When you have been a food writer for many years and a food-centric holiday is looming, it's kind of hard to come up with new information, historical tidbits, and recipes. Still, gobs of food programs, cookbooks, newspaper columnists, and magazine writers attempt to. At this point in time I should probably also add podcasts, TikTok, YouTube, and Instagram to the litany of "information" sources. Thank goodness my brilliant editor suggested alternative mains and vegetarian options.
While I love traditional Thanksgiving foods and grew up on them, let's face it: Turkey is not very interesting or flavorful. Maybe that's why we give it attention only once a year. And then we deal with the massive quantities of leftovers. Day one, sandwiches; day two, perhaps enchiladas, soup, or tetrazzini; day three, I don't know about you, but the remaining bits usually go in the freezer or circular file.
Growing up, we had an overcooked turkey stuffed with Pepperidge Farm stuffing, mashed sweet potatoes with mini marshmallow topping, gravy, mashed potatoes, green beans, Ocean Spray cranberry jelly, and the ubiquitous pumpkin and pecan pies. We all loved it and went back for seconds and thirds. Also, although my mother always overcooked the turkey, she made a superb gravy by simmering the neck, livers, and giblets with celery and onions while the turkey shriveled away; this moistened the dry white meat.
My father and I were dark meat fans and would also fight over "the Pope's nose," or pygostyle, the main part of the uropygium. This is "the fleshy protuberance visible at the posterior of the bird" according Wikipedia. In other words, it's where the tail feathers grow and the preening gland resides, near the birdie's bottom.
Perhaps one or more of your guests or family members is a vegan or vegetarian, as my nephew William is. Last year he arrived with his own artificial "turkey" blob which seemed to require almost as much care as a real one. F.Y.I., Slate did a review of fake turkey products and Tofurky, the best known, did not win. Although they did get props for wild rice stuffing, giblet and mushroom gravy, and imitation wishbones, called Wishstix. Good heavens!
The brand they chose as number one is Gardein Stuffed Veggie Turkey Roast which is shaped like a Twinkie. The other brands are kind of shaped like little hams, or as Slate called them, "tawny brown corrugated sheaths." My nephew offered me a taste of his fake turkey situation, and while I have tasted or eaten durian, brains, calf balls, and baby eels, I don't think I took him up on the offer. Or maybe I did and blocked it out. In other words, for my vegetarian guests I provide a lot of vegetables.
How about alternative birds and sides? This year I am cooking pheasant. If you want to do the same, order A.S.A.P. from Citarella or another specialty food store. But beware, I ordered one for a dry run from one of our new-ish local specialty stores (which shall remain nameless) and I was charged almost double because "it had to be shipped." It was not a rush order and I was not informed ahead of time. Prices for a D'Artagnan pheasant (two to three pounds) are $31.19 for frozen, $40.99 for fresh. Little quail are another alternative game bird idea, just keep in mind you will need two per person. The pheasants will be brined with juniper berries and bay leaves, then cooked with oranges, shallots, and Madeira.
To accompany the pheasants I'm making sweet and sour red cabbage, cauliflower puree with apples, and, in lieu of stuffing, a savory bread pudding. I might also make Ruth's Chris Steakhouse's famous sweet potato casserole which seems to be very popular but the online recipes vary wildly. I have never been to a Ruth's Chris so I'll be winging it. I may also roast some celery root with carrots, make green beans Asian style, and have a lemony watercress salad.
Why do we always finish this heavy feast with heavy desserts? Pecan pie and pumpkin pie with whipped cream? Oof. Has it never occurred to people to make something light and fruity, perhaps sharp and citrusy? How about a lemon chiffon pie or homemade lemon cookies with raspberry sorbet?
Everything on my menu except for the birds can be made ahead. And everything will be a twist on traditional Thanksgiving dishes except for the dessert, which will be totally off the leash. I do have the deepest respect and love for the traditional feast but this year I'm bucking it with healthier and more imaginative choices. Perhaps you, too, would like to try a few of these Thanksgiving-adjacent, familiar yet free-spirited ideas.
I can't remember where I found this recipe. It may be a mashup of several recipes. Most of the manly hunter/fisherman cookbook recipes for lean gamebirds call for bacon-barding and not much else. Keep in mind that a little bit of pink is okay with pheasant, and overcooking could end in a tough, dry disaster.
Each pheasant feeds two to three people.
1 2 1/2-3-lb. pheasant
1 large orange, cut into quarters
1 large shallot, chopped
6 Tbsp. butter
2 Tbsp. juniper berries, lightly crushed (I found these at Schiavoni's Market in Sag Harbor)
1/3 cup Madeira
2 bay leaves
Brine pheasant in lightly salted water with juniper berries and bay leaves for one to two days. On the day of cooking, remove from brine and let naked bird dry out in your fridge.
Preheat oven to 475.
Rub butter over pheasant, squeeze orange juice over all, add Madeira. Stuff cavity with shallots and orange pieces.
Roast about 20 minutes, then lower temperature to 350 and roast about a half an hour to 45 minutes more, basting occasionally. When bird is cooked to your liking, remove from cooking pan and set aside to rest. Strain off some of the fat from cooking pan and add a bit of water to make a jus.
Nancy's Red Cabbage
This recipe for sweet and sour red cabbage is from my long ago mother-in-law, Nancy, who was a great cook.
Serves approximately four to six.
1 medium-size red cabbage, cored and shredded
2 apples, cored, peeled, chopped
1 onion, chopped
2 Tbsp. bacon fat
1 cup water
1 tsp. salt
6 to 8 cloves
1/2 cup vinegar
1/2 cup sugar
Put all ingredients into large casserole or frying pan with lid and cook over medium heat for a while until shrunken down. Turn down heat, cover, and simmer for 20 to 30 minutes. Taste for seasoning and fish out those cloves and bay leaves. This recipe is also great with pork roast or ham.
Szechuan Style Green Beans
I love the dry-fried green beans from Chinese restaurants. This is a version from Gwyneth Paltrow's book "It's All Easy." I have also seen recipes that skip the blanching step; just be prepared to fry them longer. This also makes a bit of a mess on the stove so it helps to use a splatter screen.
2 tsp. minced ginger
2 tsp. sambal oelek (or substitute any good hot sauce)
1 Tbsp. tamari or soy sauce
1 tsp. toasted sesame oil
1 tsp. maple syrup
1/2 lb. green beans (I'd recommend more for 4 people)
3 Tbsp. olive or peanut oil
Toasted sesame seeds, optional for garnish
Bring large pot of salted water to boil. Add beans and bring water back to a boil, approximately three minutes. Drain beans and dry on kitchen towel.
In a small bowl, combine ginger, sambal oelek, tamari, sesame oil, and maple syrup to make sauce. (I double this mixture as well.)
Heat oil over high heat. When hot, not smoking, add beans and cook until sizzling and beginning to blister, about three minutes. Add the sauce, turn off the heat, and let sit for two minutes before serving. Garnish with sesame seeds if desired.