When it comes to Thanksgiving, I tend towards tradition—it's just not Thanksgiving without stuffing, cranberry sauce, and all things pumpkin. But the same recipes, however welcome, can get tiresome year after year. Even if you're ready for a change, your guests may demand repeat performances of their favorite dishes. What's a cook to do?
New herbs and spices function as my compromise between tradition and novelty. Changing up your spices can make big flavor differences without changing the overall character of a dish. Plus it's a cheap and easy way to experiment with the most stressful cooking holiday of the year. Here are some ideas to consider while planning your menu this year.
Mind Your Marinades
There's a good chance you'll be brining, marinating, or aging something before cooking or serving it. Since added time in food only benefits the flavor of most spices, this is a great opportunity to add some unusual flavors. Try adding some dried hyssop to your turkey brine—its minty, floral character makes it a great compliment to herbs like rosemary and sage. If you have a farm-raised turkey on the gamey side, some crushed juniper berries are the perfect counterpart. Or, if you're smoking your bird, add some allspice berries to your woodchips—they're a foundation of Jamaican jerk cooking that add an unmistakable perfume to your smoke.
Mulled wine and cider are easy but lovely beverages to prepare ahead and not worry about come T-day. While there's nothing wrong with the usual cinnamon, cloves, allspice, and nutmeg, some star anise, grated fresh ginger, cardamom, or five spice powder are just exotic enough but won't scare away more conservative eaters.
Any custard pie or ice cream bases can be aged for a few days before baking or churning to give their spices extra time to mingle and deepen in flavor. Making dinner rolls? Add a pinch or two of almond- and cherry-like mahlab to the dough. Or if you're making a compound butter on the side, lavender and orange zest provide a bright counterpart to heavy starches.
Play Off Fruit
Fruit features heavily on the Thanksgiving table, and few food groups are as receptive to spices. For these applications, stick with deep and rich spices that can balance crisp flavors with some acidity. Cinnamon with apples and ginger with pears are no-brainers, but grains of paradise are really exciting. They have a similar bite to black pepper, but their citrusy, clove-y notes just scream Thanksgiving. Crack some into toppings for your crisps and crumbles (great with pecans), or cook them with the fruit for compotes and sauces.
Cranberries have an assertive flavor but take well to a range of spices, like star anise, numbing Sichuan peppercorns, or fiery chiles. Intense herbs like rosemary and sage are common with fruit for savory dishes; try them in sweets like pies, cake, or ice cream. And yes, squash are fruits. For spicing purposes, I treat them as something halfway between apples and potatoes.
Add Some Heat
Chiles deserve to be on your Thanksgiving table in one form or another. They're a palette-brightening rejoinder to all that gravy, protein, and starch, and they're as American as ingredients come. With the exception of chipotles and sweet potatoes, I prefer milder chiles on Thanksgiving that add just a hint of heat and lots of flavor contrast, like roasted poblanos, smoked paprika, or peppers from the aji family. For Thanksgiving purposes, judicious amounts of chiles are best with meats and starches, but leafy greens like collards work as well, especially if you tame the heat with some cream or coconut milk.
Keep It In Balance
For the most part, Thanksgiving foods are pretty straightforward: They have one main bold ingredient and a few aromatics and seasonings for contrast. When you change up or add spices, you don't want to overwhelm the integrity of the main ingredient. So go lightly to start, and remember that most dried herbs and spices increase in intensity as they sit in food. You can always increase the spicing, and even small amounts will make a delicious, if subtle difference.
Have some holiday spicing tips of your own? Share 'em in the comments