The biggest and, for many of us, best holiday meal of the year remains Thanksgiving, an event inherently special. And although the act of gathering with family and close friends around the feast is its own reward, we wonder a few days ahead: "What would rev up this meal? Do we have to do the same dishes the same way, each year?"
We asked seven food experts across Fort Worth for simple ideas to add some "wow!" to a Thanksgiving meal.
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Quinoa-stuffed bell peppers
For healthful ideas for Thanksgiving, Whole Foods Market remains our go-to source for recipes and ingredients. All-natural components make a recipe of bell peppers stuffed with nutritious quinoa a hit among vegetarians, but the rest of us like this offering, as well. To make the presentation more colorful, choose a combination of green, red, yellow and orange bell peppers. If you don't want the peppers, just make the filling as an alternative to standard dressing with turkey.
1 tablespoon olive oil, plus more for oiling the pan
1 red onion, chopped
1/2 pound sliced mushrooms
1 cup chopped carrots
7 bell peppers (1 cored, seeded and chopped; tops removed and reserved from remaining 6, then cored and seeded)
1/2 cup chopped parsley
1/4 pound baby spinach
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1 cup uncooked quinoa, rinsed and cooked according to package
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup roasted, salted cashews
1. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. Add onion and cook, stirring occasionally until transparent, 8 to 10 minutes. Add mushrooms and cook until softened, 4 to 5 minutes more. Add carrots and chopped peppers, cook until just softened, then add parsley and spinach (in batches, if needed). Let spinach wilt, then stir in cinnamon, cumin and cooked quinoa and toss gently to combine. Add salt, pepper and cashews and cook 1 to 2 minutes more. Set aside to let filling cool until just warm.
2. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9-by-13-inch baking pan with oil, then set aside. Divide quinoa mixture evenly among remaining 6 bell peppers, gently packing it down and making sure to fully fill each pepper. Top each pepper with its reserved top then arrange them upright in prepared pan. Cover snugly with foil and bake, checking halfway through, until peppers are tender and juicy and filling is hot throughout, about 1 hour. Transfer to plates and serve.
Nutritional analysis per serving: 266 calories, 10 grams fat, 40 grams carbohydrates, 9 grams protein, no cholesterol, 110 milligrams sodium, 7 grams dietary fiber, 31 percent of calories from fat.
Byres Family holiday pumpkin bread
Tim Byres, executive chef at Smoke, the cool cafe attached to the Belmont Hotel in Dallas' Oak Cliff neighborhood, is among chefs in the area whose every dish is built from scratch. Each of Byres' beverages from the bar comes from juices and other ingredients that he makes by hand, and the grown-up concoctions include spirits that he has infused on-site with natural products for big flavor punches. He makes a mean maplewood-infused bourbon hot apple cider to go with his family's pumpkin bread recipe. You can serve the bread with dinner or toast it and spread with cinnamon cream cheese for breakfast.
Makes 2 loaves
2 2/3 cups all-purpose flour
3 cups granulated sugar
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon ground cloves
2 cups pumpkin purée
1 cup vegetable oil
2/3 cup water
1. Combine all dry ingredients in the bowl of an electric stand mixer. With hook attached to mixer, add one egg at a time, then add the pumpkin purée, then drizzle the oil and water into the mixture until the dough is fully formed. Grease and flour two loaf pans. Pour batter into the pans.
2. Bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour, until a skewer inserted in the center comes out clean.
Nutritional analysis per slice, based on 12 per loaf: 248 calories, 10 grams fat, 37 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams protein, 35 milligrams cholesterol, 222 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber, 36 percent of calories from fat.
Roasted garlic-rosemary mashed potatoes
Chef Mike Swirczynski, who runs Bravo! Catering in Southlake with partner Sally Bolick, stays especially busy this time of year. Finding quick, easy ways to enhance the flavors of everyday staples is essential, and Swirczynski says that's easy with roasted garlic. "I put roasted garlic in most of my holiday dishes, from mashed potatoes to stuffing, gravy and vegetable casseroles." To avoid the messy task of roasting whole pods of cloves, he buys a container of raw, peeled garlic from Sam's or Costco, tosses a handful in a pan with sprigs of rosemary and some olive oil, covers it and bakes it. Here's how to make your mashed potatoes sing.
3/4 cup whole garlic cloves, peeled
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 to 4 sprigs rosemary
Salt and pepper to taste
6 medium-size russet potatoes
1/2 cup butter, room temperature
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup warm milk or cream
1. Place the garlic, olive oil and rosemary in a baking pan, season with salt and ground black pepper, cover with foil and bake in a 375-degree oven for 45 minutes until soft. Uncover and bake an additional 5 to 10 minutes until golden brown. Let the mixture cool slightly and purée in a food processor until smooth. Set aside.
2. Place washed, scrubbed potatoes in a large pot, cover with cold water and cook in boiling water for about 10 to 20 minutes, just until tender. Drain and set aside to cool slightly. Peel the potatoes while still warm and place in a large bowl.
3. Mash with butter, salt, milk or cream and roasted garlic. Do not overwork the potatoes.
Nutritional analysis per serving: 151 calories, 11 grams fat, 12 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams protein, 26 milligrams cholesterol, 317 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber, 64 percent of calories from fat.
Dan Landsberg, executive chef and partner at Tillman's Roadhouse in Fort Worth and Dallas, likes to put an unusual or unexpected spin on old favorites. For Thanksgiving, he decided to replace the customary cranberry sauce with a pomegranate creation. You still get a tartness from the winter fruit, but there's extra crunch involved from the pomegranate seeds and from toasted pine nuts. The sweet balance comes from blood oranges and wild honey.
1 cup pomegranate juice
1 cup ruby port wine
2 medium shallots, minced
2 cups pomegranate seeds (see note)
1 cup toasted pine nuts (see note)
8 basil leaves, sliced thinly with a sharp knife
2 blood oranges, segments only (see note)
1/4 cup wild flower honey
1. Combine pomegranate juice, ruby port and shallots in stainless steel sauce pot and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook until approximately 1/4 cup of liquid is remaining. Remove from heat and cool.
2. Combine all ingredients in bowl, mixing well. Taste, adjust for salt if any is needed and serve at room temperature or chilled.
Note: To get seeds from the pomegranate, be sure to wear an apron, because pomegranate juice stains. Use a large chef's knife and cut through the crown of the fruit, only halfway. Make another cut from another angle, also from the crown but just halfway down. Pry the pomegranate open with your fingers, then pry the seeds away from the peel and membrane, working over a bowl filled halfway with water. The seeds will sink to the bottom and the membrane will float, making it easy to skim away.
Note: To toast the pine nuts, place raw pine nuts on a baking sheet and place in preheated 350-degree oven. Bake until golden brown -- time will vary, depending on your oven, but typical bake time is 8 minutes. Once golden brown, remove from oven and cool to room temperature.
Note: For blood orange segments, peel the oranges with a small, sharp knife, cutting all the way to the flesh of the orange, being careful to remove all of the white pith. Once the orange is peeled, cut segments from the orange using the natural sections as your guide; leave the membrane and only remove the flesh of the orange.
Nutritional analysis per 1-tablespoon serving, based on 2 cups: 50 calories, 2 grams fat, 7 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram protein, no cholesterol, 2 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber, 37 percent of calories from fat.
Pumpkin creme brulee
Carol Ritchie, a face we've long known from NBC/Channel 5 and who has her own Cookin' With Carol program on Time Warner Cable's Texas Channel, is also the new cooking school manager at Central Market in Southlake. Her personal sparkle easily translates to her cooking. Her pumpkin creme brulee recipe is an excellent replacement for pumpkin pie.
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
4 egg yolks, lightly beaten
1/2 cup canned pumpkin
1/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon pumpkin-pie spice
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups whipping cream
4 tablespoons sugar for topping
1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Whisk eggs, egg yolks, pumpkin, 1/3 cup sugar, pumpkin-pie spice and vanilla together in a bowl. Add cream, whisking until combined. Carefully pour mixture through a medium-mesh strainer into 8 small broiler-safe dishes (custard cups work well) to a depth of 3/4 to 1 inch each. Place custard cups in a shallow baking pan (jelly roll pan) and fill pan with hot water to a depth of 1 inch. Bake for 45 minutes, or until a knife inserted into the center of a custard comes out clean.
2. Allow custard to cool for 30 minutes at room temperature. Chill in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours. Sprinkle 1/2 tablespoon sugar evenly over the top of each custard. Place custard cups on a broiler-safe pan and place in a cold oven, 4 to 6 inches from the broiler. Start broiler and heat for 4 to 6 minutes, until sugar melts and becomes a caramelized glaze on top of the custards.
3. Remove from oven and allow to cool for 5 to 10 minutes before serving (the caramelized sugar will be extremely hot). Enjoy!
Nutritional analysis per serving: 317 calories, 26 grams fat, 18 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams protein, 242 milligrams cholesterol, 43 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber, 72 percent of calories from fat.
Garlic herb butter
Gwin Grimes, whose Artisan Baking Co. in Fort Worth has become a mainstay for people passionate about handcrafted breads, scones, cookies and biscotti, looks to one of cooking's most perfect ingredients to turn ordinary dishes into fabulous creations. "Compound butters are a cook's secret weapon," she says. "They can be savory or sweet, and flavored with an endless combination of spices, herbs and other seasonings, then stored in the freezer or refrigerator until needed. You make it now and forget about it until Thanksgiving." She beats softened butter with favorite fruit preserves to spread on toasted poundcake or pancakes. For her turkey, she uses garlic herb butter, a creation found in one of her cookbooks, Gorgeous Garlic (Rio Nuevo Press, $12.95).
1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened (see note)
4 cloves roasted garlic or 2 cloves raw garlic, minced or pressed, or a combination
1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley
1. Mash the butter, garlic and parsley together in a small bowl. Form into a round log and wrap in wax paper or parchment paper. Refrigerate to firm, or use immediately. For longer storage, place the paper-wrapped log in a plastic bag and freeze it. Slice off as much as you need and return the remainder to the freezer. Feel free to experiment with other herbs.
2. Rub a thick layer of garlic-herb butter between the skin and meat of your turkey to self-baste as it roasts in the oven.
(Note: I use an unsalted premium butter, such as Plugra, and add salt to taste; even with sweet flavors, salt is a flavor enhancer.)
Nutritional analysis per 1-tablespoon serving: 103 calories, 12 grams fat, trace carbohydrates, trace protein, 31 milligrams cholesterol, 2 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber, 98 percent of calories from fat.