I remember the exact moment I realized I did, in fact, like goat cheese. It’s vivid to me because it was the same moment I realized red wine didn’t have to taste like gym socks.
What I experienced that night of epiphany is called a “pairing”: A lovely and informative hostess laid out a smorgasbord of sweet and savory bites, poured tastes of wine, then encouraged us to try specific foods with each taste. I was not on board from the very start.
Up until this point, my experiences with red wine had all started and ended the same: smelled bad, tasted worse, finished like a weight-lifter’s sweaty feet. I was simply not interested in sampling red wine. Ever again.
But I didn’t count on the peer pressure. And I really wanted to chow down on the food items. So I very reluctantly spread the smallest amount of soft goat cheese on my cracker and took the tiniest sip of red wine. And, voilà! The cheese and wine combined in my mouth with the most astonishing perfection. I actually said, out loud, “I do like goat cheese! And what am I drinking??”
I am now rather well-versed in pairing food with beverages. I’m still not a huge fan of red wine, but I’ve discovered some varieties—a red blend, for instance—I can enjoy with cheese and nuts. I know what goes with a nice, oaky Chardonnay (any seafood or creamy pasta), a crisp sparkling wine (berries, dark chocolate), a frosty Belgian ale (salsa, fried chicken). If I’m not certain of the pairing, I just do an internet search. It’s now that easy.
So the next time you’re in charge of the evening’s beverage or gifted with a bottle of wine that looks suspicious or simply looking for a change, try an interesting food pairing. You might just blurt out your surprise and satisfaction to everyone’s delight.
Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. Why? Because it’s all about family and food. Even if your “family” is a diverse collection of friends with vastly different traditions, the food takes center stage.
How I serve that food, however, is what really interests me.
Growing up, we could easily have up to 30 people—family and guests—seated at several tables for Thanksgiving. The adults claimed the formal dining table, some kids claimed the kitchen table, and other kids gathered ‘round a collection of card tables and TV trays. We ate on real plates with real silverware and actual glassware. The Detroit Lions played softly on every TV. The house was filled with laughter.
Looking back, I don’t know how my grandmother, mother and aunts pulled it off every year. But they did. Spectacularly.
I find myself wanting desperately to recreate that setting every fall. It’s not always possible now—family is scattered, in-laws make plans, children go out of town—but even on a small scale, the Thanksgiving setting can be stunning.
I start with a tablecloth. It doesn’t have to be seasonal or orange or feature pumpkins…it just needs to be cloth. If it’s a party of four, we go for cloth placemats. Then I add multiple plates. Yes, plates, plural. A salad plate also doubles as a bread plate and looks great perched atop the dinner plate. Silverware, glassware and napkins complete the settings.
Then, I add serving bowls, platters and tea lights. If the bowls coordinate with the dishes, great. If not, still fine. Once they’re filled with comfort food, no one will notice their design. A spoonful of buttery mashed potatoes needs no artifice. After that, I like to go wild.
I don’t favor that Thanksgiving centerpiece staple: the cornucopia. My mother and grandmother had one filled with the obligatory plastic fruit, but I’ve yet to find one that skews trendy and artsy. So I’m more likely to go with brass and candlesticks and all manner of dried flowers, felt pumpkins and pinecones.
Overall, the table setting should look like harvest. Fall. Bounty. It should glow, like chilly November evenings. It should whisper, “Welcome. Sit. Indulge.” If your guests feel that whisper, they’ll linger. And if they linger, you’ll hear all manner of stories and ideas and dreams.
And then the pies will come out. And the groans will commence. And you’ll know: This bounty, this beautiful, thankful bounty was indulged.
I’ve always been more of a side-dish fanatic.
Even when Wagu steak is the overpriced entree, I go for the fried corn, sautéed green beans, or cauliflower gratin. Fried chicken is a beautiful thing—and I’ve been known to tear into it whilst standing over the kitchen sink—but I can really fill up on the accompanying mashed potatoes, mac & cheese, or cornbread.
So when the chow fest known as Thanksgiving rolls around each November, my recipe research goes right to the sides.
Mind you, I’m all for most of the traditional dishes (except you: green bean casserole…gag), but my eyes light up when savvy cooks introduce clever cocktails, appetizers or desserts.
Anything pumpkin is on overdrive each fall, and in my mind you can’t go wrong with that orange goodness. (Consider the Pumpkin Martini. Yes—Martini! Or Pumpkin Creme Brûlée!) But so are the seasonal spices: cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves. And they work in so many recipes. Breads, dips, desserts, cookies, coffees, even vegetables can all benefit from these spices.
Not a fan of anything using pumpkin or seasonal herbs? Then would you consider a charcuterie appetizer at your gathering? Caramel corn? How about a baked side with “au gratin” in the title? I love a tasty and overlooked Waldorf salad: It’s fruit, veggies and nuts, people! Yum.
Now, I will draw the line at bringing back the ol’ Jello ring. Remember that molded salad from your childhood? Ours had shaved carrots in it. Yes…carrots. Its time has passed. Except…I just spotted a recipe for a Sangria Ring. Hmm. Creative.
But you see what I mean here: There’s a lot of room for creativity to accompany your juicy turkey. Every holiday could benefit from a little stirring up in the kitchen. Do some online investigating. Pour through some old cookbooks. Surprise your guests. Surprise yourself.
And who knows? You might just create a new Thanksgiving tradition.
A Michigan farm girl transplanted to the South offering hospitality hacks.