Make room for tradition at the Thanksgiving table, but don’t be afraid to try something new

Thanksgiving dishes

Food and drinks for Thanksgiving.

(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Skip to the good stuff: Dry-brined turkey | Roasted garlic smashed potatoes | Apple sausage stuffing | Winter squash | Homemade jellied cranberry sauce | Spiced pumpkin pie | Hard cider


hanksgiving is the annual demonstration of what food means to us all, as a culture, a community, a family or a jigsawed collection of friends. As such, it's a metaphor as much as it is dinner.

That's a lot of weight for one meal to carry. And it's why people can get very particular about their holiday food traditions, what goes on that table, who comes to dinner and who cooks it. On Nov. 26, you might be preparing a dish just as your grandmother did it 50 years ago. Or you might be making something up for your kids that might somehow last for the next 50.

Because the best Thanksgiving meals allow for both long-held practices and the introduction of the new. The idea is to collect, to cook — one person's well-wrought, dry-brined bird; another's Tolstoy-invoking recipe for stuffing — to eat and, in so doing, to celebrate.

This year, we've collected a series of recipes that might continue some traditions — or establish new ones. Even though you can go rogue and cook crazy things for Thanksgiving, many of us secretly think of this meal as comfort food writ large. Very large, if you consider how big the bird can get, how many people you'll be having over, how much people anticipate mounds of mashed potatoes or how many just want to get to dessert.

Thanksgiving is a cook's holiday, but it belongs to us all, regardless of how we come down on the important issues: turducken and the Detroit Lions, Kobe Bryant's future and cranberry sauce in a can. So prepare to refill the glasses, reload the plates and maybe remember that, whatever happens, you can probably make an excellent cassoulet with what's left of your feast.

Amy Scattergood

ALSO: Restaurants and bars open for Thanksgiving | Complete guide to Thanksgiving

(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Dry-brined turkey

Every year at this time, cooks begin to panic about how they're going to roast their turkey. All that anxiety is misplaced. Roasting a turkey is easy: You simply salt it, roast it and rest it. It's the carving that will kill you.

The first time I carved a Thanksgiving turkey was at my mother-in-law's house. Kathy and I had just started dating and her mother thought it would be nice for me to do the honors — despite the fact that my cooking skills at that time were minimal at best. Either that or she had a wicked sense of humor. I suspect the latter.

Halfway through the carving, I called Kathy into the kitchen: "Where does the dark meat come from?" I whispered hoarsely. As I recall, our guests that day dined on turkey rags and shreds.

But carving doesn't really need to be that scary. Take it one step at a time and you'll be fine. Read more>>

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Russ Parsons

(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Apple sausage stuffing

The most important Thanksgiving dish, as everybody knows, is turkey. Vegetables are important, but my pan-roasted Brussels sprouts with pancetta may be your creamed spinach, and regional side-dish preferences seem to shift not just from state to state but seemingly block to block. Anyway, it is not sacrilegious to eat buttered sweet potatoes or green beans amandine on days that do not happen do be Thanksgiving. Nobody will think it odd if you prepare your great-aunt's succotash a week from Tuesday instead of saving it for the great day.

But stuffing — now that is an essential Thanksgiving dish. A good one requires more labor in the kitchen than anyone will ever know, rewards the smallest subtleties in technique and is so much richer than any self-respecting cook would allow himself or herself the rest of the year. Also, stuffing is delicious. Read more>>

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Jonathan Gold

Roasted garlic smashed potatoes (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Roasted garlic smashed potatoes

Properly made, comfort food is an art. Mashed potatoes are no exception — and, let's face it, the Thanksgiving table simply isn't complete without them. And though personal preference may have a lot to do with what you might consider the perfect mash — do you like your potatoes smooth or lumpy? creamy or fluffy? — there are nevertheless some tips you can follow to elevate your spuds above the rest of the pack. Read more>>

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Noelle Carter

(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

Chef Gary Menes' winter squash

Winter squash usually gets short shrift at the holiday table, relegated to pumpkin pie or maybe a side dish for those who can't abide sweet potatoes. In the hands of Le Comptoir chef Gary Menes, though, this oft-overlooked vegetable can become the star of the show — even replacing the turkey. Read more>>

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Russ Parsons

(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Homemade jellied cranberry sauce

I'm morally opposed to bottled dressing. I find spaghetti sauce in a jar offensive. And if you bring store-bought frosted sugar cookies to my house, I will never invite you to a dinner party again. But for some reason, cranberry sauce in a can gets a pass.

A can of Ocean Spray jellied cranberry sauce has been a fixture on my family's Thanksgiving dinner table for as long as I can remember. Sitting next to the turkey and mashed potatoes, the cranberry jelly shines and wobbles ever so slightly with each pass of the gravy, the stuffing and the wine across the table. Nothing else, of course, comes out of a can.

As a family, we have always prefered jellied cranberry sauce in a can. Judge us if you must. Read more>>

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Jenn Harris

(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Spiced pumpkin pie

If you want to bake a really good pie, get up early. I mean insomniac early, before light and birds and traffic, when the house and anyone in it, including the dog, are asleep. Put on the tea kettle and some music or the news in Europe and measure out your ingredients. Because making pie dough is, and I'm hardly the first to point this out, more a state of mind than a fixed recipe. So is pie, for that matter, particularly holiday pie, when that ceramic pie plate is filled as much with memory and tradition as it is actual spiced pumpkin custard. Read more>>

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Amy Scattergood

(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Hard cider

Whatever your tradition for the holiday, the meal itself is notoriously difficult to pair with wine. Nuances can get lost under the onslaught of so many competing flavors. And the Thanksgiving table's tart and sweet elements can do in all but the most forgiving reds. Think Beaujolais cru.

But consider a different scenario. What if you surprised family and friends this year and showed up with something new to drink? Something that's low in alcohol — and, if you like, local. A beverage that's light and refreshing and capable of cozying up to sweet, tart, rich and everything in between.

That something would be craft cider. Read more>>

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S. Irene Virbila

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