It's already Christmas in print—this week, the mailman started delivering frost-kissed, cookie-strewn, tinseled December issues of my food magazines. But online, the media are content to let November persist until at least Thursday with lavish guides to the biggest eating holiday of the year. The Thanksgiving food advice on the Web is plentiful, copiously illustrated with videos and slide shows, and, best of all, free. I've sorted through the avalanche of online guidance and compiled a digest of cyber-Thanksgiving with trends of note—and the recipes that stand out as probable winners.
The biggest turkey trend this year is a push-back against wet brining, which the gastronomic press corps has promoted enthusiastically for the past decade or so. (Food Network star Alton Brown, for example, is a big fan.) Brining is the process of soaking the raw bird in a bath of salty—and sometimes spicy and/or sweetened—water in order to keep the breast meat moist and counteract the turkey's fundamental engineering flaw: The breast is done cooking long before the legs are. But this method isn't hassle-free. It's hard to find room in an overcrowded refrigerator for a bucketful of brine and bird. More important, as food-science maven Harold McGee pointed out in the New York Times this month, the extra salt in the turkey can botch the gravy. McGee is joined by other brine-resisters, like Thanksgiving guru Rick Rodgers, who, in Bon Appétit, recommends dry-salting the turkey 18-24 hours before cooking (which probably won't affect the gravy quite so much). Inspired by legendary chef and pre-salter Judy Rogers, the Los Angeles Times kvells over a similar technique. Saveur boasts a recipe from New Orleans chef Leah Chase in which the turkey is mostly cooked inside an aluminum foil packet, essentially steaming it en papillote. Others, like the gang at Cook's Illustrated, advise ditching the idea of a whole roast turkey. They advocate cooking it in parts instead. So does Mark Bittman of the New York Times, but he further thumbs his nose at tradition by rejecting the roasting custom altogether and recommending a braise.
As for gravy, Julia Moskin offers the eminently reasonable suggestion that you make your gravy ahead of time, not in the heat of the moment—"with gravy in your back pocket, so to speak, all that last-minute messing around with a hot roasting pan at the very moment when burner space is at a premium becomes entirely optional." Latin spices are chic this year for turkey marinades—I like the idea of a lemony Yucatan-style achiote rub offered up by Food and Wine while Gourmet suggests an earthy chile adobo.
Non-meat-eaters can get short shrift on a day devoted to turkey. Though Thanksgiving always provides lots of interesting vegetable sides, vegetarians often suffer from a lack of gravity in the main course. Take this Sunset magazine vegetarian menu, which, as its centerpiece, has a vegetarian stew served atop polenta. Though it looks appealing, it lacks the ceremonial ta-dah quality (not to mention the carving opportunity) that a big roast bird has. Kudos to Gourmet, then, for providing the most seductive vegetarian menu around, with a burnished farro and mushroom tart as the headlining act whose lustrous puff pastry crust recalls the sheen of a turkey roast. Though it's described as a side dish, another vegetarian main course option is Susan Spungen's gorgeous savory ricotta tart topped with pumpkin seeds and scalloped circles of roasted squash. The only question is, if the main course is a tart, will diners feel like pie for dessert?
With stuffing you declare your allegiance to tradition. Are you a Southern cornbread dressing traditionalist, an oyster stuffing epicure, or do you love the native-foods appeal of wild rice? Personally, I'm a stuffing bobo. I like the sweet-tart eclecticism of a fruity stuffing like this one at Bon Appetit though I'd put some nuts in it just for fun.
Cranberry sauce provides an essential tartness to the rich Thanksgiving table, and it's perpetually being tweaked—including a curious new inclination (in Saveur and the Food Network site, for instance) to roast it rather than cook it stovetop. As long as there's some sugar and citrus involved, it's hard to go wrong with homemade cranberry sauce. Even radical-seeming additions—like dates, ginger, port, or kumquats—have less impact on the finished product than you might imagine because cranberries are so domineering. My family has long gone with a raw version like this one, but cooked cranberries offer a darker, candied charm.
Slide shows of potato side dishes (like this one on Bon Appetit'ssite) seem a little wan in comparison with ones of golden turkeys or gleaming desserts, but there's no denying that potatoes are delicious and comforting. There is always a place at my table for buttery mashed potatoes. If you're looking for something a little more charismatic, Gourmet renders one of my favorite Mexican combinations—potatoes, cream, and poblanos—into a make-ahead gratin while Martha Stewart's braised potatoes would add great texture to a meal that boasts a lot of soft foods.
Bronzed, fluffy, toasted marshmallows are very photogenic, which is why I think so many publications still cling to one version or another of the hypersweet sweet potato casserole. (If I were going for sweet sweet potatoes, I'd skip all the way to dessert, as in this mile-high meringue pie proffered by Bon Appetit.) Perhaps for skeptics like me, Saveur offers a Solomon-like compromise—a casserole that's half marshmallowed and half topped with a crunchy cashew streusel. Meanwhile, Bittman rejects the candy-topped casserole altogether and offers up several other options, including stir-fried sweet potato shreds with sage and garlic.
For the most part, Thanksgiving focuses on lush autumnal ingredients, so I've never understood the appeal of summery green beans as part of the menu. Why not give a less mainstream veggie a chance to shine in its place? The parsnip's stock seems to be rising this year, as well it should. Though it may look like a milquetoast carrot, the parsnip's flavor is surprisingly complex—it can hold its own in a curried soup and adds depth and texture to creamed spinach. Speaking of green, the Brussels sprout is getting a lot of play this year, too. Rather than serving the minicabbage whole, food writers recommend shredding it into slaws or separating it into its cuplike leaves for a quick sauté. While these recipes look good, keep in mind such niceties take time. If you're pressed, you can make a lot of great dishes with halved Brussels sprouts, as this Chow recipe for braised sprouts suggests.
And, finally, there is dessert or, more accurately, pie. Even if I'm drawn to an uncrusted dessert like poached pears, or a ginger cake, I always give in to tradition and make a pie or two in the end. Cook's Illustrated, which verges on obsessive-compulsive when it comes to testing recipes, insists that pumpkin pie (subscription necessary) is actually best with some canned candied yams thrown in (and, while they're tinkering, with some vodka in the pie crust). But I'm most fascinated by this Frenchy tart from Saveur, which is riddled with boozy prunes. (Full disclosure: I will eat anything that is riddled with boozy prunes.) It would go nicely with a rustic apple tart like this one from Gourmet's archives or these tartlets with a base of almond cream beneath the apples. I also think the bracing taste of a Shaker lemon pie made from whole lemons would be welcome at the end of a long meal.
There is a balance to strike in preparing a Thanksgiving meal: It should be neither too complex nor too complicated. If you take on a turkey recipe that requires a lot of vigilance and manipulation—say this delicious-sounding but hands-on poached-then-smoked bird, you might want give yourself a break and stick to easy sides. On the other hand, Domino tries to simplify Thanksgiving a bit too much, promising that you can make an entire feast in one pan. It's a nice vision, but why not make dinner a little complicated at least once a year? Besides, I know at my house there would be mutiny if we skipped mashed potatoes and pie on turkey day.
How, then, to deal with the pressure? Careful delegation. In the Los Angeles Times, Russ Parsons explains how best to enlist friends and family to help: "Everybody wants to make the show-stopping centerpiece dish. But the plain fact is not everyone can be a star, and the host has to be the grown-up who tells them that." And if, in the end, it all goes to hell, the Oregonian has gathered together a list of all the Thanksgiving help lines—from Butterball to Land o' Lakes butter—each staffed with experts to talk you down from your kitchen crises.