Melissa Clark has been a columnist for the Times’s Food section since 2007. Her childhood Thanksgivings included her father’s quest to make the perfect turkey. In this year’s recipe, she carries on her late dad’s tradition, and makes one inspired by the savory leg of lamb.
Thanksgiving mornings were chaos when I was a kid, and my dad was always in the middle of it. There’d be butter splattering from the turkey basting, pans of mushrooms hissing. It was always right at the most hectic moment when he’d look up, tears in his eyes (from the onions he was chopping), and declare, “Thanksgiving is the best holiday, because it’s all about the food.”
What he was talking about was not just the meal itself, but the messy, convivial process of everyone cooking it together: the garlic mincing, vegetable trimming and pie dough rolling, all punctuated by the chatting, kvetching and endless debate over the paprika in the brussels sprouts and whether the turkey was done.
For me, the joy comes in pressing the butter into the flour with my fingers, trying to get the lightest, airiest pie crust, while my husband, Daniel, mashes butter and bourbon into the sweet potatoes, humming to the Bowie he’s put on the morning’s playlist. My daughter, Dahlia, likes to pick the leaves off herbs and nibble on marshmallows when she imagines no one is looking. As friends and family arrive, they end up in the kitchen too, wine glasses and potato peelers pressed into their hands. And just as when I was a kid, there’s the chatting, the kvetching and the endless debate about whether to put candied ginger in the pie or the ice cream — and whether the turkey is finally done.
Then there’s strategizing, experimenting, tweaking. Thanksgiving is the most traditional dinner on the calendar, so I like to subvert it just a little, figuring out how to take an unchanging menu and reimagine it every time without losing its comforting essence.
I realize it may not be like this for everyone. Cooking Thanksgiving can be stressful. Expectations run high, turkeys burn, pies bubble over. But I believe that if you engineer your day so you can cook with those you love and find happiness doing it, no one will notice if the white meat’s a little dry. (That’s what gravy is for.)
My dad passed away last year, a few weeks before Thanksgiving, so we skipped the big feast, sharing bagels and lox instead. It was too soon to do it without him. This year we’re finding our rhythm again, and I’ll host at my place for the first time. I’ll be making the dishes you see here, the food we love. There’ll be far too much of it, but that’s O.K. Thanksgiving, of course, is all about the food.
Why can’t turkey taste more like lamb — specifically, a Provençal-style leg of lamb, rubbed down with garlic, anchovies and rosemary?
This was the question my father asked whenever talk turned to Thanksgiving. He’d threaten to make something other than a bird for our group of 20 or more friends, relatives and neighbors — anyone who needed a place to go. But he gave in to tradition every time, grumbling at first, then lovingly fussing over each detail. He liked to dabble in cooking trends, experimenting in an attempt to top the previous year’s effort. We ate our way through the Brining Years, the Slow-Roasting Era, the Spatchcocking Phase, the Basting-With-Butter-Every-30-Minutes Period, and a brief Cheesecloth-Over-the-Breast moment. All the turkeys were juicy, with crisp brown skin. But he never rested. A better bird — more flavorful, more tender, more bronzed — was always in reach, if only he could find the right technique.
What my father was never able to try was treating the turkey as if it were a leg of lamb, and that’s what I’ve done here. Copying his (perfected) lamb-leg method, I pierced the turkey legs, making tiny slits in which to stuff a paste of garlic, anchovies and rosemary. After marinating the bird overnight, I roasted it until it was almost as gorgeously golden as his was. The garlic-scented drippings make the most wonderful gravy, which was not something he’d tried with lamb — no matter how much he loved experimenting.
To me, bread is the soul of a good stuffing. The better the bread, the better the dish. So I buy rich, egg-yellow challah or brioche, letting them go stale so they can absorb the most flavor from vegetables and stock.
My mother considers this a waste. “I prefer eating my brioche with butter and jam,” she said. A frugal child of the Depression and World War II, she makes her stuffing out of scraps she has saved all year. Baguette heels, rye crusts, leftover bagels: All go into a plastic bag in the freezer.
We also disagree about chestnuts. I opt for peeled roasted chestnuts in a jar, but my mother insists they be peeled fresh, a task that fell to my father. He’d do four at a time, scoring an “X” onto the glossy shells, microwaving them until the shells curled back, then yanking them off while the nuts were still warm. He’d listen to an opera to pass the time; when Don Giovanni descended into hell, I’d know the job was done.
Something my mother and I do agree on is the importance of good homemade stock. We make it with every leftover bone that comes through our kitchens. To season the broth, I save leek tops and parsley stems in a bag in the freezer; without any bread scraps in there, I’ve got plenty of room.
There’s no roasted potato like a duck fat-roasted potato. Crisp and brown at the edges, with a fluffy interior and a deep, brawny flavor, it is a potato taken to its highest form.
We like to slather the tiniest yellow potatoes we can find with duck fat, toss them into a pan and then put them in the oven while the turkey roasts, so their skins turn brittle and brown. You might feel you have your starches covered between sweet potatoes and the stuffing, but these potatoes will persuade you to make room on your plate.
Because I roast potatoes almost all year long, I always keep a jar of homemade duck fat on hand. When supplies run low, I’ll sauté a couple of duck breasts for dinner, decanting the golden fat into a container in the freezer. This is yet another trick I learned this from my mother, who’d say, “Why buy duck fat when you can get it for free from a duck?”
Chicken fat also works here. My father sometimes used a classic onion-laden schmaltz for his roasted potatoes, though not for Thanksgiving. He was too focused on trying to perfect the turkey.
Since there’s usually at least one vegetarian at our Thanksgiving table, I often make a separate pan of olive oil-roasted potatoes, using the same timing and proportions. Though they’re less rich, the potatoes still turn crunchy and golden, and make a gorgeous contrast to all the other soft textures on the plate.
Dahlia rushed into the house one day last November, slamming the door, stamping her feet, and glaring at Daniel and me. “You’ve been depriving me of marshmallows all my life!” she said.
It was true. My family never served marshmallow-topped sweet potatoes at Thanksgiving. We didn’t like them, and since Dahlia hadn’t known of their existence, we’d felt no need to enlighten her. Now she’d heard. We were busted.
Our sweet potatoes had been a more grown-up affair, one that Daniel brought to the table while he and I were still dating. His recipe, which he adapted from the chef Deborah Madison, called for roasting whole sweet potatoes, mashing them with huge amounts of butter and bourbon and sprinkling them with clove, cinnamon and allspice. He’d mash them with a fork, purposely leaving a bit of texture.Unable to resist fiddling, I tweaked his recipe here and there, most significantly changing the texture.
I like a silkier purée, so I whirl the potatoes in the food processor. It’s faster, and the food processor doesn’t make them gluey the way it does regular potatoes. I also added a little lemon zest for brightness, and a touch of dark brown sugar for depth.
Now that Dahlia is in the know, I scoop some of the purée into a ramekin, top it with mini marshmallows, and broil it until browned. Of the many injustices of her childhood, this one was pretty easy to fix.
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Of all the Thanksgiving leftovers that crowd the fridge, cranberry relish is the one I crave, even stashing the container in the back behind the mango pickle so I don’t have to share.
Sure, I adore a cold turkey sandwich slathered with mustard and mayo (or better: mayo and chile paste). And leftover stuffing crisped in a hot, greased pan until hash-brown-like and golden makes a fine morning-after brunch. But it’s the relish — a bracing scarlet mixture to spoon over my yogurt with honey and granola — that makes me giddy.
The original recipe came to our family through my Aunt Sandy, who clipped it out of a magazine now long gone. She made it with cranberries, whole oranges and walnuts. I’ve changed it up over the years, playing with the nuts and citrus. In my current favorite iteration, I substitute pomegranate for the orange, which deepens the vibrant glow of the berries. Pistachios stand in for the walnuts, speckling the mix with bits of green, and instead of sugar, I opt for honey.
It’s the most refreshing thing on our Thanksgiving table, a crimson pop of acidity and crunch that brightens the browns of the rest of the meal.
While I could easily make the relish anytime, I don’t. Its November-only appearance is part of the appeal.
Green bean casserole never really found a place on my family’s table.
None of us wanted to veer too far from the traditional holiday triumvirate — turkey, stuffing, gravy — and so the green vegetable dish was our chance to go wild. We stir-fried green beans with Sichuan peppercorns; sautéed kale with garlic, cumin and red-pepper flakes; roasted brussels sprouts with curry leaves and mustard seeds.
The green vegetable was also the first Thanksgiving dish I really put my stamp on. This was when I was in high school. While my father was busy laboring over the turkey and as my mother and sister set the table, I would quietly slice garlic or grind spices, finishing the prep but not turning on the heat until everyone else was ambling to the table. As much as I embrace cooking in advance, green vegetables benefit most from last-minute attention. They’re just better that way.
The key is to pick something that cooks quickly, and for that, this broccoli fits in perfectly. I can blanch it the day before, so it just needs the briefest stint in a hot pan, along with some olives and the requisite garlic. I love to garnish the vegetables with crisp fried shallots; those too can be made the day before. They add flair, and remind me of the fried onions on all those green bean casseroles I never had.
Dahlia loves salad more than almost any food, desserts excepted. This means that aside from the marshmallows on the sweet potatoes, salad is her favorite part of Thanksgiving, when she eats mounds of it.
There’s only one thing about Dahlia’s salad-eating that gives me pause. When she was a toddler, I encouraged her to eat salad with her fingers. It was easier for her. I’d also once read an article that said Alice Waters always ate salad with her hands. What’s good enough for Alice’s salad, I thought, is good enough for Dahlia’s.
But the habit stuck. Now she’s 10, and it’s nearly impossible to get her to use a fork. Even in restaurants. Even at the Thanksgiving table surrounded by all her utensil-wielding relatives.
The way Dahlia feels about salad is the way I feel about anchovies. I’m apt to sneak a few into salad dressings, which is what I’ve done here, puréeing them with garlic and parsley to toss with arugula. They add depth, but in a subtle, child-friendly way. Dahlia, who thinks she hates anchovies, doesn’t even know they are there.
Because we’re a family with Francophile inclinations, we serve our salad at the end of the Thanksgiving meal, just before the dishes are cleared. That way, we can use the leaves to dab at the last slicks of gravy and bits of stuffing. It makes a tangy plate cleaner and palate cleanser before the pie — for which even Dahlia uses a fork.
My dad loved bold flavors. He liked his Sichuan food with extra chiles, his chocolate 80 percent dark, his Cabernets from California, and pretty much everything else filled with as much garlic as it could bear.
When it came to pumpkin pie, he was all about ginger. As the official pumpkin pie maker, I fretted about this every year. How much ginger could I add to satisfy his taste for spice without overwhelming everyone else at the table?
Ground ginger goes only so far. Every year I’d add more, but I eventually learned that if you add too much, it ruins the pie’s texture, turning it to sludge. Grated fresh ginger increases sharpness but not depth. Infusing other spices — cinnamon sticks, cardamom pods, star anise and clove — into the cream adds fragrant woodsy notes, which in turn accentuate the ginger’s brightness. Getting the balance just right became my seasonal Everest.
Year after year I’d adapt it, adjusting the spices and the infusion time, never stopping until I reached the perfect formula — silkier, richer, even more gingery. As with dad’s ideal turkey, this process was an inherent part of our holiday ritual: the analyzing of flavors, textures, techniques.
That road to perfection has been almost as fun the meal itself, and it’s still how I approach every pumpkin pie I bake. I can’t serve my dad the latest — and greatest — version, but I know he loved the journey.
Pumpkin pie may not need a topping, but a scoop of ice cream never hurts. In our house, that ice cream was always homemade, at least since the 1980s, when we were the first family on the block in Brooklyn to buy an ice cream maker. It was huge and ungainly, a heavy, self-refrigerating unit imported from Italy and lugged home from Zabar’s.
We made ice cream for every occasion. There was olive oil ice cream for Hanukkah and red wine sorbet for Passover, gazpacho granita for Labor Day and Champagne gelato for New Year’s Eve.
For Thanksgiving, we’d usually go for something heady and autumnal to echo the flavors of pumpkin pie: cinnamon, or nutmeg, or chai spice. But ginger was the one I like best. I adore the razor-sharp purity of its flavor, which we got from steeping vast quantities of sliced ginger root into heavy cream.
This version is slightly different from other ginger ice creams I’ve made. While the ginger dominates, there’s also a touch of cinnamon and clove, which gives the ice cream a heady depth. Bits of candied ginger add chewy pockets of brightness to the smooth cream. Even better, made with an egg yolk-thickened custard, this ice cream is particularly silky, melting over your pie slice into a puddle of spicy crème anglaise.
Is it unnecessary? Absolutely. But it’s a bit of Thanksgiving excess I’d never want to do without.