cornmeal, flour, baking powder, salt and cayenne and stir with a wooden spoon. Add buttermilk and egg to the mixture and stir well to blend. Pour the batter into preheated pan and bake 25 minutes, or until lightly golden brown. Remove from oven and let cool before serving or using in dressing.
When it comes to symbolic Thanksgiving food, the turkey gets top billing. But not far behind is the jellied, ridged cylinder of cranberry sauce that comes straight from a can and is unapologetically sliced into discs. My friend Stevie Lee Webb is an accomplished cook who has mastered a cranberry relish that blows the gelatinous, canned creation out of the water. This elegant side dish will bring a vibrant punch to your holiday table. It cooks quickly and can be prepared days in advance. You have no excuse not to cook it this year.
Makes 6 servings
1 pound fresh cranberries
6 tablespoons granulated sugar
Grated zest and juice of a large orange
2-inch cinnamon stick
3 whole cloves
1 teaspoon fresh grated ginger
2 tablespoons ruby port (plus a snifter for the cook)
In a saucepan, put the cranberries, sugar and orange juice on a medium-low heat until they start to break down and become juicy. If you like a finer texture, pulse the cranberries quickly in a food processor first. Add the remaining ingredients, except for the port, and simmer 5 minutes or until all the cranberries have released their bloody-hued goodness. Remove pan from the heat and add the port. Though the temptation may be there, don't overdo it as too much port could overpower the sauce.
Return to heat and simmer one more minute to cook out some of the raw alcohol flavor. Store in a cool place until needed and don't forget to remove the cinnamon stick and whole cloves before serving. If feeling puritanical, you can leave out the port and it will still be quite delicious.
We have been fooled into thinking that this side dish must use a can of cream of mushroom soup and fried onions from a can. Making the soup from scratch is shockingly easy and provides a creamy, rich base to the casserole that, unlike the canned version, doesn't have the texture of wallpaper glue. Take this recipe in steps. Make the soup a day or two in advance. Fry the onions early in the process. When the ingredients has been prepared, it's as easy as combining them and throwing into an oven.
Makes 6 servings
2 1/2 pounds green beans
8 medium white button mushrooms, cleaned and finely diced
1 clove minced garlic
1 small white onion, minced
1 teaspoon fresh thyme
1/2 cup chicken stock
1 cup cream
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, divided
4 tablespoons, divided
5 small yellow onions, thinly sliced
4 cups canola oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper
In a large pot, bring 7 quarts of water to a rapid boil. Add green beans and cook until tender. Depending on the width of the beans, this should take 4 to 5 minutes. When cooked, remove from the water and submerge in a large bowl filled with ice and water.
In a medium pot, saute mushrooms, garlic and onion in 2 tablespoons of butter over medium heat. Sweat the vegetables until they become translucent. Add thyme, chicken stock and cream and bring to a boil.
In a separate bowl, mix 1/4 cup flour with remaining 2 tablespoons butter to form a paste. Remove mushroom mixture from heat and whisk in the paste. Return to heat and let the soup simmer 15 minutes. Stir regularly to keep it from sticking to the bottom. Season with salt and pepper.
To make the fried onions, in a large pot used for frying, heat canola oil to 325 degrees. Place the thinly sliced onions in a large bowl and make sure they are separated into rings. Sprinkle remaining 1 1/4 cups of flour over the onions and mix with your hands to make sure they are completely coated and separated into individual rings. Shake off excess flour and fry the rings, in batches, until they are a light brown. Drain the onions and reserve on a paper towel. Season with salt and pepper. Continue the process until all onions are cooked.
To finish the dish, preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large mixing bowl, combine the cream of mushroom soup and the green beans. Place the mixture into a large ovenproof casserole dish and bake uncovered for 20 minutes. Take out of the oven, top with crispy onions and serve immediately.
Of all the recipes used on Thanksgiving, this is the one that sends many cooks reaching for the can. Canned pumpkin puree is easy, cheap and, if you find a good quality version, it's tough to tell that it came from a can. But there is something about doing it yourself that makes it all taste so much better. To be there to chop the pumpkin, roast it and puree it is to put yourself into the dish. I use a classic recipe from Mark Bittman's book How to Cook Everything (Wiley 2003). I varied the recipe to roast the pumpkin instead of boiling it, because I find that roasting vegetables brings out a natural sweetness.
Makes 1 pie
1 medium-sized sugar pumpkin, pureed
3 tablespoons granulated sugar, plus 1/2 cup
6 ounces graham crackers, broken
5 tablespoons butter, melted
2 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1 1/4 cups half-and-half, cream or milk
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
To puree the pumpkin, cut a circle around the stem, pull it out and discard. Use the cavity as a handle and peel the pumpkin with a vegetable peeler. Using a sharp and sturdy knife, cut the pumpkin in half and scrape out the seeds with an ice cream scoop or heavy spoon. Cut or scrape off any excess string and cut the pumpkin into large chunks. Toss the chunks in canola oil and put in a large ovenproof casserole dish. Roast pumpkin until it turns soft, with some browning. Puree the pumpkin, in batches if needed, in a food processor.
To make the crust, heat the oven to 350 degrees. Combine 3 tablespoons sugar and graham cracker pieces in the bowl of a food processor and process until they're finely ground. You should have about 1 1/2 cups; add or remove some if not. Slowly add the melted butter and pulse a few times until crumbs are moistened. Add a little more melted butter if necessary. Press the crumbs evenly into the bottom and sides of a pie plate.
Bake the crust for 8 to 10 minutes, just until it begins to brown. Set the pie plate on a rack, the crust will crisp as it cools. Turn the oven up to 375.
While the crust is baking, use an electric mixer or a whisk to beat the eggs with the 1/2 cup sugar, then add cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves and salt. Add the pumpkin puree, mix then add the half-and-half.
Put the pie plate with the crust on a rimmed baking sheet. Pour the pumpkin mixture into the crust all the way to the top (you might have some left over). Transfer the whole baking sheet to the oven (in case of spillover) and bake 30 to 40 minutes, until the mixture shakes like Jell-O but is still quite moist in the center. Cool on a rack until it no longer jiggles, then slice into wedges and serve, or refrigerate for a day or two.