Growing up in Southern Italy, my mother, who had been raised in the U.S. years prior, would often tell my sister and I stories about Thanksgiving. “There’s always a giant turkey,” she would explain to us, and everyone expresses what they are thankful for. I must admit, in hindsight, my eight or nine year old self didn’t much grasp the concept of this holiday. For one thing, whole turkeys are rarely seen in Italy, so I had never seen one, let alone stuffed! Picturing one roasted was a bit hard! And why a day to say thanks? Can’t it be said every day? Despite my somewhat hesitation towards the holiday, I was very much looking forward to it in 1988, our first year in the States. My mom, whose heart had always longed to return to Boston, was very excited about it, and eager to teach us what this holiday meant. It was, and still remains, her favorite holiday after all, and it would soon become mine as well.
Gaining some popularity in Italy as La Festa Del Ringrazziamento, Thanksgiving still remains very much an American holiday, as American as it gets, really! And rightfully so. History suggests that the Pilgrims and Puritans, having settled in modern day Plymouth, MA from England, were celebrating a particularly good harvest. To celebrate a period of fasting and lack, a feast was born, one lasting several days! And what better way to celebrate than with food and family? I guess they had a lot in common with Italians!
I am often asked if my family and I eat turkey on Thanksgiving. I think they expect me to say no, but of course we do! After all these years living here, our cultures have fully blended and “the giant turkey” my mom used to talk about in Italy gets an Italian makeover. Our sides, or contorni, are traditional Italian dishes, (sorry cranberry sauce, no room for you at our Italian table) and the meal typically ends with an Italian dessert or two. I apologize in advance to the pumpkin pie lovers reading this.
Here are a few ideas on how to “Italianize” your Thanksgiving table this year.
There’s nothing I love more than a good antipasto plate, to be displayed on the coffee table or kitchen counter and to be nibbled on while the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is on in the background and the main meal cooks. In this picture, you can see that we have prepared a platter of cheeses, cured salami, mixed olives, roasted peppers and some pickled mushrooms and artichoke hearts. This is not cooking but just assembling and it's delicious! Add a few Parmesan crackers add a little glass of vino and you have the perfect snack while the turkey cooks. Nibble at these, but don’t let it spoil your main course!
“The Giant Turkey”
Oh, what would Thanksgiving be without the star of the table? To give your turkey an Italian twist, very generously season it with traditional Italian herbs and spices. In this image from last year, we created a buttery paste by blending one stick of room temperature butter with dried oregano, rosemary, fresh basil, parsley and crushed garlic. The paste is then "gingerly" rubbed underneath the skin. This creates a super moist layer and ultimately helps in preventing the from drying out, particularly the white meat. The top is then rubbed with a similar paste and additional dried herbs are added on top. Place the bird on a bed of onions, carrots, celery, lemons, and we added some inexpensive white wine at the bottom of the pan to prevent burning. This gives it a bit of flavor, especially when preparing the gravy with the juices! The bird is stuffed with citrus fruits and fresh rosemary, which add flavor and moisture. You can remove and discard them after the turkey is cooked. The juices that remain in the pan after cooking create a very delicious gravy.
The options are limitless with the side dishes! If you will be serving a pasta dish, allow me to suggest a side of orecchiette with sausages and broccoli rabe. Avoid heavy pastas like lasagne or stuffed shells, these will likely be too fulfilling, when so much other food will be served. A lovely mushroom risotto also seems fitting for Thanksgiving! See our recipe here. But if you’re thinking of skipping the pasta all together, why not opt for stuffed mushrooms instead. Very traditional, at least in my household, stuffed mushrooms are our go-to side on Thanksgiving. Since the oven is already turned on, place the mushrooms on the top rack and cook for about 20 – 25 minutes, during the last 20 – 25 minutes of your turkey’s cooking time, or while the turkey is resting. See the recipe below for stuffed mushrooms. Another Thanksgiving classic on our family’s table is sauted broccoli rabe, without the pasta. Simply sautéed with garlic and a high-quality olive oil after they have been par-boiled. In this image, we’ve added a can of par-boiled cannellini beans, which have been drained and rinsed.
Nothing like ending the Thanksgiving meal with some freshly roasted chestnuts. It’s peak season during this time of the year, and roasted chestnuts are another must on my family’s Thanksgiving dinner table. They go down very nicely (too nicely!) with a nice glass of wine! If you missed my previous post on how to roast chestnuts, be sure to check it out here.
And now, for desserts!
I’ll apologize again to all the pumpkin pie lovers. We are, after all, trying to Italianize our Thanksgiving, so a nice berry crostata and some anise cookies are a must. My family also loves these hazelnut butterballs! Perhaps these are our favorites! These go well with an espresso or digestive, which you will definitely need after all the food you will be consuming. That and a nice, long walk! But first, the required post-turkey nap....
Happy Thanksgiving! or Buon Festa di Ringrazziamento!
8 large stuffing mushrooms
2 garlic gloves, thinly minced
1 tablespoons chopped parsley
3 – 4 tablespoons olive oil
1/3 cup fresh bread crumbs (plus extra for topping)
1/3 cup grated parmigiano cheese (plus extra for topping)
*dices of chopped cured salami (optional)
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