At the age of 25 I became Head Person in Charge of Family Meal Celebrations for my side of the family. With this auspicious title came a whole lot of knowledge. Like, cooking a meal for 20+ people can be very time consuming and expensive. The first year I cooked Thanksgiving, midway through the afternoon I locked myself in my bedroom with a glass of wine and cried. In trying to give everyone a nice meal I’d spent an enormous amount of money and run myself ragged.
NOW, after a bit of practice, I know that it doesn’t have to be like that. Meals are special because we spend them together, and simple food prepared with a little care is just as delicious as a table full of complicated dishes that take days (or weeks!) to prepare. You don’t have to spend a fortune to have a holiday feast. And it’s totally fine to ask people to help and bring the dessert. The secret to happy celebrations and good food is community, and I’d much rather have a simple dish of vegetables and herbs, made with outrageously fresh and delicious produce that was grown lovingly by a local farmer than a feast fit to be photographed in a magazine that brought me to tears to prepare.
If complicated recipes are your speciality and joy, that’s fantastic. Show off your skills! But if you find yourself easily overwhelmed by hosting and preparing large events for friends and family, or like many of us don’t have the means to fund an extravagant dinner, I encourage you to instead focus on highlighting the fresh and wonderful flavors of local meat and produce with simple preparations. By all means, have a few fancier dishes if you like (you can try my stuffed pumpkin, or this turnip green soufflé from Signal Mountain Farm). Just remember your friends and family will enjoy their time with you more if you aren’t wondering if it’s possible to sneak out the basement door and go to a motel before they see you, which has never happened to me before, ever.
Here’s another plus to choosing simple fare: it’s often healthier. At the end of a big meal, I want to feel GOOD, and the starchy, decadent offerings at many holiday spreads can be delicious, but altogether too much for me. To combat this, I like to make as many side dishes as possible vegetable heavy with just a touch of decadent ingredients, so they still feel like a treat, but won’t leave me lethargic and unable to enjoy myself later. These sweet potato wedges from Mark Bittman fit the bill (I find I don’t need to use as much ham as he does). Try roasting carrots with cumin seeds and then sprinkle with a touch of goat’s cheese and a spritz of lemon. Or cook up the recipe below for roasted cabbage with bacon and mustard.
Happy Thanksgiving! I hope your time with your community is wonderful and delicious.
Roasted Cabbage with Bacon and Mustard
I like to make this recipe with small cabbages, so everyone gets their own. This is probably owing to a childhood obsession with anything miniature, but it also makes portioning for range of appetites very easy.
Brush the mustard and fat mixture over the cabbage wedges and sprinkle generously with salt and pepper. Wrap the individual wedges in foil (for small cabbages, “reassemble” the cabbage and wrap the individual cabbages in their own piece of foil) and roast for about 30 minutes, or 20 for small cabbages. Serve each wedge sprinkled with bacon pieces.
Make it vegan: omit the bacon and instead use your favorite cooking oil
This is another great recipe to get people who don’t like their veggies to eat something besides carrot sticks. Pro-tip: have kids prepare the sprouts. They love pulling apart the “baby cabbages.”
Sriracha Honey Sprouts
1 bunch Brussels sprouts
3 T. Sriracha
4 T. honey
Separate the sprout leaves. Meanwhile, heat 1 inch of oil suitable for high temp frying in a heavy bottom pan. Mix together the Sriracha and honey in a large bowl and line a plate with some paper towels.
Fry the leaves in batches over medium heat until crispy. Remove the leaves with a slotted spoon, drain on paper lined plate briefly then gently stir with the honey mixture. Enjoy on their own or as a topping for baked potatoes and anything else you can think of.
I mentally refer to recipes like these as “sneaky recipes.” They’re the ones that you can serve to your friends or family members who fear all things “healthy” without concern for how they will react. For example, no one will know (unless you tell them) that the reason this bread is so soft and moist is that it has a whole butternut squash mashed into the batter. In fact, you could just tell them that’s it’s gingerbread and let them think they’re getting a totally nutrition-free treat.
This bread is dairy free, due to the use of coconut oil. You can substitute one stick (4 oz.) of softened butter if you like, but the coconut oil adds a pleasing, subtle flavor to the mix.
Butternut Spice Bread with Crystallized Ginger
Beat together the eggs, molasses and butternut squash mash. Add in the oil, baking powder, dried spices and fresh ginger and thoroughly combine. Add in the flour and stir gently until just combined. Sprinkle in the crystallized ginger and stir to distribute it throughout the batter.
Pour the batter into an oiled loaf pan and bake for 50 minutes–1 hour. Allow to cool in the pan for five minutes before turning out onto a cooling rack and allowing to cool completely (if you can) before slicing.
Italian wedding soup is a delicious, hearty meal. One night this fall I had a hankering for it, and wanted to make a version with local ingredients. The result was delicious take on the classic soup and I think it will go into regular meal rotation in my house.
Tennessee Wedding Soup
Trim the rind off the Parmesan. In a small stock pot, gently heat the broth with the Parmesan rind in it. Meanwhile, in a large, dry skillet, toast the pasta over medium heat, until it has turned from yellow to deeply golden (shake the pan often so as not to burn). Add the pasta to the hot broth and cover. If using pork meatballs, go ahead and cook them in a tablespoon of olive oil in the already warm skillet; or, in the same pan, brown and slice the sausages.
Remove the meat from the pan with a slotted spoon and return the pan to the heat. Add the greens to the pan with a big pinch of salt and sauté for a moment before adding in the garlic. Sauté until wilted and bright green.
Test the pasta for doneness and remove the Parmesan rind.
Divide the meat and greens evenly among four to six wide bowls. Pour over the the broth and pasta and garnish with slices or grated Parmesan.
Lamb Bone Broth
Roast two pounds of lamb bones on a metal tray at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. Place the roasted bones plus the pan drippings into a large stock pot (8 qt.) and cover with water. Simmer, covered, for 6 hours, adding water as needed. Alternatively, you may make this in a slow cooker, cooking on low for 10-12 hours.