There are some recipes I will play around with endlessly. Cookies and some cakes, for instance, and savory things, too, like crazy new sauces for meats or vegetables. Then there are other recipes, ones that aren’t meant to be messed with too much, that have been made and served for generations, and in this process, traditions are held safe.
Thanksgiving isn’t the time to try to mash up different cultures on a plate.
It’s when serving mashed potatoes, lumps and all and with a pat of butter melting in a small pond in the middle, is considered sacred — the lumps are what make it like your grandmother’s, because she mashed them by hand, and the pond of butter, well, isn’t that the way they’re supposed to be served?
It’s about carrying on something that has been a part of the day long before we were here, using recipes that have been passed down for generations.
That said, sometimes just a tweak or two with respect to the recipe’s original intent is a fun way to change things up, to offer a little surprise. Nothing too weird.
Maybe making a stuffing — and a very easy one at that — and baking it in muffin tins so it’s crispy with every bite. Adding pear and jalapeño (yes!) to homemade cranberry sauce, because a little zing is always a good idea. (Imagine the leftover sandwiches on dinner rolls with turkey, dressing and a spicy/sweet/tart cranberry sauce.)
A butternut squash soup where the squash is roasted first for a richer flavor, and enhanced with a cashew crème swirl — something that the vegans, and everyone else at the table, will love.
And a new take on what was once the most reviled pass-around at our family Thanksgiving table, Brussels sprouts. Here, I’ve shaved these little cabbages as thin as possible, added chewy dried cranberries, toasted pecans, and orange slices, then tossed it all in a bright citrus vinaigrette — with a bunch of Parmesan cheese. Not exactly what my grandmother would’ve imagined, but I think she’d be pleased nevertheless. She was a curious and open-minded traditionalist.
My grandmother loved to eat and loved having family gathered around her large table even more. She wasn’t a great cook, but she was a determined one. Her cinnamon rolls, always burned on the bottom, were something we teased her about, but none of us missed an opportunity to eat them. Her vegetables were mostly overcooked. But she excelled at pies. She always made two chocolate meringue pies for Thanksgiving, with flaky crusts made from lard and with swoops of meringue that rose and curled into massive peaks, and were lightly browned just so, only on the tips, as they should be. There was nothing better than her pie. This is a recipe that I don’t yet have, and if I did, I wouldn’t change a thing.
Cooking for Thanksgiving can be daunting. If you’re doing the whole thing yourself, it’s a lot of coordination — oven time, prepping, and so on. These recipes are all in the spirit of the food traditions I grew up with, but modernized a little — nothing my grandmother wouldn’t recognize. She’d probably love the Cranberry-pear sauce with jalapeños the most.
Ellise Pierce is the author of “Cowgirl Chef: Texas Cooking With a French Accent” (Running Press). Read her blog (www.cowgirlchef.com), and follow her on Twitter (@cowgirlchef) and Instagram (cowgirlchef).
Brussels sprouts slaw with cranberries, oranges and pecans
Makes 4 to 6 servings
2 pounds Brussels sprouts
1/3 cup dried cranberries, chopped
1/3 cup pecans, toasted and roughly chopped
2 oranges, sliced
1 cup grated Parmesan + more for serving
2 tablespoons orange or lemon juice
1 shallot, minced
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
Sea salt and pepper
4 tablespoons olive oil
1. Thinly slice the Brussels sprouts and put them in a bowl. I used a mandoline, but a food processor with a blade attachment will also work.
2. Add the cranberries, toasted pecans, orange slices, and grated Parmesan.
3. Make the citrus vinaigrette. Whisk together the orange or lemon juice, shallot, mustard, sea salt and pepper to taste and olive oil. Pour over the Brussels sprouts slaw, toss, and serve right away with additional Parm.
Muffin tin stuffing
Makes 12 muffins
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter
1 cup diced onion
1 celery stick, finely chopped
Sea salt and pepper
6 to 8 cups toasted, cubed bread
1 teaspoon dried sage
1 teaspoon dried rosemary
1 handful flat-leaf parsley, chopped, plus more for serving
1/3 cup toasted pecans, roughly chopped, plus more for serving
2 cups chicken stock, divided
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1. Heat oven to 400 degrees and grease a 12-muffin tin with butter.
2. Put the olive oil, butter, onion, and celery in a large skillet over medium heat. Add a little sea salt and pepper. Cook until the onion is translucent, about 3 to 5 minutes. Add the bread, sage, rosemary, flat-leaf parsley, and chopped pecans. Stir and cook until the bread has absorbed the liquid.
3. Add 1 1/2 cups of stock and stir until absorbed. Turn off the heat and transfer the mixture to a large bowl and let cool.
4. Add the last 1/2 cup stock to the lightly beaten eggs. Pour this over the now-cooled bread mixture and stir to combine — the eggs will be the glue that holds the stuffing together.
5. Put the stuffing into the muffin tin and bake for 20 minutes or until firm. Let cool in the pan for 5 minutes, then use a knife to release them from the tin.
Roasted butternut squash soup
Makes 4 servings
1 medium butternut squash, sliced into 1-inch cubes (about 6 cups)
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
Sea salt and pepper
1/2 cup diced yellow onion
1 clove garlic, minced
4 cups (1 quart) vegetable stock
Sprigs of fresh thyme, plus more for serving
Cashew crème for serving, recipe follows
1/4 cup pepitas for serving
1. Heat oven to 425 degrees.
2. Put the squash cubes on a large baking sheet with 2 tablespoons of olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt and pepper. Slide into the oven and roast for 30 to 40 minutes or until browned. Put the cooked squash in a bowl.
3. Using the same baking sheet, toss the diced onion and minced garlic with the other 1 tablespoon of olive oil and sea salt and pepper. Return to the oven and bake until lightly browned, about 10 minutes, stirring once or twice so it cooks evenly.
4. Put the squash, onion, and garlic in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the vegetable stock and 2 sprigs of thyme and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer, cook for 10 minutes and remove the thyme. Pour into a blender and purée. Taste for seasonings. Serve with a tablespoonful of cashew crème and pepitas sprinkled on top.
1 cup raw cashews
1/2 cup to 1 cup filtered water
Soak the cashews in 1 cup of filtered water overnight in the fridge. The next day, drain off the water and put the cashews in a blender along with 1/2 cup to 1 cup fresh filtered water for a pourable consistency. Salt to taste. Blend.
Cranberry-pear sauce with jalapeños
Makes about 2 cups
1 large or 2 small Anjou pears
1 (12-ounce) package fresh cranberries
Zest of 1 orange
1/2 of 1 jalapeño, minced
1/3 cup honey
1/3 cup sugar
1. Peel the pear or pears and remove the seeds and core. Slice into 1 1/2-inch pieces and put in a small saucepan over medium-low heat, along with the rest of the ingredients plus 1 cup of water.
2. Cook for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until most of the cranberries have popped. Pour into a bowl to cool, then cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.
Note: This needs to be made at least 1 to 2 days in advance for the best flavor.