Host Thanksgiving with flair again with these six simple yet impressive recipes

Host Thanksgiving with flair again with these six simple yet impressive recipes

At my dinner table, I want my closest to have familiar, comforting flavors while also trying something new. To keep that organized, usually someone (not me) starts a spreadsheet to coordinate what everyone brings. This year, one friend has already signed up to bring his childhood favorite: Pigs in a blanket — both a “traditional” version with locally made sausage (yes, hot dog is actually traditional) and a vegetarian version served with all the mustards. My hubby is making his “famous squash puree.” No one knows what it’s famous for, but it is full of brown butter and that’s all that matters. I, a lover of planning grand meals like Thanksgiving, will probably make two to three dishes on my own, plus get my nose in others because I am me.

That “me” is a chef and writer who’s grown to love the challenge of bringing something new to one of the year’s most notoriously restrictive menus for a recipe developer. It’s interesting because my own family wasn’t big on Thanksgiving (parents would rather beach by the sea of Cortez and roast turkey in December), but I have come to be. That childhood left me with little dogma on what has to be served on this day. I want everyone to be happy (including myself) with their familiar flavors, but I also want to use this holiday as an excuse to stretch this idea of Thanksgiving food, even if it’s just a little.

Also, I’ve heard the colonists probably had lobster and mussels at their Thanksgiving, as if the original ideals of the holiday weren’t already suspect. To me that means: Anything goes.

One of those dishes this year is a salad, because it is for salad that I am truly thankful. The Crunchy Fennel and Apple Salad with Cheddar is my low-key favorite recipe I’m making this year. Salad is a Thanksgiving underdog that I’ll always root for because it ties all the other dishes together. Its tangles of naturally sweet fennel and apple are bound with an herbaceous, lemony dressing and mounded up tall, a metaphor for how it stands up to the robust, savory flavors of stuffing, turkey and gravy. It’s also grounded by tangy-rich aged cheddar because, hey, we all need to be checked. A mixed green salad simply wasn’t made for this meal. Plus this dish requires zero oven time.

Any chef or home cook gets requests for certain dishes they’ve made before, and there is a soul-searching moment where you ask yourself: Do I make an old favorite again? Do I try something new? This year that’s what’s happening to me. A couple friends want my Whole-Loaf Stuffing from last year, but stuffing is my perennial favorite side dish and I wanted to do something new: a dish that I call Stuffing Slices.

Stuffing Slices are just as they sound: individual slices of bread that are yours and yours only. Think of it as your own thick, savory French toast slice topped with a sausage and walnut relish. Here, I soak thick sourdough slices in a “custard” of egg and super garlicky broth, then I bake the slices on a sheet pan with butter and olive oil until they have crispy, golden butter-saturated edges and a savory custard-like center. Then each slice gets topped with a quick meaty relish that has walnuts, pickled shallots and herbs. All the familiar flavors are here, and as the slices bake, your oven will give off aromas of what will be, like, the best garlic bread.

Clockwise from top left: Brined turkey pieces on a sheet pan before it goes into the oven; A sheet pan of turkey pieces fresh out of the oven.; Chef Christian Reynoso carves Thanksgiving turkey.

Clockwise from top left: Brined turkey pieces on a sheet pan before it goes into the oven; A sheet pan of turkey pieces fresh out of the oven.; Chef Christian Reynoso carves Thanksgiving turkey.

Andria Lo/Special To The Chronicle

For turkey, I’m opting for turkey in parts. Some may scream heresy, but why should a whole turkey command the oven for hours when everyone knows it’s all about the sides at Thanksgiving? I’ve come up with a compromise: Sheet-Pan Buttermilk-Brined Turkey. I’ll be brining turkey parts in a buttermilk brine that has a few additions like onion powder, garlic, thyme and black pepper. The effect is a succulent, beautifully browned turkey that cooks way faster and is already broken down into manageable parts for you to carve.

How do you get a turkey into parts? Well, you ask your butcher. It’s as simple as that. You’ll want to secure your turkey for this recipe about four days before Thanksgiving so you give your butcher time to prepare it and for you to brine the bird — don’t procrastinate here!

Some butcher counters will have parts available in their case and others will not. Regardless, plan ahead, call them and ask. They’ll ask you how you want it cut; I ask for the legs, wings and breasts to all be separated, leaving you with six pieces. If you want the breast bone taken out, that’s fine and makes carving easier. Just remember those pieces will then cook faster than the legs. Because a turkey wouldn’t be complete without sauce, I have a recipe for a very ginger-forward white gravy and a very simple cranberry sauce. Some people like to get crazy with cranberries. I’ve seen cranberry tomato salsas with raw crunchy onion and garlic, a creamed cranberry horseradish sauce and new boozy, citrusy riffs every single year. It all makes me think: I only eat cranberries twice a year. That means I just want to really taste the still briskly tart berries as they’ve only mellowed out a little in a sweetened OJ bath. It’s stupid simple and I love it.

For a sweet ending, I’m turning to a familiar face again: pumpkin pie. My recipe is simple and straightforward — until it’s not. The base has a lot of usual suspects: canned pumpkin puree, heavy cream, eggs, spices and then a lot of freshly grated ginger. That ginger is what makes this pie hum and makes me blush with every bite. But, what I do next is probably the most non-pumpkin thing you can do, and to me, makes it so much better. I caramelize a layer of sugar on top, effectively bruleeing it. Instead of a soft topping, it’s glassy, and once you puncture through it, each slice has sweet shards of crunchy caramel for each bite of gingered and tender pumpkin filling. If you don’t have a brulee torch, buy one this instant. You won’t regret having it around because you can use it for those moments where you want extra char on vegetables, melted cheese in a second or the ability to toast other things like meringue.

Once I’ve finally finished cooking, I’m not going to stress anymore about the food or what traditions I haven’t cooked or new flavors I want to bring. I’ll just look for a glass of sparkling wine, or maybe it’s even Cognac Punch (see the Repertoire recipe here). I feel grateful for having been able to cook for the people I love and transform this day into something special for everyone, whether they only want to eat mashed potatoes with gravy, mostly gravy with mashed potatoes, or try something new.

Jump to: Salad, Stuffing Slices, Turkey, Gravy, Cranberry Sauce, Pumpkin Pie

Christian Reynoso is a chef, recipe developer and writer. Originally from Sonoma, he lives in San Francisco. Email: [email protected] Instagram: @christianreynoso Twitter: @xtianreynoso

Chef Christian Reynoso shaves white cheddar on a Fennel, Apple and Cheddar Salad.

Chef Christian Reynoso shaves white cheddar on a Fennel, Apple and Cheddar Salad.

Andria Lo / Special To The Chronicle

Crunchy Apple & Fennel Salad With Cheddar

Serves 4-6

Compelling and dynamic is probably the best way to describe this salad. It has a sweet crunch from thinly sliced fennel and apple, but it’s also sweet and lemony from the vinaigrette. Then, there’s a zingy bite from scallions and shavings of soothing rich, salty cheddar. It’s a salad that feels special, can be piled high into the sky and also tastes great the next day as leftovers.

¼ cup lemon juice

1 tablespoon white wine vinegar

2 tablespoons honey

½ cup olive oil

Kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

¼ cup thinly sliced scallions

3 apples such as Sierra Beauty, Pink Lady or Granny Smith

2 medium fennel bulbs, removed of their stalks and fronds (about 1 pound)

¼ cup roughly chopped dill

½ cup parsley leaves

Aged white cheddar, 2-3 ounces, shaved or sliced very thinly

Instructions: In a large bowl add the lemon juice, vinegar, honey and olive oil. Whisk well to incorporate the honey and then season with salt and as much black pepper as you’d like. Whisk well again, add the scallions and set aside.

Cut the apples into ¼-inch slices and add to the bowl with the vinaigrette. Stand one of the fennel bulbs with the root-side down and make a small vertical slice on the narrow edge to create a flat surface. Then put the fennel flat (cut-side) down and cut into ½-inch strips, starting from the top of the bulb. Pop the fibrous center circles out and discard. Place the fennel strips in the bowl with the vinaigrette and repeat with the remaining bulb. Toss the apple and fennel well with the vinaigrette

To serve, add the herbs to the bowl, toss well and pile handful upon handful into a sturdy tall mound. Very thinly shave (with a peeler) or thinly slice the cheddar over the salad.

Left: Individual stuffing slices get dredged in a "custard" of egg and broth and then baked until crispy and golden.; Middle: Individual stuffing slices get dredged in a "custard" of egg and broth and then baked until crispy and golden, then they are topped with a sausage-walnut relish.; Right: A relish with sausage, walnuts, and herbs to go on the toasted stuffing slices.

Left: Individual stuffing slices get dredged in a “custard” of egg and broth and then baked until crispy and golden.; Middle: Individual stuffing slices get dredged in a “custard” of egg and broth and then baked until crispy and golden, then they are topped with a sausage-walnut relish.; Right: A relish with sausage, walnuts, and herbs to go on the toasted stuffing slices.

Andria Lo / Special To The Chronicle

Stuffing Slices With Garlic Sausage & Walnut Relish

Serves 6

This recipe is the practical version of stuffing. There’s no need to dry your bread overnight, your hands won’t be attacked by brittle dry crust while tearing it into pieces, and no fights will break out at dinner because everyone gets their own individual slices. Some might say this is kind of like savory French toast with a hearty relish topping of crumbled sausage, nuts, herbs and celery. The thick sourdough is soaked in a garlicky egg broth before being baked in a pool of butter until crispy-crunchy on the outside and custard-like in the middle. Feel free to make the relish up to 4 hours ahead, then rewarm in a pan over medium heat and fold in the herbs right before serving.

1½ cups chicken, turkey or vegetable broth

½ cup dry white wine

3 large eggs

6 garlic cloves, finely chopped

Kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

6-8, one-inch thick slices sourdough bread

6 tablespoons unsalted butter

8 tablespoons olive oil

1 large shallot, finely chopped

3 tablespoons lemon juice or white wine vinegar

½ pound sweet Italian sausage (if using link sausage, remove it from the casing)

½ cup toasted walnut halves and pieces

½ cup sliced celery

½ teaspoon red chile flakes

2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves

¾ cup chopped parsley

Instructions: Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

In a 9-by-13-inch baking dish, combine the broth, wine, eggs, half of the chopped garlic, ½ teaspoon salt and freshly ground black pepper. Whisk well, taste (it should taste highly seasoned and promising!). Add more salt if needed. Add the bread slices and soak both sides so they are moist all the way through but not overly soft and falling apart, about 5 minutes per side.

While the bread is soaking, line a sheet pan with parchment or use a nonstick sheet pan if you have one. In a medium saucepan, melt the butter and stir in 3 tablespoons of the olive oil. Pour the butter-oil mixture into the lined sheet pan. When the bread is done soaking, lift out the slices one by one, shaking off excess liquid and lay them flat in the butter-oiled sheet pan. Place the sheet pan on the middle rack in the oven and bake until the bottoms are golden brown, about 20 minutes. At this point carefully (remember the oven’s hot, the sheet-pan’s hot and so is the bread!) flip the slices, rotate the pan and bake until golden brown on top, another 15-20 minutes. Once done transfer to a serving platter.

Add the shallot to a small bowl along with a pinch of salt and the lemon juice and stir to make sure all the shallot is covered by the juice. Set aside.

In the same medium saucepan, heat another 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. Once warm add the sausage and use a blunt spoon to break it up into small, crumbly pieces and cook, stirring often until browned, about 10 minutes. Turn off the heat and stir in the walnuts and celery. Transfer the sausage mixture to the shallot bowl and add the remaining 4 tablespoons of olive oil and chile flakes.

To serve, stir the thyme and parsley into the sausage-walnut relish, season with salt and pepper, and spoon the relish over the stuffing slices.

Slices of Thanksgiving turkey.

Slices of Thanksgiving turkey.

Andria Lo / Special To The Chronicle

Sheet Pan Buttermilk-Brined Roast Turkey

Serves 8

This sheet pan buttermilk-brined roast turkey is inspired partly by Samin Nosrat’s famous buttermilk-brined roast chicken. Instead of a whole turkey, we’re roasting it in parts, which saves precious oven time and space. It also tenderizes and helps keep the turkey moist with a robust seasoning. Make sure to call your butcher ahead to ask them to cut the turkey into parts or buy a mixture of parts already available at your butcher counter. Some butchers will leave the breasts bone in and some will not; if they are boneless, be mindful that they will cook faster than the rest of the parts. When brining your turkey, the longer the better (up to two days). You can use an available crisper drawer, washed clean, or a large pot to brine your key parts, or even multiple 2-gallon Ziploc bags.

4 cups buttermilk

4 tablespoons Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt (or 2 tablespoons Morton’s Kosher or fine sea salt)

3 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves

5 garlic cloves, finely grated or chopped

1 tablespoon onion powder

1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper

1 turkey, 12-14 pounds, cut into bone-in parts or a mix of wings, leg and breasts

Instructions: In a large bowl whisk ½ cup buttermilk, salt, thyme, garlic, onion powder and black pepper until the salt is dissolved. Add the remaining 3½ cups buttermilk and briefly whisk again to combine.

Pour the buttermilk brine into a fridge drawer, pot or cooler large enough (but it still fits in the fridge) to hold the turkey parts comfortably. Add the turkey parts and refrigerate for at least 12 hours and preferably up to 2 days, turning the pieces halfway through.

An hour before cooking, preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Line a sheet pan with parchment or foil. Take the turkey parts out of the brine, letting excess drip off; discard the brine. Place the dark meat pieces on the edges of the sheet pan and breast pieces in the middle, skin-side up.

Once the turkey has rested for an hour, place the turkey sheet pan on the middle rack in the oven and roast, rotating the pan halfway through. Cook until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the deepest part of the breast registers 150 degrees, and the thickest part of the thigh without touching bone registers 165 degrees. (Start checking the internal temperature after about 45 minutes, or when the skin starts to brown.)

When the turkey is done cooking, transfer to a cutting board and let rest for about 20-30 minutes before carving. Serve on a platter with any roasting juices left on the sheet pan poured over the top.

Cranberry sauce with orange zest and turkey gravy.

Cranberry sauce with orange zest and turkey gravy.

Andria Lo / Special To The Chronicle

Gingered Turkey Gravy

Serves 6

Light, gingery and savory. This gravy is made with roux and enriched with a broth of your choice — just make sure it’s well-seasoned and delicious.

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 tablespoons fresh ginger, peeled and finely grated

½ cup all-purpose flour

3 cups turkey or chicken broth or a mixture of either with turkey pan drippings

Kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves

Instructions: Melt the butter in a medium pot over medium heat. Once melted, add the ginger and flour, stir to combine and cook, whisking constantly, until ginger-flour mix is sizzling, toasted and fragrant, about 5 minutes.

Gradually add the broth, about ½ cup at a time, letting it bubble and thicken while you whisk it in to incorporate completely between additions of more broth until all of it has been added. Season with salt and pepper.

Continue simmering until gravy is at your desired thickness. Serve warm or cool completely until ready to serve and rewarm with a little more broth until desired consistency is reached. Garnish with more black pepper and thyme.

Cranberry Sauce

Serves 6

This cranberry sauce relies on just a little sugar and orange juice for a zippy sauce that uplifts.

1 12-ounce bag fresh or thawed frozen cranberries

½ cup sugar

¾ cup orange juice, preferably fresh squeezed


Place cranberries in a small pot over medium-high heat and add the sugar, orange juice and pinch of salt. Stir to combine.

Keep stirring occasionally until the sugar dissolves and most of the cranberries have burst, about 5-7 minutes. Turn off heat, stir in a pinch of salt and transfer to a container to cool completely or serve warm.

Bruleed Pumpkin Pie has a crispy top.

Bruleed Pumpkin Pie has a crispy top.

Andria Lo / Special To The Chronicle

Gingery Bruleed Pumpkin Pie

Serves 6-8

Pumpkin pie is synonymous with Thanksgiving, but in this recipe, it’s also synonymous with fun, fire and a crackly, glassy textured topping. The filling of this pie is straightforward: sweet, spiced and very gingery. If you don’t have a blowtorch, buy one now. You can find one on Amazon for about $10. You won’t regret it because not only will you be able to bruleé this pie much easier than, say, using your broiler, but you can also melt cheese quickly, char vegetables on a whim and probably light 10 candles at once.

2 cups pumpkin puree (canned or fresh)

3 eggs

9 tablespoons granulated sugar

1½ cups heavy cream

½ teaspoon ground allspice

1 teaspoons cinnamon

2 tablespoons fresh ginger, finely grated

½ teaspoon salt

1 9-inch blind-baked pie crust, homemade or store bought

Whipped cream for serving

Instructions: Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.

Mix the pumpkin puree, eggs, 6 tablespoons of the sugar, cream, allspice, cinnamon, ginger and salt in a large mixing bowl. Taste the mixture, adjust for salt, sugar and spice to your liking.

Place the blind-baked pie crust on the middle rack of the oven and use a measuring container with a pour spout to transfer the pumpkin mixture into the pie shell (this will avoid a scary situation like carrying a pie filled almost to the brim with liquid to the oven). Bake until the pumpkin custard has set but is still a little jiggly, about 1 hour to 1 hour and 15 minutes. Take the pie out and let it cool completely.

When ready to serve, sprinkle the remaining 3 tablespoons of sugar in an even layer over the filling. Turn your blowtorch on to low and position the flame away from the crust and over the sugar, about 6 inches away, moving around the sugared surface evenly until it’s all melted and golden brown to dark brown (a few darker spots are OK) all over. If at any point you see smoke and/or this feels stressful, take a short break and come back to bruleéing the pie from a farther distance. Let the surface cool until hardened. Then carefully crack the surface and cut the pie into slices. Serve with the whipped cream.