When it comes to holiday food, many families have their own unique rituals and most-loved dishes, each of them imbued with personal history and meaning
Turkey, sides and lots of pie – here’s what to serve for your Thanksgiving feast
Thanksgiving is a holiday that has always had its roots firmly, unabashedly and deliciously in food. While the various corn breads, stuffings, sauces, gratins and casseroles that feature on modern American menus may be rather different to the dishes eaten at the first harvest feast held by the Pilgrim Fathers back in 1621 (not that this was a modest affair – venison, goose, fish, ducks and deer are thought to have featured), turkey remains a mainstay. It’s not just the poultry offering that has endured over the centuries though. The sentiment behind the celebration – gathering together to share food and experiences and reflect on all there is to be grateful for, is still very much at the heart of the day.
So too is family, tradition and everyone bringing something to the table, both in metaphorical form during “the thanks” and in actuality, by contributing a dish to the spread. “Thanksgiving has always been a time to spend with family, relaxing, watching football, eating lots of food and reflecting on everything our family has to be thankful for,” says Nicole Vasek, who is originally from Houston, Texas and currently lives in Dubai. “When I was young, we would usually have Thanksgiving at my grandparents’ farm and all of my aunts, uncles and cousins would come over. At the end of the day, us kids would make a big pallet on the living room floor and watch movies until we all fell asleep.”
Vasek says that wherever she has been in the world on Thanksgiving, she has always marked the occasion in some way, and that doing so has become even more significant now that she has a young son. “I want to try and make Thanksgiving as fun for him as it was for me. This year, we will cook a big turkey and make stuffing (which won’t be as good as my mum’s), as well as pecan and pumpkin pies. Friends will come and bring a side dish, we’ll eat, celebrate and give thanks.”
Growing up in San Francisco, Rachael Brandt also spent every Thanksgiving at her grandparents’ house and has fond memories of all the family being together and each cooking a dish, while her grandmother calmly roasted a turkey large enough to feed all 21 guests. “The first year I was away at Thanksgiving, I was living in Argentina and felt a little sad, missing my family,” she remembers. “To my surprise, my friends, none of whom were American, decided they wanted to celebrate the holiday. We spent two days cooking, somehow got our hands on a turkey and had a quirky, unforgettable feast – complete with an American flag poking out of the turkey.”
This year, Brandt will once again be outside of the United States on Thursday, but she says that one thing is for sure – there will be devilled eggs on her menu. “I don’t know of any other family that has them at Thanksgiving but, for my family, if aunt Dena’s devilled eggs aren’t on the table, it’s not really Thanksgiving.”
Just like Brandt, when it comes to holiday food, many families have their own unique rituals and most-loved dishes, each of them imbued with personal history and meaning. “My sister and I always bake the pies for Thanksgiving,” shares Vasek. “She makes the pumpkin pie and I make the pecan pie, and we always try to outdo each other in some way. It’s a fun tradition that we started when we were young and has turned into a pretty fierce competition over the years.”
Verna Endaya is a Filipino- American, whose family relocated from the Philippines to New Jersey when she was 9 years old. “When we moved to the US, we had to assimilate and try to understand the holiday ourselves before we could really celebrate it,” she explains. “To begin with, even the idea of giving thanks for the harvest was a foreign one to us because we don’t have a harvest season in the Philippines.”
Twenty two years later, Thanksgiving is a key part of the year for the family. “The true beauty of America shines through in our experience – we’ve taken the holiday and added our own spin to it,” she says. “Yes turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, green beans, mashed potatoes and gravy are all part of the feast, but so too are pancit [Filipino noodles], lumpia [eggrolls] and other Filipino foods. And while American football is of course on the TV, before the game begins we do karaoke, because that stereotype is true – every Filipino loves to sing.”
Todd Williams, an Abu Dhabi-based expat originally from North Carolina, also agrees that there’s a place for both tradition and new additions at the Thanksgiving table. “So much of the day, and the food, is about recreating memories of Thanksgivings past. For example, I don’t think I’ve ever had a Thanksgiving meal that didn’t include my mum’s recipe for yams with mini marshmallows,” he says wistfully. “But it’s also about making new memories, too – since living in the UAE we always have hummus and a fattoush-style salad as well, and I know we’ll continue to do that when we eventually move back home.”
The fourth Thursday in November isn’t affectionately nicknamed “turkey day” without good reason and Vasek’s sentiment that “a Thanksgiving without the turkey just wouldn’t be Thanksgiving to me” is shared by many. The fact that the meat has remained central to the feast over the years while others fell out of favour (here’s looking at you, waterfowl) makes sense: turkey is widely available and affordable, and it feeds a crowd, while also yielding leftovers. Even though it does demand a good few hours in the oven, that time can be spent relaxing and putting the finishing touches to the sides.
That said, the pressure that comes with delivering the goods by way of a golden, juicy, flawlessly roasted bird is enough to send cooks into a spin. Enter Hattem Mattar, a man who knows his meat. Referred to by those in the know as the first Arab pitmaster, he is the driving force behind The Mattar Farm Kitchen – a homegrown concept and the UAE’s only artisan smokehouse.
While the handcrafted smoked meat they produce is delicious – we’re talking beef brisket, smoked chicken, duck, lamb leg and beef ribs, all of which can be purchased online for delivery across Dubai – turkey is the order of this particular day. Mattar highlights that sourcing a high-quality bird is absolutely key to your success – his smokehouse offers customers both local organic and American turkeys.
These birds are then left to soak in a special brine to impart flavour, rubbed with a hand-blended spice mix and smoked over a specific wood mix. While that might sound rather complicated, Mattar says it is entirely possible to produce a turkey with perfectly crisp golden skin and tender, flavourful meat within, at home. “The trick is knowing when to use a high temperature for the crispy skin and then low heat to get the turkey cooked all the way through,” he explains. “Begin by roasting the bird at a low heat and covered with foil until the internal temperature reaches 73°C on a meat thermometer.
At that point, increase the heat to high and continue to cook, uncovered, until the skin is crisp and the meat is completely cooked through.” He also stresses the importance of leaving the meat to rest (still covered with foil) once you take it out of the oven. Not only does this grant you the opportunity (and oven space) to cook the side dishes and master the gravy, it gives the juices time to be reabsorbed back into the meat, making for a succulent, more flavourful end result that’s also easier to carve.
Turkey might be considered the main event, but Thanksgiving side dishes are far more than just supporting acts. And while we’ve already noted that every family has their own classic dishes, and every member their most treasured accompaniments, there are a few items that certainly deserve an honourable mention in this section.
Stuffing – also known as dressing – is a must. Traditional recipes tend to feature a mix of diced bread, sauteed chopped vegetables (celery, onion, carrots) and herbs, with chestnuts, apples and dried fruit sometimes making an appearance. If you want to shake things up though, this is an easy place to do so (just remember that you might anger the purists). Try a buttermilk-soaked cornbread base, slip some on-trend kale in there, add cheese, sliced fennel and walnuts, or give the dish an Italian twist, with olives, basil and pine nuts.
Divisive might be too light a term to describe the conventional green bean casserole – a dish that has its lovers, haters and those that don’t even notice whether it makes an appearance or not, because they’re too busy piling on the cranberry sauce. The original green bean casserole recipe is credited to a home economist working at the Campbell Soup Kitchen in the mid-1950s, who was tasked with creating a dish that showcased the company’s condensed cream of mushroom soup.
The resulting bake, which mixes frozen or canned green beans with the aforementioned soup, as well as milk, soy sauce and crunchy French’s Crispy Fried Onions, has been a holiday staple in homes ever since. Should you dare go off piste, blistered green beans with toasted mustard seeds, a green bean, rocket, feta and candied pecan salad, or even pickled green beans (to be served with the cheese course) might well float your Thanksgiving boat.
For any non-Americans who have yet to try mashed sweet potatoes topped with a fluff of blistered and browned mini marshmallows, our advice is to reserve judgment until you do, because you might soon be conceding that this dish is the darling of the Thanksgiving meal. Long-term fans of this particular side will no doubt have their own recipe ready and waiting for the day, but if there’s room for manoeuvre in the ingredients list, consider a little experimentation by way of a drizzle of molasses, hint of cinnamon and orange zest, or a generous scattering of chopped rosemary cooked in nutty brown butter. For those who really can’t abide the idea of mash, how does roasted sweet potatoes with crispy sage and garlic, sweet potato, chilli and ginger puree, or maple and orange glazed wedges sound?
Pie, pie and more pie
In his best-selling book, Thanksgiving: How to Cook it Well, Sam Sifton, the food editor for The New York Times, says on the subject of dessert: “It absolutely should not be experimental or overly cute. It must not involve individual tartlets or parfaits, nor marshmallows in any form.”
He later goes on to add: “Focus on the proper execution of the American classics: apple pie, for instance, with a mound of whipped cream, or pumpkin pie with the same. These represent Thanksgiving’s highest achievement.”
We’re certainly not here to disagree with the man who quite literally wrote the book on Thanksgiving food, and neither are the millions of people who finish their meal with pie every year. The only questions that remains then are whether you’ll be making your own or purchasing a ready-prepared pie, and what filling will be nestling within that buttery pastry case.
Hina Sayeed, general manager of First Crust, an online company that specialises in delivering freshly baked, handmade pies to customers across Dubai, is something of an expert on the subject. “When you’re making a pie, the crust is key; it has to be flaky, buttery and most importantly, freshly baked. That’s the reason all our pies are baked to order and delivered the same day,” Sayeed explains. “Pay attention to the little details: always use good quality ingredients, keep the butter cold and use freshly ground spices. It makes all the difference.”
When it comes to fillings, she rightly points out that you can’t really go wrong with either pumpkin, pecan or apple, all served warm, with whipped cream, ice cream or custard. That said, if you can’t be bothered, and serve one of First Crust’s Thanksgiving chocolate pecan pies or apple crisp cheesecake pies, we doubt your guests will set their spoons down in complaint.