Thanksgiving might seem like the enthusiastic home cook's chance to show off, but for those with a creative bent in the kitchen, it can feel like the same boring routine, year in and year out.
You know how it is: Skip the marshmallow-topped sweet potatoes for a year, or maybe swap Granny's bread stuffing for oyster or chestnut, and you meet with nothing short of outrage. How dare you mess with tradition?
Then there's the green bean casserole -- the one with the cream-of-mushroom soup and the french-fried onions. And the cranberry sauce that makes a slurping sound as it plops out of the can, and you cut it into slices for serving. And the mashed potatoes, probably the most ubiquitous Thanksgiving side dish of all.
For those who are tired of the same-old-same-old, we tried to unearth some recipes that would satisfy the family's craving for tradition while at the same time changing things up just a tiny bit. For instance, you can still have your sweet potatoes, but we've topped them with tiny meringues instead of marshmallows (see recipe, which we found on Giant Eagle's website). You theoretically could make your family's own recipe for sweet potatoes instead of this one -- just use meringues instead of marshmallows, and suddenly you've got a show-stopper.
It turns out that restaurant chefs and home cooks face much the same problem when Thanksgiving rolls around. Chefs are lauded for their creativity on the other 364 days of the year, but on Thanksgiving, suddenly the public wants them to serve up what they know, pure and simple.
"People are very much into tradition," Susan Sansale, general manager of Frescos in McCandless, confirmed. "They want to see the mashed potatoes and the sweet potatoes, and when they call to make reservations, they verify that their favorites are on the menu" for Thanksgiving Day.
Frescos has been able to branch out just a little, in part because diners of different generations seem to want different menu items, she said.
So they'll serve turkey, mashed potatoes, sweet potato casserole and sage bread stuffing -- the usual suspects. But they'll also serve apple cider-glazed pork loin, red cabbage and fennel citrus slaw, wild rice and sausage stuffing, and a handful of other sides. And the old onion-topped green bean casserole? Well, Frescos serves French-style green beans with bourbon onion butter (see recipe) instead.
Both Ms. Sansale and Gina Snyder, owner of Sunny Bridge Natural Foods in McMurray, mentioned that those on gluten-free diets -- an increasing sector of the population -- can find Thanksgiving challenging, especially when it comes to bread stuffing, rolls and desserts. Sunny Bridge's website (sunnybridgenaturalfoods.com) displays a recipe for gluten-free bread stuffing, but Ms. Snyder cautions that it needs to be made in a separate casserole dish because it gets too mushy inside the turkey.
Or an alternative to bread stuffing is a similarly-spiced wild-rice stuffing, also posted on Sunny Bridge's website (see recipe).
We also tried homemade cranberry sauce made with raw cranberries, a find from Whole Foods' copious Web recipes for Thanksgiving. This dish will satisfy raw-foods lovers, and it's hands-down the simplest dish you will ever prepare for Thanksgiving.
Our final recipe, Mashed Potatoes Chantilly, comes from the recently published "Old-School Comfort Food" by restaurateur and Food Network chef Alex Guarnaschelli. Her mother used to bake these potatoes in a red pan that was used exactly once a year. The potatoes are enough like regular mashed potatoes to satisfy the traditionalist. But they rise like a souffle, so like our sweet potato recipe, they've also got enough "wow" factor to put a smile on the cook's face.
Many of the recipes in Ms. Guarnaschelli's cookbook, in fact, could be used on the Thanksgiving table. These include a green bean casserole made entirely from scratch (no soup or fried onions from cans), oven-dried sweet potatoes, turkey, and even her family's recipe for bread stuffing with -- get this -- mozzarella and pepperoni.
She avoids Thanksgiving boredom by trying one new dish every year. But really, she's not complaining about tradition: "I put the traditions from my childhood and people's desire for certain foods (pumpkin pie, cranberry sauce, turkey) before my own creativity on a day like Thanksgiving," she said. "The most important thing to me is to create a feeling for Thanksgiving through those traditional comforts."
Meringue-topped Sweet Potato Casserole
2½ pounds sweet potatoes (about 3 medium), peeled and cut into 2-inch chunks
2 large eggs
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 cup low-fat evaporated milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon salt
8-ounce can crushed pineapple, undrained
1/2 cup chopped pecans, toasted
2 large egg whites, at room temperature
1/4 cup granulated sugar
Place sweet potatoes in a large saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook until tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Drain well and transfer to a food processor. Process until smooth.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Coat an 8-inch square (or similar 2-quart) broiler-safe baking dish with cooking spray.
Whisk whole eggs, brown sugar, cinnamon, oil, evaporated milk, vanilla and salt in a large bowl until smooth. Add the sweet potato; whisk until smooth. Stir in pineapple and its juice. Spread the mixture in the prepared baking dish. Sprinkle with pecans.
Bake the casserole until heated through and the edges are bubbling, 35 to 45 minutes. Set aside while you make the topping.
To prepare meringue topping: Position rack in top third of oven; preheat broiler. Beat egg whites in a medium bowl with an electric mixer at high speed until soft peaks form. Beat in granulated sugar in a slow, steady stream. Continue beating until stiff peaks form and mixture turns white.
Spoon the meringue into a quart-size sealable bag. Seal the bag, pressing out as much air as possible. Cut a small hole in one corner. Pipe the meringue onto the casserole, making marshmallow-size dots. Broil until lightly browned, watching carefully to prevent burning, 30 to 90 seconds.
Raw Cranberry Sauce
1 cup pitted dates
16-ounce bag fresh cranberries, about 4 cups
1/2 cup orange juice
Place dates in a small bowl and cover with boiling water. Let sit 15 minutes to soften. Drain dates and place in a food processor. Add cranberries and orange juice and process until evenly chopped. Chill until ready to serve. Keeps refrigerated up to 3 days. Serves 12.
Wild Rice Stuffing with Apples and Dried Cranberries
This dish would look more attractive if made with a blend of long grain and wild rice.
-- Rebecca Sodergren
2 cups uncooked wild rice
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup diced onion
1 cup diced celery
1 cup diced apples
1 cup dried cranberries
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon dried marjoram
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cook rice according to package directions. (If desired, use chicken or vegetable broth in place of water for more flavor.) Drain rice in a colander.
Melt butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add onion and celery, and cook until soft, approximately 8 minutes. Add apple and cook for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and add cranberries, thyme, marjoram, parsley, salt and pepper.
Transfer mixture to a large baking dish coated with nonstick spray. Bake, covered, until stuffing is heated through, approximately 30 minutes. Serves 8.
Green Beans with Bourbon Onion Butter
1 pound fresh green beans (French-style if available)
14 cup salted butter
1/2 yellow onion, diced
1/4 cup bourbon
1 teaspoon fresh thyme
Salt and pepper to taste
Place green beans in a large pot of rapidly boiling water. Cook until tender (about 5 minutes). Drain in a colander.
Place butter in a saute pan over medium heat and allow to melt. Add diced onions and saute until well caramelized, stirring occasionally.
Once onions have caramelized, add bourbon away from the flame. Saute for 1 to 2 minutes to cook off the alcohol.
Add green beans and toss to coat. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Finish with chopped fresh thyme.
-- Jake Strang, executive chef at Frescos, McCandless
Mashed Potatoes Chantilly
4½ to 5 pounds Idaho potatoes (about 10 medium), peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
Kosher salt and white pepper
3/4 cup whole milk
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into slices, plus 1 tablespoon for greasing the baking dish, divided
2 tablespoons plain dried bread crumbs
1 cup heavy cream
3/4 cup finely grated parmesan, divided
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
In a large pot, add potatoes and cover amply with cold water. Bring water to a boil and reduce heat so that it simmers. Add a generous pinch of salt and allow potatoes to cook until tender when pierced with the tip of a knife, 15 to 20 minutes. Drain potatoes in a colander. Return empty pot to the heat and add milk. Bring milk to a simmer and gingerly add potatoes back into the pot. Season with salt and pepper and whisk in the sliced butter. Whisk until all of the ingredients meld together. Taste for seasoning. Remove from the heat.
Use the remaining tablespoon butter to grease the sides and bottom of a 9-by-13-inch baking dish with 2-inch sides. Add the bread crumbs and roll them around to coat the inside of the dish.
Using a whisk (or an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment), whip the heavy cream until fairly firm. Season with salt and pepper. With a rubber spatula, gently fold the whipped cream and about ½ cup of the parmesan into the mashed potatoes. Taste for seasoning. Transfer the potatoes to the baking dish and top with the remaining ¼ cup parmesan. Bake until the top is light brown and the potatoes are hot, 15 to 20 minutes. Serve immediately.
-- Alex Guarnaschelli, "Old-School Comfort Food" (Clarkson Potter, 2013, $30)
Rebecca Sodergren: email@example.com or on Twitter @pgfoodevents.