Thanksgivings Past

[Arch Rock Trail, Pt. Reyes National Seashore, 2006.]

Truth be told, my ideal Thanksgiving doesn’t take place inside. No; it is intead in a forest — a redwood grove, such as Jack London State Park, perhaps, or Armstrong Woods — on a day when it’s chilly enough to snuggle into your favorite down vest, but not cold enough to warrant gloves or hats. Here, we sit around an old wooden table, long enough to accommodate at least 20 people; the outdoor fireplace spits and cracks, sending long wisps of smoke up into the afternoon sky.

We cooked the meal in the house nearby where, of course, we’re all staying (there’s a fireplace indoors, too). Large platters of vegetable dishes are scattered along the worn table; bottles of local red wine stand at the ready. It is cool, crisp, and infinitely clear. Birds soar overhead and call to each other as they settle into the tall trees. Somehow it seems right to be outside, giving thanks in such a beautiful, quiet place with simple, delicious food.

But this is the Thanksgiving I haven’t yet had — though I hope to one day — and, anyway, I truly cannot complain about any of those that have passed. There was the year, for example, when I cooked my first “grown-up” meal for my brother and a Spanish friend who had never experienced the holiday before; I was so excited to prepare the meal all by myself for my loved ones. I don’t remember much of what I cooked except for a broccoli-and-potato soup that became a staple, and it was so cold when we took our walk in Rock Creek Park that we cracked the creek ice when we stepped over it.

Then there were all the years I spent with my aunt and uncle the little condo in Dupont Circle, eating my cousin’s amazing vegetarian lasagna. Or the Thanksgiving I went up to their place in Vermont, where it somehow worked out that there was a pie per person (about 15); I brought cherry, balancing it carefully on my knees on the plane the whole way. And one of my favorite meals was last year’s feast, my first spent in California in a decade.

I reminisce about my years hosting big Thanksgivings dinner in Washington in my column in today’s Chronicle, and now I’m a bit nostalgic for them! I must admit: Though they were sometimes a little stressful, I’m so glad I had every single one.

Happy (almost) Thanksgiving, all.

Tomorrow: Late-breaking dessert ideas.

[Fingerlings, before the oven.]


Roasted butternut squash, three ways

Thanks go to Gourmet for including a vegetarian Thanksgiving menu this year, proving a meat-free Thanksgiving is not only possible, but faultlessly elegant, too. If I weren’t making this, I’d definitely go for the baked pumpkin (with a few tweaks, of course); if you don’t care for pumpkin, here are a few options for that quintessential fall vegetable, butternut squash. I’ve chosen to highlight it because — while I do love a nice polenta-stuffed acorn squash with homemade sundried tomato pest — I like to keep things simple and if not easy, then easier.

1 large butternut squash, halved with seeds removed
olive oil

1. Oven to 350 F. Lightly oil a baking sheet, and then lightly oil the cut halves of the squash. Place cut-side down and bake for about a 1/2 hour, or until soft (check occasionally to make sure it’s not too


2. Remove from oven and put, cut-side up, in a baking dish. Serves 6.

With tomato-bean “salsa”

1 can black beans, or 1.5 cups prepared dried beans
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, sliced
2 tomatoes, coarsely chopped, or one small can crushed tomatoes
1 bay leaf
dried basil or oregano
olive oil

1. Sautee the onion and garlic in olive oil in a heavy saucepan over medium heat, about 5 minutes. Add the bay leaf and herbs, and cook about a minute more. Add the tomatoes and reduce heat to low. Simmer a few minutes to let the flavors blend, then add the beans. Stir to combine and simmer on low about 5-10 minutes, adding a little water or red wine if you have some open (and I hope you do).

2. Pour the tomatoes and beans over the squash and return to the oven to keep warm.

With polenta and pesto

1 cup polenta
3 cups vegetable broth or water
1/2 cup pesto

1. Bring the water or broth to a boil a heavy saucepan. Slowly add the polenta, whisking to combine, then reduce heat to low. Keep on low for about 10 minutes, stirring often.

2. Stir in the pesto (add more if you like). Fill the butternut squash halves with the polenta, and serve immediately. (If not serving immediately, cover with foil and return to oven to warm. You can definitely make this earlier in the day and gently reheat before sitting down to dinner.)

With wild rice and mushrooms

2 cups wild rice
4 cups vegetable broth
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
10 mushroom (shiitake or crimini work well here)
1 bay leaf
1/4 cup white wine
olive oil

1. Put the broth and a dash of olive oil in a heavy saucepan. Add rice and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, until water is absorbed.

2. Meanwhile, sautee the onion and garlic over medium heat until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the bay leaf and salt and pepper to taste and cook a few minutes more. Add the mushrooms and cook a few minutes until beginning to soften. Add the wine and cook until mushrooms are soft.

3. Remove bay leaf. Add the mushrooms and onions to the rice and stir well to combine. Pour the rice over the squash and serve immediately. (Again, if making in advance, cover with foil to make sure the rice doesn’t dry out if you put in the oven for a bit.)

Mashed sweet potatoes with soy milk and sesame oil

The thing is, if you make that sweet potato dip, the sweet potato soup and mashed sweet potatoes, you might be a little sweet-potatoed out. Still, this is one of my favorite ways to prepare sweet potatoes, and I couldn’t resist sharing it.

3-4 medium sweet potatoes
4 Tb. sesame oil
1/4 cup or so of soy milk

1. Peel and chop the sweet potatoes and put in a medium saucepan with enough water to cover. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer until soft. When potatoes are tender, drain, reserving a little of the cooking liquid.

2. Return to pot and stir in the sesame oil, soy milk, and cooking water. Add a bit of sea salt to taste. Stir vigorously to combine.

Serves 6.

Baby spinach salad with walnuts, clementine, and lemon

My friend Sonia made salad every year we spent — and cooked — together in DC. I’d never served a salad with the Thanksgiving meal before, but it’s such a welcome addition; even if you’re going the vegetarian route, all that cooked food can sit a bit heavily by the end of the evening, and a salad is a lovely palate cleanser.

Baby spinach (I am deliberately leaving off an amount here because how much you’ll use depends on how many people you’re feeding)
2 clementines, peeled and seperated (or one small can mandarin oranges)
1/2 cup walnuts, chopped

1. Toss the spinach with the fruit and walnut to well combine.

For the vinaigrette:

1 Tb. lemon juice
1 tsp. finely chopped lemon zest
1 shallot, finely diced
salt and pepper
5 Tb. olive oil

1. Combine the lemon juice, zest, 1/4 tsp. salt and shallots in a small bowl. Let stand 15 minutes.

2. Whisk in oil and season with pepper to taste. Taste, then correct the balance, adding more oil if necessary.

3. Pour dressing over salad and toss well to coat.

Roasted fingerling potatoes

I’ve gone on about these enough already but they’re still delicious. If you can’t get fingerlings, small yellow or red potatoes, quartered, will also work.

25 fingerling potatoes, or 15 small red potatoes (or a mix of yellow and red)
5 cloves garlic
olive oil

1. Preheat the oven to 375 F. Wash the potatoes, scrubbing well (do not peel). In a large baking dish, spread out the potatoes. Press the garlic, and add to the dish along with enough olive oil to coat. Add a sprinkling of salt.

2. Swirl the potatoes, garlic, oil and salt around with your hands, turning the potatoes as necessary to coat well. Put in the oven and bake about 45 minutes, until pierced with a fork.

Serves 6.

Green beans with zucchini squash and fresh corn

1 1/2 pounds green beans
4 small zuchini
fresh corn from two ears
1/4 cup fresh basil
olive oil

1. Wash and slice the zucchini into thin circles, then halve. Wash and trim the green beans, and cut into third. Cut the corn off the cob and reserve, and wash and coarsely chop the basil.

2. In a large saute pan, heat as much olive oil as you’d like (I start with about 2 Tb. and add more as needed). Add the squash, and keep heat on medium high, stirring frequently to make sure it doesn’t burn. Reduce heat to low as the squash softens, adding a little more oil or water if necessary, then add the green beans. Cook for a few minutes, then add the corn and the basil and stir to combine.

3. Cook over low heat for about 5 minutes to let the flavors blend, and for the vegetables to reach desired consistency (I like mine pretty soft, but it’s all personal). Season with a little salt and pepper, and serve. For 6.

Cornbread Dressing, adapted from

1 cup water
4 Tbs. olive oil
1 yellow onion, chopped
2 shallots, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tbs. minced fresh rosemary
2 tsp. minced fresh sage
1/4 cup dried apricots, chopped
8 cups crumbled dried corn bread (or one loaf of the vegan cornbread)
1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
2 cups vegetable stock, warmed

1. Preheat an oven to 325°F. Butter a large, shallow baking dish.

2. In a small saucepan over high heat, combine the apricots and water and bring just to a boil. Remove the pan from the heat and let the apricots stand until softened, about 10 minutes.

3. In a large sauté pan over medium heat, cook the onion, shallots and garlic in the olive oil, stirring occasionally, until tender and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the rosemary and sage and sauté, stirring frequently, until fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes.

4. In a large bowl, combine the corn bread, the onion mixture, apricots, the parsley, salt and pepper and stir gently to mix. Add the warmed stock and stir to blend. Adjust the seasonings with salt and pepper.

5. Transfer the dressing to the prepared baking dish and bake until the top is browned and crispy, about 1 1/4 hours. Serves 12.

nicole spiridakis © copyright 2023