Thanksgiving: A day to gather with your loved ones and give thanks? Or a day to display your culinary prowess to friends and family? Increasingly, the emphasis has been on the latter in the past few years, as people try to dress up the traditional Thanksgiving spread and impress their guests.
But if you cook for a living, Thanksgiving is that one day a year when maybe -- just maybe -- you get the day off and are allowed to enjoy the luxury of having others cook for you for a change. We polled Houston chefs and food personalities to see what their plans were for this year's Thanksgiving and found a common thread between all of them: Thanksgiving is all about the traditions, dressed up or not.
Robert Del Grande, executive chef and owner of RDG + Bar Annie: Traditions -- fall foods like squash and corn -- which can be hard to break away from. I tried to do turkey with mole one year, and I was almost un-invited from my own house. Normally the turkey is best done simply, although I will sometimes make French-type turkey sauce (don't call it gravy) and try to capture some things from the season. Everyone wants mashed potatoes, but sometimes I cook sweet potatoes in banana leaves or some crisp persimmon salad. I don't really see it as a "shock you with creativity" kind of meal. The strategy for me always is: How can I make it the best and work the least? Why would I want to work so hard on a day off? Then you truthfully find that if you do it simply and very well, it's better than making it complicated. Thanksgiving is more about getting together over simple things that remind us to be thankful than a some kind of "culinary daredevil meal." So stick with things like cranberry, brussels sprouts, and maybe a ham for back-up in case the turkey's dry.
Chip Hight, chef and owner of Blue Apron Catering: My family sort of hates anything non-traditional. Cranberry sauce does in fact come out of a can. I will be preparing my grandmother's deviled eggs as well as a pear tart tatin. Who could hate that? Mom always bakes pumpkin pies, which are great. Broccoli, rice and cheese casserole is by far the only Thanksgiving food that I long to eat.
Erin Smith, executive chef at Plonk: My grandmother's Italian, so the tradition in our family is to serve homemade meat ravioli in a light broth. I also like to incorporate nontraditional produce when I make traditional dishes, like celery root gratin, salsify and Hen-of-the-Woods mushroom risotto, and a sweet caramelized fennel sauce instead of cranberry sauce.
Carlos Rodriguez, executive chef at Vic & Anthony's: My family has always been fairly traditional and straightforward, with a couple of exceptions. You will always find fresh made tortillas, beans and Mexican rice at our table with any meal. So we kind of fuse tradition with our Mexican heritage. We usually have a salad of tomato, avocado and fresh heart of palm as well. And generally, I make gumbo out of the leftovers the next day to get us through the weekend.
Rebecca Masson, pastry chef: We always have deep fried turkey and 24-hour smoked brisket. My mom also makes my great grandma's yeast rolls. It's the best Thanksgiving meal ever. We usually have pie -- apple or pecan -- and this godawful pumpkin banana mousse torte that my stepdad, John, makes. He loves it. I hate it.
Jason Gould, executive chef at Cyclone Anaya's: The last few years, Gravitas has done Thanksgiving dinner, so now I'm free to cook. We have a unique setup, being as I'm not from America. My aunt, her husband of 40 years is Bolivian, her best friend is Chilean and her other best friend is Swedish. So we all get together and do a potluck, and over the years traditional dishes -- that have to be brought every year -- have come out of that. No one is allowed to duplicate; there's a lot of coordinating beforehand. Everyone does their own interpretation of what Americans eat for Thanksgiving. The Swedish woman does a squash casserole that's so good, people beg her for the recipe each year, and she won't give it out. We also do a roasted or fried turkey, and this year I'm doing tenderloins and green beans, the traditional trimmings.
Tracy Vaught, owner of Backstreet Cafe and Hugo's: I always cook Thanksgiving. Hugo [Ortega] watches sports on TV. I can't change it much; the family would miss the old stand-bys. Our menu:
Potted blue cheese with Port jelly Dad's crab dip Autumn salad with poached pears and toasted pecans A 13 to 14-pound turkey Cornbread dressing with sage and wild mushrooms Sweet potatoes with marshmallows Cranberry-orange chutney Collard greens with bacon Baked stuffed onions Parker House rolls Pumpkin cheesecake Coconut cream pie
It was only recently we stopped serving asparagus mold with almonds (Hugo really didn't like that one), tomato aspic and pickled peaches. We always used to have a relish tray and no one ever ate any of it. That finally died too.
Ricky Craig, owner of Hubcap Grill: Well, I'm half Italian, so basically what we do is take my mom's heritage and do an Italian/American feast. We keep it simple 'cause I think when it comes to cooking, simple is best. For apps, I'll do my homemade pino cheese spread with an assortment of crackers. Also, deviled eggs and stuffed artichokes. For the meal, meat and cheese lasagna with homemade Italian sausage, Italian baked chicken and then throw in the basics: turkey, honey-baked ham. For sides, mac and cheese is a must! Italian baked green beans, corn on the cob, grilled asparagus. Crusty bread and salty butter! And dessert tradition: my Aunt Jennie's chocolate cake with a butter white icing and Blue Bell vanilla ice cream. Yup, that's correct -- you heard me -- Blue Bell. When it comes to cooking, I like to keep it simple and let the dish shine for itself, let it be fun.
Erin Hicks Miller, author of Houston's Classic Desserts: My husband and I are spending Thanksgiving at his family ranch in Encino, Texas, so I'm preparing a holiday meal with a bit of a Mexican twist. We'll be dining on chipotle sweet potatoes, a smoky Gouda and spinach soufflé, a green bean casserole (I make a lighter version using Greek yogurt, caramelized onions and panko bread crumbs) and a jalapeno-and-orange cranberry sauce. Once again, we're entrusting the bird to Char Broil's "The Big Easy" Oil-less Infrared Turkey Fryer (love this cooker...we have two!) and finishing it up with a recipe from Chef Stacey Crowe at Chez Nous that I was lucky enough to get my hands on while compiling recipes for my Houston Classic Desserts cookbook: Walnut tart with Jack Daniels ice cream. Yumba!
Justin Turner, chef and owner of Bernie's Burger Bus: I'm going totally Cajun. I'm rubbing the bird down and brining it. I make this really good oyster and andouille stuffing. I'll probably do some sweet potato casserole with tasso ham in it. I've got a freezer full of great Louisiana products and I'm using them! I love that kind of stuff. And then I turn my leftover turkey into gumbo. I actually get to cook something besides cheeseburgers, which is great.
Juan Carlos Gonzalez, executive chef at Bistro Alex: We're having Thanksgiving dinner at the restaurant, it's a three-course package deal. And then after that, I plan on being at my favorite bar, watching the Saints kick the Cowyboys' asses. Cooking, eating and then drinking!
David Luna, executive chef at Flora & Muse: Me and my girlfriend are preparing an organic turkey this year. And you know chefs, we eat what's put in front of us. We're doing a roasted cranberry sauce that we've done for the last three years; it comes out like jam. We're making her grandma's pecan pie and her pumpkin squares. She got the recipes from her mom in Tulsa, so we're making those in honor of her grandma. And then, of course, cornbread stuffing. And we just got back from Sonoma, so we have a slew of wines we're bringing. It's my only day off that week, so I'm not gonna go crazy.
Kenny Gruber, owner of Kenny & Ziggy's: I'm making a butternut squash kugel soufflé as a side dish.
L.J. Wiley: Here's the Thanksgiving Menu at Casa de Wiley:
I - Grilled Beet Salad, Pumpkin Seed Crusted Goat Cheese, Pumpkin Vinaigrette
II - Giant Mac & Cheese Filled Ravioli, Raw Green Bean Slaw
III - Cornbread Crusted Turkey Roulade, Mushroom Duxelles, Bacon Roasted Brussels Sprouts, Roasted Garlic Mash, Giblet Gravy
IV - Sweet Potato Confit, Marshmellow Fluff Brulee, Cranberry-Pecan Conserve
V - Buttermilk Pie
VI - Joyous hours of napping
Jason Hauck, executive chef at Soma Sushi: He approaches cooking his Thanksgiving feast by preparing all the beloved comfort foods, but just done really well. Starting with the protein, he brines his turkey and serves a braised turkey roulade with a brioche herb stuffing. Hauck also always cooks up wild game: roasted duck with a cranberry-champagne jam. Accompanying the meats are dishes such as sweet potatoes topped with an apple and banana crème or marshmallow gratin. Hauck's homemade fresh stock gravy is made from the roasted turkey stock, and mixed with herbs and spices. For dessert, he bakes a homemade pumpkin and pecan pie and also loves to serve a homemade custard: Grand Mariner crème brulee.
Sylvia Casares, chef and owner of Sylvia's Enchilada Kitchen: I'm going to smoke a turkey and prepare the traditonal sides: cornbread dressing, sweet potatoes, nothing terribly exciting...just the smoked turkey and a mole sauce for those who do not want gravy.
Ozzie Rogers, executive chef at III Forks: Rogers serves a juicy turkey on Thanksgiving, but it's definitely not the traditional turkey. He prepares a roasted beer-battered turkey for his family. He also makes a roasted ham with freshly crushed pineapple in a special Coke and brown sugar mixture. In addition to his homemade mashed potatoes with cheddar cheese, he loves serving a cranberry dish -- not crushed, but whole cranberries. To end on a sweet note, Rogers bakes a homemade pecan and pumpkin pie and also a New York-style cheesecake.
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John Watt, executive chef at Prego: Susan, Nick and I are going to eat with friends. I'm going to bring scalloped potatoes made with sharp Vermont cheddar, roasted butternut squash puree and haricot beans. Everything else will be pretty traditional.
Dylan Murray, executive chef at benjy's: Murray will not be cooking for his family this year, as he will be in the kitchen at benjy's preparing a delicious Thanksgiving feast for all the guests dining at benjy's to enjoy. His Thanksgiving menu includes turkey, short ribs, farm-raised Scottish salmon and for the vegetarian, a hearty butternut squash crepe. Classic dishes such as green bean casserole and corn bread stuffing will be served. Murray ends the meal with dessert options including benjy's infamous Mom's Chocolate Cake and a bourbon pecan pie.
Napoleon Palacios, executive chef at Damian's Cucina Italiana: I'll be cooking a brisket and traditional tamales!
Greg Lowry, executive chef at Voice: We kinda do a potluck. We've got about 25 people coming over to my house. I'll be at the restaurant, but my wife is gonna be cooking; she's gonna do a brined and smoked turkey breast. We're keeping it pretty traditional this year, you know. People bring drinks and things like potato salad and Waldorf salad. My uncle makes a pretty good crab dip. Everybody just brings everything in. I'll be done at the restaurant by 2 o'clock, and we don't eat until around 6. I was gonna do two turkeys, but my dad is gonna fry up some turkeys with his friends; it makes it much easier on me.