Thanksgiving is a favorite holiday because it offers tradition with many possibilities of reinvention. There are so many ways to celebrate: a quiet four-day weekend at the beach, a cabin with friends in the mountains. Maybe over the river and through the woods to visit distant family or—luxury of luxuries—staying home with people you love and having a simple get-together.
Local author Lee Smith used to host, with her husband Hal Crowther, a Thanksgiving Day softball game. They issued photocopied invites that said something like "put that bird in the oven and get out of the kitchen for a while," which I thought was excellent advice. Streamlining the feast prep without sacrificing quality or taste can be accomplished by potlucking or by make-ahead recipes, and ensures that whether we are guest or host, we relax, have fun and feel grateful.
Holidays can be stressful. Getting around to more than one family member's table, packing up the kids with their diapers and toys. Hoping that unruly middle-schooler who's dear to your heart will refrain from texting at dinner for once, and that Uncle Bruce won't make a scene. All the more reason to spread the work around. I've been to Thanksgivings where the hosts assign who-brings-what and it worked wonderfully. This seems an intelligent approach and one, moreover, which allows for requesting that the ingredients be local and the recipes specific.
We've assembled a simple menu based on locavore recipes published in these pages, along with a couple of new ones. When looked at as coordinated selections fit for a feast, it's astonishing how many ingredients are reliably local: the bird itself, along with a neighborhood merlot, starter soup of winter squash, sweet and white potatoes, greens, cornmeal, pecans, pumpkins and corn (if you froze enough during peak season, which I didn't, so we won't have corn pudding this year). I admit it is hard to pass on cranberries, which are not native to the Southeast, but a bag or two (not the cans!) cooked up with North Carolina apples won't leave too much of a carbon footprint. And if you're like me and didn't put up enough green beans to serve that favorite side at the gathering, we're in luck: Fall braising greens, kale and tender lettuces are back in season.
I'm not a big fan of doctored sweet potatoes, truthfully; just baked in their skins, split and buttered, they don't need doctoring. Mashed storage potatoes are the gravy companions; pumpkin and pecan tarts, and/or apple crisp (if you need that many desserts), and locally roasted coffee make a fine finish. When assembled, this menu is straightforward and the cooking simple, highlighting the natural goodness of our own fresh hometown foods.
Cornbread Pecan Stuffing
Local food writer Jean Anderson's prize-winning 2007 A Love Affair with Southern Cooking has a delicious version of this classic with crispy bacon in it, and her proportions are grand enough to feed 12 to 15 people. The following serves 8 to 10. It's quick to put together on the big day if you make the cornbread ahead and freeze it. I confess I never actually stuff the bird, being too chicken about raw poultry juices lurking disguised within. (I just discovered Ms. Anderson doesn't either, so I don't feel like too much of a wimp.) The following can be made vegan if the cornbread complies and you eliminate the butter (increase the oil to compensate).
1/4 cup canola or corn oil
1 cup chopped onions or leeks, plus stems if they're young
2 teaspoons each ground sage, thyme and white or black pepper
Salt to taste, depending on saltiness of cornbread
1/2 cup snipped fresh chives and parsley
8 cups very dry cornbread, cut in cubes as for large croutons, 1 1/2 to 2 inches
4 slices day-old, 100 percent whole wheat bread, cubed
1 1/2 cups chopped pecans
1 stick (half cup) butter, melted and cooled
4 cups chicken or vegetable stock, homemade if possible
Butter a 3-quart casserole or soufflé dish. Sauté onions or leeks in oil until translucent. Stir in sage, thyme, pepper and salt. Set aside and when cool, sprinkle in chives and parsley. Meanwhile, in a large bread bowl, combine with your hands the cornbread, whole wheat cubes and pecans. Gently fold in cooled onion-herb mixture into bread and pecans. Whisk together melted butter, 3 cups of stock and eggs until blended, and hand mix gently into the bread bowl. Do not over-mix or the result will be mushy. Turn stuffing into casserole and pour remaining cup of stock over all. Cover with foil and bake alongside your turkey (or ahead, and reheat) for 50 to 60 minutes at 325 degrees. Check halfway through for moistness; if it appears to be too dry, add a little more stock. Since the stuffing will be smothered in gravy, it's not the end of the world if the edges and top brown.
Note: If you don't have a go-to cornbread recipe, a local option is House-Autry's Stone Ground Self-rising Yellow Cornmeal made into cornbread (without any sugar) as per directions on the back of the package. I always increase to 2 eggs from 1, which makes it lighter. You'll need three recipes of this cornbread to have enough cubes.
The ratio of crust to filling makes these satisfying but not too sweet. For crust, use the tart dough for our Pumpkin Tarts, doubled to line a one-dozen cup muffin tin.
1 cup turbinado or brown sugar, mixed with a pinch of salt
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter, softened
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 tablespoon dark rum or bourbon (optional)
1 cup pecan pieces
In a food processor (or by hand using a whisk), mix eggs, sugar, butter, vanilla and rum or bourbon until well blended. Into the dough-lined muffin tins, place a thin layer of pecans, about a teaspoonful. Spoon egg-sugar mixture over pecans and top with another layer of pecans. Bake tarts at 325 degrees for 20 to 30 minutes, watching that tops do not over-brown. Makes a dozen.