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Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving in the U.S. is just as diverse as the people that call this country home. Traditionally we think of a turkey as the main course, granted many people that celebrate Thanksgiving in the U.S. do indeed have a turkey as the center piece, some have ham in its place.

But the real diversity comes in the form of side dishes.

The Pilgrim Thanksgiving, wasn’t what we think of today. It was a celebration of Harvest and their devote faith. This type is celebrated all over the world. The U.S. holiday that we now know as Thanksgiving, wasn’t a National holiday until President Roosevelt declared it to be so in 1941. But I am not here to debate when the first Thanksgiving truly was, that is left to the historians. We are here to talk food.

Many people will start baking days before the event. This is especially true for desserts, and those of us cooking for large numbers and only one cook. In the following paragraphs, I will outline things in the order that they are typically served; starting with the snacks.

We really shouldn’t call them appetizers. In my home it is a small assortment of items to stave off that ever increasing hunger as the aromas of our feast fill the house. In everyday life, I do wake with the sun, so my day starts the same in that regard. The difference is that I will be cooking up until the moment we serve. I cook alone for ten people, as my kitchen is too small, and I am a perfectionist when it comes to food prep. I will whip up a quick light breakfast for the people that have stayed over that night, mainly just to keep them out of my way; how obsessive we become when cooking this meal!

After the turkey has been prepped for roasting, I bring out a melange of snacks. I am the last person that would mess with tradition when it comes to celebratory meals, but I do enjoy tweaking them a tad. Growing up we had one set snack, something that I still make to this day, a simple onion dip and store-bought chips. I know it seems mundane, yet every person that comes to eat at my house this time of year, even tasting it for the first time, will demand its return; such a simple pleasure.

My table is decked out with a cornucopia of edible treats. My children will make the horn of plenty and we stuff it full of a mixture of savory and sweet eats. Plenty of fresh raw vegetables like carrots, broccoli, and cauliflower. Even celery and green onions are strategically stuffed into position. We add a potpourri of cheeses, crackers and deer sausage, along with small apples and plums. As long as everything has been dried thoroughly after washing, they will happily reside next to one another. Small bowls of favored dips are scattered about the table, such as ranch dressing, blue cheese dressing, vanilla and chocolate. Yet my table is not complete without a very large bowl of black pitted olives.  We all have our weakness.

Now that the family is happily eating their healthy raw snacks and watching the television, I am able to move freely about my small kitchen. Preparing your turkey comes about from traditions. You tend to cook it how your family did. I find no fault in that. Thanksgiving is about family, and what better way to honor them then to be true to your tradition? But there are some of us, like me, that cannot resist the urge to change subtle things about how we cook our turkey, and then there are others, that this is their first Thanksgiving without the family that raised them, and they want to make their own traditions.

Prepping a turkey will take 24 hours. Most the time, this is just thawing it out. My family raises our own turkeys, and that has a completely different type of prep that starts within a week of the festivities. We won’t get into that here; let’s start with when you are buying your bird.

A good rule of thumb is to buy 1 pound of meat for every one person. If you want more leftovers, buy a bigger bird. I will have ten people eating here, so I would look for a ten-pound bird, though I tend to go big and have a 20 pound or larger bird. And there is no need to stick with turkey, any wild game bird will do. I had pheasant for my first Thanksgiving alone.  So there are choices. Now that you have bought your frozen bird, unless you bought it the day before, it will end up in your freezer. The thawing time will be 24 hours for every six pounds of bird in your refrigerator. If you choose to thaw it at room temp, you need one hour per pound.

For basic turkey prep, you need to wash the bird after thawing, both inside and out, and pat dry. You should do this after removing the neck and giblets. The seasonings will go onto the bird now. Some people simply rub salt onto the skin. I rub olive oil, rosemary, and minced garlic. You can still stuff your bird with bread stuffing. As long as the bird is cooked properly and the bread stuffing is removed soon after the bake time is up, there should be little cause for concern. I choose not to bread stuff; instead I fill the cavity with a large, quartered onion, carrots, 3 crushed garlic cloves, and a few pats of salted, real butter. If you are using the old fashion method of roasting the bird, you will want your oven temp to be at 350° F, and it can cook up to 5½ hours for a very large bird, only 2 hours for a 6 pounder. Just remember that the internal temperature needs to be at 185° F for whatever size bird you need. Of course the majority of us now use turkey bags. It will cut your time down considerably, and does help in keeping the turkey moist. Other prep and cooking options are brining or frying.

Family favorite side dishes come into play once your bird has settled into the oven: stuffing from a box, gravy from a packet, cranberry sauce from a can. These items are definitely convenient and allow you to spend less time in the kitchen. But it can make for a bored palate.

There is no reason to make every thing from scratch, just making one of them, not prepackaged, can allow for a more pleasurable experience.

There is a plethora of homemade bread stuffing recipes out there. It’s just a matter of your taste and preferences. I prefer modest bread stuffing as not to overwhelm the other foods. Homemade gravy is as simple as boiling the giblets in salted water and use its broth along with the oven pan drippings. And cranberries are in abundance at the grocery store.

Depending on your heritage and region you live in, side dishes can come in a variety of locally produced products. Some homes incorporate sea food into side dishes, nuts, fruits, and different types of wild game.

Some families have a noodle dish while others have a curried dish.

Mashed potatoes come in many different flavors; some will add a touch of garlic, or even mash cooked broccoli in. Yams and sweat potatoes are either mashed with brown sugar, and topped with marshmallows, or baked whole, and only topped with some butter.

Apple pie ready for the oven, image.

Home made apple pie ready for the oven. What a treat!

And that brings us to the dinner rolls. Rolls are easy to obtain as they are usually on sale this time of year. But you can make them from scratch in advance, whether you prefer buttermilk biscuit, sweet rolls, or sweet potato biscuits. Other side dishes include corn, green bean casserole and, if you are eating at my home, browned-butter wilted lettuce. The desserts are traditionally pies, pumpkin, apple, cherry, and pecan.

I ensure that there are enough pies not just for variety, but to last into the next week. Mincemeat, gooseberry and a chocolate pies will also grace my counter top. My guests will bring their homemade fudge and divinities. And we all do our best not to stuff our faces with all of these lovely treats.

Thanksgiving isn’t just about gorging us silly. It’s about family, and food is the center piece that helps bring us together. We should always remember to be thankful for the harvest, and the families that made our dinner possible. Whether you are revisiting on old family tradition, or just starting your own, Thanksgiving should not be a day of stressful cooking. Savor and enjoy each step and it will reflect in your food.


You can follow any recipe for roast turkey, using the bread stuffing recipe below, any other stuffing of your choice, or fill the cavity as indicated above.

APPLE PIE FILLING

2 lbs Granny smith apples 2 lbs McIntosh apples
3/4 cup sugar 1 ½ tbl juice and 1 tsp zest from one medium lemon
1/4 tsp salt 1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon 1/8 tsp ground allspice

Prepare your favorite fruit pie dough.

Peel, core and slice apples to ½ inch. Toss with the lemon juice and zest, sugar, salt and spices. Turn out the apple mix {including juice} into your pie dough, mound just slightly in the middle

for a little something different, add 3 tbl crystalized ginger to the apple mix.

BREAD STUFFING WITH SAUSAGE, PECANS AND DRIED APRICOTS

1 lb sweet italian sausage, removed from casing and crumbled feta cheese 6 Tbs unsalted butter
1 large onion, chopped 4 medium celery stalks, chopped
1/2 tsp each dried sage, dried thyme, dried marjoram 1/2 tsp ground black pepper
1/2 cup parsley leaves, chopped fine 1 cup dried apricots, cut into thin strips
1 tsp salt 12 cups dried french or other white bread cubes
1 cup broth 3 large eg, slightly beaten

Over a medium high heat, cook sausage in a large skillet for about 10 minutes, or until browned. Place the sausage in a large bowl, drain off grease. Melt butter in the same pan.

Still over a medium high heat, add the celery and onion. Stir occasionally, cooking for about 7 minutes, or until soft and translucent. add the dried herbs and pepper and cook for an additional minute. add all to the sausage bowl. combine with the parsley, salt, pecans and apricots. Mix in the bread cubes

The stock and eggs need to be whisked together in a seperate bowl.

Pour the mixture over the bread and toss gently. Stuff into the bird.

Or place in a greased baking dish, drizzling an additional 1/4 cup stock, and a few pats of butter. Cover with foil, bake for 25 minutes covered, then 15 minutes uncovered in a 400° F oven.

Cooking tips for this bread stuffing

To dry bread, cut a fresh loaf into half slices, place in a single layer on a cookie sheet, allow to sit over night.

Toast your pecans in a 350° F oven for 6 to 8 minutes.

CRANBERRY SAUCE

1 package fresh cranberries 1 orange, peel grated lemon peel
1 1/4 cups brown sugar cinnamon
1 medium apple cider 1 1/2 cups water

With the skin still on, core, pare and chop the apple into small pieces. Place the chopped apple in pan adding ½ cup water and only ¼ cup of the brown sugar. Sprinkle lightly with some cinnamon. Simmer until apple softens.

Pour in 1 cup water, and the remaining 1 cup of brown sugar. Stir in grated orange peel and cranberries. Stir mixture and heat to boiling. Allow to boil for 1 minute.

Cool. Refrigerate. Serve.


Erin M. Phelan combines cooking, writing and talking about food with her love for the countryside. She has a modern homestead and raises her own organic food.

Erin lives in a lovely farm in Kansas, with her husband and young children. You can read about her adventures in her blog, A Homesteading Neophyte; her recipes are published regularly at All Foods Natural.