Those of us who write about food for a living don’t welcome Thanksgiving. It gets boring. (Five years ago, before Tom joined the staff of Grist, its editors commissioned him to write a Thanksgiving-themed piece.) Frankly, we think turkey kind of sucks: Most of what ends up on American tables has been raised in industrial feedlots and then, to add insult to injury, overcooked. The vegetable side dishes are all the same, from coast to coast: heavy on starch, low on flavor. The history of the holiday is troubling, too.

But even so, Thanksgiving is a national, convivial feast — here in the nation that invented car food and microwaved “lean cuisine.” That’s too rare and strange a thing to ignore amid our troubled, fragmented, often brutalized culinary landscape.

So we decided to set aside our knee-jerk curmudgeonliness and ask other food professionals how they make Thanksgiving interesting for themselves. Because, while this holiday for us has always been more about the company than the meal, we knew these folks would serve up something inspiring.

Tomorrow: Renegade Thanksgiving dishes from Grist readers and staffers.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Chard ravioliHazelnut and Chard Ravioli Salad with butternut squash: this one will please the vegetarians — and have the carnivores begging to switch teams. Photo: Heidi SwansonHeidi SwansonHeidi Swanson, cookbook author (Super Natural Every Day , the follow-up to her award-winning first cookbook, is forthcoming) and creator of the influential blog 101 Cookbooks

I’m thinking about making a big pot of pozole this year. Each person in my family contributes to the Thanksgiving spread in one way or another — my mom makes the stuffing, my brother-in-law makes beer, dad tackles the turkey, and on and on. We have a mixed crowd of vegetarians and non-, so I usually step in with some sort of substantial vegetarian main dish. Pozole is on the menu this year, but last year I made this Hazelnut & Chard Ravioli Salad. Because the food at Thanksgiving can be so heavy, I like vegetables and salad options that aren’t. I like them fresh and bright, and preferably not cooked to death. I sometimes do green beans like this, or Brussels sprouts like this. For more, I keep a running list of Thanksgiving vegetarian favorites up to date here.

Deborah MadisonDeborah Madison, our go-to source for seasonal, vegetarian recipes and author (most recently) of Seasonal Fruit Desserts from Orchard, Farm and Market

What could be new at Thanksgiving? Make it a potluck, and be surprised by what others bring to the table.

With a potluck, people have only one dish to make, so they can really take time over it and do something more complex and special than they might otherwise. I’d be thrilled to make (and eat), a home-made lasagna with wild mushrooms, for example — something I wouldn’t just casually do. And since I love making dessert, I might make four or five of them, including something that’s very light and cool, like the tangerine pudding from Seasonal Fruit Desserts.  

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

One of my favorite things to do, and it’s never the same twice, is to construct a large platter of fruit, nuts roasted in their shells, foil-wrapped candies, sweetmeats, chocolate bark, Medjool dates stuffed with almond paste — just lots of tasty little tidbits, sweet but not too sweet. (Be sure to have nutcrackers.) Whether the platter stays on the table or migrates closer to the fire, know that people like to linger and pick at this and that, and continue hanging out together instead of just going home.

Depart from the traditional menu if you’re tired of the candied yams and creamed onions. There are hundreds of ways each vegetable that comes your way can be prepared. You can also depart from the (heritage) turkey. One year we grilled local sausages and onions, and it was so refreshing to forget the standard menu, stand in the snow grilling, then sit down to what was both a special and not-so-special meal. It was simple but it was still Thanksgiving.

Sam FromartzrollsMaking dough ahead of time saves angst and adds flavor.Photo: NolisSam Fromartz, author of Organic, Inc. and a forthcoming book about bakers, bread, and baking

Thanksgiving’s always a time to stretch your cooking skills, considering it’s probably the only time of the year you roast a turkey. With everything else going on — mashed potatoes perhaps, stuffing, pies — who has time to think of anything else? But I’d say that Thanksgiving is a perfect time to try and make some soft rolls timed to come out of the oven just before dinner. So how do you do that without going crazy?

First find a simple recipe for rolls, preferably with a little butter or olive oil that lightens up the dough. While whole grains are all the rage these days, you don’t want a hefty, gut-filling roll with this meal, so I’d go light and stick with white flour.

Now here’s the key. To avoid angst, mix the dough one or even two days before the big event (ie, on Tuesday or Wednesday night). Stick the dough in the refrigerator and ignore it while you go crazy with everything else. Thursday afternoon, when all the heavy lifting is done with the rest of the meal, take the dough out, let it warm up a bit, and form rolls. Let them rise for another hour or so, then slip them into the oven, already preheated by the now-done turkey. The rolls will bake in 15 to 20 minutes. Serve them to your guests hot — they’ll smear them with gravy and turkey.

This “delayed fermentation”  technique will work with nearly any bread recipe — I like the look of Dan Leader’s Ciabatta Rolls [PDF] and Saveur’s refrigerator rolls — and the taste of the bread will only improve with it. That’s why many French bakers use it for making baguettes.

Samin NosratSamin Nosrat, chef, freelance writer, and cofounder of San Francisco’s Pop-Up General Store

Since my parents came over to California from Iran right before I was born, I grew up eating pretty traditional Persian food. We didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving at my house, so by the time I left for college and eventually became a cook, I was starved for all of the regular standbys. I now look forward to eating all of the classics each year, from turkey to cranberry sauce, and most especially stuffing. Oh, stuffing!

The great thing about not growing up with Thanksgiving is that I don’t have any emotional attachments to particular recipes, and each year brings with it a new opportunity to show off our incredible Northern California seasonal bounty. My favorite thing to do is to try to squeeze in everything beautiful and delicious that I can, from chicory salads with pomegranates, new-crop walnuts, and persimmons, to all sorts of roasted heirloom squashes drizzled with honey and chilies. Oh, and I can’t forget platters of boiled first-of-the-season Dungeness crab with drawn butter.

The biggest challenge isn’t deciding what to make, but figuring out how to get it all onto the table!

Marissa GuggianaMarissa Guggiana, author of Primal Cuts: Cooking With America’s Best Butchers and editor of Meatpaper

I always buy a heritage-breed turkey. In part because one of the things I am most thankful for is the amazing diversity of our ecosystem, and in part because I cannot abide dry breast meat. Heritage birds are generally smaller-breasted and fattier, so they roast more like a chicken. My friend Christian Caiazzo, the chef at Osteria Stellina in Point Reyes, Calif., suggests combating the disappointing dryness by boning out the entire bird and fileting it, stuffing it, and making it into a roll. If you tie it like a roast, you will have gorgeous pinwheels of turkey while keeping the traditional role of stuffing in the meal (plus no performance anxiety when it’s time to carve!).

Reader support helps sustain our work. Donate today to keep our climate news free.