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Today is Thanksgiving.  Thanksgiving is one of those mishmash of holidays that has shady and dubious origins from many different traditions.

Tonight I'll talk a little about Thanksgiving in the United States.

Being strict uber-right wing Fundamentalist Christians, the Calvinists of the Massachusetts Bay Colony had many "Days of Thanksgiving" in their calendar.  That usually meant they spent all day in Church being all solemn and holy.

The occasion popularly know as "The First Thanksgiving" was simply a Harvest Festivalcelebrating the first successful harvest of the colonists.  And certainly there is a lot of giving thanks at a Harvest Feast.  After all, you're celebrating the bounty you have grown.

And what's grown?  Wheat, corn, and beans.  We see a very sophisticated dig at "tradition" in that cartoon above.  After all, Harvest Feasts contained the Lammas, meaning 'loaf Mass'. The Latin prayer to hallow the bread is given in the Durham Ritual. Farmers made loaves of bread from the fresh wheat crop. These were given to the local church as the Communion bread during a special service thanking God for the harvest.

And of course, in the New World, beans and corn are the main staples besides wheat.  So we have toast and pretzels made from wheat, popcorn, and a symbolic representation of beans in the form of jelly beans.  Charlie Brown is having a true Harvest Festival--the Pagan Lammas.

In fact, Thanksgiving wasn't even about food at first.  On November 30, 1777, George Washington issued an order calling for December 18 of that year to be set aside as a day "for Solemn Thanksgiving and Praise" due to the recent victories in the Revolution.  Nothing food related about that.

It wasn't until the Nineteenth Century that a day of Thanksgiving joined with the concept of feasting that the Harvest Festival brought.  A letter writing campaign ended with President Lincoln declaring that the last Thursday in November would be a day of Thanksgiving.  This tradition continued until 1939, when President Roosevelt pandered to American retailers (Corporate Overlords) and changed Thanksgiving to the THIRD Thursday in November so they could extend the Christmas Shopping Season.  The confusion lasted for two years when it was moved back to the Fourth Thursday in November, where it is to this day.

Enough history.  Y'all came for the food.  Every feast is different, and every family has its own traditions.  I go to my brother's house, but here's how I personally would do Thanksgiving:

If I'm feeling saucy, I'll do an appetizer.  And the one I like best is brie en croute.  That's a wheel of brie, topped with something, and wrapped in puff pastry and baked.  I like sauteed mushrooms with bacon, but also common are jellies/compotes and nuts for a sweet version.  

2 wheels brie, 8-12 oz
2 pre-made pie crusts, thawed
1 egg, beaten
3/4 cup sauteed mushrooms with bacon
1/2 cup fruit compote or jelly
1/2 cup chopped walnuts

Shave rinds off cheese if desired.  Gently unroll each pie crust and lay it on a floured cookie sheet.  Roll the crust to smooth creases.  Place the brie in the center, and top one with mushrooms and the other with the jelly/nut combination.  Fold over the crust and press edges to seal.  Cut off any excess.  Bush with the beaten egg and place in a 375 degree oven for at least 20-25 minutes until golden brown.  

Here are some more topping ideas, both sweet and savory:

Now for the most important part, the bird.  Of course, the most popular is turkey.  and I have become a convert to brining.  No matter how you cook it--roast, fry, or smoke, brine that bird.  And yes, I'm a sheeple and follow Alton Brown's brine recipe:

1 cup kosher salt
    1/2 cup light brown sugar
    1 gallon vegetable stock
    1 tablespoon black peppercorns
    1 1/2 teaspoons allspice berries
    1 1/2 teaspoons chopped candied ginger
    1 gallon heavily iced water

Combine the vegetable stock, salt, brown sugar, peppercorns, allspice berries, and candied ginger in a large stockpot over medium-high heat. Stir occasionally to dissolve solids and bring to a boil. Then remove the brine from the heat, cool to room temperature, and refrigerate.

Early on the day or the night before you'd like to eat:

Combine the brine, water and ice in the 5-gallon bucket. Place the thawed turkey (with innards removed) breast side down in brine. If necessary, weigh down the bird to ensure it is fully immersed, cover, and refrigerate or set in cool area for 8 to 16 hours, turning the bird once half way through brining.

After brining, one of my personal favorite ways to cook a turkey is to smoke it:
You will need a 10-12 pound turkey.  Thaw in the refrigerator for at least 3-4 days.  After brining, fill the cavity with the aromatics of your choice.  I use onion, garlic, and some kind of citrus like orange.  Tuck the wings under the bird and you're ready to go.

Setting up your grill.  Set up your grill for indirect cooking if you don't have an offset smoker.  

Soak a few handfuls of wood chips or chunks for about an hour.  Arrange the coals on either side of a drip tray placed in the center of the grill.  Place the turkey on the center of the rack, and add wood chips.  Cover when the chips begin to smoke. If you have a gas grill, place all the chips into a pouch made of heavy duty aluminum foil and poke a few holes in the pouch.  Set the pouch on the burner.  Add a handful of fresh coals and wood chunks about every hour.  The temperature should be around 250 degrees at the most.  A 10-12 pound turkey should take around 4 hours.  The breast meat should read about 155-160 degrees, and the deepest part of the thigh should read close to 180 degrees.  Remove, cover with foil and rest for about 20 minutes and here is your result:

Now, one must be careful about how much smoke one uses.  Too much smoke will turn the skin rubbery instead of nicely crisp.

 Now comes the question which will provoke fights and arguments around our Thanksgiving table:  

To stuff or not to stuff?

Yes, believe it or not, this question WILL cause arguments.  Think of it as a foodie version of Team Jacob vs Team Edward.

Me?  I stuff.  I do, however, follow a couple of simple rules when I make my stuffing:

1.  Pre-cook EVERYTHING.  If you like an oyster or sausage stuffing, this is DOUBLY important.  Things should be pre-cooked because in order to cook the ingredients that will be packed in the middle of that cavity, the bird itself will become like a cross between sawdust and shoe leather.  NOT good eats.  Pre cooking will let you get the stuffing up to 145-150 (out of the danger zone) quicker, preserving the juiciness of the bird.  Plus, pre cooking helps slow possible cross contamination from the raw turkey.  The stuffing closest to the bird will reach temperature quicker, forming a barrier which will prevent a the center from becoming contaminated.  

2.  Stuff the bird right before it goes in the oven.  Once you get that last spoon of stuffing inside the bird, immediately put it in the oven.  Again, this will help prevent cross contamination.  The less time exposed, the less risk of contamination.

Call me reckless, but we've been doing it this way all my life and I'm fine.

Oh--I use stuffing when I roast the turkey.  You cannot stuff a turkey you're going to smoke. Only aromatics in that bird.

Anyway, my stuffing recipe is just a basic simple one.  The day before, I take the giblets and the neck, and put them in a pot of water.  Just like I'm making stock, I scum it once it boils, then add an onion and a carrot for flavor.  When the stock is ready, I remove the neck and peel off any meat, chop the giblets, and mash/chop the vegetables.  Then I put everything in the refrigerator.  As far as bread goes, I basically use what I have in the freezer in terms of ends and leftover slices and such.  I've had white, rye, and cinnamon bread all at once in a stuffing.  The day before, I take them all out, thaw them, and cube them.  I then take a stick of butter and melt it in a skillet.  I chop a large onion, and almost an entire stalk of celery.  Once that begins to sweat, I'll add some parsley, as well as poultry seasoning, pepper, and a bullion cube or two.  I cover, and let the celery get very tender.  I may add mushrooms if I'm feeling the inspiration, I may not.  

Anyway, once everything is tender, I let it cool slightly.  I add the giblet/veg mixture from the day before and warm it.  Then I get my bread.  I usually dip the bread in the stock, squeeze it out a bit, then add it to the vegetable mixture.  I know most people add dry bread then mix the stock in, but I'm weird that way.  Anyway, once all the bread is mixed in, the stuffing is done.  And since everything is cooked, you can eat it right then and there.  But we won't.  

After I retrieve the turkey from the brine and pat it dry, I pepper it on the inside and then I add my secret for extra juicy white meat:  I put butter under the skin all over the bird.  And not just a pat or two.  The butter will melt and help keep the meat moist.  Then I begin to stuff.  Once I get the stuffing in both the neck and main cavities, I'll put a slice of bread over the cavities and fold any loose skin over it.  

Then I put it in the oven.  I use a 350 degree oven.  I cover the pan with a very loose tent of foil until the last hour when I let the skin brown.  I'll cook until the white meat registers 155-160.  Then cover, let it rest, then carve.

So much for the turkey. On to the topic of many an argument:  Side dishes.

First up:  Mashed potatoes.  The potato is a canvas on which many flavors and variations are added.  Because of my weight loss program, when it comes to mashed potatoes, I do things a bit differently.  Instead of butter I use a fat free butter substitute.  Instead of milk I use fat free sour cream or Greek yogurt.  I will, however, add real Parmesan cheese.  If I'm feeling adventurous, I'd add roasted garlic as well as horseradish.

Now to go with potatoes, the gravy.  I begin mine by making a roux.  I'll use equal parts butter and flour and brown them.  I like a caramel colored roux--not quite brick red for gumbo, but a nice brown with a nutty smell.  I'll add turkey stock I made the day before, and then bring to a boil to thicken.  When the turkey is done, I'll also add drippings for more flavor.

From Wikipedia:

   Green bean casserole was first created in 1955 by the Campbell Soup Company.  Dorcas Reilly led the team that created the recipe while working as a staff member in the home economics department. The inspiration for the dish was "to create a quick and easy recipe around two things most Americans always had on hand in the 1950s: [canned] green beans and Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup."
Now it's become practically a staple.  And the french fried onion industry does its biggest sales during the Holiday season.

Anyway, I got rid of all that extra sodium and fat and created a low(er) fat more nutritious version:

You need:

2 pounds fresh green beans or haricot verts
1 pound sliced mushrooms
1/2-1 pound bacon (I like bacon) chopped
2-3 Tbsp flour
1 medium to large onion, chopped
French fried onions (You can make your own or buy a can)
1 Qt Chicken stock (from a box--make sure it's low sodium!)

Render the bacon into lardons in a large dutch oven.  Drain all but 2 Tbsp of fat from the pot.  Add the onion and mushrooms and saute.  When the mushrooms are cooked, add the flour.  Let all the flour get coated with the fat.  Add the stock and bring to a boil to thicken.  Meanwhile, blanch the beans for about a minute or so in boiling salted water.  Remove and immediately shock in an ice bath.  Drain thoroughly and add to the liquid.  Add some french fried onions to the mixture.  This will help it thicken more.  Pour the whole thing into a casserole dish and bake for about 45 minutes at 350 degrees.  Top with more fried onions and serve.

I could go on and on with recipes for side dishes, so I will.

Another favorite of Thanksgiving are sweet potatoes.  Personally, I'll take them sliced and roasted with just a bit of olive oil, salt, and pepper.  When they get a bit crispy and brown, they're so good.

But I can see the need for "something special" for the table, so I like a variation on this recipe:

 

    3 cups cold mashed sweet potatoes (without added milk and butter)
        1 cup sugar
        1/2 cup milk
        1/4 cup butter or margarine, softened
        3 eggs
        1 teaspoon salt
        1 teaspoon vanilla extract
        TOPPING:
        1/2 cup packed brown sugar
        1/2 cup chopped pecans
        1/4 cup all-purpose flour
        2 tablespoons cold butter or margarine

        To make the mashed sweet potatoes, place in a 375 oven unwrapped for about two hours, or until fork tender.  Not knife tender, fork tender.  Let cool, and mash.

        In a mixing bowl, beat sweet potatoes, sugar, milk, butter, eggs, salt and vanilla until smooth. Transfer to a greased 2-qt. baking dish. In a small bowl, combine brown sugar, pecans and flour; cut in butter until crumbly. Sprinkle over potato mixture. Bake, uncovered, at 325 degrees F for 45-50 minutes or until golden brown.

One of the traditions in our family is that my mother always makes some rutabaga.  She makes it the exact same way. She cuts it into cubes, boils it, drains it, and adds some cheese to it.

Another Thanksgiving tradition is winter squash--butternut, pumpkin, acorn, what have you.  They can be prepared like the sweet potatoes, or they can also be cut into chunks and roasted. Yum. Just coat lightly with olive oil, season, and roast in the oven at 350 for about 45 minutes, turning once, until it is tender and golden brown.

And another traditional side is creamed spinach.  However, like the green bean casserole, it's often full of extra fat and sodium.  Here's a tasty alternative:

   2 boxes frozen spinach
    1 lb sliced mushrooms
    4 slices bacon, chopped
    1 medium onion
    1/2 cup low fat or fat free ricotta or cottage cheese
    1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese to mix, 1/4 cup Parmesan to top
    1/2 cup fat free sour cream
    1-2 eggs depending on egg size and amount of stuff you have.

    Render the bacon and remove the pieces.  Add the onion and mushroom and saute.  Meanwhile, thaw and squeeze dry the spinach.  When the mushrooms are done, add the rest of the ingredients and mix.  Pour into a casserole dish, and bake in a 350 degree oven for about 30 minutes.  Top with the remaining Parmesan and broil (or bake) until the cheese turns brown and bubbly.

Now, Thanksgiving means cranberry sauce.  And here is another debate.  Food Network Magazine did a poll of about 15,000 readers/viewers and the results are that 54%, that's 54%, prefer the cranberry sauce in the can.  And you know what, it's just not Thanksgiving without it.  So that's my story, and I'm sticking to it.  But, here is where you can go for recipes for homemade sauce.

Now, I love desserts on Thanksgiving, especially the pies.  However, I don't like to spend a lot of time baking, so I usually get one of the frozen pies.  But here's a recipe I'd LOVE to try.  It's for a pumpkin chocolate cheesecake.

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted, plus more for the pan
    1 9-oz pkg chocolate wafer cookies (such as Nabisco Famous Wafers)
    3 8-oz pkgs cream cheese, at room temperature
    1/2 cup fat-free Greek yogurt
    1 cup sugar
    2 Tbsp all-purpose flour
    2 tsp pumpkin pie spice
    2 tsp pure vanilla extract
    3 large eggs
    1 15-oz can pure pumpkin
    1/3 cup bittersweet chocolate chips (2 oz)  (If I make this, I'm using a bit more chocolate)

    Heat oven to 375°F. Coat a 9-in. springform pan with melted butter.
    In a food processor, pulse the chocolate wafers to form fine crumbs. Add the melted butter and pulse to incorporate. Press the crumb mixture into the bottom and 2 in. up the sides of the pan. Bake until the crust is set and fragrant, 10 to 12 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool. Reduce oven temperature to 325°F.
    Meanwhile, using an electric mixer, beat the cream cheese, yogurt, sugar, flour, pumpkin pie spice and vanilla in a large bowl until smooth. Beat in the eggs one at a time. Transfer 1 cup of the batter to a bowl. Beat the pumpkin into the remaining batter until fully incorporated. Pour the pumpkin batter into the cooled crust.
    Melt the chocolate in the microwave according to package directions. Add the chocolate to the reserved plain batter and stir until fully incorporated.
    Dollop the chocolate batter over the pumpkin batter. Using a table knife, make decorative swirls by pulling the chocolate through the pumpkin (do not overdo it or the colors will turn muddy).
    Bake the cheesecake until the edge is set and center still wobbles slightly, 50 to 55 minutes. Let the cheesecake cool completely in the pan, then refrigerate until chilled, at least 4 hours and up to 1 day.

Of course, you must have bread with your meal.  Here is a simple recipe for dinner rolls
      4 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast
        1/2 cup warm water (110 degrees F to 115 degrees F)
        2 cups warm milk (110 to 115 degrees F)
        6 tablespoons shortening
        2 eggs
        1/4 cup sugar
        1 1/2 teaspoons salt
        7 cups all-purpose flour

        In a large mixing bowl, dissolve yeast in warm water. Add the milk, shortening, eggs, sugar, salt and 3 cups flour; beat until smooth. Stir in enough remaining flour to form a soft dough.
        Turn onto a floured surface; knead until smooth and elastic, about 6-8 minutes (dough will be sticky). Place in a greased bowl, turning once to grease top. Cover and let rise in a warm place until doubled, about 1 hour.
        Punch dough down. Turn onto a lightly floured surface; divide into 24 pieces. Shape each into a roll. Place 2 in. apart on greased baking sheets. Cover and let rise until doubled, about 30 minutes. Bake at 350 degrees F for 20-25 minutes or until golden brown. Remove to wire racks.

The usual reaction after a spread like this is to loosen the belt and take a nap.  People wrongly blame the turkey.  While the turkey does have tryptophan, and that does make you sleepy, the main driver of post eating napping is the carb loading you're doing eating everything.  If you look at a "typical" spread, most of the side dishes are starchy carbs.  There are precious few leafy greens.  Even the desserts contribute to the carbs. That's why people like actors usually have very light lunches.  That's why many times you're sluggish at work after lunch.  It's all the carbs we eat as a society. It was just reported that people eat an average of 4500 calories just for the Thanksgiving Dinner. That's five sticks of butter.  Eat up.

But enough preaching.  Let's hear about all YOUR traditions and foods that "won't be Thanksgiving without them".  Let's see YOUR recipes for stuffing/dressing, desserts, and all that.  Let's share our feasts, traditions, and stories of memorable Thanksgivings.  

Welcome to our Daily Kos Thanksgiving Table.  No pies unless they are going to be eaten.  We want our day to be free of those arguments.

Originally posted to zenbassoon on Thu Nov 28, 2013 at 06:51 PM PST.

Also republished by What's for Dinner.

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