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A course change for Thanksgiving

Turkey and stuffing. Cranberry sauce and sweet potatoes. Pumpkin pie.

For most Americans, Thanksgiving dinner never changes. It's the one holiday meal of the year that's the same -- house to house, coast to coast, and it's great.

But we're proposing that -- this holiday -- you live dangerously. Are you ready?

Change at least one course. Be brave.

We're talking evolution here, not revolution and much of what we're going to suggest really amounts to tweaking old favorites. If you do alter just one course of your holiday menu, you add excitement and interest -- to yourself as well as your guests. And, think about this, you may just have created a new classic dish for your holiday dinners of the future.

That's what what happened with Maria Baker's Squash Soup, for example. The Buffalo resident admits she's had her share of Thanksgiving failures in the past.

"People like tradition and get upset if there are too many changes," she admits. "One year I served couscous and that didn't go over to well. But the Squash Soup was a hit.

"Actually, I got the recipe from a Williams-Sonoma cookbook but I did change one thing. The original called for leeks but the store was out of them so I used dry Knorr's Supreme Leek Soup."

So if there's any message this Thanksgiving, it's the importance of being flexible.

Here are some suggestions, one course at a time:

First Course: There are two ways you can go -- the Squash Soup, maybe, or for something lighter in the living room before everyone sits down, try Spinach Dip.

For the dip, mix chopped frozen spinach (patted dry) with mayonnaise, chopped parsley and finely chopped green peppers and a hint of sour cream. We like this dip because it's green and mostly everything else on the Thanksgiving table is orange.

You could serve it with cut up vegetables (which you can even buy from a supermarket salad bar) and then eliminate at least part of the vegetable course. (The dip can be made ahead and refrigerated.)

Turkey: Most people will simply go for a whole bird, roasted in the oven at 350 degrees. But there are choices -- more each year, it seems.

Melissa Leopard and Peter Reiling served a boneless turkey with Sausage Fig Stuffing to their family last year, and they are doing it again this time. The recipe came from Yankee Magazine. Reiling says it's especially good because all the meat cooks evenly.

A butcher boned the boneless bird, which Reiling said was a bit of a hassle, but a boneless turkey breast could be easily substituted. See our recipe below and remember you can use any kind of stuffing in the rolled up dish.

Or, you might want to try deep frying the turkey outside (kits are available). You can smoke the turkey. Paul and Christine Gallo, who live on a farm and raise heritage birds, split the turkey and grill it, adding garlic and sage stuffing.
Stuffing: For a twist, use traditional bread stuffing inside the bird but mix up some other stuffing in a casserole dish to be served as a side dish. Perhaps try a fruit-flavored stuffing -- maybe dried cranberries and/or fresh apples. Easiest of all: Use packaged stuffing mix but wake it up with in some chopped fresh thyme, chives and sage and then put it in a casserole dish, dot with butter and brown under the broiler for a minute.

Vegetables: OK, OK. Go for the Sweet Potatoes with Marshmallows if you must, and the Green Bean Onion Soup casserole, too. But it isn't much more trouble to add roasted root vegetables to the menu a la Debbie Clark of DeLish on Elmwood Avenue:

Mix peeled cubed acorn and butternut squash with cubed rutabaga, turnips, and sweet potatoes with chopped onion, olive oil salt and pepper and a little sage. (Everything should be about the same size so all gets done at the same time and you can use the cubed squash you buy in the supermarket or fresh. Try this trick with fresh: place it whole in the microwave for 2 minutes on high and the tough skin will peel right off.)

Everything goes into a roasting pan at 400 degrees for about 40 minutes. This tastes wonderful and it looks beautiful -- all shades of orange.

Even simpler are these elaborate looking sweet potatoes: roast them whole, cut them in half then scoop out the insides keeping the skins intact. Puree the potato with maple syrup, butter and spices, such as cinnamon, nutmeg and ground clove, then pipe or spoon the mixture back into the skins using a pastry bag with a decorative tip. Bake them again until they get brown on top.
Cranberry Sauce: Fancy it up this way: Take a can of chunky cranberry sauce (not jellied), add chopped fresh apples and serve.

Dessert: Pumpkin pie or apple pie is traditional but many people say uh-uh. Christine and Paul Gallo of East Aurora serve a family recipe, a Cranberry Linzer Torte with hazelnuts in the shell.

But here's a good idea that's easy to do ahead and really looks impressive. Make tarts shells, using refrigerated pie crust. Cut 3-inch rounds when the crust unrolls. Then press each round in the bottom and up the side of ungreased mini-muffin cups.

Fill as desired. What the heck, use canned pie filling if you want to. Then bake about 20 minutes at 350.
Beverages: Some families like to serve sparkling wine or Beaujolais Nouveau before and during a meal. (The Nouveau, which comes onto the market in the middle of November, is made from the grapes that were taken from vines just this last summer so there's a true harvest twist here.)

And there is a local slant -- Carl Schmitter of Chateau Buffalo, 1209 Hertel Ave., has just introduced "Nouveau Buffalo," a red wine made here in Buffalo from grapes harvested in the Finger Lakes on Sept. 30. It, too, is meant for immediate consumption and would set off turkey well.
Also, for something a little different and festive, why not try a Cranberry Splash, before dinner. It's a mixture of cranberry juice and ginger ale, prettily garnished. Add vodka or not as you wish.


>Cranberry Linzer Torte

3 cups fresh cranberries

1 cup sugar

1 tablespoon grated orange peel

Rinse berries and sort. Stir and heat berries, a quarter cup of water, sugar and orange peel in a saucepan until boiling. Continue to stir often until mixture resembles soft jam, about 4 minutes. Let cool about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Pour cranberry mixture into crust. Either roll out remaining dough into strips and cross them over the filling or break the dough into a almond size lumps and scatter the lumps over the filling.

Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven about an hour or until the crust is richly browned at the edges. Serve cool.

Linzer Crust
1 cup almonds
1 1/2 cups flour
1 cup butter
1 cup sugar
2 egg yolks
1 tablespoon grated orange peel
1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

Grind almonds in a food processor. Add flour, butter, sugar, egg yolks, orange peel, cocoa, cinnamon and cloves.

Whirl in food processor until dough holds together. Pack into a firm ball, then pinch off and reserve about half a cup of the dough.

Firmly press remaining dough evenly over bottom and and 1 1/2 inches up the side of a 9-inch cake pan. Proceed as above. (Recipe adapted from Sunset Magazine.)

>Cranberry Splash

5 cranberries
1 tablespoon sugar
2 ounces ginger ale
2 ounces vodka
2 ounces cranberry juice
1 ounce grenadine, optional

Thread the cranberries onto a cocktail skewer or long toothpick. Rinse the berries under water, then sprinkle them with the sugar. Place the skewer on the plate and freeze for 5 minutes.

Place several ice cubes in a large tumbler and add the ginger ale. Set aside.

In a cocktail shaker, combine several ice cubes, the vodka, cranberry juice and grenadine. Shake and strain into the glass. Place the berry skewer in or on top of the glass. Makes 1 serving. Expand appropriately. Vodka can be eliminated from this recipe if you wish.

>Squash Soup

1 or 2 butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1 1/2 -inch chunks
3 tart apples, peeled, cored and cut into quarters
4 large cloves garlic
2 tablespoons fresh sage
2 teaspoons ground cumin
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
4 cups reduced sodium chicken broth
1 package Knorr leek supreme soup
2 green onion tops, sliced
1 cup hard cider or dry white wine
1/2 cup sour cream
1 small tart apple, unpeeled, halved, cored and thinly sliced

Preheat the oven to 435 degrees. Arrange the squash chunks, apple quarters and garlic in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet. Sprinkle with 1 tablespoon of the chopped sage and 1 teaspoon of the cumin. Season with salt and pepper. Drizzle with the olive oil, stir to coat and spread the mixture in the pan.

Roast, stirring 2 or 3 times until the squash is fork tender, 20 to 25 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven.

Working in batches if necessary transfer the roasted mixture to a food processor until a coarse puree forms. Transfer the puree to a large saucepan over medium heat. Stir in the broth, the leek soup as it comes from the package and the green onions. Add remaining chopped sage and cumin and bring just to a simmer, stirring often. (The soup can be prepared up to this point a day ahead and then gently reheated before serving.) Taste and adjust the seasoning.

Ladle the soup into shallow bowls, topping each serving with a tablespoon of sour cream. Float a few apple slices in each bowl. Makes 8 servings.

>Boneless Turkey with Sausage Fig Stuffing

2 cups loosely packed dried Black Mission figs, stems removed, cut in half lengthwise
1/4 cup Cognac
1 medium onion, finely diced
2 tablespoons butter
2 stalks celery, cut into fine dice
1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
1/2 pound sweet Italian sausage
1/2 day-old baguette, broken into cubes
1 cup chicken or turkey stock
1 egg, beaten
Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1 boneless turkey breast
2 tablespoons olive oil

Combine figs and Cognac and cover with boiling water; set aside. In a large skillet over medium-high heat, saute onion in butter about 10 minutes. Add celery, cook 5 more minutes. Add herbs and cook 2 to 3 minutes more. Remove casings from sausage and add to pan; cook, breaking up sausage, 10 minutes or until cooked through. Drain and reserve liquid from figs, add liquid to sausage mixture and cook until one tablespoon of liquid remains. Remove from heat and stir in figs, bread cubes and stock. (The stuffing may be made up to this point and refrigerated three days. Bring to room temperature before using.) Mix in egg and season with salt and pepper; set aside.

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Lay turkey, skin side down on work surface. Cover with plastic wrap and using a small heavy pot, gently pound the turkey to even out the thickness of the meat. Remove plastic wrap. Season with salt and pepper.

Lay stuffing in a band in the center of the bird. Roll turkey toward you in a long cylinder. Tuck in any stuffing that escapes from the sides. Tie roast at two inch intervals.

Transfer to a flat roasting pan, fitted with a flat rack. Brush skin with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Roast 1 3/4 hours, then increase heat to 375 and cook 15 minutes more to brown. Temperature should read 165 degrees. Let turkey rest at least 30 minutes before carving. makes about 10 servings.

Notes: If you wish, a boneless turkey may be used instead of just the breast. You will need a butcher to help you bone the bird. Extra stuffing may be baked in a casserole.


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