Traditional Thanksgiving ingredients in non-traditional dishes

Almost everyone loves roast turkey, cranberry sauce, stuffing, mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie, but there is no rule saying you can't add something a little bit different to your meal, or even change it up completely if you want to, writes Shaun Smith.
Shaun Smith is a writer, journalist and former chef in Toronto. He is the author of the young adult novel Snakes & Ladders.
Part of the beauty of a Thanksgiving meal is that there is such an incredible bounty of ingredients to choose from at this time of year. Almost everyone loves roast turkey, cranberry sauce, stuffing, mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie, but there is no rule saying you can't add something a little bit different to your meal, or even change it up completely if you want to.

I spoke to three authors of new cookbooks to get some recipes for using traditional Thanksgiving ingredients in non-traditional dishes.

Frank Browning cooks with apples - in the form of cider - in his recipe for Steamed Clams, Asturian Style, from the new book An Apple Harvest, which he co-wrote with Sharon Silva.

Meeru Dhalwala and Vikram Vij serve up cranberries in their recipe for Rice Pilaf with Cashews, Cranberries and Saffron, from their cookbook Vij's At Home: Relax, Honey.

Alison Kent and Canadian Living magazine spice things up with Sweet Potato and Cauliflower Tagine, from Canadian Living: The Vegetarian Collection.

My recipe this month makes use of turkey, and it is not actually my recipe. When I first met my fiancée Shannon Abel, she wowed and wooed me with her cooking, especially her wonderfully delicious spaghetti with turkey meatballs. It remains one of my favourite meals and I would happily eat it on Thanksgiving instead of a dry slab of overcooked turkey.

Shannon's Spaghetti and Turkey Balls in Tomato Sauce with Ricotta

Make this recipe in stages, starting with the tomato sauce, then moving on to the meatballs, and then cooking the pasta at the end to assemble the whole dish. It may seem like a lot of work, but it is actually quite an easy recipe to prepare and the results are wonderful. (Serves six).

Ingredients: Tomato Sauce

  • 1 medium onion, diced to ¼ inch (5 mm)
  • 1 medium carrot, peeled and diced to ¼ inch (5 mm)
  • 1 tbsp (15 mL) olive oil
  • 4 medium cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 cans, 28 fl. oz. each (796 mL), of whole Roma tomatoes
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 4 large sprigs of fresh thyme, whole
  • 1 piece of parmigiano Regiano rind, about 3" x 1" (7 cm x 2 cm) (optional)
  • 1 ¼ tsp (6 mL) salt
  • 25 turns of black pepper mill

Heat the olive oil in a large pot over medium heat for one minute. Add the diced onion and carrot, and ¼ tsp (1 mL) of salt. Sauté for five to 10 minutes, until the onions become translucent. Add the garlic and sauté one minute longer.

Add all of the tomatoes with the juice from the cans. Using a wooden spoon, roughly break up the tomatoes into large chunks. Rinse the cans with a bit of cold water and add to the sauce. Add bay leaf, thyme sprigs, parmesan rind (if using), black pepper and remaining salt. Stir well and bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and allow sauce to simmer uncovered for 90 minutes, stirring occasionally and breaking up any large chunks of tomato.

While the sauce is cooking, make the meatballs.

Ingredients: Turkey Balls (makes 12 meatballs)

  • ½ cup (118 mL) fresh grated parmigiano Regiano
  • 1 lb (450 g) ground turkey meat
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 cup (250 mL) breadcrumbs
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tsp (5 mL) fresh thyme, finely chopped
  • ¼ tsp (1 mL) fresh rosemary, finely chopped
  • 2 tbsp (30 mL) fresh Italian parsley, chopped 
  • 1 pinch nutmeg
  • 1 tsp (5 mL) salt
  • 15 turns of black pepper mill
  • 1 cup (250 mL) tomato sauce

Preheat oven to 375 F (190 C). Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Remove one cup (250 mL) of the cooking tomato sauce from the pot and allow to cool. In a large bowl, combine the cooled cup of sauce with all the other meatball ingredients and mix together well by hand. Split the mixture roughly in half and then split each half into thirds. Split each third into half, and then form the meatballs by hand from these halves. Do not pack the meatballs too firmly as that will make them dense in cooking. (Note: The meatball portioning can be done by hand and does not need to be dead-on precise. Just eyeball it, aiming for a roughly uniform meatball size. If one meatball seems a little smaller than the others, just pinch a bit of meat off a large one to add to the smaller one.)

Set the meatballs on the parchment-line baking sheet, spaced evenly. When the tomato sauce has cooked for one hour, bake the meatballs at 375 F (190 C) for 15 minutes. Remove the meatballs from the oven, then gently place them in the tomato sauce to simmer for the remaining 15 minutes.

Additional Ingredients

  • 1 lb (500 g) dried spaghetti
  • 2 tbsp (30 mL) fresh Italian parsley, chopped 
  • 1 cup (250 mL) ricotta cheese
  • 1/2 cup (125 mL) fresh grated parmigiano Regiano

While the meatballs are cooking, bring 12 cups (3 litres) of salted water to a boil in a large pot. Add the dried spaghetti to the boiling water and cook, stirring occasionally, until al dente (firm to the bite), or for the length of time recommended on the spaghetti's package (usually about 10 to 11 minutes). Strain the pasta and turn it out into a large serving bowl. Use a spoon or tongs to remove the meatballs from the tomato sauce and set them on a plate. Remove and discard the Regiano rind from the sauce (if you've used one) and also the thyme sprigs and bay leaf. Pour the tomato sauce over the cooked spaghetti and toss well. Place the meatballs on top of the spaghetti and sprinkle with chopped parsley.

To serve, pass bowls of fresh ricotta and parmesan at the dinner table for your guests to mix into the pasta according to their tastes. About one to two tablespoons (15 to 30 mL) of ricotta and one to two teaspoons (five to 10 mL) of parmesan each should do it, but have a little extra on hand just in case.

Frank Browning's Steamed Clams, Asturian Style

(Courtesy Carol Perehudoff)
Frank Browning, who grew up on an apple farm in eastern Kentucky but now lives in Paris, travelled to the principality of Asturias on the northern coast of Spain to find this recipe for clams steamed in apple cider.

"The cider culture in Asturias is quite remarkable," says Browning, who works as a cultural affairs reporter for National Public Radio. "You have everyone from grandmothers to babies up until midnight, and there'll be 25 cider bottles on the table. They are all having a jolly time."

Asturian cider —  called sidra — differs from English and North American cider, because it is flat and not extremely sweet, with an alcohol content of just five per cent.

A festive night out for an Asturian might include a trip to a cider bar - called a sidreria - where, alongside traditional Asturian foods, sidra is served in a unique manner.

"In the back of the sidrerias," says Browning, "they put cases of cider on a shaking machine, which gives it some aeration. Then the waiter holds this paper-thin glass at crotch level and lifts the bottle up above his head and splashes the cider down into the glass, which aerates it further. It's quite remarkable, especially with the stone-faced look the waiter has. It's considered bad form if they actually have to look down at the glass while pouring."

(Courtesy Leigh Beisch)
In the fishing village of Cudillero, Browning enjoyed clams cooked in cider with fabada beans, another Asturian delicacy.

The recipe is one of many for savoury apple dishes in the new cookbook, An Apple Harvest, which Browning co-wrote with Sharon Silva.

"We thought it'd be fun to do an apple cookbook that concentrated more on main courses and appetizers than it does on desserts," says Browning.

Fabada beans are almost impossible to get outside of Asturias, so Browning recommends serving the clams with cider-simmered cannnelli, navy or romano beans. Or just enjoying the clams on their own.

Steamed Clams, Asturian Style

(Reprinted with permission from An Apple Harvest: Recipes & Orchard Lore  by Frank Browning and Sharon Silva, copyright 1999, 2010. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House.)

(Courtesy Leigh Beisch)
Ingredients (Serves two)

  • 1 1/2 tablespoons (22 mL) olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, slivered
  • 3/4 cup (177 mL) dry hard cider
  • 1 rounded teaspoon (7 mL) tomato paste
  • 2 tablespoons (30 mL) chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • 16 littleneck or cherrystone clams, well scrubbed

In a frying pan, warm the olive oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and sauté for about two minutes, or until soft but not browned. Pour in the cider and stir in the tomato paste and one tablespoon (15 mL) of the parsley. Raise the heat to medium-high, bring to a boil and add the clams, discarding any that do not close to the touch. Cover and cook, shaking the pan occasionally, for three to five minutes, or until the clams open.

Using a slotted spoon, divide the clams between two individual bowls, discarding any that failed to open. Pour the cooking liquid over the top and garnish with the remaining one tablespoon (15 mL) parsley. Serve at once.

Meeru Dhalwala & Vikram Vij's Rice Pilaf with Cashews, Cranberries and Saffron

(Courtesy John Sherlock)
One doesn't readily think of Indian cooking at Thanksgiving, but Meeru Dhalwala and Vikram Vij's Rice Pilaf with Cashews, Cranberries and Saffron, from their new book Vij's at Home would make a delightful side dish for any fall feast.

The duo owns the renowned pair of Vancouver restaurants, Vij's and Rangoli, and this is their second cookbook. Their first book, called simply Vij's, told the story of their professional lives as restaurateurs and presented some of elegant and elaborate dishes served at Vij's. With the new book, readers are taken into the couple's home to learn simpler, everyday preparations for Indian food. This is the food that the couple eats at home with their two teenage daughters. Dhalwala says it is her hope that the book will encourage people to embrace Indian cooking at home just as they have other world cuisines, such as Italian or French cooking.

"Obviously, I love Indian food," says Dhalwala, "but we are an English-speaking family who are for all practical purposes as Canadian as any other Canadian family, whatever your definition of Canadian is. Why shouldn't Indian food be on everybody's table?"

Dhalwala created this rice pilaf recipe because she was inspired by its colourful ingredients.

"A lot of people ask me how I come up with recipes," she states. "For me, it starts with a colour. I close my eyes and I think, what colour is attracting me right now? For this recipe, I was sick of white rice and I wanted to serve my family something pretty."

(Courtesy John Sherlock)
She used saffron and turmeric to give the dish its beautiful yellow hue, and then added the red cranberries and toasted cashews for contrast.

"The cranberries and cashews add a nice balance of flavours," she states. "But you could also use dried blueberries if you wanted, and if you are allergic to nuts, try using roasted pumpkin seeds."

Dhalwala warns that when buying saffron, be sure that it is authentic and not imitation. "There's a ton of fake saffron in the world," she states. "Saffron is not cheap, but you only need a tiny bit. Real saffron has a pungent smell and it doesn't bleed red."

Rice Pilaf with Cashews, Cranberries and Saffron

(From the book Vij's at Home-Relax, Honey: The Warmth and Ease of Indian Cooking, copyright 2010, by Meeru Dhalwala and Vikram Vij. Published by Douglas and McIntyre an imprint of D&M Publishers Inc. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.)

(Courtesy John Sherlock)
Once you get the hang of making this pilaf, you can play around with the ingredients. If you wish, use almonds or walnuts in place of cashews, or try dried blueberries or raisins instead of dried cranberries.

You can even add sautéed vegetables such as cauliflower or green beans, or a cup of cooked chickpeas or pinto, navy or kidney beans. You will just need to adjust the salt. You can also use your own preferred measurements — if you like fewer nuts and more berries, that's fine. The more of both you use, the healthier the pilaf. For this particular recipe, we recommend that you use only white basmati, because we don't think saffron matches the flavour of the brown rice.

The colour of your saffron water should be more red than orange. If it's orange, try adding more threads. The higher the saffron's quality, the fewer threads you'll need. Dip your finger in the water to test the flavour of the saffron.

First soaking the rice for at least 20 minutes and then steaming it at the end, with the lid on, for at least 10 minutes is important. If you choose to use no other ingredients except for the rice, water, oil, cumin, onion and salt, you will have plain basmati rice to serve as a side with any meal. And if you choose not to add saffron, you can double the turmeric for added flavour.

Ingredients (Serves six)

  • 1 1/2 cups (343 mL) white basmati rice
  • 2 1/2 cups (568 mL) cold water
  • 3/4 cup raw unsalted cashews, roughly chopped
  • 1/4 cup (177 mL) cooking oil
  • 1 tsp (5 mL) cumin seeds
  • 1 small onion, finely chopped
  • 1 tbsp (15 mL) chopped garlic
  • (3 medium cloves) (optional)
  • 1/2 tsp (2 mL) turmeric
  • 1 tsp (5 mL) salt
  • 10 to 20 threads saffron (1/4 tsp / 1 mL) soaked in 1/4 cup (59 mL) hot water
  • 1/3 cup (79 mL) dried cranberries

In a large bowl, wash and drain the rice twice in cold water. Add the 2 1/2 cups (568 mL) of cold water to the drained rice and soak for at least 20 minutes and up to one hour.

In a small, heavy-bottomed frying pan, heat cashews on medium-high, stirring constantly for three to four minutes. The tiny pieces will start to burn, but continue stirring until the cashews are light-brown with darker brown edges. Turn off the heat and empty cashews into a bowl to cool. In a medium pot, heat oil on medium for 45 seconds. Add cumin seeds and allow them to sizzle for 15 to 30 seconds. Immediately add onion and sauté until light to medium brown, about five minutes. Add garlic and cook for one to two minutes, or until golden. Add turmeric and stir for 45 seconds, or until a slightly darker shade. Add rice with all of its water and salt. Increase the heat slightly, stir and bring to boil. Stir in the saffron and its water. Reduce the heat to a simmer, cover and allow to cook for 10 minutes. Without removing the lid, turn off the heat and allow rice to cook in its steam for another 10 minutes. Remove the lid and stir. Pour cooled nuts and cranberries into cooked rice. If you're adding sautéed vegetables or beans, add them as well. Mix until well combined. Serve immediately.

Canadian Living's Sweet Potato & Cauliflower Tagine

(Courtesy Edward Pond)
For many people, the vegetable dishes on the Thanksgiving table are every bit as important as the meat, if not more so. If you are tired of bland mashed potatoes and mushy carrots, try spicing things up with a vegetable tagine dish, such as this one made with sweet potatoes and cauliflower, from the new Canadian Living magazine cookbook The Vegetarian Collection.

"A tagine is a North African stew baked in a special clay pot of the same name," says Alison Kent, editor of the new cookbook, "but you don't need a traditional Moroccan tagine pot to cook this dish."

A tagine pot has a conical lid and is used for slow cooking. They are widely available in specialty kitchen stores, but Kent says you can easily cook this recipe in a regular pot on the stovetop. "This recipe is inspired by a Moroccan-style tagine dish," says Kent, "with similar flavours, but it cooks faster."

The new cookbook draws from 10 years of vegetarian recipes published in Canadian Living magazine, and also includes many new recipes. "I think people who are not vegetarians are really embracing the lifestyle of cooking vegetarian even just one day a week," says Kent. "It is very healthy. I'm not vegetarian myself, but there's value in eating meatless some of the time. And a lot of people are looking to expand the repertoire of cooking with vegetables. It doesn't have to be all bland tofu."

"This would be a great side dish on Thanksgiving," adds Kent. "It's not overly spicy and sweet potatoes are very traditional. It would also be a good main dish if you do have a vegetarian guest at your table."

Sweet Potato and Cauliflower Tagine

(Excerpted from Canadian Living: The Vegetarian Collection by Alison Kent & The Canadian Living Test Kitchen Copyright 2010 by Alison Kent & The Canadian Living Test Kitchen. Excerpted by permission of Transcontinental, a division of Random House of Canada Limited. All rights reserved.)

(Courtesy Geoff George)
Ingredients (Serves four)

  • 1 pkg (10 oz/284 g) pearl onions (2 cups/500 mL)
  • 1 tbsp (15 mL) vegetable oil
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 ½ tsp (7 mL) ground cumin
  • 1 tsp (5 mL) paprika
  • ½ tsp (2 mL) ground ginger
  • ½ tsp (2 mL) salt
  • ¼ tsp (1 mL) pepper
  • ¼ tsp (1 mL) cayenne pepper
  • 3 cups (750 mL) cubed peeled sweet potato (1 large)
  • 1 can (19 oz/540 mL) chickpeas, drained and rinsed
  • 1 ½ cups (375 mL) vegetable broth
  • 2 cups (500 mL) cauliflower florets
  • 1 cup (250 mL) frozen peas, thawed
  • 2 tbsp (25 mL) chopped fresh coriander

Place pearl onions in the heatproof bowl; cover with boiling water.  Let stand for five minutes; drain and peel.

In shallow Dutch oven, heat oil over medium heat; fry pearl onions, stirring occasionally, until golden, about five minutes. Add garlic, cumin, paprika, ginger, salt, pepper and cayenne pepper; fry, stirring, for one minute.

Add sweet potato, chickpeas and broth; bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, for five minutes. Stir in cauliflower; simmer, covered, until almost tender, about 20 minutes. Add peas; simmer, covered, until hot. Sprinkle with coriander.