Thanksgiving is always the fourth Thursday of November, which usually leaves at least a week for America to digest the bodacious family meal, travel back home from family gatherings, and have a breather, albeit brief, before preparations for the Christmas holidays take over the December calendar. This year, it is so late, Kit and I have considered preparing just a simple dinner of Thanksgiving sides instead—old favorites and some new American classics.
Following my Riggs family tradition, I’ll assemble a batch of Roberta’s cornbread stuffing from a southern recipe shared by a woman who helped Mother plan her first Thanksgiving dinner in the 1940s. This year, inspired by Alabama chef Scott Peacock’s classic southern recipes in the November 2019 issue of “Martha Stewart Living” magazine, I plan to add a cup of pecan halves and buttermilk to Roberta’s tried and true cornbread recipe. I’m also planning to make a batch of Peacock’s crusty buttermilk biscuits and prepare his Bayou La Batre Shrimp-and-Sausage Gravy to spoon over the hot split biscuits.
One year, our daughter Heidi and her partner Sugie came for Thanksgiving. Longtime vegetarians, they don’t eat anything “that ever had a mother.” Rising to the challenge, we prepared a meatless Thanksgiving dinner featuring glazed Kubota squash and nutty brown rice. Both blended well with the traditional sides I grew up with— sweet potato casserole, cranberry relish, Roberta’s cornbread dressing, creamed corn (a Salter favorite) and two pies (one pecan and one pumpkin).
For the vegetable dish, Mother served green peas simmered with butter and mint. While Brussels Sprouts never made it into her kitchen, they’ve become a colorful and delicious addition to our holiday meals. Slice Brussels Sprouts in halves or quarters and toss with olive oil, red grapes, walnut pieces, fresh thyme and coarse salt before roasting at 450 degrees for 20 minutes. Drizzle after roasting with balsamic vinegar and serve. The grapes and balsamic make the dish a sweet and irresistible addition to the holiday meal.
Instead of Mother’s classic cranberry Jell-O salad with red raspberries and chopped celery, I prefer a fresh salad of chopped apples tossed with dried cranberries, celery, walnut or pecan pieces, and lemon zest. This year, I’ll make jars of David Lebovitz’s cranberry chutney that combines fresh or frozen cranberries with a tart apple, apple cider vinegar, brown sugar, red pepper flakes, a combination of candied ginger, orange or lemon peel, and assorted dried fruit—cherries, dates, figs, raisins and apricots (www.davidlebovitz.com). And, of course, Thanksgiving wouldn’t be complete without a dish of jumbo pitted black olives with holes big enough to poke a finger into, just like my sisters and I did when we were kids.
Finally, you can never have too much pie. Mother always baked a pecan pie from scratch the day before Thanksgiving and a pumpkin pie (following the classic Libby’s pumpkin pie recipe on the can) baked early the morning of the feast. While the table was being cleared, everyone had time to move around before diving into a delicious slice of pie topped with homemade whipped cream.
While perusing the aforementioned issue of “Martha Stewart Living,” I’ve been tempted to try the new American pumpkin pie classic on the cover. It’s made with a crust of layered sheets of phyllo dough sculpted up the sides of a dish. When baked, the creation resembles jagged mountain peaks surrounding a deep caldera filled with pumpkin purée burnished orange gold by a western sun. Instead of adding cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg to the pumpkin filling, this new recipe substitutes Five Spices Powder commonly used in Chinese and Taiwanese cuisine (star anise, cloves, Chinese cinnamon, Sichuan pepper, and fennel seeds).
While the temptation is always to prepare the same Thanksgiving dishes we grew up with, it’s fun to infuse new, non-traditional tastes that blend with the old. This Thanksgiving as you savor America’s quintessential family holiday dinner, take time to remember our deep immigrant roots as a nation, and let your epicurious spirit and heart be open to change.