As that fateful Thursday in November approaches, a seemingly endless shopping list runs through the mind of the cooks braving the task of cooking the Thanksgiving meal. Turkey? Check. Dinner rolls? Check. Potatoes? Check. Veggies? Check. Boxed stuffing, canned soup, canned cranberry sauce? Not for me.
For a holiday built around a soulful home-cooked feast, there sure are a lot of ingredients that come straight from a can or box. Now I understand for some who are feeding a family of 60 that cooking from scratch is an act of valor. But my family was never an overly large crowd, and even now as more of us get older, move away, have families of our own, the group is getting even smaller. So with this year’s smaller table, instead of sticking to the canned ingredients, we’ll be doing Thanksgiving sans the cans.
Three classic sides are among the worst offenders: stuffing, cranberry sauce, and green bean casserole. For years, I was admittedly stuck in the habit of buying the boxed stuffing mix, cans of cranberry sauce, cream of mushroom soup, frozen green beans, and a container of fried onions. I guess it just happened to become second nature, or maybe something passed down from generation to generation. But I like to think that I’ve helped to revamp my family’s Thanksgiving each year. When my brother and I learned the secrets of homemade gravy and drippings, that was the end of buying canned gravy. When I developed a deep love of baking and perfected my crust recipe, that was the end of buying store-bought pies. In fact, last year, I went so far as to revamp the entire dessert table with alternative pies. But for some reason, I never thought to rethink the sides, especially as the can-less versions of these sides are much simpler than learning the correct fat to dripping ratio or unrolling a sticky pie dough off a counter and into a pan.
Instead of whipping out a can opener and scooping out a congealed cylinder of sauce — can line impressions and all — I decided to make sauce from scratch using whole cranberries. It only requires a few simple ingredients including cranberries, sugar, and whatever complementing flavors you decide to mix in. This year, I went with orange juice and cinnamon, which adds an interesting zing alongside the turkey. Boil everything together to soften the firm cranberries into a chunky and delicious sauce. Realizing the simplicity of making homemade cranberry sauce made me ever question why I was ever so devoted to scooping it out from a can.
Then there are some classics that seem inconceivable to make from scratch — like green bean casserole. The original recipe, created by Ms. Dorcas Reilly at the Campbell Soup Company, was developed to be convenient and use ingredients that every American had on hand. But that was back in the 1950s. Don’t get me wrong, green bean casserole is one of my favorites at Thanksgiving — cans, containers, and boxes in all. But putting a modern twist on this old-fashioned recipe by used fresh green beans, rich, and creamy homemade mushroom soup, and crispy hand-breaded onions makes this classic even better.
I can understand that convenience will still be a top priority for most Thanksgiving cooks who have their hands full. That’s why my final recipe is just as convenient as turning to a box. Slow-cooking is the ultimate method to prepare a delicious homemade stuffing made from real, day-old bread and not some crusty cubes packaged inside a cardboard box. Along with fresh sage and parsley, toasted pecans, and tart dried cherries, this recipe really can’t even be compared to something out of a box. Not only does it allow you to set it and forget it, but it also frees up some room on the stove and in the oven — which we all know runs tight during Thanksgiving meal prep.
If you don’t have an army to feed this Thanksgiving — or even if you do — try your hand at making these classic sides from scratch. You’ll be surprised by how easy it is to abandon the can.
Spiced Orange-Cranberry Sauce
1 cup orange juice, freshly squeezed
½ cup sugar
12 ounces fresh cranberries
2 cinnamon sticks
In a small saucepan over high heat, combine the orange juice and sugar. Heat until boiling. Reduce the heat to medium-low and add the cranberries. Stir to combine.
Add the cinnamon sticks and cook until the cranberries have completely softened and the sauce has thickened, about 20 minutes. I like a slightly chunky cranberry sauce, so I use a wooden spoon to mash some of the cooked cranberries while on the stove. The less you stir, the more intact the cranberries will stay, and the chunkier the sauce will be.
Remove cinnamon sticks and serve hot or chilled.
Makes 2 cups
Green Bean Casserole
1 medium yellow onion, thinly sliced
6 tablespoons flour
3 tablespoons cornmeal
2 tablespoons panko breadcrumbs
½ tablespoon salt
1 pound fresh green beans
Large pot of water
2 tablespoons butter
3 cloves garlic, minced
12 ounces mushrooms, diced
2 tablespoons flour
1 cup chicken broth
½ cup half-and-half
3-4 sprigs thyme
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 475°F.
Using a mandolin or knife, slice onion into ⅛-inch thick slices. Use your hands to separate the individual rings. Set aside.
In a small bowl, combine flour, cornmeal, panko breadcrumbs, and salt. Mix to make an even coating. Sprinkle the mixture over the onions and toss to combine.
Place the onions in a single layer on a greased baking sheet. Bake for about 20 minutes or until the onions are golden brown. Remember to toss the onions every 8-10 minutes to evenly cook them. Set aside once cooked. Reduce oven temperature to 400°F.
Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add a generous 2 tablespoons of salt to the water and stir. Add the green beans to the pot and cook for only 5 minutes or until the green beans have turned bright green. Immediately remove from boiling water and place the cooked green beans in an ice bath to stop them from over-cooking. Drain the cooled beans and begin trimming the stem ends, and cut the beans into 1 inch segments. Set aside.
In a deep saute pan, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant. Add the mushrooms and 1 teaspoon of salt. Cook until the mushrooms have released their liquid, about 8 minutes.
Sprinkle the flour over the mushrooms and stir. Cook for one minute then add the chicken broth. Continue to simmer the broth and mushrooms until the liquid reduces by 50%, about 15 minutes. Remove from heat and slowly stir in half-and-half.
Place the pan back on the heat and continue to simmer while stirring. Add the thyme and worcestershire sauce. Simmer until the sauce thickens, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and season with additional salt if needed and pepper. Remove the thyme sprigs.
Add ¼ of the onions to the mushroom sauce and stir.
Place the green beans in a 9-inch casserole dish or pie pan. Pour the mushroom mixture over the green beans and toss them to fully coat. Add the remaining baked onion strips on top. Bake for 15 minutes at 400°F until the casserole bubbles. Serve immediately.
Makes one 9-inch pan
Slow-Cooker Cherry Pecan Stuffing
8 cups of bread, cut into 3/4 inch cubes (I used cracked wheat bread)
1 medium yellow onion, diced
2 celery stalks, diced
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 cup dried tart cherries
1 cup pecans, toasted and chopped
2 tablespoons sage leaves, chopped
1 tablespoon fennel seed
½ cup parsley, chopped
3 large eggs, beaten
3 cups chicken broth
Preheat oven to 400°F.
Arrange bread cubes in a single layer on baking sheets and bake in oven until toasted and dried, 10-12 minutes. Stir the cubes halfway through cooking.
In a slow cooker, combine remaining ingredients and stir to combine.
Add bread cubes and stir, allowing the cubes to absorb some of the liquid.
Cook on low setting in your slow cooker for 4 hours. (If you prefer a crisp topping to your stuffing, place the stuffing into a deep dish and place under a broiler for 5 minutes or until tops are crisp and browned.
Adapted from Martha Stewart’s Cherry-Pecan Stuffing
Photos by Rachel Wisniewski