Living for Thanksgiving

From empanadas to working on a holiday, taking time to give thanks.

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When I think of holidays, I think of tradition. That feeling you get in the pit of your soul doesn’t come from the idea of Thanksgiving, it comes from the old familiar smell of your grandma’s gravy on the stove, or your first bite of homemade apple pie, or from getting trampled by crazed shoppers during your annual Black Friday shopping excursion. Whatever your traditions might be, we all tend to thrive on familiarity. It’s comforting, but often our greatest strides as human beings are made when we learn how to broaden our horizons.

As I have gotten older, I have realized that my favorite holiday tradition has evolved into being diversity itself. I come from a big Irish family, where Thanksgiving always meant there were lots of laughs, too many people, not enough seats, and bland mashed potatoes. I eventually grew up, went to college, traveled, moved around, and spent Thanksgivings with friends, significant others, coworkers, you name it. I learned that gravy isn’t always the same as my grandma’s, and if you don’t eat all of your food at an Italian Thanksgiving you’ll give everyone around you “agita.” The empanadas at the Puerto Rican Thanksgiving were delicious enough for me to swear off turkey and stuffing forever, and that wasn’t just the Coquito (Puerto Rican eggnog) speaking.

Even though working during a holiday doesn’t feel like a tradition worth preserving, I’ll never forget crowding around a huge platter of duck leg confit with my coworkers at the end of a long Thanksgiving dinner service. I worked in French fine dining at the time, and sharing unbelievably delicious food, laughs, and tears (the executive chef was terrifying), made an unfamiliar place feel like home. While my previous statement seems to go against the current rhetoric of our U.S. government, I say we welcome the unfamiliar onto our holiday dinner plates this year. Every tradition has to start somewhere.

Let’s focus on two main components that might just make your Thanksgiving more interesting, and possibly easier too: a divergence from the traditional Thanksgiving provisions, while also composing recipes that can be made ahead of time. Another tradition that seems to be universal around the holidays is stress. Unfortunately I can’t help you get along with your inlaws, or get a boat reservation at a decent time around Thanksgiving weekend. I can, however, help you to create an impressive and unique dish ahead of time.

Brazilian Queso Blanco

4 Tbsp. unsalted butter
¼ cup chopped sweet onion
Black pepper to taste
1 cup heavy cream
½ cup whole milk
¼ cup evaporated milk
4.5-oz. can chopped green chilis
4 oz. shredded sharp white Cheddar cheese
4 oz. shredded Monterey Jack cheese
1 Tbsp. chili powder
1 tsp. cumin
Cayenne pepper to taste
¼ cup chopped Brazilian sausage — I recommend Linguiça Calabresa from Vineyard Grocer
1 Tbsp. chopped scallion

Add butter, onion, and black pepper to a medium-size pot over medium/high heat, and sauté for about 6 to 7 minutes to soften the onion. Add cream, whole milk, evaporated milk, and chopped green chilis. Stir frequently, and once the mixture starts to simmer (it is bubbling around the sides but hasn’t reached a full boil), reduce heat to low.

Add cheese gradually, stirring frequently. Add chili powder, cumin, black pepper, and cayenne. Simmer on low for at least an additional 10 minutes. For a crispy golden-brown top layer, transfer the dip into an oven-safe pan and broil on high for 3 minutes. While the dip is simmering, add the Brazilian sausage to a pan over high heat and saute for about 5 to 7 minutes until it has gained a dark brown char and crispy consistency. Once the queso is done, top with scallion and crispy sausage. Enjoy with tortilla chips, and wonder to yourself why you have stuck with simple cheese and crackers for a pre-Thanksgiving snack all these years. This dip can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to four days.

Lamb Meatballs and Tzatziki

For the meatballs:

1 lb. ground lamb
2 cloves fresh minced garlic
1 Tbsp. tahini sauce
½ cup chopped fresh parsley
2 Tbsp. onion powder
1 tsp. olive oil
Salt to taste
Black pepper to taste

For the tzatziki:

2 cups plain Greek yogurt
½ cup chopped fresh cucumber
⅔ cup minced fresh dill
4 cloves minced garlic
Juice from ½ lemon
1 tsp. olive oil
Salt to taste
Black pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 400°F. Spray a baking sheet with nonstick cooking spray. Coat your hands with olive oil and combine the ingredients for the meatballs in a mixing bowl. Using your hands, shape the mix into balls about 2 inches in diameter, and disperse on the baking sheet. Bake for about 15 minutes.

While the meatballs are baking, combine tzatziki ingredients in a mixing bowl with a spoon. I chose to serve this dish with fresh tabouli, hummus, and feta, but it is equally delicious without. Meatballs can be frozen up to 3 months, and tzatziki sauce can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 4 days.

Zucchini Bread au Gratin

3 pounds of your favorite root vegetables, peeled and chopped to about 1-inch-thick chunks. (I used parsnips, sunchokes, butternut squash, turnips, and leeks.) The veggie variety is up to your discretion, but the key is to chop the all the veggies into equal-sized chunks so they cook evenly.

1 Tbsp. smoked paprika
1 Tbsp. fresh minced parsley
2 Tbsp. unsalted butter
3 cups heavy cream
½ cup chicken stock
3 sprigs fresh thyme
1 Tbsp. olive oil
½ loaf zucchini bread — I recommend Morning Glory Farm
1 Tbsp. cumin
1 tsp. cayenne
1 cup freshly grated Gruyere cheese
1 Tbsp. fresh minced parsley

Preheat the oven to 400°F. In a mixing bowl combine chopped veggies, smoked paprika, parsley, salt, and pepper. Set aside. In a medium pot over medium heat, whisk together 1 tablespoon butter, cream, chicken stock, fresh thyme and black pepper. Simmer for about 10 minutes until small bubbles start to form, remove from heat, cover and let sit for an additional 10 minutes.

Put a large sauté pan over medium/high heat and add olive oil. Bring up to temperature for a few minutes, then crumble zucchini bread into the pan and add cumin, cayenne, salt and pepper. Sauté, tossing frequently, for about 3 to 5 minutes, and remove from heat. Remove the cover and thyme sprigs from the cream mixture. Grease a 3-quart baking dish with the remaining butter. Add half of the veggies to the dish, just slightly overlapping each other. Pour half of the cream mixture, and then half of the cheese on top. Repeat those steps for a second layer, and top with breadcrumb mixture. Cover with tin foil and bake for 50 to 60 minutes. Remove tin foil and broil on high for 3 minutes. Remove and let rest for 10 minutes. Just when you thought you couldn’t love Morning Glory Zucchini Bread more …

Thanksgiving Eton Mess

1 cup fresh cranberries
¼ cup water
6 Tbsp. sugar
1 Tbsp. cinnamon
2 cups heavy whipping cream
1 cup crushed premade meringues

This classic English dessert takes 10 minutes to make. It’s remarkably delicious. Eton Mess is traditionally a summer dessert served with fresh strawberries, but it just makes sense around heavy holiday eating. Sometimes after a plate full of turkey and stuffing, a slice of pie can seem daunting. So I swapped the strawberries for sweet and cinnamony reduced cranberries. First add the cranberries, the water, 2 tablespoons of the sugar, and the cinnamon to a medium-size pot over medium high heat. Whisk frequently, and when the mixture starts to simmer, reduce heat to low. Place a metal mixing bowl in the freezer for five minutes. Remove and pour whipping cream and remaining sugar into the bowl, and whisk until the cream forms stiff peaks. Add crushed meringues to the whipped cream and whisk for a few seconds. Layer the whipped cream meringue mixture with the reduced cranberries and serve. You can premake the sweetened reduced cranberries and freeze for up for 6 weeks.