Burning Questions: Thanksgiving Edition

Burning Questions: Thanksgiving Edition

Welcome to Burning Questions, where I attempt to answer your most pressing cooking quandaries. Today, obviously, that means we turn our attention to Thanksgiving. I’m personally giving thanks to all the readers who sent in these goodies via Instagram

“I don’t want to make a whole turkey. Can I just serve drumsticks and breasts?” — Avi
Short answer is, of course, yes. My mother roasted just the turkey breast for Thanksgiving when I was growing up, and not once did I think to myself, ‘Something is missing.’ But I feel like the real question you’re asking is deeper, namely: How faithfully do I have to follow the rules? I’ve heard people make declarations like “Garlic has no role on the Thanksgiving table” or “Because you are eating turkey, you must serve white wine.” Well, maybe that’s true on some people’s table, but certainly not mine. I would never in a million years try to convince you that your dessert spread should include my mom’s pudding pie (the one made with a Keebler graham cracker crust and Jell-O instant pudding), but it’s literally not Thanksgiving for me (and her six grandchildren) if there aren’t at least three of them mixed in with the bourbon pecans and pumpkins. In other words, your own family traditions are exponentially more important than old-school rules and some of the weirdest sh*t on the table (remember glark?) ends up being the most iconic.

“Can you share some ideas for festive vegetarian entrees?” — Everyone, Literally
First off, who decreed there must be a main entree at all? As we all know, sides are the best part of Thanksgiving, and most of them tend to be meat-free. However, if it feels wrong without one, I’d say look for something with both structure and decadence: Ottolenghi’s Butternut Squash Fondue Pie, a Greens Gratin, a Mushroom Casserole.

“Drinks! What’s a special cocktail I can serve before the meal, and what wine should we drink with the feast?” — B.K.
At our table, we tend to go with a mix of white Burgundies and Pinot Noirs, which are actually the wines we drink the rest of the year, too, because they are light-bodied and eminently drinkable. I love this memorable line from Sam Sifton’s indispensable Thanksgiving manual: “There is no ‘right’ wine for Thanksgiving, in other words, no must-have grape or vintage, cocktail, or spirit. Nor is there a ‘wrong’ one, though I’d stay away from the low-end fortified stuff unless you are dining in a boxcar hurtling west.” He suggests encouraging guests to bring what they like. As for a special cocktail, I’ve been eyeballing this make-ahead Citrus-Pomegranate Sangria (so pretty!) and for a non-alcoholic option, this Salted Rosemary Paloma.

“Can mashed potatoes be made ahead?” — Jean
Yes, and once I learned this, it changed my life. Make your potatoes from start to finish as written the day before, then just reheat them a large pot over medium-low heat, adding warm cream or milk a little at a time to thin out, stirring continuously to prevent sticking.

“Can you recommend a pumpkin pie variation that is not boring?” — Odwa
When it comes to American classics, I’m okay skipping the green bean casserole or sweet potatoes with marshmallows, but making the blissfully boring pumpkin pie recipe on the back of the Libby’s can is a hill I will die on. Fear not, though: I’ve enlisted Life is What You Bake It author Vallery Lomas to weigh in: “I’ve swapped sugar for maple syrup and coconut milk for cream, and it really ups the flavor. A better answer, though: Sweet Potato Pie. Mine has orange zest and pecans and many things that aren’t boring AT ALL.” That looks so good!

“What to say when someone asks what to bring but everything is already planned?”  — Monica
A wine they love. (See above.) Sparkling cider. A deck of cards or an old-school game for the kids. (Twister, anyone?) Or, as my friend Sonya’s Grandma Jo would say, just tell them to “bring your appetites and wear your eating pants.”

“Can you give me some ideas for easy table settings?” — Katie
My go-to move is an assembly of pumpkins (all sizes, but nothing huge), gourds, persimmons, and pomegranates alongside votive candles. Jodi Levine, aka Supermakeit, famous for her creatively un-fussy ideas, suggests enlisting the kids with these herb-y initial place cards or her folded paper leaves or this easy centerpiece that would double as a night-before activity for the littles.

“How do I get the kids involved?” — Jordan
See above! When my kids were little, we assigned them certain dishes — although really they were just stirring something here or whipping something there. Now they’re all grown up and feel like they “own” those dishes, which is fun, not to mention super helpful. Kids can also make place cards or organize a skit or be the cook’s “official taster” or…just enjoy hanging out with the family, which is not nothing.

“When will cooking ever come naturally or seem not terrible to me?” — Taffy
This made me laugh. All I’ll say is this: if there’s ever an occasion when cooking might not seem so terrible, it’s this one. I’d argue that a pre-Thanksgiving kitchen, with its enticing aromas and cooks do-si-do-ing around each other, and kids poking faces in and out to ask “when’s dinner?” and the happy chaos in general is the best part of the holiday. Pour the cook a glass of wine, share a good story only you can tell, take some photos — you don’t have to be the one basting the turkey to feel very much a part of things.

Great questions! Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

P.S. More Thanksgiving advice, and how to talk to kids about Thanksgiving.

(Photo by Christine Han, illustration by Abbey Lossing.)