Written by Shauna James Ahern
For years, Thanksgiving meant one familiar theme. Repetition.
From year to year, my favorite holiday of all brought the same dishes: stuffing, mashed potatoes, dinner rolls, sweet potatoes, some form of cranberry, and a big turkey. Every year, it was a good meal. Each year, however, the only variations in those dishes were tiny and much debated. Should the white bread stuffing with butter, onions, and celery have dried sage or fresh? (It took years for my mother to dare to try fresh sage. I’m not sure it ever made an appearance again.) Should we open the can and plop the red gelatinous mold of cranberry sauce onto a plate? Or should we cook it ourselves and have the texture actually resemble a sauce? Marshmallows on the sweet potatoes? Or brown sugar? Crescent rolls from a can or the plump white rolls that came in a bag at the opening of the grocery store? There were always green olives stuffed with pimentos and sparkling cider. That never changed.
Nothing ever changed about that Thanksgiving meal. But my reaction to it changed when I discovered I had celiac sprue and could never eat gluten again. Suddenly, my favorite holiday became the starchiest holiday, the most glutinous holiday of them all. Suddenly, all that stuffing and rolls looked like poison to me. I no longer looked forward to the repetition with tiny variations. I just wanted food I could eat.
The first few years of being gluten-free, I tried hard to replicate all those breads and pies and rolls. It was mostly a mediocrity. I didn’t know much about gluten-free baking until I spent years teaching it to myself. There were years my holiday suffered from telling myself that these dishes of mine were just as good as the old ones.
I love pie. That is never going to change. So I worked fervently, and with great joy, on my gluten-free pie dough recipe until I made it extraordinary. Recently, a friend who eats gluten took a bite of my pumpkin pie—the crust made with the all-purpose flour blend I developed, the filling made with pumpkin, coconut milk infused with fresh ginger, and Saigon cinnamon—and declared, “This is, without a doubt, the best pie I’ve ever eaten.” Thanksgiving can still have pie.
The longer I cooked and baked, however, the more I wanted to break free of the endless repetition. Honestly, if it weren’t a tradition to eat cubed-up bread cooked with butter and chicken stock (and oysters or sausage or nothing but celery and onions, depending on your family), sometimes cooked in the cavity of a large turkey, would we look forward to it every year? Shouldn’t Thanksgiving have more going for it than repetition?
Look, I’ll be honest. I’d love to throw away the stuffy old Thanksgiving menu and change it to a feast celebrating autumn foods and the good people in our lives. I’d celebrate with great salads like this one made from raw Brussels sprouts, aged white cheddar, and walnuts. I’d love a Thanksgiving meal that featured sunchoke-potato soup topped with fried pancetta. And I’d take crisp polenta wedges dotted with homemade apple-cherry chutney over bread stuffing any day. My husband would happily make a roast duck or goose instead of turkey. We’d make mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie as a tip of the hat to the old traditions and call it good.
I’ll never convince my family to do it this way, however. They’d throw gluten dinner rolls at my head if I suggested it. So my husband and I take all that we have taught ourselves about making great gluten-free bread and make airy sandwich bread for days to toast and cube and turn into stuffing. After all, it’s the gathering around the table that matters most not only what is on it.
And we can always have our alternative Thanksgiving feast with friends, later in the weekend.
Brussel sprouts salad with aged cheddar and walnuts
This salad will make you want to eat your sprouts for Thanksgiving. You can make this salad any way you wish. It’s only a template, of course. We have made it with Gruyere, Manchego, and hard goat cheese. Try pecans or pine nuts or almonds. You really can’t go wrong.
• 3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
• 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
• 9 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
• kosher salt and cracked black pepper
• 24 Brussels sprouts, washed and dried, woody ends cut off
• 8 ounces aged white cheddar cheese, grated finely
• 6 ounces walnuts, broken into small pieces
Make the dressing. Whisk together the apple cider vinegar and mustard. Slowly, while whisking, drizzle in the olive oil until the dressing is emulsified. Add the salt and pepper to taste. (You could also use a blender or shake these up in a jar.)
Prepare the sprouts. Slice the Brussels sprouts thinly on the slicing disc of the food processor. (You can also use a mandolin or a very sharp knife. Be careful!)
Make the salad. Toss together the sliced sprouts, the cheese, and the walnuts. Drizzle a tiny bit of the dressing along the edges of the bowl, then toss the salad. Taste one of the sprouts. If it needs a bit more dressing, add more and toss. (You might have dressing left over, which is always useful.)
Serve immediately. Feeds eight.
Sunchoke-potato soup with crisp pancetta
This soup is so easy to make that you’re going to go on a soup-making binge after this. Be prepared.
• 4 slices pancetta, rolled up like a cigar and sliced
• 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
• 1 large onion, peeled and diced
• 3 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
• 1 ½ pounds sunchokes, sliced
• 1 tablespoon dried thyme
• 2 pounds Yukon gold potatoes, peeled
• 5 cups chicken stock (you can use vegetable stock or water)
• 6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
• 1 lemon, juiced
• ¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
• salt and pepper
Rendering the pancetta. Set a Dutch oven or large pot on medium-high heat. When the pot is hot, add the pancetta and the olive oil. Cook, stirring frequently, until the pancetta has crisped and the fat has rendered into the pan, about three to four minutes. Remove the pancetta and set aside.
Sautéeing the onions and garlic. Add the onions and garlic to the rendered pancetta fat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until they are soft and translucent, about five minutes. Add the sunchokes and thyme and cook until you smell everything strongly in the room, about three minutes.
Cooking the soup. Cut each potato into large, even pieces. Throw in all the potato dices. Cook, stirring, until everything is well-coated, about one minute. Pour in the stock. This should be enough liquid to cover the potatoes and sunchokes. If not, add one cup more. Stir it all up and cook until a sharp knife goes through a potato piece and a sunchoke piece easily, about 20 minutes.
Finishing the soup. Blend the soup in three batches, adding two tablespoons of the olive oil to each batch. You could try an immersion blender here, but a strong blender works better. Pour the first two batches of pureed soup through a sieve into a large bowl. (This will make the final soup smooth.) When you have blended all the soup, pour it all back into the Dutch oven. Add t the lemon juice and stir the soup. Taste. Add nutmeg, salt and pepper to taste.
Ladle the soup into large bowls. Top with the crisp pancetta. Feeds eight.
We love this apple-cherry chutney on top of crisp polenta wedges. (And if you want a recipe for those, go here.) But it’s a great accompaniment to roast chicken or pork chops. I’d love some sweet potato fries or celery root fries with this. And plop some onto a roasted root vegetable hash, with some sour cream or thick yogurt? That’s a good breakfast.
• ½ cinnamon stick
• 1 teaspoon allspice
• ¾ cup apple cider vinegar
• 1 cup apple cider
• ½ cup brown sugar
• 5 large Granny Smith apples, peeled and diced
• 1 medium yellow onion, peeled and diced
• 1 large nub ginger, peeled and cut into matchstick pieces
• 1 stalk celery, diced
• 1 tablespoon mustard seeds
• 1 cup dried cherries
• 1 tablespoon orange zest
Toasting the spices. Heat the oven to 450° F. Put the cinnamon stick and allspice in a small skillet. Put it in the oven and toast the spices, shaking the skillet a bit occasionally, for 10 minutes. Put the toasted spices in a spice grinder and grind them into a fine powder.
Making the chutney. Set a medium-sized saucepan over medium-high heat. Pour in the apple cider vinegar, apple cider, and brown sugar. Bring them to a boil, stirring frequently, until the sugar is entirely dissolved into the liquids.
Add the apples, onion, ginger, and celery into the saucepan. Add the toasted spices and mustard seeds and stir. Cook, stirring, until the apples begin to break down, about 25 minutes. (You still want some of the chunkiness of the apple but you want a bit of creaminess too.)
Put the orange zest and dried cherries into the chutney and stir. Immediately turn off the heat. Let the chutney sit on the back of the stove until it has cooled to room temperature. It should last in the refrigerator for a week.
Makes about four cups.
Make ahead. Frankly, as good as this chutney is just as you finish it, the flavors blend together even better after a few days of the chutney sitting in the refrigerator. Make this on a weekend and use a dollop of it throughout the week for your dinners.
Shauna’s website is Gluten Free Girl. We welcome your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.