Unpopular opinion: Thanksgiving dishes can lean toward the bland. If it were socially acceptable, I'd heap my plate full of mashed potatoes and call it a day.
It's still a nice meal, but I do fantasize about ditching all the fuss, ordering in Chinese take-out and binge-watching Hallmark Christmas movies. No? Just me?
A great chef can kick things up a notch by doing little things, like brining the turkey, or making truffle mashed potatoes. The food matters, but to make it a memorable night, you have to think about it holistically. The company, the atmosphere - these things should be taken into consideration.
Here are five essential elements for a next-level Thanksgiving:
A roaring fireplace is a welcome spot for people to gather around. Sometimes my son and I toss in pine cones to watch them glow like orange grenades. If you don't have a fireplace, go outside. If you don't have a built or portable pit, you can dig a hole in the ground to make a safe space for the flames. Circle it with stones for a clear barrier. Extra credit if you trot out throw blankets and s'mores.
The element of surprise
Why not serve the classics, but give them a modern twist? Truffle mashed potatoes are to die for, and Ladles and Linens is stocked with truffly goodness, from oils to hot sauces. I once saw an episode of Modern Family where they mention a tandoori turkey for Thanksgiving. I haven't tried it, but it sounds delightful. Instead of green bean casserole, my sister-in-law makes a cheesy broccoli dish by Rachael Ray, and it's surprisingly tangy, thanks to the hint of dijon. Highly recommended.
There will always be naysayers to board games, but in my humble opinion, it's because they're afraid to lose. Loosen them up with some drinks, and get playing. Some board games are intense and quiet, like Scrabble. Nix that. Pictionary gets people screaming and competitive (think of the scene in When Harry Met Sally) and Balderdsh will have people laughing so hard, they'll need to catch their breath.
You thought I would mention a perfect Thanksgiving without a good cocktail? After the political whirlwind we've had over the past few years, many depend on imbibing just to make things more pleasant. But a festive, seasonal cocktail does more than smooth things over. It warms you from the inside out, and makes you a lot more fun when playing said board games. Sarah Nicholas, the owner of Ladles and Linens, posts lots of fall cocktail recipes on the Ladles and Linens Cooking School page, including Hot Coconut Milk Punch!
I touched upon this a bit with the fireplace, but there are endless options for enveloping your guests in a feeling of warmth. Cut the overhead lighting and opt for soft lamp lighting. Play holiday music in the background, and light seasonal candles in pumpkin spice or cinnamon. Soften your home by bringing the outside in, whether it's branches filled with leaves of fall color, a fluff of pampas grass or those striking but inedible berries that burst from bushes in the fall.
Follow these tips, and you'll be set for a Thanksgiving your guests truly won't forget.