Centered as it is on the goal of sharing a hearty meal, Thanksgiving is a holiday that's basically made for foodies. What better time to flex culinary muscles and go beyond the standard weekday fare? While the staples of the Thanksgiving meal seem universal — turkey, potatoes, pie — how those items end up on the table is subject to infinite variation.
With that in mind, we asked some Alaska food writers for their Thanksgiving strategies: Beyond taking the turkey out of the freezer early enough to thaw, what tips, food hacks and recipes do they turn to?
There's a little bit of everything, from the fussiest traditions to time-saving innovation — and from smoked black cod to red currant jam tarts. Maybe an idea or two will make its way to your Thanksgiving table.
A tale of two turkeys
From Mara Severin:
If television has taught us anything, it's that cooking your first Thanksgiving turkey will result in one of the following: a hilarious bout with trichinosis, causing your guests to spend the holiday in the emergency room; a smoke-filled kitchen from which emerges a laughably blackened, pigeon-sized bird that was once 21 pounds; the disappearance of a family heirloom inside the turkey's cavity; or — and statistically this is the most likely — a raw turkey stuck on your head.
Years ago, when hosting my first Thanksgiving, I was determined not to become a statistic. So I turned to the least hilarious woman on television: Martha Stewart. She did not let me down.
My first turkey was golden-brown, crispy-skinned and glistening. It was worthy of a Saturday Evening Post Norman Rockwell cover and I was, and remain, irritatingly proud of it. (To find the recipe, look for "Perfect Roast Turkey 101" on marthastewart.com.)
The technique is simple. Melt a substantial amount of butter with a substantial amount of dry white wine. Dunk a square of cheesecloth into this mixture of vice, let it soak, then drape the buttery, boozy, blanket over the turkey like you're tucking it in. Place the turkey into a very hot oven (450 degrees) until the skin browns and the cheesecloth looks like a piece of burnt toast. (I have a theory that the recipe is so successful because the cheesecloth browns at an alarming rate. Keeping it moist will seem more of an act of fire-prevention than of culinary technique. In other words, you will not forget to baste.) You then lower the temperature, and slowly roast the turkey until it's cooked through. Carefully removing the charred cheesecloth to reveal the lacquered, caramel-colored skin is one of the most satisfying things you will do all year.
In recent years, my family has been celebrating Thanksgiving with our neighbors Sue and Dave, who are both audacious cooks with a taste for spice. They introduced a turkey tradition that, initially, makes very little sense on paper. It's boiled. Crawfish-style.
A whole turkey is tossed into a deep pot with garlic, onions, new potatoes, corn on the cob and lots and lots of seafood boil spice. It's a crab-boil without the crab. It's as if a turkey showed up at the wrong party but decided to try and fit in anyway. After the bird is cooked (and it cooks very quickly), the meat is pulled from the bones and served on a platter. In our case, it is served as an appetizer while we wait for the fussier bird to finish primping.
It is the anti-Martha Stewart turkey. The Oscar to my turkey's Felix. It's messy. It's juicy. It's spicy. It's homely on the plate. People pick at it with forks or sometimes their fingers. And it is absolutely the thing I look forward to most when we start planning our celebration.
Mara Severin lives in Anchorage and writes a biweekly dining column for Alaska Dispatch News. To find a recipe for crawfish boil-style Thanksgiving turkey, check out nola.com.
Sweet potatoes, classic and grown-up
From Maya Wilson:
In discussing the potential of a simple, intimate Thanksgiving meal at home this year with just a few must-have dishes, my partner and I tossed around ideas. There would be a bird and stuffing, we decided. Certainly there would be cranberry chutney, she said. And mashed potatoes, she emphatically concluded.
Then she stopped there. I stood there with my mouth agape, waiting with questioning eyes. "What?" she asked, "Did I forget something?" Sweet potatoes. For me, a Thanksgiving menu is not complete without them.
While I've made them every year without fail, I've never been one to go the marshmallow-topped casserole route where sweet potatoes are concerned. I like to mix it up a bit, doing something different and somewhat unexpected with this Thanksgiving classic. Consider making twice-baked sweet potatoes with crisp bacon crumbles, green onions and sharp cheddar cheese. Bake them into a velvety maple sweet potato pie in place of traditional pumpkin. Or, for a grown-up, boozy version of candied yams, try caramelizing them in a glossy bourbon apple cider glaze.
Maya Wilson is a food writer and blogger in Kenai. Read more at alaskafromscratch.com.
From Natasha Price:
Stuffing is a beloved Thanksgiving staple, but it can slow down the cooking time of the turkey and possibly lead to salmonella. Celebrity chef Alton Brown suggests not stuffing the bird at all. Some may call this sacrilege. If you're a stuffing enthusiast, have no fear!
A great way to keep this side dish on the menu without cooking it inside the turkey is to use a slow cooker. A slow cooker retains moisture, much like the inside of a turkey, so your stuffing (or dressing, if we're being technical) will still have that same fluffy, moist consistency. And since you eliminate raw turkey juices seeping into the stuffing, it eliminates some of the risk of contracting a food-borne illness. Using a slow cooker also frees up valuable post-turkey oven space.
In this method, you prepare your stuffing as usual and cook it on low in a slow cooker for about four hours. Keep it on low until you're ready to serve. If the stuffing starts to dry out, add a quarter cup of chicken stock.
Natasha Price writes about food and crafts from her home in Anchorage. Read her step-by-step guide to Thanksgiving at alaskaknitnat.com.
Bring your memories (and Tupperware)
From Kim Sunée:
Thanksgiving is my favorite food holiday and, for weeks ahead of time, I use my Evernote app to list new recipes I want to try and to also keep a running menu of the oldies but goodies. That includes my grandfather's spicy oyster dressing, my mother-in-law's roast turkey and gravy thickened with chopped boiled egg, fresh green bean casserole and all types of homemade sweets.
There's also the question of the ubiquitous cranberry sauce. It seems many favor the jelly right out of the can with the visible ridges intact. Admittedly, I have a nostalgic taste for it and I always find room for the maroon-colored tube on the Thanksgiving table. But fresh cranberries, which start to appear in September and continue to grace us with their tart, bright flavor through December, are one of the unsung heroes of the Thanksgiving meal. Whether sweet or savory, they balance out the richness of stuffings and gravies and sugary desserts.
Usually I start by making a large batch of orange-blossom and sugar coated cranberries; they last a few weeks in the refrigerator and are perfect for garnishing cakes and pies and to drop into cocktails. But to partner with the traditional canned jelly, I love making a tea-infused cranberry sauce that combines fresh orange and whole warming spices. I make extra to send home with guests when I pack up leftovers.
Speaking of leftovers, I'm always asked by guests what they can bring/do. Here are some tips that might be helpful:
– Containers to take home leftovers are always welcome; I seem to have more food to give away than containers to hold it all.
– If the host allows, bring a dish that matters to you. As much as I take great pleasure in orchestrating the meal, Thanksgiving is one of the most memory-laden holidays when it comes to food. I always ask guests if there's a particular dish that makes Thanksgiving special, and almost always the answer is a fervent yes! That includes everything from Jell-O marshmallow fluff to the aforementioned canned cranberry to mashed potatoes, creamed corn and pecan pie. Note: If you bring a dish that needs oven time, let the hosts know in advance so they can prepare accordingly.
– BYOB: I have a variety of nonalcoholic as well as alcoholic beverages available when I host, but an extra bottle is always helpful — cold Champagne, a solid pinot noir or a few extra bottles of sparkling water or cider. If your host doesn't open it during the meal, he or she will be grateful for it later.
– If you'd like to bring a gift, try a favorite olive oil or spice, a bottle of port or other digestif; something homemade like jam or syrup or a bar of good chocolate. Or consider a pot of fragrant herbs or perhaps a playlist of curated music: something small but thoughtful that says thanks for including me at the table.
My family members work closely together and we see each other every day. Despite that, we make Thanksgiving a festive family gathering, with each person bringing something of their own to the table. Since I am the pastry chef in the family, I always bring a few desserts.
Usually, late November is the time of year we begin to dip into our stash of summer-picked berries we froze shortly after harvest. We spend a few days making holiday jams and jellies, and this particular jam tart has long been a Thanksgiving tradition.
Luckily this year, I have loads of red currants in the freezer for holiday baking. Try my recipe with another berry jam if you prefer. If you don't have your own jam, a good store-bought variety will do and it will still bring an Alaska theme to the table.
Red currant jam tarts
Makes two 9-inch tarts
1 cup chopped walnuts
2 cups all-purpose flour
2/3 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cups unsalted butter
2 cups red currant jam, homemade or store bought
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease two 9-by-1-inch fluted tart pans with removable bottoms.
Combine the walnuts, flour, granulated sugar and butter, pulsing until the mixture is finely ground. Use your hands to press the mixture into both tart pans to form the crusts. Bake the tart shells for seven to eight minutes or until the shells are just lightly golden around the edges.
Pour in 1 cup of the red currant jam into each shell and smooth out the top. Bake an additional two minutes. Let set up overnight before cutting.
Mandy Dixon is chef at Within the Wilds wilderness lodges and oversees and manages La Baleine Cafe in Homer.
A small portion of richness
Our family always has smoked black cod on the appetizer table. Turkey is lean and sometimes dry, so it's really nice to counteract that with a small portion of richness. The trick is not to gorge on the black cod. We don't put that much out. It used to come from my uncle, who fished commercially for black cod for many years, but lately I have been buying it at 10th and M Seafoods.
Kate Consenstein is the principal and chief strategist at Rising Tide Communications, a communications firm that specializes in fisheries, food and other goods.
A salmon dip you can't quit
If I show up without this, I am in trouble. My friends have begun calling it "that damn dip," because you can't quit eating it and it is SO good. I believe the sweeter note of the brine makes it pop. If it was a salmon that's too salty, I don't think it would work as well. It's so easy to use celery or carrots to dive straight in, and a substantial (not too thin) cracker that isn't heavily flavored works well, as do mini-toasts (melba) like the ones sold by the cheese counter at Fred Meyer.
I use organic ingredients and squeeze the lemon fresh. I also use whole Greek yogurt, not low or nonfat. It ups the protein content while the Neufchatel lowers (what I consider) to be unnecessary fat.
The wood imparts a nice sweetness to the fish, and the combination of ingredients works best with a sweet/savory brined smoked salmon. This is even better after a day or two and awesome on toasted bagels.
Smoked salmon dip
8 ounces Neufchatel cheese, at room temperature
½ cup Greek yogurt
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons capers
2 tablespoons finely chopped red onion
2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
6 to 8 ounces bourbon barrel smoked sockeye
Combine first six ingredients with a handheld mixer or food processor until well-blended. Flake and then add the smoked salmon.
Serve with crudité, flatbread, water or sourdough crackers.
Keri Scaggs is a food entrepreneur, wine collector and consultant based in Anchorage.
Pumpkin pie every way
I love pumpkin pie so much that growing up I would request it instead of birthday cake. My mom would buy the oversized one from Costco that barely fit in the fridge, stick candles in it and then I happily ate pie for breakfast the following week.
While nothing will ever replace the soft spot I have for the recipe on the back of the Libby's can, I like to mix it up these days. Whiskey maple pumpkin pie is my current favorite, but I also like substituting coconut milk for evaporated milk and adding new flavors like chai tea.
I don't care what the magazines say about pumpkin cheesecake being the new holiday trend; I won't ever leave Team Pie. Thanksgiving just wouldn't be right without it. So you'll find me eating leftover pie for breakfast this year. And let's be real: I'm going to have two pieces.
Shannon Kuhn is a food writer in Anchorage and co-founder of the Anchorage Food Mosaic.
Deviled eggs at dinner
I love Thanksgiving dinner so much that I'll make it two or three times a year. It's like a favorite city; there are certain places that I have to return to again and again and then there are some unexplored areas that beckon with promise.
This year, I'll be venturing into new appetizer territory. I'll be making a "deviled egg bar," a platter with unadorned eggs and a variety of toppings. I'm thinking bacon bits, chopped herbs, sun-dried tomatoes, cornichons, smoked salmon, crab, olives, anything that strikes my fancy. The most appealing thing (besides not having to try to cater to 10 different tastes) is that this also makes for fantastic leftovers. The next day, you can do it all over again with turkey, stuffing, ham, asparagus, maybe pumpkin pie if you're feeling adventurous. (You might never return to that particular neighborhood but at least you visited.)
But what I absolutely must have is Grandma Lorraine's cranberry sauce. It's a quivering, ruby mass of cranberry gelatin, flecked with nuts, deepened with port and crowned with a cloud of tangy sour cream. It's great on its own, but it really shines when paired with just about anything else under the sun. It brightens the plate, gives turkey a sweet, citrusy bite, cuts the richness of dressing and is incomparable on the hallowed Thanksgiving sandwich. My husband has learned to make it for when the leftovers just don't stretch far enough.
This recipe has been in his family for decades and will be in ours for decades to come. Like the guests around the table, the food on my table is a mixture of new friends and familiar faces. May your Thanksgiving be filled with all of the essential ingredients.
Riza Brown is a food writer and owner of Riza+Brown Catering.
A dessert Czech list
Like many families, Thanksgiving was always a time for our family to gather and celebrate amongst our crazy schedules. My dad was one of seven children, so I grew up with an incredible extended family (over 20 first cousins!). Thanksgiving was the holiday that we all went to my grandparents' house to celebrate.
My heritage on that side is Polish and Czech, and this shaped our meal significantly. My grandmother, who was from the Czech Republic, made koláče (pronounced "ko-lach") every Thanksgiving. It is a very involved semi-sweet dough and takes a few days to make, with several different risings needed and different filling options. Our favorite fillings are poppyseed and cherry as well as turning the dough into cinnamon rolls for the morning or rolling into crescent rolls for dinner. My grandmother passed her recipe on and taught all of us how to feel and trust this precarious dough.
Now, making koláče is my way of paying homage to my heritage and sharing my love with my family. As my daughters get older (my eldest just turned 3), I look forward to having them grow more involved in the process. I hope they have just as fond memories of their childhood holiday celebrations centered around this special tradition as I do of mine. Now it just does not feel like Thanksgiving without koláče taking over the kitchen and rising in front of the fire.
I wish I could share the recipe but it is a guarded family secret and for good reason — even after traveling throughout central Europe it is still the best koláče I have ever had!
Lesleigh Frank writes about food and lifestyle at the Alaska blog Pearls on a String.
Friendsgiving and Southern staples
My husband Sam and I host a big Friendsgiving. We create an event invite on Facebook and invite most anyone we know who doesn't have family in town. Both of us are from large families, so it would feel strange to celebrate Thanksgiving without being surrounded by a giant group of people we love. Our boys call our Alaska friends aunts and uncles.
We typically take care of the turkey and my husband smokes one other meat. Everyone else contributes to the potluck. We typically challenge folks to cook with local ingredients. Often, we convert the garage into a dining hall using Christmas lights and hung sheets. We pick a signature cocktail or two and the kids run wild while the parents visit. I love to incorporate an apron as part of my Thanksgiving attire. Afterward, if there's snow, we might go sledding (not looking good this year) or take a walk around Cheney Lake.
This year, I think we'll instead turn the garage into a bar/lounge room with a futon, makeshift bar, and a rollout faux lawn. I always make creamed corn and collards, black-eyed peas and bacon (I'm a Southerner, after all), and I'm excited to make some new desserts this year.
Liz Hodges Snyder is an associate professor of public health and the master of public health program coordinator at the University of Alaska Anchorage. She also serves as co-chair of the Alaska Food Policy Council.