Turns out this one's easier to solve than finding a tablemate for your obnoxious Uncle Hal. The answer? Elegant, no-cook dishes sprinkled throughout the meal.
Traditionalists may think "no-cook" means you're cheating. But a first course of white gazpacho or a side dish of thinly ribboned butternut squash not only adds a splash of novelty and colour, it also frees you up to spend more time pouring Champagne for your guests.
So we polled a few Thanksgiving experts for their best no-cook ideas.
— White gazpacho
A twist on the traditional Spanish tomato soup, white gazpacho is made by pureeing blanched almonds with grapes, garlic, olive oil and day-old bread. "That's one place to do something a little more unusual," says Jack Bishop, editorial director of America's Test Kitchen. Serve it in espresso cups and garnish it with toasted pumpkin seeds and a drizzle of pumpkin oil or sherry vinegar. Chopped apple and smoked paprika would also add a seasonal twist. The soup can be made two days in advance.
Let's agree that toasting bread isn't cooking. Lightly toasted ovals of baguette topped with a variety of adventurous spreads make a lovely entry point to the holiday meal. Cookbook author Mark Bittman suggests topping your toasts with homemade beef tartar (be generous with the Worcestershire and capers) or cannellini beans pureed with olive oil, lemon and fresh rosemary. Goat cheese and candied nuts also make an easy topping.
— Relish tray
Why not revive your grandmother's boring old dish of carrots, celery and canned black olives? "A lot of people think of it as a first course nibbly thing, but if you have a really exciting relish tray you'll find people dipping into it throughout the meal," says Sarah Copeland, food director for Real Simple magazine. She suggests creating a relish tray from store-bought artisanal pickles — green beans, beets, mushrooms, caper berries — and bright, beautiful one-bites such as raw radishes. "It will look very elegant, but it took you 5 minutes," she says.
— Brussels sprouts
Just when you thought there was nothing new to do with these tiny cabbage heads. Bishop suggests dressing raw shredded sprouts with lemon juice, Dijon mustard and minced garlic. Garnish them with toasted pine nuts and pecorino cheese. "It's an interesting twist on Brussels sprouts," he says. "People don't often think of them as a salad green."
Though we always think of it grilled or steamed, broccoli is another veg that doesn't need cooking. Instead, says Real Simple's Copeland, thinly slice it and toss it with slivered mushrooms and red onion. A dressing of olive oil, cider vinegar, soy sauce, garlic and a mess of fresh herbs — dill or basil or tarragon or all of the above — ties together the flavours. "People don't always remember that a lot of cruciferous vegetables taste great raw," she says. "It's a richly fragrant dish, but it comes together with no cooking at all." For the best flavour, she says, let it marinate overnight.
Seriously? Yes. Chef Chris Pandel, of Chicago restaurants The Bristol and Balena, plays off the squash's true status as a fruit by serving it raw. Strip the squash into ribbons using a vegetable peeler, he says, then salt them and let them sit overnight in the refrigerator. Drain the water, then pile the ribbons onto a bed of endive. Sprinkle with toasted pumpkin and sunflower seeds (hulled), pomegranate seeds and lots of fresh mint and basil. A dressing of yogurt, ground cumin and coriander, cayenne, honey and lemon juice wakes up the whole thing. "It's not just refreshing and light, but it's also super seasonal," Pandel says.
Just because they're the obvious way to go doesn't mean they have to be boring. Real Simple's Copeland suggests a salad of greens, beans and grapes — such as arugula, cannellini beans and halved red grapes. Store-bought spiced nuts round out the flavours. "It's a real crowd pleaser," she says.
And shaved fennel tossed with red onions, golden raisins and capers can be served tossed with whole parsley as a green, says Bishop. "It's got lots of textures and flavours and it's very crisp," he says.
You don't need to resort to a can to have no-cook cranberry sauce. On the back of just about every bag of fresh cranberries, you'll find the formula for cranberry relish: berries, sugar, a whole orange and a food processor. Bishop suggests upscaling the old standby with chopped apple and ground ginger.
Copeland offers a take on the Waldorf salad, adding toasted walnuts, chopped Granny Smith apples, orange zest and maple syrup to your finely chopped berries. "It's also delicious if you want to serve it with a dollop of whipped cream," she says. "Call it 'pre-dessert.'"
No-cook pumpkin "cheesecake" — that is, cream cheese and pumpkin puree poured into a store-bought graham cracker crust — is a traditional oven-free Thanksgiving dessert. But even this back-of-the package fare can work, Copeland says, if you deploy the secret weapon of all desserts. "Freshly whipped cream is the ultimate treat," she says. A glug of amaretto in the pie, a handful of candied almonds on the top and it's all good.
"Any time you can add one tiny luxurious element," Copeland says, "you're adding a little delight to something that's very simple."