Thanksgiving dinner is usually eaten early in the day so that everybody can kick back and watch football games. For the most part, it’s a peasant-style meal, with an over-abundance of nap-inducing, comfort-food sides.
In the past, I’ve attempted to make it a classier affair by varying the traditional menu, serving pheasant instead of turkey, for instance. Once I started with African peanut butter soup, which nobody appreciated (but me). I’ve tried presenting the dinner in courses, and by serving it at a civilized hour, like 8 p.m., with candlelight. I’ve learned, though, that when it comes to the menu, presentation and serving time, it's better to stick with the tried and true. As for Thanksgiving, nobody really wants meaningful change.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t serve a fancy meal. Thanksgiving, after all, is a national holiday, one that honors the rare bipartisanship of two diverse groups, the Pilgrims and the Indians. I’ve found that the simplest way to add a gourmet touch to your Thanksgiving dinner is to incoporate alcohol into your dishes when making them.
For this year’s Thanksgiving dinner, I decided to think of my liquor cabinet as a pantry. Because the flavors in spirits are so concentrated, they add a depth of flavor to dishes without much work. For the most part (if not all), the alcohol burns off in the cooking process. And you only need a little for a good effect. I wanted to avoid the obvious, like adding sherry to my stuffing, or deglazing the skillet with red wine to make a reduction sauce or gravy. To that end, I browsed through my cookbooks, went online and called my chef friends to get some spirited, not-so-predictable suggestions. I’m not offering complex recipes here — just ways of kicking things up a notch or two.
My 13 suggestions come with a disclaimer: I’m not presenting exact measurements. If you want more specifics, or prep advice, just do some googling. You’ll find everything you need to know on the Internet.
Besides calling my chef friends, I also asked our contributing wine expert Dara Moskowitz-Grumdahl for Thanksgiving wine suggestions. You can find them at the end of this article.
If you want to be on the cutting edge of cranberries — fresh ones, not canned — add some whiskey to them as they’re cooling. Cranberries are extremely tart, and whiskey isn’t sweet, so you’ll need to use plenty of sugar. For an added kick, use one of the new cinnamon-infused whiskeys. Whiskey can also transform Brussels sprouts from ho-hum to spectacular. Combine butter, sugar and whiskey in a frying pan and let melt over high heat. Put your steamed or boiled Brussels sprouts in the pan and stir until coated, about one minute. You can even put in some maple sugar and cooked, chopped bacon or pancetta.
It's not just for Manhattans! Stir a couple of shots into pecan pie filling before baking. You can use it to make a topping to spoon on pecan or pumpkin pie, ice cream or even roasted sweet potatoes: Heat a cup of bourbon in a saucepan with whole toasted pecans and ¼ cup of dark brown sugar or molasses. Just don’t put the topping in the refrigerator as it will over-thicken.
Many people add bourbon to the basting liquid when roasting their turkey. But better yet, use a honey-flavored variety, then stir in some regional honey to the liquid. You can up the flavor by adding some vanilla extract and brown sugar. When making stuffing, douse the croutons with some bourbon. It will keep the bread moist when cooking. The bourbon flavor complements stuffing ingredients like onions, celery, nuts and sausage.
This orange-flavored French liqueur (a brand of triple sec) pairs beautifully with fowl. Use it to make a bittersweet glaze for duck — combine 1 cup of fresh orange juice, 1 cup of strong coffee and ½ cup of Cointreau. Heat in a saucepan over medium heat and reduce by 90 percent. This glaze works as an elegant substitution for gravy to serve with your turkey. You can also stir Cointreau into your mashed sweet potatoes (¼ cup for four yams), and add butter and parsley. For a palate-cleansing dessert, steep fresh strawberries in Cointreau with brown sugar, fresh mint and a little cracked black pepper.
When cooking, use dark rum, not light — save the latter for mojitos. Add it to butternut squash for a side dish that will be passed around more than once. Peel, seed and quarter the squash into ½-inch pieces. Put the slices in a large saucepan and add ¼ cup of maple syrup, ¼ teaspoon ground mace, 2/3 cup of water and ¼ cup of rum. Bring to boil and simmer for 15 minutes or until the squash is tender. When cooked, remove the squash then reduce the cooking liquid until thickened. There's your sauce.
For dessert, boil down some rum with brown sugar, and spoon warm or at room temperature over ice cream with dried cranberries, raisins, almonds and Mandarin oranges (this rum sauce is also wonderful served over roasted squash or sweet potatoes that have been topped with marshmallows). When making apple pie, add raisins that have been steeped in rum. Add about two teaspoons of the dark variety to your gingerbread batter.
This French brandy makes an elegant sauce for duck, cranberries or pears. In a small saucepan, simply heat ¾ cup of butter, 1 cup of freshly squeezed orange juice, some orange rind, 2 tablespoons of sugar and ¼ cup or so of Grand Marnier. Slowly bring to a boil and whisk in ¾ cup of butter. Serve immediately. You can also add Grand Marnier, along with fresh or dried sage, to your turkey basting liquid. Or, in place of traditional turkey gravy, make a Steak Diane-inspired sauce: Sautee shallots with the turkey pan juices, add some butter, mustard, cream and Grand Marnier.
You don’t want to mess with a traditional pumpkin pie by introducing new flavors. You can, however, elevate the dessert by serving it with whipped cream that’s been spiked with Grand Marnier.
Made from grapes that are left over from wine-making, this Italian brandy makes an excellent marinade for fruit, especially fresh strawberries or canned pears. Simply cover the fruit with the grappa, then chill before serving. Served on its own, grappa is a tasty and welcome digestive after a feast.
This French, anise-tasting liqueur pairs well with oysters. So if you’re making an oyster stuffing, add a few shots to the stuffing mixture before cooking. Pernod and fennel are a stellar combination. Try this: Slice fennel bulbs horizontally into 1/3 -inch slices. Place the fennel slices in a lightly oiled baking dish and into a 375º oven. When the fennel’s three-quarters of the way cooked (about 25 minutes), remove from oven and top with melted butter and Pernod. Return it to oven and cook an additional 15 to 20 minutes. Be careful not to overcook the fennel or all of the Pernod sauce will cook off.
This Italian hazelnut liqueur makes an elegant sauce that can be spooned over pie, ice cream or roasted sweet potatoes. Simply heat 1/3 cup of Frangelico with a little butter, some dried cherries and golden raisins and serve warm or at room temperature. If you want to get fancier or make a sauce that can be made and refrigerated up to three days before the guests arrive, try this: Bring 1 cup of cream and 3 tablespoons of Frangelico to a boil in a small saucepan. Add 2 tablespoons of granulated sugar until it dissolves. Remove from heat and whisk. Cool in an ice water bath then add ½ teaspoon of vanilla. Refrigerate for up to three days. (Note: You may need to thicken the sauce as it cooks by adding 1½ teaspoons of cornstarch that’s been dissolved in 1 teaspoon of water.) While you've got the Frangelico out, why not add some to a hazelnut stuffing?
Attention Don Draper: This Italian liqueur isn’t just for Harvey Wallbangers, that quintessential 1960s cocktail. Galliano has a multilayered combination of flavorings, including vanilla, anise, ginger, citrus and lavender. Add to mashed sweet potatoes, but because Galliano doesn’t pair well with marshmallows, leave those off. If you’re making cheesecake, fold a cup of Galliano into the creamed ricotta. To die for.
Use vanilla or cranberry-flavored vodka to make a sauce that can go on practically anything: Heat ¼ cup of vodka with ¼ cup of water, ¼ cup of white sugar, ¼ cup of lemon juice and (if desired) a cinnamon stick. This can be made ahead of time and refrigerated. Remove cinnamon stick, then spoon over cake for dessert or mix in with your cranberry sauce.
Hiram Walker Gingerbread Liqueur
Mix some of this in with your mashed sweet potatoes and the guests will be sending you thank-you emails as soon as they get home. Or add a little to a homemade gingerbread pie crust before baking. Imagine a pumpkin pie with that crust: four stars.
For a robust glaze on your turkey, ham or duck, combine tequila with apricot or peach jam. The alcohol in a glaze will help keep the bird from overcooking.
Crème de Menthe
Artichokes are always a part of an Italian family feast. A chef friend of mine with Italian roots swears by this recipe, which his family prepares every Thanksgiving. In a food processor, make a paste by combining olive oil, garlic, bread crumbs, parsley and mint. Push this paste into the leaves of 5 or 6 trimmed artichokes. Put the artichokes in a steamer. When they are cooked (15 to 20 minutes), save the water from the steamer. Add to the water 2 cups of chicken stock, 1 cup of white wine, the juice of half a lemon, and a half-cup of crème de menthe. Whisk it together and pour over the artichokes before serving.
Dara's Thanksgiving Wine Picks
The following wines will definitely put the thanks in your Thanksgiving. If your wine store doesn't have the exact match, ask for a substitution. The following wines, priced from #12 to $85, are Pinot noirs, including the bubbly Chandon.
- Chandon (California) Blanc de Noirs Bubbly NV ($16)
- A-Z Pinot Noir (Oregon) 2010 ($20)
- MacMurray Ranch Pinot Noir (Russian River) 2008 ($26)
- Zonin Pinot Noir (Italy) 2009 ($12)
- Cono Sur Pinot Noir (Chile) any year ($12)
- Domaine Serene (Oregon) very expensive, $70 or 85 depending, only get this if you want something expensive)