Every Thanksgiving, our nation's food magazines are full of ideas for turning our family's traditional Thanksgiving dinner upside down.
You know the sort of thing: Why be boring; get rid of the dull same-old, same-old; shake it up; go wild with anything and everything from every corner of the globe.
Meanwhile, this lone reed keeps preaching about sticking to your family's traditions.
It's just one meal out of the whole year, for goodness' sake, and after all, the object is not to prove how clever you are but how much you love your family. Right?
There are 364 days to be clever and novel: for this one day, you should make the things that you and your family love best.
But even as we honor traditions, we have to face the reality that they're always changing, sometimes subtly, sometimes blatantly, sometimes because of changes within the family that are unexpected and unwelcome.
A child who would eat the roof if unattended goes away to college and comes home a strange, wan fruitarian who will barely eat anything; Aunt Mildred develops an overwhelming aversion to sage; Uncle George decides that he's allergic to pecans (or actually becomes so). A family-rending divorce deprives us of a beloved in-law who made the best sweet potato casserole. Grandmother passed away without passing on her pumpkin pie recipe.
And then there's always that someone who hates pumpkin pie no matter who made it.
In light of all that, sometimes the best way to honor those Thanksgiving dinner traditions is to not etch them in stone.
A part of making your family happy is meeting those new challenges with respect and love. And even when we're not faced with enforced change, there's always room to freshen up the traditional menu, if for no other reason than to remind ourselves why we love the tried and true dishes that we make every year.
With that in mind, on this Thanksgiving Eve, here are a handful of recipes that present elements that are traditional and most likely already in your pantry in slightly different ways that are familiar but not quite usual.
Apple and Onion Bisque
An unusual way to begin the Thanksgiving meal, this soup is nonetheless full of traditional Thanksgiving Day flavors. Adapted from my book Beans, Greens, & Sweet Georgia Peaches (2nd Edition, Globe Pequot Press).
2 medium yellow onions, peeled and thinly sliced
2 tablespoons butter
2 medium tart, firm apples such as Granny Smiths
3 cups rich chicken broth
1 large sprig fresh sage or 1 teaspoon crumbled dried sage
White pepper in a peppermill
1 pint half-and-half
6 fresh sage leaves or 2 tablespoons fresh rosemary leaves
6 tablespoons heavy cream
1. Have all ingredients handy so apples will not have a chance to turn brown once peeled (or use ceramic peeler and knife to prepare apples). Put onions and butter in 3- to 4-quart pot over medium heat. SautÃ© until onions are wilted and pale gold but don't let scorch, about 10 minutes.
2. Meanwhile wash, peel, and core apples and cut into thin slices or chunks (it doesn't matter; whichever is easiest for you). When onions are colored and softened, add apples and continue cooking until apples also begin to color. Add broth and sage sprig and raise heat to medium high. Bring soup to boil, then reduce heat to simmer, and add liberal grinding of white pepper. Don't add salt yet. Loosely cover and simmer until onions and apples are tender, about 20 minutes.
3. Puree soup in batches in blender or food processor. Soup can be made a day ahead to this point. Cool, cover and refrigerate. When ready to finish, reheat gently over medium low heat and stir in half-and-half. Taste and correct the seasonings, adding a pinch or so of salt to suit your taste and bring back to simmer. Simmer 3 to 5 minutes to blend flavors.
4. Julienne fresh sage, if using, but if using rosemary, leave whole. Ladle soup into individual soup plates, add 1 tablespoon cream to center of each, garnish with herbs, and serve at once.
Aunt Toot's Oyster and Almond Pie
"Aunt Toot" was food writer James Villas' great-aunt whose Sunday afternoon dinners were legendary. Adapted from Villas' book "My Mother's Southern Kitchen" (MacMillan/1994), it's a nice twist on the scalloped oysters that are usual for so many local families at Thanksgiving. Villas' mother, the late Martha Pearl Villas, cautioned to watch the pie carefully while it's baking so that the oysters don't overcook.
1/2 cup slivered almonds
2 cups crushed saltine crackers
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
Salt and ground cayenne pepper to taste
1 quart freshly shucked oysters, liquor reserved
1/2 cup dry sherry
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, cut into small bits
1 cup half-and-half
1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees F. Spread almonds evenly on baking sheet and bake, stirring several times, until slightly browned, about 10 to 15 minutes.
2. Combine crackers, nutmeg, salt, and cayenne in bowl. In separate bowl, mix together oyster liquor, sherry, and Worcestershire. Butter a 2-quart baking dish. Arrange alternate layers of seasoned crushed crackers and oysters, drizzling each layer with seasoned oyster liquor and dotting with butter. Pour half-and-half around sides.
3. Bake 20 minutes and scatter toasted almonds over top, baste with some of cooking liquid, and bake until top is nicely browned but pie is still moist, about 10 minutes more. Serve hot.
John Taylor's Wilted Greens
Food writer and historian John Martin Taylor, best known for his work in reviving true Carolina Lowcountry cooking, lived for a time in Genoa, Italy, so there's always an Italian accent about his cooking, especially in his use of olive oil. These collards braised in olive oil are a good example. It's also a quick, easy, and fresh way to prepare the greens that are so traditional on many local Thanksgiving tables.
Adapted from my book "Beans, Greens, & Sweet Georgia Peaches" (2nd edition, Globe Pequot Press).
Serves 6 to 8
3 pounds collards (3 small plants or 2 large ones)
1/4 cup (4 tablespoons) olive oil
2 teaspoons salt
1. Wash, stem, and cut greens into 1-inch strips. Pile into large bowl. There should be water still clinging to leaves.
2. In large, heavy-bottomed stockpot or Dutch oven, heat 2 tablespoons oil over high heat until almost at smoking point. Add large handful collards to pot with water clinging to them. Stir with a wooden spoon until wilted, then continue adding greens by handfuls until all are in pot.
3. Add salt and remaining olive oil and stir well. Reduce heat to low, cover, and braise 15 minutes. Taste, and if not done to your taste, cover and continue cooking over low heat until done to your liking. Serve hot, passing pepper vinegar if liked.
Cowboy Sweet Potato Casserole
Friend and colleague Angela Lopez, who writes under the colorful nom-de-plume "Angelina LaRue," hails from Texas, and her cooking, like so many Texans, is a happy blend of the cuisines of the Deep South, Mexico, and American Southwest. This sweet potato casserole, generously shared from her lovely new cookbook, "The Whole Enchilada" (Pelican), is a perfect example of how those traditions blend in her kitchen.
It is also a perfect way to add a little kick to a traditional Thanksgiving table.
5 large (about 5 pounds) sweet potatoes
1 pound sliced bacon, cooked crisp, drained, and crumbled
1 canned chipotle pepper in adobo sauce, finely diced
1/2 cup light sour cream
1/4 cup unsalted butter, softened, plus more for dish
1/4 cup grated piloncillo sugar (see note below) or regular light brown sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Scrub potatoes and pat dry. Using fork, pierce each potato several times, place on baking sheet, and roast until fork tender, about 50 to 60 minutes.
2. Reduce oven temperature to 400 degrees. Peel sweet potatoes, transfer to large mixing bowl, and mash with potato masher. Add chipotle pepper, bacon (reserving 1/4 cup for topping) sour cream, butter, sugar, salt, and cinnamon. Mix well.
3. Butter 2-quart baking dish and add sweet potatoes. Smooth top and top with remaining bacon. Bake 40 minutes and serve warm.
Note: Can be made ahead: cool, cover and refrigerate. To reheat, cover with foil and reheat at 400 degrees for about 20 minutes or until hot through.
Piloncillo sugar is a Latin-American brown sugar that is traditionally sold molded in a cone. Grate it with a Microplane-type rasp.
Pumpkin Custard or Creme Brulee
I developed this recipe for a column about 10 years ago with a couple of friends in mind who are so completely intimidated by piecrust that they'll barely roll out one made by the Doughboy. It's basically a crust-less pumpkin pie in a cup and can be finished with a showy brulee topping or simple served as is with a dollop of whipped cream.
3 large eggs
1-3/4 cups pumpkin puree
1/2 cup evaporated milk and 1/2 cup heavy cream, or 1 cup of either one
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 cup light brown sugar (1/2 cup if not doing brulee topping)
1 cup Bourbon Whipped Cream, optional (omit if doing brulee topping)
1. Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 325 degrees F. Whisk eggs lightly and whisk in pumpkin, milk, cream, spices and 1/2 cup brown sugar. Pour into six 6-ounce ramekins. Put ramekins in roasting pan or sheet cake pan, not touching.
2. Bring teakettle of water to boil. Pour water carefully around ramekins to halfway up sides. Lay sheet of foil over ramekins and bake until set, about 30 minutes. Uncover and cool, then cover each with plastic wrap and refrigerate until chilled.
3. Serve as is with whipped cream or sprinkle remaining sugar generously over each custard and torch with a kitchen blowtorch until sugar melts and caramelizes. Chill until sugar is hard.
Bourbon Whipped Cream
An essential in the dessert repertory for many local cooks, this is the ideal finishing touch for just about any Thanksgiving dessert, traditional or otherwise.
Makes about 2-1/2 cups
1 pint cold heavy cream
1/4 cup sugar or more, to taste
1 tablespoon bourbon
1. Beat cream in chilled glass or stainless bowl with wire whisk or electric mixer until beginning to thicken.
2. Sprinkle in sugar (exact amount will depend on your taste and what cream accompanies) and whip until cream holds soft peaks, tasting and adjusting sugar once cream begins to get firm. Fold in bourbon and whip until cream holds stiff peaks. Can be made up to two hours ahead. Keep covered and chilled.