I grew up eating everything out of boxes or cans. As a private chef and food writer, when I tell people this, inevitably their response is “You’re Lying!”. But it’s true. Spaghetti kit with canned meat sauce? Check. Every fruit and vegetable I consumed. Check. Fish sticks from a frozen box. Check. Blue box Mac n Cheese. Of course! Thanksgiving was no different.
The turkey was not processed of course, but all the sides? Sadly, yes, they were concoctions filled with all the convenient boxes and cans the 60s and 70s brought us. Green bean casserole with canned beans and cream of ??? soup, potato casserole with soup, canned sweet potatoes mushed with marshmallows on top and canned fruit covered with some sort of gellified concoction. No wonder I didn’t like Thanksgiving food. Even as a toddler, I was a foodie. I would wander up to the fridge to choose condiments to spice up my food, I readily ate tuna over PB&J and I still remember the day my Mom got her bright yellow Betty Crocker recipe card collection box with 26 sets of recipe cards. I sat there poring through every recipe and I remember the first meal my mom prepared from those cards. Because of all this, I apparently picked up on the bland, sameness that came with the typical Thanksgiving food that I was raised on and I really looked at that day as a necessary evil to kick off the holiday season. Then the light came on as I began to celebrate my own Thanksgivings and do most of the cooking for the food-centric holiday.
I began cooking early in life. My aunt, who I just recently learned was raised in the Berkeley – home of organic, farm-to-table cooking – would cook with me when we were together and instilled a true love for cooking fresh ingredients. By 8th grade, I had created my first full-on French meal for a Home Economics assignment and by the time high school was over I was doing a lot of the cooking for our family. It continued in college when I could nab a kitchen outside the dorms and cook for friends. Then I married a fellow foodie (although he didn’t know he was until a few years in) and we began to circle our wagons around food and wine. Because we tended to cook fresh meals, one of our realizations was that Thanksgiving was truly a holiday better suited for REALLY close family and friends rather than all the extended family you rarely see. It’s a day meant for hanging out around the table for hours (usually 6-8 hours at our house) and NEVER interrupted by football. It’s a day to celebrate relationships and…food! FRESH food! This isn’t the day to do quick cooking using canned goods. To keep a little bit of the tradition but turn it around, I started taking those recipes that I had been raised on and making them into fresh versions.
Here’s a round up of my five favorites from around the web. While I haven’t documented my own versions (since I rarely use a recipe), these are recipes that are about as close to mine as you can get without standing next to me as I create and documenting them yourself (Hey come on over and do so if you wish!).
Deconstructed Green Bean Casserole – Though this isn’t my personal recipe, it’s so close and this was the first recipe I wanted to recreate with fresh ingredients. The idea of using canned green beans, canned soup and canned hydrogenated oil filled onions completely grossed me out. Make Ahead Tip: make the fried onions ahead of time and crisp them up in the oven before serving.
Sweet Potato Gratin – Never being one to like sweet things in the middle of my meal, I love this gratin. The recipe uses two kinds of potatoes and low-fat milk, but it’s Thanksgiving, so use all sweet potatoes and full-on cream, as suggested in the notes, to give it richness and keep it from separating.
Fruit Salad Done Right – Unless it’s on the dessert table, there is no place for whipped cream, gelatin, marshmallows or any other super-sweet component (my humble opinion of course) in a Thanksgiving side dish. So if you feel there must be something fresh and fruity on your spread, try roasted fresh fruit and nuts with fresh greens and a little salty-savory cheese!
Cranberry Sauce Two Ways Sans Can – So admittedly I’m not typically a Pioneer Woman reader (or watcher) as she does use a lot of prepared foods in her recipes, however, this one is all real food with no sugar. It will be on my Thanksgiving table this year as I have begun using maple syrup instead of sugar as much as possible. I always make two batches, one with minced jalapeno and one without. The jalapeno one always goes first FYI, so if you have a spice-loving group, consider making more. Want to make the jellied stuff? Try this instead. You can use a well-washed can to keep the rings around it or be a little more refined and use a gelatin mold or even a Mason jar. Regardless of container, the natural pectin will cause it to shape up.
No Cans Pumpkin Pie – OK, so canned organic pumpkin is one item you could fudge on, but the one year I made a “pumpkin” pie using roasted butternut squash, everyone at our Friendsgiving table agreed it was the best pumpkin pie ever even without pumpkin in it. I used to get an overabundance of winter squash in my veggie boxes and would roast them just to preserve them since roasted puree freezes well. If you can get a kabocha or butternut squash, either makes beautiful puree. If you roast butternut or pie pumpkin, do take the time to strain it for a bit as it can be watery and will affect your final product.
I would love to hear what your real food trade outs are for your holiday faves. Comment below or head over to Facebook and post there.