One the Menu: Never too early to plan the big meal
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Substituting Brussels sprouts for green beans on the Thanksgiving table would be grounds for anything from pointed comments to disinheritance in some families. Thanksgiving dinner is undoubtably America's most passionately maintained food tradition, and for many, repetition and its nostalgia are a big part of the appeal.
At the same time, new Thanksgiving recipes are big business. November's newsstand is covered with magazines promising exciting new spins on everything from turkey to mashed potatoes. This year's Bon Appetit offers 15 recipes for cranberry sauce alone, ranging from a chipotle-flavored version to substitutes that eliminate cranberries altogether, such as beet chutney.
These kinds of expectations can create a heavy burden for anyone taking on meal-planning for the first time. Thanksgiving often involves more guests, more dishes and more cooking than any other time of the year. But making the dinner doesn't have to be an overwhelming task. A little planning, a little patience and a little creativity can make Thanksgiving as memorable and fun as sitting down to eat.
Noreen Ranallo of Whitehall, who's been making Thanksgiving dinner for more than four decades, can still remember calling her mother to ask for advice as she attempted to replicate her Thanksgiving dishes.
"My family didn't believe in recipes," she said, "I'd say, how much of this. and she'd say, just put it in your hand and you can feel it."
Mrs. Ranallo's best advice? "Keep it simple. All you need is your turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and a good pumpkin pie and you've got your Thanksgiving dinner right there."
Mrs. Ranallo uses her mother-in-law's recipe for pie crust and once even won a pie-baking contest with it.
Sylvia Sikora of Pleasant Hills is also a four-decade veteran of Thanksgiving menus. Working as a nurse, she didn't have a lot of time to cook, and she relied on a simple, classic menu and careful planning. She's now retired, but the simplicity remains. According to Mrs. Sikora, as long as you make a thorough list of ingredients and clean out your fridge before shopping, you can't go wrong. If you can't make everything yourself, order dessert and rolls from a good bakery.
Her secret weapon? "Have a lot of wine and give it to them ahead of time."
Both women emphasized the importance of setting the table ahead of time. My husband's grandmother went a step further, setting up all her serving dishes and putting scraps of paper in each one, listing what it would hold the next day. You may want to do this in advance to make sure you don't need to borrow or buy anything. Also, make sure you have enough chairs and table settings (no one will care if they match). Cloth napkins in bright colors are an easy way to add some color and dress up a table, Mrs. Ranallo said.
Less-experienced cooks, those expecting many guests or those who are pressed for time should stick to a classic menu. But if you have plenty of time, love to cook and have thrown lots of dinner parties there's no reason you can't put your own stamp on the menu.
Nikkia Ballantyne of Hillsboro, Ore., and her family celebrated with a traditional dinner every year, until last year, when she decided it was time for a change. With "20 or 30 years of turkey" behind them, Ms. Ballantyne decided to use Thanksgiving as an opportunity to indulge her passion for cooking and long-time hobbies, which she hopes to pursue as a career.
"I think of Thanksgiving as an academic lab, where for a month or more I can delve deeply into a chosen culture, study it even more obsessively than usual, hunt down ingredients and create representative dishes for the table. The challenge, of course, is to keep the modern-day appeal for my family members," Ms. Ballantyne wrote in an e-mail.
This year's feast was inspired by a Dutch Golden Age still-life painting, which depicted a table with purple and red ornamental eggplant, a lobster and a basket heaped with fruit and vegetables. That painting led her to others -- all scenes of kitchens or tables full of food -- and eventually she settled on this year's menu. Her "Hunter's Bounty" Thanksgiving will offer roast leg of lamb with potatoes, leeks, onions and turnips, braised pheasant, roast guinea hen with apple and onion stuffing, broiled venison, game gravy and more.
Although tracking down unusual ingredients is part of the fun, Ms. Ballantyne found that many of these meats are slowly coming back into fashion. This year, she's ordering all of the game from D'Artagnan (www.dartagnan.com), a company based in Newark, N.J., that specializes in top-quality game and other meats.
If you'd like to be more creative but your family is resistant, make changes gradually. Maybe your family will fuss if you swap out caramel ice cream for the second kind of pie or try a new kind of cranberry sauce, but if there are plenty of old favorites around they might not even notice.
First Published November 15, 2009 12:00 am