Thanksgiving is the holiday that home chefs dream about. It’s that one day of the year when they get to gather their families around the dinner table for one epic feast, a time when side dishes double, desserts are plentiful, and the centerpiece is not flowers or candles, but one big, juicy turkey.
Preparation is key, and between shopping trips and to-do lists, the planning starts days, even weeks before the dinner bell has rung. Recipes play no small role in preparing for the big Thanksgiving feast, and be they passed down through generations or ripped out of a recent copy of Food & Wine magazine, everyone has their favorites.
When we at the News-Press were contemplating our favorite how-tos for the holiday, we realized we have a pro right here in Falls Church. Enter Jen Beckman, a stay-at-home mom who, after leaving behind a career in law, has focused her efforts on a new endeavor: Recipe contests.
For the past year and a half, Beckman has won several of the contests – notably, the recent Build a Better Burger contest by Sutter Homes Winery, in which Beckman’s Screen Porch Burgers recipe – a beef-and-sweet-roll burger recipe featuring sweet corn-basil cheese and fried bread and butter pickles, won the $100,000 grand prize.
Beckman spoke to the News-Press earlier this week – in the airport departing for Italy, a trip won in the Crisco Mediterranean Inspirations Recipe and Essay Contest, no less – about what makes Thanksgiving great, and what recipes she pulls out for the big day.
A Beckman Thanksgiving
While Beckman usually hosts her husband’s family, meaning fewer than 12 guests at the table, this year she is hosting her family, bringing the grand total to 29 diners.
For Beckman, the most important part of the meal is nostalgia, which is why she’ll be whipping up her grandmother’s stuffing recipe.
“It tastes like Thanksgiving to the people who grew up in my family,” Beckman said, admitting that it is no great culinary feat. “We are all sort of foodies, but we still buy the packaged stuffing so it tastes like Grandmom’s.”
The Thanksgiving Meal
When preparing her meal, Beckman balances faithful adaptations and experimentation.
“I try not to play around with the touchstones of Thanksgiving, but I do experiment a little bit with the supporting players,” Beckman said.
For this year’s meal, Beckman has an inventive eye set toward the vegetable side dishes, eschewing some older recipes that rely on frozen vegetables and pantry goods for more readily available fresh produce. She’ll be roasting fresh Brussels sprouts with cheese as a side dish for her meal.
“I find when you roast them, they become kid friendly,” Beckman said. Add a little blue cheese, and then everyone is happy.”
Advice for First-Timers
According to Beckman, the most important thing a Thanksgiving host can do is make sure the meal tastes like the Thanksgiving guests grew up with. She suggests asking guests what dishes they think are important additions to the spread, and either asking them to bring it along or trying to make it. As for the mechanics of the preparation, Beckman says to write a schedule, planning out from the time the meal should ideally be served to make sure everything comes out hot. But the meal does come with some room for error.
“You can just put gravy on top of everything,” Beckman said, “It’s all good.”
Beckman plans to make these two dishes for her Thanksgiving dinner:
Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Cambozola Cheese
Serves 12, as part of a Thanksgiving spread
3 pounds fresh Brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
4 ounces Cambozola or other soft blue-veined cheese
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Toss the Brussels sprouts with the olive oil, salt and pepper in a large bowl. Spread onto a baking sheet in a single layer. Roast in the preheated oven 25-30 minutes, until tender, crispy-edged, and browned in spots, turning once. Sprouts can be roasted ahead of time and set aside at room temperature for several hours. To serve, re-crisp the sprouts in a hot oven for 5-10 minutes. Tear the cheese into small pieces and strew over the sprouts, then toss lightly to distribute and transfer to a serving dish. Serve warm.
Grandmom’s “Yankee” Stuffing
Serves 12, as part of a Thanksgiving spread
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for the baking dish
2 large yellow onions, peeled and chopped
4 stalks celery, halved and chopped
2 Granny Smith apples, peeled and chopped
3 tablespoons fresh sage leaves, thinly sliced (or 1 tablespoon dried)
3/4 cup golden raisins
1 tablespoon kosher salt (less if you use canned stock)
1 14-ounce bag cornbread stuffing
1 14-ounce bag herbed bread stuffing
2 eggs, beaten
4-5 cups turkey or chicken stock, preferably homemade
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a deep 9×12 baking dish. Melt the butter in a very large skillet or dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onions and celery, and saute until tender, about 8 minutes. Add the apples and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until apples are tender and vegetables are golden. Add sage, raisins and salt, stir well to combine, and remove from the heat. Cool slightly before proceeding. Empty both stuffing bags into a large mixing bowl. Add the vegetable mixture, including all pan liquids, the beaten eggs, and about 3 cups of stock. Stir well to combine, then taste for seasoning. Add additional stock to the stuffing until desired texture is reached, which, at our house, is fairly moist. Taste for seasoning and adjust, if necessary. Stuffing is the best part of Thanksgiving, after all. Transfer to the prepared baking dish and bake in the preheated oven until crisp on top and slightly puffed, about 30 minutes. Serve warm.