Since my Iranian-immigrant mother spent my childhood resisting assimilation, I didn’t sit down to a proper Thanksgiving dinner until my early 20s. I like to think that I’m unburdened by all the nostalgic associations that cloud everyone else’s judgment of the meal. And so I’ll say what no one else will: It’s pretty boring on the palate.
Sure, I love a leftovers sandwich as much as the next person, and once I’d tasted some decent stuffing, I could get on board with that. But 20 years into Thanksgiving meals with different friends and families, I couldn’t help but notice what a bleak landscape of sameness the food always is: brown, sweet, soft, too rich or too dry, too salty or too bland. Besides cranberry sauce, which everyone ends up relying on for brightness, there’s nothing acidic — much less anything crunchy, fresh, vibrant or even (gasp) spicy!
As a champion of cooking in any shape or form, I love watching so many people excitedly get into the kitchen on Thanksgiving. I only wonder, for all the time and energy spent, wouldn’t you want to delight your taste buds a little more? With that in mind, here are five ways to make every bite of your Thanksgiving meal exciting and irresistible.
Add a Bit of Sweet and Sour
I often dress roasted vegetables with a simple agrodolce, or sweet and sour, marinade. This version is inspired by sarde in saor, a classic Venetian dish whose ingredient list hints at the city’s role as a central port in the medieval spice trade. Fried sardines are topped with a mixture of sautéed onions, pine nuts, saffron and wine-soaked raisins, and made appealingly sweet-tart with a little sugar and vinegar. I figured that saor mixture would make an ideal accompaniment to roasted brussels sprouts, served hot or at room temperature, though you could use it on any vegetable side dish. Just finish with a little lemon and a shower of freshly chopped parsley, and prepare for some mouth-puckering delight.
Freshness and Crunch Are Essential
With so little that’s fresh and crunchy on the Thanksgiving table, salad, to me, feels essential. I love the gentle bitterness that autumn chicories like Castelfranco and Treviso radicchio offer, but frisée and Chioggia radicchio, which are even more readily available, are also welcome additions to the dish. They’ll all hold up well to the occasional intrusion of gravy or any other warm dishes on the plate.
I usually dress chicories with rich balsamic or sherry vinaigrette, but after a neighbor served me a memorable salad she made with rice vinegar and lemon after she’d run out of everything else, I’ve taken to lightening my dressing with them. I still like to sneak in a bit of anchovy for a rumor of umami — just enough to alert the palate and complement the Roquefort, the crunch of the pecan and the silky sweetness of the pear — but the bright, acidic vinaigrette is such refreshing surprise, you won’t want to stop eating this salad.
Sage was one of the first things I was taught to deep-fry, and I’ve never forgotten how a pass through hot oil transforms the herbs into crisp leaves. No longer leathery, they’re still perfectly aromatic, ready to crumble into a simple combination of parsley, oil, shallots and vinegar. Drizzle fried sage salsa verde over turkey, roasted vegetables, stuffing, casseroles or anything else that needs a little perking up.
… And a Little Heat
I can hardly get through a meal without spooning chile oil over every bite, so, of course, I want something on the Thanksgiving table to be spicy hot. Inspired by two favorite chutney recipes from the chef and anthropologist Niloufer Ichaporia King’s landmark cookbook, “My Bombay Kitchen,” I developed a cilantro-date chutney run through with fresh ginger, jalapeño and lime. Ginger and dates both fit in seamlessly with the sweet spices and other dried fruit that already appear on Thanksgiving menus, giving the sauce an anchor. Cilantro and lime lend freshness, while the peppers offer a much-appreciated kick. This sauce is also fantastic on leftover turkey sandwiches.
Don’t Sleep on This Topping
Last year, the chef Nite Yun of Nyum Bai in Oakland, Calif., taught me the Cambodian method for frying shallot rings. It’s so unbelievably simple that I’ll never make them any other way. You don’t need a thermometer or any other special equipment — just patience and a careful eye. In exchange, you’re rewarded with caramel-sweet shallots that crunch, then melt between your teeth. The frying oil the shallots leave behind is so flavorful that it’s a shame not to repurpose it, so I put it to use to make this herbed bread crumb topping — the Thanksgiving addition I’m most excited about. Stale bread crumbs, rosemary and sage take their turns in the oil, each crisping as it cools. Then, they’re tossed with some chopped parsley, thyme and a little flaky salt. From the moment it’s done, you won’t be able to stop eating it. But if you wait, it’ll make the perfect topping for green bean casserole, potato gratin, or macaroni and cheese. Or sprinkle it atop mashed potatoes doused with gravy. Or, just put a bowl of it on the table and let people do with it what they will — they’ll probably end up putting some on every bite.
Let these principles guide you, and you’ll see: Whether you make one recipe, or all five, your meal will be more texturally varied, more flavorful and more inspiring than ever before. Don’t you think it’s the least you deserve for all the time you’ll be spending in the kitchen?