More than any other holiday meal, Thanksgiving dinner is about tradition. Next Thursday isn't the day to substitute salmon for turkey or skip the cranberries in favor of barbecue sauce. That doesn't mean that creative cooks must be slaves to Thanksgiving dinners past. If the prospect of a groaning table of old favorites is starting to seem boring, introduce some exotic flavors to your Thanksgiving favorites.
A brined, roasted turkey is a staple on my table. But this year, in addition to salt, I'll season my bird with a Southwestern dry rub that includes chili powder and cumin. For dessert, I'm substituting a ginger-spiced pear tart with a coriander crust for my usual apple pie. Options I've exercised in previous years: sweet potatoes with mustard seeds, cranberry sauce with Chinese five spice and stuffing with chorizo and smoked paprika.
If any of this sounds interesting to you, go for it. But do so with restraint. The idea is to create a menu of dishes that harmonize. A riot of variously spiced side dishes and condiments might clash rather than work in concert. Whichever spices you choose, use them wisely for the greatest impact.
1 FRESHNESS COUNTS If you haven't cracked open the five-spice powder since you tried that Cantonese duck recipe in 1999, it's time to buy a new jar. Stored in a cool, dry pantry, ground spices hold onto their flavor for about 2 years. Whole spices will last longer -- up to 4 years.
2 BLEND YOUR OWN Blends such as Chinese five spice and za'atar are available at many supermarkets, but in a pinch you can always combine the spices you already have to improvise a homemade mix. And I always blend my own pumpkin pie spices from the cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and cloves I already have on hand, rather than buying premixed pumpkin pie spice, which I know I'd only use once a year.
3 BLOOM YOUR SPICES To maximize the flavor potential of your whole and ground spices, heat a small skillet over high and cook them until they are fragrant, no longer than 30 seconds. Quickly transfer them to a small bowl, so they don't burn and let them cool before proceeding.
4 SPICE UP DESSERT Take a cue from traditional pumpkin pie recipes to spice Thanksgiving's last course. Pecan pie can be flavored with ground or crystallized ginger. Cinnamon and a pinch of cayenne pepper make good additions to chocolate desserts.
BRINED TURKEY WITH SOUTHWESTERN SPICE RUB
If you are using a kosher turkey (which has already been brined in a salt solution), skip the brining step. My husband, who is the turkey authority in our family, says that the single most important step in achieving an evenly cooked bird is turning it halfway through roasting. Starting the bird breast-side down cooks the dark meat more quickly while shielding the breast. During the last half of cooking, the breast is directly exposed to the heat of the oven to crisp up the skin. The drippings from a spice-rubbed turkey will be quite strongly flavored, and not appropriate for making gravy. Serve this spicy turkey with cranberry sauce instead.
2 cups kosher salt
2 gallons water
1 (12- to 14-pound) turkey, rinsed, giblets and neck set aside
3 tablespoons chili powder
3 tablespoons ground cumin
1 tablespoon ground coriander
1 tablespoon dried oregano
2 teaspoons ground black pepper
2 teaspoons fine sea salt
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
2 tablespoons olive oil
1. In a large stockpot, dissolve salt in water. Place turkey in pot and refrigerate for 4 to 6 hours.
2. Before removing turkey from brine, make spice rub: Combine chili powder, cumin, coriander, oregano, black pepper, sea salt, cayenne and allspice in a bowl.
3. Remove turkey from brine and rinse well under cold running water. Thoroughly pat dry, inside and out, with paper towels.
4. Place turkey on a rimmed baking sheet. Carefully separate skin from breast meat and rub 2 tablespoons of the spice mixture onto breast meat. Rub another tablespoon of spice mixture inside cavity of turkey. Brush underside of turkey with 1 tablespoon oil and rub with half of remaining spice mixture. Brush breast of turkey with 1 tablespoon olive oil and then rub with the remaining 3 tablespoons of the spice mixture.
5. Trim tailpiece, tie legs together with kitchen twine, and tuck wings under bird. Refrigerate uncovered on baking sheet overnight.
6. Adjust oven rack to lowest position. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Cover a large v-rack with heavy-duty foil, poke some holes in it with a skewer and spray with nonstick cooking spray. Place turkey on rack, breast-side down, and roast for 45 minutes.
7. Reduce oven temperature to 325 degrees. Use wadded paper towels to grasp turkey on either end and turn breast-side up on rack. Continue to roast until thickest part of breast registers 165 degrees and thickest part of thigh registers 170 to 175 degrees on instant-read thermometer, 1 to 11/2 hours longer. Transfer turkey to carving board; let rest 30 minutes before carving and serving.
Makes 6 to 8 generous servings.
BREAD STUFFING WITH CHORIZO, ALMONDS AND SMOKED PAPRIKA
Smoked paprika, peppers, almonds and chorizo give this stuffing a Spanish flavor. If you like, you can prepare the stuffing a day in advance, cover and refrigerate it, then bake it while your turkey rests.
12 cups cubed bread from a stale loaf of challah
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 ounces chorizo, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced crosswise
1 large onion, coarsely chopped
4 ribs celery, coarsely chopped
1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/2 cup finely chopped minced fresh parsley
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups low-sodium canned chicken broth
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
11/2 cups slivered almonds
1/2 cup Peppadew peppers or other mildly spice pickled peppers, finely chopped
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spread bread cubes on a rimmed baking sheet and bake until light golden and dry, stirring occasionally, 10 to 12 minutes. Transfer to a large bowl.
2. Heat oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Cook chorizo, onion and celery until softened, 7 to 9 minutes. Stir in smoked paprika and set aside to cool slightly.
3. Add chorizo mixture to bowl along with parsley, salt, broth, eggs, almonds and peppers. Mix thoroughly.
4. Spray a 13-by-9-inch baking pan with nonstick cooking spray. Spoon stuffing into baking dish and drizzle with melted butter. Cover tightly with foil and bake until heated through, about 30 minutes. Remove foil and continue to bake until golden brown on top, 15 to 20 minutes longer. Let rest 5 to 10 minutes and serve warm.
Makes 8 to 10 servings.
CRANBERRY SAUCE WITH CHINESE FIVE-SPICE
Chinese five-spice is a blend of five Thanksgiving-friendly flavors: Cinnamon, star anise, black pepper, cloves and ginger. It is a simple way to add spice to traditional cranberry sauce.
1 (12-ounce) bag fresh cranberries, washed and dried
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/4 cup water
1 1/4 teaspoons five-spice powder
Zest and juice from 1 orange
1. Combine cranberries, sugar and water in a heavy pot. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, reduce to a simmer, and stir in five-spice powder and salt.
2. Continue to simmer until most but not all of cranberries have burst, about 5 minutes. Stir in zest and juice, remove from heat, and let cool.
3. Refrigerate in an airtight container until cold, at least 5 hours and up to 3 days. Makes about 21/2 cups.
GREEN BEANS WITH ZA'ATAR
Za'atar is a traditional Middle Eastern blend of dried herbs and sesame seeds. Look for it in the spice aisle of the supermarket or Middle Eastern food stores. Or make your own by combining 1/2 cup sesame seeds, 1/4 cup dried sumac, 2 tablespoons dried thyme, 1 teaspoon dried oregano and 1 teaspoon dried marjoram in the workbowl of a food processor and pulsing once or twice to coarsely grind the sesame seeds. Keep it in an airtight container with the rest of your spices in a cool, dry pantry.
2 pounds green beans, trimmed
1/4 cup olive oil
2 teaspoons za'atar
1. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Add green beans and cook until just tender, about 4 minutes. Drain and return to pot, stirring for 30 seconds or so over medium heat to evaporate any excess water.
2. Stir in olive oil and za'atar until fragrant, another minute. Transfer to a serving bowl, season with salt and serve immediately or cover and refrigerate for up to 24 hours and let come to room temperature before serving.
Makes 8 servings.
PEAR-AND-GINGER TART WITH A CARDAMOM CRUST
Cream cheese and cardamom lend richness and spice to this simple tart dough made in the food processor.
1/2 cup (4 ounces) cream cheese, chilled and cut into pieces
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, chilled and cut into pieces
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for shaping and rolling
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 small ripe Anjou pears, peeled, cored, and cut into thin slices
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1 large egg yolk
2 tablespoons apple jelly or strained apricot jam
1. Make dough: Combine cream cheese, butter, flour, sugar, cardamom and salt in work bowl of a food processor. Process until dough just comes together. Turn onto a lightly floured work surface, shape into a 5-inch disc, wrap in plastic and refrigerate for at least 3 hours or up to 3 days.
2. On a lightly floured piece of parchment paper, roll dough into a 12-inch round. Use a plate to trim into an even 10-inch circle. Fold edge over by 1 inch. Freeze for 20 minutes.
3. Make filling: Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Combine pears, lemon juice, sugar and ginger in a large bowl. Let stand, stirring occasionally, until sugar is dissolved.
4. Arrange pear slices in concentric circles on top of dough. Brush edge with egg yolk. Bake until crust is golden brown, 35 to 40 minutes. Slide tart, still on parchment, onto a wire rack. Brush pears with jelly or jam and let stand 20 minutes before slicing and serving warm, or cool to room temperature before serving.
Makes 6 to 8 servings.
ROASTED SWEET POTATOES WITH MUSTARD AND CORIANDER SEEDS
Lightly crushing the coriander and mustard seeds releases their flavor. Stir the spices and garlic into the potatoes toward the end of cooking, so they can flavor this simple side dish without burning.
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon coriander seeds
2 teaspoons mustard seeds
1 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
6 tablespoons olive oil
8 medium sweet potatoes (about 5 pounds) peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
2. Coarsely crush coriander and mustard seeds in a spice grinder or with a mortar and pestle. Combine with pepper flakes, garlic and 4 tablespoons olive oil in a small bowl.
3. Toss sweet potatoes with remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil and salt on prepared baking sheet. Roast until potatoes are tender and browned, shaking pan once or twice, 40 to 45 minutes.
4. Toss potatoes with spice mixture, return to oven and roast until garlic is fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes. Serve immediately or let stand and serve at room temperature.
Makes 8 servings.
Not everyone is going to make the spiced turkey presented here. So you might want to know how to make gravy to serve with a traditionally roasted bird.
Pan drippings from roast turkey
4 to 5 cups chicken broth or turkey stock (see note)
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
Salt and pepper to taste
Turkey giblets, optional (see note)
1. After you have removed turkey from roasting pan, pour the pan drippings into a large (8 cup) heatproof glass measuring cup. Set aside.
2. Pour a cup of chicken broth or turkey stock into the roasting pan, and place it over 2 burners. Turn the heat to medium, and bring liquid to a boil, all the while scraping up the browned bits on the bottom of the pan with a wood spoon or spatula. When the bottom of the pan is clean, turn off the heat.
3. By now, the fat should have risen to the top of the drippings in the large bowl. Skim it off and transfer to a small measuring cup. You will need 1/2 cup fat; add butter if you don't have enough.
4. Add the liquid from the roasting pan to the skimmed drippings, and add enough chicken broth or turkey stock to make 6 cups total.
5. Place the turkey fat (and added butter) and flour in a large saucepan over medium-low heat. Stir with a wood spoon until the flour is slightly browned and the mixture begins to smell toasty.
6. Beat fat-flour mixture with a wire whisk while gradually adding the chicken broth. Simmer over medium heat, whisking often, until the gravy has thickened and no trace of flour taste remains, 5 to 10 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste and, if desired, giblets. Makes 12 servings.
Note To cook giblets and make turkey stock, place turkey neck, heart and gizzard in a saucepan with 1 chopped onion, 1 chopped carrot, 1 chopped rib of celery, 2 sprigs of parsley, 1 bay leaf, several peppercorns and 5 cups water. Bring to a boil, lower heat and simmer for 1 hour, uncovered, skimming off any foam that forms on the surface. Add the liver during the last 10 minutes. Strain, cool and skim any fat that rises to the surface. Makes about 4 cups. (For giblets, chop the heart, gizzard, liver and some of the meat from the neck.) -- Erica Marcus