An Ethnic Thanksgiving
By Erik Mathes / November, December, 2011

Thanksgiving is deeply rooted in tradition, so much so that the menu rarely, if ever, changes. Every year, millions of people eat up a repeat performance of tasteless turkey, mediocre mashed potatoes, boxed stuffing, soggy green bean casserole, cranberry something-or-other, and marshmallow-marred sweet potatoes, as if deviating from this "classic menu" is considered a felony.

It's time we tossed tradition aside and added some spice to this holiday, borrowing ingredients from the vast array of cultures that flavor the country's diversity as a melting pot.

The ethnic Thanksgiving angle will only be as successful as its centerpiece, so let's start with that big old bird, the turkey. Roasting one of these behemoths is nothing to fear, if you've got the right tools and attitude for the job. It's going to be a little messy dealing with raw poultry, so latex kitchen gloves help, if you're squeamish. To avoid cross-contamination, you must take extra care not to touch any surface with raw poultry residue that is not thoroughly cleaned and sanitized afterward.

Okay, enough about handling turkey, you want to know about seasoning it. You could go many different routes with a blank canvas like poultry, such as Korean barbequed, Southwestern-spiced, or zesty, deep-fried Cajun-style. This year, I'm opting for something exotic and refreshing -- Turkish Turkey.

I had plenty of Turkish-American neighbors growing up in New York City, and I was inspired by Turkish seasoning I recently purchased from Penzey's, which combines bright cilantro with earthy oregano and spices for a palate-pleasing zing you'll adore. Instead of making stuffing inside the turkey's cavity, which requires a lot more care to avoid a bacteria nightmare, I fill mine with lemons, onions, garlic, and fresh herbs, so that all of those flavors permeate the meat by the time it's finished roasting.

My favorite side dish with which to veer off the road of tradition has always been sweet potato. Forget marshmallows. There are plenty of tastier ways to sweeten things up, like honey, maple syrup, or a Jamaican rum reduction. On top of that, I'm a major proponent of combining sweet and spicy, so I always add some kind of heat to this dish, be it fresh jalapenos, ancho chili powder, or hot sauce. The recipe below calls for a mix of earthy aromatics, including smoky fresh green poblano chilies, garlic, cumin, coriander, chili powder, oregano and ginger, mixed with Jack Daniel's, agave syrup, and cream, a true case of American fusion cuisine.

Finally, I've got an Asian-American take on green beans that will ensure your beans have some crisp integrity left to their bite come serving time. You'll need to blanch your beans, which requires a quick dip in boiling water until they become bright green, then immediately "shock" them in an ice water bath for the same amount of time.

For the sauce, start by sautéing garlic, ginger, and scallions until fragrant. Then add in sweet soy sauce (a.k.a. kecap manis), sesame oil, honey, and some cracked black pepper. Toss your green beans in the sauce to warm them through, and then serve them topped with crispy fried onion, garlic, and/or shallots, and chopped fresh scallions, peanuts and sesame seeds.

Let these ideas inspire you to try something different with your holiday feast this year. It will give your cousins and in-laws something else to talk about other than football and aunt Mindy's new perm, and it will be a pleasant surprise for their palates from the typically one-note dishes of Thanksgivings past.

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