News & Politics

Thanksgiving Dining

Thanksgiving has become a struggle, the need to honor tradition vying with untold imperatives to adapt to new and different tastes. What's a cook to do? Five chefs to the rescue.

Turkey Day, Five Ways

If you've ever attempted to put together a large Thanksgiving Day dinner–an undertaking only slightly less taxing than assembling a steamboat–you know that pleasing all the people all the time is impossible.

One side of the family has always eaten creamed onions; the other side can hardly stand the thought of it. Make a cranberry relish, and wait for the chorus to erupt in protest that you've committed a heresy–that jiggly, jellied log from the tin can is tradition. Go ahead and spend half the afternoon on that wonderful casserole of sweet potatoes and pineapple you saw on a TV cooking show, but Uncle Marvin is going to want a bowl of mashed potatoes, too.

Is your head starting to pound?

Holiday menu planning is only getting worse, thanks to all those agitating special-interest groups–the nut-allergic, the wheat-allergic, the gluten-free, the vegetarians, the vegans. These days, accommodating people's feast-day tastes can be a diplomatic and logistical nightmare.

How to honor those cherished traditions while bending to meet the needs of everyone around you and, oh, yes, introducing new flavors and new combinations of taste to keep the meal new and interesting? Without turning the carving knife on your guests?

We invited five chefs to come to the rescue with menus for a new-old Thanksgiving.

Gillian Clark, with her fondness for Americana, seemed the ideal choice for a "kitsch Thanksgiving." The Colorado Kitchen chef and proprietor cleverly updates many of those cheesy, can't-do-away-with-'em classics. Her Creamed-Onion-Stuffed Onion, for instance, is a sophisticated riff on a humble, feast-day staple.

Eric Ziebold of CityZen took on the task of creating a menu that obeys tradition even as it tweaks it. If his Périgord Truffle Stuffed Capon sounds daunting, his English Thyme Bread Pudding is simple as well as versatile: "You can cut pieces of this savory bread pudding out and serve them with your dinner, then put the rest in your refrigerator." The next day, Ziebold makes an open-face sandwich by warming a thick slice of the pudding on a griddle and topping it with capon and gravy. It certainly beats flimsy wheat bread.

To Michel Richard fell the responsibility of turning our notions of tradition inside out and upside down–hardly a stretch, as the chef is given to bending, distorting, and otherwise playing with his food nightly at his restaurant Citronelle. In Richard's nimble mind, a simple cranberry relish becomes a soufflé, while the turkey-drenching brown gravy is transformed into an elegant and unexpected Port Beet Sauce.

Todd Gray, whose cooking at Equinox seeks to honor the origins of the Mid-Atlantic region, was our pick to concoct a menu that harks back to the origins of Thanksgiving. His five dishes are grounded in the staples of Native American cookery–oysters, game meats, buckskin cakes–that dominated the first feast. Turkey–a component of that long-ago meal and not the featured player–doesn't make the cut.

Nor is there turkey to be found on Signatures chef Morou Ouattara's menu. Building a dinner around vegetable dishes is almost second nature to this native of Ivory Coast, where meat is frequently an accent and not a focal point of a meal. We think his hearty creations will please even the most inveterate meat eater.

Don't feel up to trying one of these menus in its entirety? Then mix and match, assembling dishes from any of them. Or try a single dish. If nothing else, you can live vicariously through the pictures and menu descriptions, storing up memories of the feast that might have been as you cut into your jellied log of cranberry or watch Uncle Marvin guarding his bowl of mashed potatoes as though it were a private stash.

All of the recipes can be found on Washingtonian Online at

Wine Picks From the Gang

Twice a week a group calling itself the Gang meets to drink a tableful of wines and compare tasting notes. One of those post-Sideways tasting groups that's sprouted in the area since the film got people pining for Pinot Noir? Louder, and a lot more knowledgeable. Also more diligent and more focused. The Gang is three sommeliers who have submitted themselves to the multiyear process needed to join the ranks of the 74 North American sommeliers who can call themselves Master Sommeliers. They shared with us their wine picks for Thanksgiving.

Jarad Slipp, formerly of Ray's the Steaks, acknowledges that several wines are likely to work well with the Turkey Day feast–among them Burgundy, red and white; Bordeaux; Chianti; Barolo; Super Tuscans; Riesling; Vouvray; Priorat; Champagne. All were among the 18 bottles he had on his table last Thanksgiving. Eighteen bottles? It's impossible to "match every little nuance of a singular wine to the vast array of different foods on the table," Slipp says. "One wine can't be all things to all people–though Riesling does come damn close."

His Riesling fondness notwithstanding, Slipp's pick is a Merlot. "Paul Giamatti, Miles in Sideways, does a huge disservice to this varietal. Let us not forget that Merlot is the base for the most expensive treasured wine in the world, the esteemed Chateau Petrus. But I'm talking about the indigenous stuff. After all, this is an American holiday. Oddly enough, Napa Merlot is a lot like Paul Giamatti: chubby, a little clumsy, but sweet and well intentioned. So for the love of God, put the Pinot down for a day and reacquaint yourself with this American workhorse. It's a simple, easy, solid pick on what can be a daunting holiday. Some names to look for around $20 to $30: Franciscan, St. Francis, Havens, Clos Pegase, Selene."

Kathy Morgan of Ristorante Tosca echoes Slipp's choice of a red. "Although turkey seems like white-wine territory, light to medium-bodied reds actually are better matches for both dark and white meats as well as the typical bevy of side dishes," she says. "And speaking of side dishes, that's where things get a bit tricky. There are flavors that are sweet, spicy, tart, smoky, all vying for attention on your palate. Your red wine should have appropriate amounts of fresh fruit flavors, spice, smoky and earthy notes and enough structure to pull it all together. The challenge here is to choose a red that is not too big or too tannic." Her choice: Cusumano Nero d'Avola "Sagana" Sicily 2003 ($32).

"Sicily is the hottest frontier in modern Italian winemaking, and while Nero d'Avola–its most important indigenous varietal–may not roll off the tongue, it is a luscious mouthful that manages to please every palate." This medium-bodied wine is big enough to meet the demands of dark meat "while maintaining the sense of zestiness" that white meat requires. It has "loads of spice notes, both aromatic and on the palate, that complement the herbs and spices that go into a delicious stuffing." Meanwhile, it is balanced enough and juicy enough to offset the tartness of a cranberry sauce.

John Wabeck, the chef at Firefly as well as the restaurant's wine director, breaks with his study mates and goes with a white. He suggests a Gewürztraminer, such as Marc Tempé, Zellenberg, Alsace, 2002 ($25). "Surely you remember from your sixth-grade German class that 'gewürz' means spiced. Clove and nutmeg are neatly wound around a core of apples and apricots, deftly matching the candied yams that are certain to show up, and a healthy dose of rosewater pays homage to Aunt Bea's bad perfume. As a bonus, Gewürztraminer is round enough to offset all but the driest turkey."

Ann Limpert
Executive Food Editor/Critic

Ann Limpert joined Washingtonian in late 2003. She was previously an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a cook in New York restaurant kitchens, and she is a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education. She lives in Petworth.