I really, really can’t wait to tell you all about our trip to Hawaii last month: the flavors, the trails, the beaches and the total inner calm surrounding a vacation filled with that much magic. A post with all my favorite spots and travel advice for your own adventures on Maui is coming real soon, but first, I feel I need to give sufficient attention to the elephant in the room. It’s time to pause all talk on farming and adventures, and pay heed to the holiday coming up because it celebrates two of the most magnificent facets of my life: gratitude and seasonal food.
Yes yes yes, it’s that time of year. It’s time for Thanksgiving. And I must say, it snuck up on me like never before. It could have been the whirlwind of a truly draining farming season or the unusual presence of an October trip away from it all. It may have been all the exciting new happenings at my day job Midwest Environmental Advocates or the scattered schedules due to my Carrot’s first ever seasonal fall/winter job. Maybe it was the birth of two beautiful babies to dear, dear friends or perhaps it was my failed attempt at having a perfectly executed, perfectly intentional 30th birthday. Who the heck knows where the time goes anyway? All I know is that the last month has not left much time for Thanksgiving preparations or thought. I’m sure many of you are feeling that same way.
Luckily for us, by now our routine is cemented (we rotate between my Carrot’s parents and my grandmother’s homes each year), our responsibility is well defined (we bring many, many vegetable sides), and our expectations for how many dishes can actually fit on the table and/or inside people’s bellies has been tempered. If you haven’t yet created an annual rhythm to your holiday season, I suggest you take an hour next Friday to assess what you loved, what you didn’t, what was necessary and beautiful, and what was stressful. I don’t know about you but thoughtful evaluation and routine seems to be the answer to so many of my life’s problems.
Whether you crave consistency like me or you savor the frenzy of holiday chaos, let this Thanksgiving guide lead you towards a stable and happy holiday.
I will begin here for several reasons. 1) I am a lover of beverages generally, and 2) believe the right beverage can really enhance a celebration setting the tone right where you want it. 3) Depending on your family dynamic, alcohol may be very helpful in surviving (given the right pace and quantity).
I know that the classic Thanksgiving beverage is wine though I’ve also gone the sparkly, magical totally holiday-mood-inducing punch route in the past (think this great cocktail scaled up), but if I’m being totally honest with you all– neither wine heaviness nor whiskey sass are the moods I seek on my Thanksgiving.
I want something brighter, bubblier, and flavorful without taking away from any of the strong flavors of the day. And because Thanksgiving to me is about so much more than just eating too much–it’s about extending the utmost gratitude to this particular patch of Earth I find myself on and the growers and producers who celebrate it–I need a local beverage on my table. Enter cider. The cider scene in Wisconsin is unbelievable right now, packed with interesting flavors and something for everyone. If you thought cider had to be sticky sweet or boring, think again. This is the local “wine” I want on my table. Here are my four favorites:
Brix Cider // The Hoppy Honeycrisp Cider is a favorite among the beer drinkers in my life who never thought they could get on board with cider. It has all the best elements of a great IPA and a dry cider in one beautiful bottle.
Restoration Cider // Their Door County Cherry Cider was the cider that got me started on ciders. The one that taught me ciders can be complex and interesting. It’s effervescent and tart, refreshing and bright. It’s a perfect fall beverage if ever there was one plus this label helps you celebrate gratitude by donating 5% of their profits go to local stream restoration efforts.
The Cider Farm // If it’s hard for you to wrap your head around cider for Thanksgiving, give their Cyser a whirl. Served in a 500 mL bottle with 9.2% ABV, this apple wine really takes the shape of a dry white wine offering more complexity and depth than a traditional hard cider.
Blake’s Hard Cider Co // Though technically from the Michigan and certainly the most commercial of the bunch, I’m still sharing this Midwest cider company with you because their El Chavo is hands down my favorite beverage being crafted anywhere right now. It’s a mango habanero cider that is just as spicy as it is refreshing. It’s the perfect Thanksgiving sipper to keep you from eating too much.
THE CLASSICS (Turkey, Potatoes, Stuffing, Gravy & Cranberry Sauce)
I still live in a world where the matriarchs of the family are 100% responsible for the classics, have their own styles, and require (and desire) no assistance on these staples. For that reason, I can only share some of the best recipes I’ve seen over the past several years from my favorite sources and wish you the utmost joy on your journey of perfecting them.
P.S. The cranberry sauce is always from a can. Regardless of which house I spend Thanksgiving in.
This area is obviously where I really shine. My families have enabled and supported me in my obsession with vegetable side dishes at Thanksgiving and let me celebrate with pretty much anything and everything that is in season. They do the staples (as referenced above), and I will supplement their table with at least three sides.
I like to do bring something fresh (aka a bright salad of some kind), something roasted (think brussels sprouts, root vegetables, etc), and something from the sweet potato or butternut squash family (that is NOT topped with marshmallows). If I have extra time I’ll throw in something “interesting” not traditionally seen as Thanksgiving fare. I’ve outlined some favorites below.
Hasselback Butternut Squash with Brown Butter Sauce (below)
The exception of course to locally sourced, in-season vegetable fare is Green Bean Casserole which I find absolutely essential anyway. I always freeze a few pounds of green beans in July with thoughts of a lovely made from scratch Green Bean Casserole. If you didn’t, no stress, your purchase of green beans is supporting a farmer somewhere. Stay tuned for the recipe I’ll be using this year.
There are really three perfect choices in this category and you can do as many as you feel inspired to make. You can either do a dinner roll, a biscuit or a cornbread. A combination is always acceptable as is making all three. Three bread choices on one table will never be too many but one is also always enough. It’s a great low pressure place to shed energy if you have none left.
My favorites include:
Are you running out of steam? Yeah, me too. Though I love Thanksgiving desserts– bring on the pecan, the pumpkin, the apple–here is where I’d like to remind you that if you are hosting, this is your opportunity to ask for help and tell someone else to bring the desserts. Or order them from your favorite local bakery. Because all the yummy desserts listed below can be made throughout the whole winter and still feel so festive and therefore do not need to be made over the course of the next five days if you have run out of steam.
My perfect Thanksgiving has a pumpkin pie made from scratch (preferably using a delicious Musquee de Provence Pumpkin), an apple slab pie, some decadent pecan bars (because I find the balance of nut to crust so much more appealing), and again, something that feels a little different if we have enough mouths to accommodate four massive desserts. In the past the something interesting has been a butterscotch pie, this butternut squash tarte tatin or cranberry oat bars, but right now this Pumpkin Pie Cobbler is desperately trying to get into the game.
If you are hosting, I’m a big fan of showcasing the season’s bounty for a lovely, understated table. Wooden bowls filled with elegant arrangements of winter squash, apples, pears, onions and shallots are beautiful as are leftover fairy-tale pumpkins and small mason jar bouquets of thyme, sage or other herbs.
If you are heading to someone else’s home, a bouquet of flowers or potted succulent are lovely gifts that may just make it onto the table and at the very least will make it into your hosts’ heart.
Now this, this is what the holiday should be about second only to flavors enjoyed. Holidays are here to be enjoyed and savored, but family is hard (as are heightened, unrealistic expectations). To make it through Thanksgiving with smiles and ease, follow these five tried and true tips.
- Cut your menu in half. Larger portions of less things will leave you feeling full without being completely overwhelmed. Take it from a girl who never allocates enough time for food prep, less is more.
- Some families have a real tradition of weaving gratitude into the meal by sharing thanks around the table. If it works for you and your family, take this moment to share your gifts and joys unabashedly. If that isn’t the dynamic present at your Thanksgiving, take 10 minutes on Thursday morning to write a list with a loved one. Stop worrying about the perfect table setting and turkey. Take a moment to meditate on the joys of your life in a quiet space.
- Pace yourself my friends. Pace yourself. In wine, in cider, in snacks, in dinner. Thanksgiving is a holiday of excess to be sure and though it wouldn’t feel totally right if your pants didn’t get real tight, recognize your own limits.
- When politics, current events or judgment on life decisions enters the conversation, be patient and kind. Listen first. Don’t worry too much about being heard. The greatest gift we can all gain from hard conversations is the opportunity to learn from someone different than ourselves. If there is space, certainly speak up kindly and compassionately, but go in with the mentality that this may not be the venue for you for that.
- If all else fails, smile and laugh. Don’t be so serious. Even if you feel stressed or overwhelmed or interrogated or bombarded by feelings, smiles and laughter (even if forced) eventually will come naturally and nothing breaks the ice better than not taking yourself too seriously.
Happy holidays everyone. May this guide be your guide in finding a place of joy and comfort in a totally crazy season.
P.S. Before I tell you all about Hawaii, I have one more Thanksgiving treat to serve up. It’s a green bean casserole made from scratch that’s heavy on the mushrooms and topped with beautiful fried shallots. It will taste lovely if made in stages the night before or prepared all at once on Thursday morning. I’ll be sending it your way Wednesday morning so you can dive in immediately. I know you won’t have any time for grocery shopping on Wednesday so I recommend you stock up on a couple pounds of green beans, a couple pounds of shallots, a couple pounds of your favorite mushrooms (I’ll be using a blend of shittake and cremini), and some heavy cream for this beauty.
HASSELBACK BUTTERNUT SQUASH WITH HOT & SPICY BROWN BUTTER SAUCE
I know, I know, again with the hasselbacking. I just love this technique because it’s easy, creates maximum crispy edges, and is a show stopper (despite minimal effort) every single time. If your Thanksgiving table is missing a squash dish, let this be it.
Takes 1 hour, 45 minutes (most of it inactive)
2 medium butternut squashes (about 5 pounds)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon Kosher salt, divided
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
1/4 cup maple syrup
1-1/2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
- While the oven preheats, use a vegetable peeler to remove skin from butternut squash until only orange flesh is visible. Cut in half lengthwise and remove seeds. Rub squash with olive oil and place, cut side down, on a baking sheet. Sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon salt and pepper. Roast for 15 minutes.
- Meanwhile, in a small pan, melt butter over medium low heat. Swirl the pan occasionally for even melting. Let the pan spit and sputter a bit and take it off once things start to smell nutty and the foaming has gone down, about 8 minutes, and then remove from heat. If things start to smell burnt at all, remove the pan from heat immediately. Add the maple syrup, vinegar remaining salt and red pepper flakes. Stir and set aside.
- Once 15 minutes has passed, remove the squash from the oven. Place a squash half on your cutting board with a chopstick or skewer on either side of it. Slice thinly letting the knife hit the chopstick to avoid the cut going all the way through. Repeat with remaining squash halves and squeeze into casserole dish. Drizzle with half the sauce and roast 30 minutes. Add remaining sauce and cook 30-40 minutes longer until squash is tender.
- Remove from oven, sprinkle with salt, and serve warm.