I’m sure I have mentioned this along the way, but when I first met my husband, all I knew how to make was quiche. Because I became interested, I started making recipes from magazines and took some cooking classes. Tackling the holidays, however, is a WHOLE other story!
Over the years, with lots of trials and errors, not to mention many phone calls to my mother or mother in law, I can crank out the holiday bird and, as my granny would say, all the fixins. But, I know how daunting it can be, especially to not have your turkey be DRY!
So I applaud Mandy, our PLANK editor, for her first foray into this … not only for her leap of faith, but also for doing it all so beautifully! Thank goodness she photographed the process and results so we can share the ride. I do think she should have added her friends’ food coma shot!!
by Mandy Denaux
Last Thursday, I had a first date with Tom. Now before you go and get excited (Mom, if you’re reading this, I’m looking at you), it wasn’t the kind of date you’re thinking. No, I had a date with Tom … my very first turkey.
When I decided to host my first Thanksgiving festivity, it was with the idea that I would not be cooking the turkey – I’m not much of a turkey eater, much less cooker, and the thought of cooking an entire bird was intimidating.
Instead, I placed an order with my local grocer and began plotting all the delicious sides and trimmings. But as the day got closer, the less excited I was about my store-cooked turkey. After all, this was my first time hosting a holiday dinner, and I’d planned everything else so carefully … why would I leave the main dish up to some random cook in the Gelson’s deli? And also, and more importantly, what would my grandmother think?
So, as I purchased the roaster needed to heat my prepared bird, I began to wonder if I shouldn’t just take the leap and do the whole thing. I sent a quick text to Mary Beth – honestly, I was looking for someone to say “No, don’t do it, it’s not worth the hassle.” But as you can imagine, that was not her answer. Instead I got “it’s not that hard, you should do it,” followed by a quick list of instructions.
I should add here that I love to cook. Cook or bake, recipe or not, I’m in! I love following the handed down recipes of my family, as well as creating new concoctions of my own. But this cooking a whole bird thing was definitely uncharted territory for me … one that would be aided by a deep dive into Google and YouTube.
A few years ago, during my first Whole30 experience, I learned the tremendous rewards of brining poultry; and while it’s not something I do often, I knew that if I was going to take on this bird, it was going to be with the help of brine. I searched the web and finally landed on a simple brine recommended by Martha Stewart (I mean, can you really go wrong there?). Then I found a list of the 50 best turkey recipes. 50?!? I scanned them and ultimately landed on a simple, traditional style recipe.
So, with an ever-expanding grocery list in hand, I headed out to select my guy.
As for the rest of my meal … well, I’m sure my Southern family would be very disappointed. That’s because, while I decided to prepare a traditional turkey, nothing else on my menu resembled anything that would have been served at the Thanksgivings of my childhood.
Those of you who have read my previous blogs know that I’ve been focused on healthier eating. With that in mind, I wanted to prepare a yummy feast that would please, but one that wouldn’t send the scale back in the opposite direction. So, instead of dressing/stuffing, macaroni and cheese and mashed potatoes, I opted for healthier options that still brought out the flavors that you’d associate with Thanksgiving.
In the end, I ended up with a bit of a mixed bag … with the main meal being healthy, the appetizers covering the spectrum from healthy to not and the desserts being served in full goodness.
To get started, I served a few appetizers, including:
- Fresh vegetables and Butternut Squash Hummus
- Cheese plate with crackers
- Baked Brie (nothing healthy about this, but it’s simple and always a huge party hit)
- Deviled Eggs – these were always a part of my family celebrations, but I did my own little take. My family wouldn’t care for these, but my guests thought they were delicious.
For the main meal …
- Salad with cranberries, goat cheese & pecans
- Rainbow medley of roasted vegetables
- Brussel sprout bake – I found this on a great Instagram account called the Wonky Spatula. I added a sprinkle of mozzarella to the top, which made it even better!
- Cauliflower “Stuffing” – Grain-free and Whole30 approved
- Cranberry Sauce – I thought I didn’t like cranberry sauce until I tried a homemade version. This no sugar (honey sweetened) version did not disappoint and was super easy to make!
- Cauliflower mash – seriously, you’ll never miss the potatoes
And finally, my favorite part of any meal … dessert. We were certainly not short on the sweets!
- Yams Delight – this is a recipe that was passed down to my mother, and she’s made it for every Thanksgiving and Christmas I can remember. For me, this tastes like home for the holidays! (link to recipe)
- Mary Beth’s apple pie – this is was maybe the fifth time I’ve made Mary Beth’s pie and it is always a hit!
- Other contributions – my neighbors were kind of enough to bring a delicious blueberry crumble and a friend shared her delicious peanut butter avalanche bark (I’ve made this before and if you ever need to take a dessert for a party, this super easy)
I know, I know – that’s a ton of food. And I should probably mention here that I live in the TINIEST bungalow … one that doesn’t have room for a dining room table. So, with the help of the unseasonably warm Southern California weather, I hosted this event in my courtyard. And, I’m pretty pleased with how the alfresco dining experience turned out!
I’ve always believed that good packaging and the smallest details matter, in all things. So I focused considerable effort on the atmosphere part of this party.
I have two outdoor tables, which when combined with extensions make for one very long table. I covered that with handwoven table clothes that I got in Mexico, then decorated that with fresh flowers, mercury glass votives and a cute, but simple cloth napkin setting I found on Pinterest.
Then, in addition to the table candles and lights that I have strung over the table and throughout the courtyard, I also placed candles on every other available surface. It may have been 91 degrees, but the warm glow and beautiful Thanksgiving playlist (thanks Amazon Music) that filled the courtyard made it almost feel like fall.
I’ll be honest, this was a TON of work – I started prepping Tuesday, baked and roasted on Wednesday and cooked ALL day on Thursday. And while it turned out to be every bit the pretty picture I’d imagined, it was certainly not without challenges.
Remember my tiny bungalow… well it comes with a kitchen of comparable size, which means I had to stop and do dishes three times during the day on Thursday. And if you think the kitchen is small, you should see the refrigerator – it’s not even 5 feet tall! This meant quite the juggling act when it came to storing all the food (especially when you consider the turkey had to brine in a bucket) and a well-coreographed dance of what was getting prepped/cooked when.
Of course this was complicated by the fact that my eyes were clearly bigger than my stomach (or in this case storage). In hindsight, I bit off more than I should have chewed with that menu … and probably could have done with half as many appetizers and two fewer main dishes. I mean I wasn’t feeding an army.
And then there’s cost – cooking a meal like this can be expensive on it’s own, but I didn’t have a roaster, enough place settings of my dishes, enough silverware, a platter big enough for the turkey or enough chairs for my guests. And I wanted grey napkins, more glass votives and tons of fresh flowers. The wants probably greatly outweighed the needs, but again, this was my first holiday hosting, and I wanted it to be special. That said, I found ways to be thrifty – I shopped places like Home Goods for my roaster and platter, Ross for some inexpensive serving bowls, and I found a ton of things on sale. And, when my guests asked what they could bring … I assigned them the wine!
When it was all said and done … I’d do it again and again. Because I loved it! I loved planning it and I love preparing it. I loved trying my hand at new recipes and sharing some of my favorites. I even loved setting the table! I loved it so much, in fact, that I did it again on Friday with “Leftover Giving” – a celebration for friends who couldn’t make it on Thursday … one that I’m sure will become a new tradition.
In the end, I think I created a memorable evening full of good food and gratitude for my friends; and most of all, I hope I hosted a Thanksgiving affair that would have made my grandmother proud.