Thanksgiving is perhaps the most feel-good of American holidays. We come together expressly to be grateful for the bounty in our lives. It feels even more meaningful when our meals celebrate local, seasonal and well-raised ingredients. A meal centered around local foods will be specific to your home, reflective of your local ecology, and it will taste a heck of a lot more delicious than foods shipped from afar. And consider the joy you’ll feel knowing your family’s feast supports your neighborhood farmers and artisans.
By now, many of us know about the nutritional and environmental benefits of eating locally grown food. But you may not be aware that the economic benefits of doing so–predicted by many food activists just a few years ago–are now becoming substantial. According to the USDA’s Economic Research Service, foods sold directly from producers to nearby consumers, grocers and restaurants grossed nearly $5 billion in 2008. What does that mean for you? Finding small farmers who sell direct to consumers is becoming easier and more convenient in nearly every area of the country. Small farmers are carving out conscientious, consumer-driven business models that are simultaneously chipping away at Big Ag and proving to be successful enough to support themselves and their laborers with real wages.
What follows are a handful of ideas for participating in your own exciting local food economy on our foodiest holiday. We suggest you don’t stress yourself out trying to source every ingredient locally. Instead look to whatever bounty is available near you as a way to make your Thanksgiving celebration meaningful and enjoyable–plus more nutritious and better for the planet and your local economy, to boot.
Local, Pastured Turkey
Pasture-raised and heritage turkeys are a world apart from the Butterballs you may be used to. They don’t look or taste anything like those unhealthy, factory-farmed, flavorless birds. It follows that if you attempt to cook a pastured turkey as you would a Butterball, you will be very unhappy. The key to enjoying the superior flavor, texture and juiciness of a pastured turkey is to understand that it needs to be prepared differently. Heed the following cooking tips to enjoy a better bird than anything you could hope to get from an industrial farm.
• Aim to buy a fresh bird processed one to four days before you receive it–keep in mind this usually means putting in an order at a farm well in advance. Keep it on ice for at least the first 24 hours to age it naturally, which helps tenderize the meat.
• Use internal muscle temperature (taken in the breast) as your guide to doneness. The USDA says a turkey is safely cooked when it reaches 165 degrees, yet pastured turkey experts disagree wholeheartedly. To avoid destroying your delicate bird, instead aim for 140 to 145 degrees (salmonella is killed after 12 minutes at 140 degrees). If the breast reaches temperature before the dark meat, cut off the legs and put them back in the oven while you prepare the rest of the meal.
• The leaner flesh of pastured birds cooks faster than industrial birds and is better suited to high temperatures, 425 degrees or higher. Cooking time varies depending on size; some small birds may be done in as soon as 45 minutes. Expect the turkey to take roughly six to eight minutes per pound.
• If you prefer low-and-slow cooking, pour an inch of stock, wine or cider beneath the roasting rack, and coat the bird in butter or olive oil–ideally under the skin. Pushing fat beneath the skin is especially helpful with older birds that benefit from basting. Then cook the bird until it reaches temperature–an example would be at 325 degrees for about 15 minutes per pound.
• Save the carcass for stock-making. Turkey stock can replace chicken stock in any recipe.
• Plan to pay more. Raising finer-flavored breeds in conscientious ways isn’t as cost-efficient as factory farming. Expect to pay $2 to $5 per pound. For ideas on maximizing the purchase by using every part of the bird, check out Jennifer McLagan’s cookbook Odd Bits: How to Cook the Rest of the Animal.
If you’re preparing a pastured turkey, you have the makings of the best nutrient-rich gravy imaginable. It’s crucial to let turkeys rest before carving to ensure juiciness. This is the perfect time to make gravy.
• Start with the turkey pan drippings. Set your roasting pan over two burners on low heat if your stovetop will accommodate it, or scrape the greasy drippings, including every last morsel of “fond”–the browned stuff sticking to the bottom of the pan–into a saucepan.
• For fancy gravy, begin by sautéing a diced shallot or two in the drippings until soft.
• Meanwhile, in a separate pan, heat up some stock (chicken or turkey, preferably homemade) until it’s hot. You’ll need roughly 4 to 5 cups of stock per cup of fat.
• Sprinkle a portion of flour (white or whole-wheat flour will work) that’s roughly equivalent to the quantity of fat over the top of the hot fat.
• Whisk flour in thoroughly, and cook until no trace of raw flour flavor remains, then whisk in hot stock a little at a time, until gravy has thickened enough to coat the back of a spoon.
• Season with salt and pepper. You might also enjoy a little cream, sherry or white wine stirred in.
• If your family likes giblet gravy, finely mince the turkey’s heart and gizzards. In a separate pan, sauté this mixture in a couple of tablespoons of butter over medium-high heat, until browned and crispy, then stir into finished gravy.
Homemade stuffing can include a number of local products. Many traditional recipes include apples, bacon, celery, corn, mushrooms, onions, parsley, sage or sausage, much of which is typically easy to find locally. Stuffing is also an excellent vehicle for the strong flavors of whole-grain breads. Try my favorite family recipe–Oyster, Sausage and Apple Dressing.
• Sauté vegetables, fruit, herbs and seasonings in butter or oil. Separately cook and drain any meats you are using.
• Toss sautéed mixture and cooked meat with cubes of leftover bread and/or cornbread.
• Stir in a beaten egg or two, and enough stock to moisten the mixture thoroughly.
• Tip into a baking dish, and bake at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes, or until top is browned and crisp.
Local, Seasonal Vegetables
By focusing on naturally flavorful seasonal produce, you’ll be able to forgo the homogenous casseroles that bank on cream-of-this-or-that soup for their flavor–except those handed-down recipes your family considers fundamentally necessary, of course. Prepare vegetable dishes simply with salt, pepper, herbs and butter to let their fresh flavors shine. When gilding the lily is called for (this is a celebration, after all), bring in the local cream and bacon.
• Potatoes: Try colorful varieties, which are packed with nutrients. Prepare them however you love potatoes, but be prepared for creamier texture and bolder flavor.
• Sweet potatoes: Properly cured, sweet potatoes require no additional sweeteners: Skip the marshmallows. Try heirloom varieties too rare or tender to be stocked in big grocery stores such as ‘Amish’, ‘Barberman’, ‘Bradshaw’, ‘Butterbaugh’, ‘Envy’, ‘Forkleaf’, ‘Georgia’, ‘Japanese’, ‘Korean Purple’, ‘Southern Queen’ and ‘Willowleaf’. Try them baked and mashed with butter or olive oil and rosemary or sage, or cut into chunks, coated with olive oil and herbs then oven-roasted at 400 degrees until slightly browned.
• Root vegetables: Roasting, braising and slow-sautéing are the best ways to maximize the sweetness in beets, carrots, parsnips, rutabagas and other roots.
• Fall greens: Greens are abundant, sweet and supernutritious in the fall. Along with a traditional salad, sautéed greens or hard-to-resist creamed greens, consider slipping shredded chard, kale, spinach or other hearty greens into stuffing.
• Fall fruits: Now is the time to celebrate cranberries, local apples and pears. Real cranberry sauce is easy to make: Cook cranberries with sugar or honey in a tasty liquid such as orange juice until they pop and cook down into a jellylike sauce, 10 to 15 minutes. Chill before serving. Apples and pears always find their way into desserts, but they’re also nice simmered with spices, honey and bourbon or wine, and served alone. Fall fruits also make nice additions to stuffing.
• Broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cauliflower: These crucifers will be especially crisp and tender if harvested recently. Consider cooking them simply to balance a hearty meal.
• Pickled vegetables: Any meal with heavy flavors benefits from a bright, zingy pickle. Make homemade pickles from local vegetables a few weeks ahead of time to allow them to develop complex flavors. Four recipes for quick pickles to try this year.
It’s easy to focus on local food when it comes to pie fillings–now’s the time for sweet and tart apples, creamy pumpkins, freshly picked pecans and maybe even berries frozen at summer’s peak. Pie crusts can be made with local items, too.
• The main ingredients in pie crust are fat and flour. Arguably the best fat for pie crust is leaf lard from pastured pigs. Despite what you may have grown up believing, lard from healthy, pastured animals is a high-quality, nutritious fat. (To learn more about healthy fats, check out All About Fats.) I prefer pie crust made with a 50/50 blend of pastured leaf lard and cultured butter, both available locally in many areas. This offers the best combination of tender flakiness and rich flavor.
• Bountiful, widely available pumpkins and winter squash both make excellent filling for traditional pumpkin pie. Although almost any type will work, in general the smaller and sweeter your pumpkin or squash, the better your pie will be.
• It’s easy to make your own purée, and it’ll beat any can of pie filling you’ll ever buy. A 2-1⁄2 pound fruit yields about 2 cups of purée, the perfect amount for one pie. Bake pumpkin or squash (cut into large chunks) at 350 degrees until the flesh pierces easily, about 30 to 60 minutes. Scoop out seeds and purée flesh, adding a smidgen of water as needed to achieve a smooth consistency.
• In many places, locally grown flour is becoming easier to find and buy. Many community bakeries are beginning to source locally grown grains, and oftentimes they’re willing to share their sources with customers. Farmers markets are also popular spots for locally milled flour.
• If you have a favorite pie crust recipe that calls for white flour, try replacing the flour with any number of whole-grain flours in order to boost both nutrition and flavor. (To learn how to adapt white flour recipes, read Guide to Whole-Grain Baking.) Or try a recipe formulated specifically for whole-wheat pastry flour. Find one in Perfect Pie Crust.
• Ground nuts make great pie crusts, too. Most nuts are harvested in the fall, so it’s usually not difficult to find locally grown, fresh nuts this time of year. Blend 2-1⁄4 cup nuts with 1⁄4 cup butter or coconut oil (plus an optional tablespoon or two of honey or maple syrup if you wish) until finely ground and thoroughly mixed. Press into pie pan with fingertips.
• Every homemade pie is better with homemade whipped cream. When buying local cream, look for an unhomogenized product, ideally from Jersey cows. Keep the cream and the bowl in which you’ll beat it cold and whip it until it’s fluffy. Add a bit of local whiskey if you’re feeling frisky.
It’s not just farmers who are shaping the new local food economy. Independently owned, small-scale brewers, cider makers, distillers and winemakers are changing the American beverage landscape dramatically, with each of these industries enjoying tremendous growth in recent years.
• You can’t go wrong with a sparkling wine or hard cider to kick off the party. These are especially good served with light appetizers such as cheese or oysters.
• Light-bodied red wines such as pinot noir always pair perfectly with traditional Thanksgiving foods.
• To learn how to pair different beer styles with food, visit CraftBeer.com.
• Save the small-batch spirits for dessert: Whiskeys, in particular, are lovely with fruit, nut and cream pies.
• For something more decadent, try making eggnog with local milk and eggs.
Sourcing Local Foods
It’s easy to find locally grown foods in high summer, but not always so easy in November. First, check to see if your local farmers markets operate in the fall or if there’s a special holiday market. Food co-ops and natural grocery stores are the next logical places to look. You can also contact producers directly, especially if you are searching for milk, meat, eggs and long-keeping items such as apples, potatoes and pumpkins. (Note that pastured turkeys almost always need to be ordered in advance.)
Our two favorite online resources for searching for food producers by location are LocalHarvest and Eat Wild. Investigate signage at large grocery stores advertising local produce. There is no definition or requirement for labeling something “local.” If you can’t easily locate the name and location of the farm, or if you know better than to believe asparagus could be sourced locally in autumn, chances are good it’s a marketing ploy. We encourage you to take every opportunity to let grocery store managers know when you know customers are being misled.
Consider Oysters: A Traditional Thanksgiving Delicacy
Turkey may have made an appearance at the first Thanksgiving, but oysters and other shellfish were actually a much bigger part of the meal (along with venison). It has become tricky to find seafood that is both safe to eat and sustainably managed, yet oysters fulfill both criteria. These natural filters actually clean the waters around them while they grow, yet have the lowest levels of mercury among seafood options. As with most other artisan foods, the market for regional sources of delicious oysters is exploding.
In his charming and useful book Thanksgiving: How to Cook It Well, New York Times food editor Sam Sifton makes a strong case against serving appetizers before the Thanksgiving feast. He says appetizers “get in the way of the meal both by taking up valuable stomach space and by wasting dishes and the time spent cleaning them.” Yet he considers oysters a different matter. “Laying in a few dozen bivalves to eat while the turkey rests on a sidebar is in my view a brilliant solution to the fidgety issue of serving food in advance of the Thanksgiving meal,” he says. “Consumed with a sparkling wine, outdoors if possible, oysters provide a direct and visceral connection to aquatic harvest, and to the true history of Thanksgiving in America.”
Tabitha Alterman never liked a Thanksgiving turkey until she learned about pastured birds. Her tastiest homemade turkey was a Midget White raised nearby and cooked hot and fast. For more cooking tips, visit Bourbon & Butter.