New takes on Thanksgiving classics

Photo: Michael Kahn

By Margi Lenga Kahn, Special to the Jewish Light

Many of you might ask, “Why change something that has worked so well year after year?” My answer to you and to my family: “If you don’t leave your comfort zone, you’ll never know what you might be missing!” This year I’m sticking with a classic Thanksgiving trio: turkey, green beans, and sweet potatoes. But this year I’m suggesting a creative new take on each of them to reflect a heightened interest in cleaner eating while honoring the essence and flavors of the main ingredients but simplifying their preparation.


Back in September of 2010 when I interviewed food writer and chef Mark Bittman for my Jewish Light column, his cookbook “Food Matters” had just been published. What impressed me then, and still does today, is his ability to simplify cooking and make it approachable for everyone.

“I cook like a mother or grandmother cooks: simply and in moderation,” he told me. 

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In line with his motto, I was not surprised to discover that Bittman is credited with introducing the method of spatchcock (basically butterflied) turkey, a procedure most frequently used with a whole chicken. I have made spatchcock chicken both in the oven and outside on the grill. Either way, the result is magnificent—chicken that is juicy, crispy, and so quick and easy to prepare. However, the thought of applying a similar method to turkey had never crossed my mind.

In a New York Times article from November 2002, Bittman glorified the benefits of a spatchcock turkey: “Roasted at 450 degrees” he wrote, “a 10-pound bird will be done in about 45 minutes. Really. It will also be more evenly browned (all of the skin is exposed to the heat), more evenly cooked, and moister than birds cooked conventionally.” If Bittman can make it work, so can we.

Just as brining and applying a seasoned rub to any chicken or turkey can provide flavoring and tenderizing benefits, this pre-roasting preparation works well with spatchcock turkey, too. Moreover, a spatchcock turkey doesn’t require as much refrigerator space as a whole one. Brines can vary, though they will always include salt and sugar, and any number of fresh and dried herbs, and perhaps even fresh citrus peels. You can find plenty of brine recipes on the internet.

Don’t get verklemped over this unusual way to roast your turkey. If orthopedic poultry surgery is not your thing—it certainly isn’t mine—leave the surgery to the professionals, namely, your local butcher. All you need to do is place an order for a fresh turkey in advance and request that it be spatchcocked.  I confirmed with the butchers at Whole Foods Market in Brentwood, the Dierbergs on Eager Road and the Schnucks at Ladue Crossing that this service will be free of charge. I would imagine that other stores have the same policy — just be sure to check.

Green Beans:

Back in a 2010 column, I suggested an orange and toasted walnut makeover of that iconic Thanksgiving green bean casserole. Yes, a makeover of that standard casserole featuring Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup.

This year, I am proposing a new version that includes mushrooms, because, hey, it’s the mushrooms in the Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup that has made this dish so popular—not! And by the way, that rich flavor we’ve been rhapsodizing over for years comes from much more than the mushrooms. Here is a handful of ingredients listed on the back of a Cream of Mushroom Soup can: vegetable oil, modified food starch, wheat flour, monosodium glutamate, soy protein concentrate, dehydrated cream from cream and soy lecithin, yeast extract, flavoring, and dehydrated garlic. If you really do like your green beans with mushrooms and garlic, try my recipe below. It’s easy to make and tastes fresh and clean.

Sweet Potatoes:

You have got to ask yourself this: can I live without a bag of melted mini-marshmallows (made from basically four types of processed sugars) on top of my sweet potatoes? If the answer is yes, you are in luck. This year, for your Thanksgiving Day feast, consider making this otherworldly Glazed Brussels Sprouts and Sweet Potato Medley that my nephew in Chicago, Elliot Gutman, prepared for his FriendsGiving Feast. Elliot is only 24 years old but makes home-cooked meals four nights every week. Grilled meats and roasted vegetables are two of his favorite things to prepare. 

Brussels sprouts

While Brussels sprouts don’t have quite the panache that marshmallows do, they are a lot better for you and most certainly the new vegetable darling, appearing fresh in salads, stir-fried, and oven roasted as in this recipe. Oven roasting the Brussels sprouts until they are just beginning to char, as in Elliot’s recipe, creates a textural and flavor contrast with the velvety sweet potatoes that is a match made in culinary heaven. If  you prefer, the sprouts and the potatoes can also be served separately. 

Since I already covered Thanksgiving stuffing and pies in a number of my columns over the past 12 years, I won’t do it this year (you can search for previous recipes). However, I couldn’t pass up mentioning this one unusual addition to just about any, double-crust apple or pear pie: Before placing the top crust over the fruit filling, evenly arrange 10 2-inch store-bought amaretti (almond macaroon) cookies over the filling. Drape the top crust over the filling and cookies, crimping the edges of the pie and leaving the cookies to protrude from the crust. Bake as your recipe directs. The shape of the cookies will add an intriguing look to your pie, and a delicious crunchy bonus to each slice.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Margi Lenga Kahn is the mother of five and grandmother of six. A cooking instructor at the Kitchen Conservatory, she is working on a project to preserve the stories and recipes of heritage cooks. She welcomes your comments and suggestions at [email protected].