Sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, pumpkins, cranberries, stuffing, gravy, green beans, and, oh, yes, turkey. The components of a Thanksgiving meal are ever-constant. But every time the biggest home-cooking holiday of the year comes around, food-focused magazines and Web sites must somehow make these elements seem fresh again. They use the occasion to showcase their swankiest photography and recipes; and now, it has become something of a tradition of my own to check in on what kind of advice they're offering.
It used to be that the Butterball turkey talk line was the state of the art in Thanksgiving advice (and it's still the easiest way, short a knowlegeable relative, to get someone to talk you down from a defrosting disaster). But in this year of app ascendancy, it's no wonder that Web sites have tried to gadgetize Thanksgiving. You can find a Thanksgiving menu generator at BonAppétit.com while Chow is offering a Thanksgiving Dinner Coach app for the iPhone, which walks you through basic Thanksgiving recipes and also cobbles them together into a helpful shopping list and prep timeline. In its Thanksgiving planner, Food and Wine puts together three different menus depending on the cook's ability to prepare dishes ahead of time (turkey confit for the advance planners, paprika turkey for the dillydalliers). The New York Times, bent on upping the health of your holiday table, has a highly visual guide to meatless Thanksgiving recipes, which will grow, adventlike, every day until the fourth Thursday in November. Taste of Home magazine uses the same concept with its holiday pie countdown (featuring Pillsbury ready-made pie crusts in every recipe). The ghost of Gourmet magazine is alive and well on the iPad, where Gourmet Live offers posh Thanksgiving recipes—from turkey breast roulade to pumpkin panna cotta—in app form.
It seems to be a particularly tipsy holiday this year, with traditional Thanksgiving ingredients showing up in lots of spirited drinks. It is already too late to infuse your vodka with seckel pears for two weeks to make Thanksgiving pear-rosemary cocktails, as Martha Stewart's Web site suggests. On the less labor-intensive side: Oprah's Web site wants us to put our cranberries into champagne cocktails, Rachael Ray suggests pumpkintinis. Bon Appétit offers up cranberry Mojitos while Saveur suggests encapsulating the pleasures of an apple pie in an alcoholic jelly shot.
Since we all know it is dangerous to drink on an empty stomach, it is perhaps reassuring to know that Stewart and the New York Timesare showcasing collections of Thanksgiving appetizers, dips, and finger foods to keep us sated in case the heritage turkey takes a long time to cook. (Melissa Clark, author of the Times dip piece, takes this logic one step further and argues that her tuna, caper, and lemon dip can be both lunch for the Thanksgiving cook and a handy appetizer for guests.)
When it comes to dinner proper, it seems that the roasted star of the Thanksgiving table might be getting squeezed, All About Eve-style, in favor of its supporting cast. Maybe we have Mark Bittman's new demi-meatless cookbook to thank, or the general scent of Michael Pollan in the air, but this is a year of reduced carnivorousness, and turkey seems to be getting less attention than normal in favor of seitan roulade and zucchini boats. (Both these recipes are featured in the splashy New York Times vegetarian feature.) Bittman, by the way, wants you to eat your butternut squash raw, grating it and mixing it with cranberries and a gingery vinaigrette.
Martha Stewart also gets into the vegetarian Thanksgiving act, leading off her vegetarian recipe slide show with a butternut squash lasagna; and so does Saveur, pinning its veggie menu on a pumpkin soup served in a pumpkin. Bon Appétit, for its part,suggests recovering from Thanksgiving excess with meatless entrees like Heirloom squash farrotto and a Mediterranean supper omelet with fennel olives and dill.
Some of this meatless fervor may come less from turkey abstention than a sense that turkey is more or less the same from year to year, while the vegetable sides can earn a Thanksgiving host some glory. In a Wall Street Journal Thanksgiving piece featuring pickled beets and sweet potatoes mashed with miso, chef Brad Farmerie places the emphasis on sides because "[t]he turkey is never going to be memorable unless it's memorably bad."
Of course, not everyone is ready to give up the bird. After all, turkey remains one of the most fraught dishes a home cook takes on in the course of the year. The Food Network Web site's most popular turkey recipe is still a wet brined roast from Alton Brown, but overall, dry brining turkeys—coating them with salt and seasonings at least a day before roasting—seems to be the favored modus operandi these days. Cook's Illustrated tops its turkey recipe list with a dry-brined roast (subscribers only) while Bon Appétit features a slightly more herbaceous version of the same. Martha Stewart guides us toward a heritage turkey, which is, once again, presalted. The Los Angeles Times, which always takes its turkeys very seriously (the editors there were key evangelists for the dry brine), urges readers to try smoke-grilling their holiday bird, something perhaps easier done in balmy L.A. than the blustery Northeast, but a good project just the same. It must be a West Coast thing: Sunset features a Latin-spiced Thanksgiving on the beach party, with pumpkin tacos to go with the grilled chili rubbed turkey. Food and Wine offers up the suggestion that Thanksgiving turkey, as with most things, is better with bacon, swaddling the bird in a Slanket of pancetta.
Turkey tinkerers take heart: The lovable cook nerds at Cook's Illustrated offer nontraditionalists the option of butterflying (aka spatchcocking) your turkey. If you flatten your roast, they explain, you can apply a serious glaze to the bird without it running off into the bottom of the pan. But Chow knocks it out of the park in terms of weirdness, offering up a bizarro layered Thanksgiving turkey cake, "frosted" with marshmallow-topped sweet potatoes.
Oddly enough, gravy, of all things, is getting a big push this year—maybe all those meatless and brined, barbecued turkeys are making the most basic T-day component seem trickier to make. Food52's reader-endorsed best gravy is a vegetarian mushroom thyme version, while Bon Appétit casts a spotlight on several different recipes. Meanwhile, blogger Shauna Ahern sets no-wheat folks on the path to gluten-free gravy (which can go with this recipe from Oprah's site for gluten-free stuffing).
Speaking of gluten, I've always feel that dinner rolls are an underrated Thanksgiving tradition, and I think Cook's Illustrated agrees with me. Cook's Thanksgiving guide includes several dinner roll and biscuit recipes, though you will have to pay for a subscription to get the scoop on many, including these parker house rolls. (If you don't have a subscription, dig deep in the Gourmet archives for some of Ruth Cousineau's lovely dinner roll recipes, like her pumpkin orange rolls from last year.)
For dessert, pies have always ruled the Thanksgiving table, but pie has also reached a kind of cultural ascendancy in the media this year, as Julia Moskin pointed out in the New York Times. (Her article includes a recipe for apple and green chile pie.) Martha Stewart raids her library for a tasty-looking pie slide show, which includes a pumpkin pie with chipotle chile. Bon Appétit has a pie slide show, too, and I look forward to someone explaining to her 83-year-old grandmother just how Momofuku Milk Bar's crack pie got its name. (Those seeking to avoid that conversation may choose this pear upside-down tart instead.) I should add that if you are embarking on a pie project, as I will be, you might want to read Pim Techamuanvivit's authoritative essay on pie crust, "The One Pie Dough To Rule them All," and Kate McDermott's philosophical crust recipe.
There are some pie-conoclasts out there, of course: Food and Wine tempts readers with a luscious slide show of bread puddings, and Food 52 encourages its readers to think beyond the pie with its nonpie Thanksgiving dessert contest, while Cooking Light leads its holiday dessert section with a pumpkin flan.
Thanksgiving lives in a careful balance between tradition and innovation, and it's always sage to keep some timelessness in the mix. If you're forgoing turkey this year, you might want to keep some stuffing around for nostalgia's sake; don't let a cranberry cocktail before dinner keep you from putting a little old-fashioned cranberry sauce on the buffet; and if you do choose to make the turkey cake as your centerpiece, for heaven's sake, choose a pie, not cake, for dessert.