The World Series may have been decided last week, but Thanksgiving — the big game of annual entertaining — is right around the corner. We have been training all summer and fall for this, and we are ready! Or are we?

While most of one’s holiday menu may be etched in stone (turkey, stuffing, etc.), there’s always room to experiment with cocktails, finger foods, and sides. One or two new dishes can add much interest to your table, and even better if they can be made in advance.

This season will be my third time hosting Thanksgiving. With the help of six recent cookbooks, I found plenty of fresh ideas for this year’s spread.

Starting soups

A favorite tradition in my home is serving guests a demitasse cup of warm soup after the coats and gloves come off; it serves as a literal and figurative icebreaker. A silky pureed soup eliminates the need for utensils. Alex Hitz’s The Art of the Host: Recipes and Rules for Flawless Entertaining offers two perfect soup choices for sipping: There’s luscious, creamy carrot and ginger soup, and pumpkin soup with apple and rosemary, with sweet, savory, and earthy notes.

Or try the golden butternut squash soup from Half Baked Harvest: Super Simple, the sophomore effort from the popular blogger Tieghan Gerard. The squash is roasted with shallots, warm fall spices, and maple syrup until it’s caramelized, then pureed afterward.

'Half Baked Harvest: Super Simple' is the second effort from popular blogger Tieghan Gerard.
Courtesy Penguin Books
'Half Baked Harvest: Super Simple' is the second effort from popular blogger Tieghan Gerard.

Warming cocktails

I also keep a pot of spiced apple cider warming on a burner, which makes the house smell amazing. This year I’m adding a cocktail or mocktail. Toni Tipton-Martin, who continues her incredible research and adaptation of African American cooking in Jubilee, offers a recipe for an alcohol-free ginger punch — packed with tart lemon or lime and fresh ginger. (Rum or vodka are optional.) Bourbon, whiskey, or rum give a boost to cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove in apple hot toddies.

Super Simple scores with two refreshing cocktails, too. The pomegranate-thyme vodka spritz gets sweetened with a syrup of honey, thyme, and ginger, and topped off with elderflower liqueur, pomegranate juice, and ginger beer. A honeycrisp apple bourbon smash mixes apple cider, orange juice and zest, and apple butter. A bit of balsamic vinegar adds tang to the bourbon and ginger beer, making a perfect seasonal potion.

Pomegranate-Thyme Vodka Spritz and Spicy Strawberry Paloma from the cookbook 'Half Baked Harvest: Super Simple.'
Tieghan Gerard
Pomegranate-Thyme Vodka Spritz and Spicy Strawberry Paloma from the cookbook 'Half Baked Harvest: Super Simple.'

Finger foods

Cocktails necessitate nibbles. There are fabulous roasted rosemary-maple pecans and crispy pecan-cheddar wafers in Pecans: Recipes & History of an American Nut, Barbara Bryant and Betsy Fentress’ ode to the beloved nut, with recipes by Rebecca Lang. The uncooked wafer dough can be frozen for a month and both recipes can be made up to a week in advance. So easy and delicious.

Pizza isn’t on most minds for Thanksgiving, but in the hands of “fall obsessed” Gerard, Super Simple’s harvest butternut squash and apple pizza can be reinvented as a perfect starter, especially when cut into 3-inch squares. The pizza can easily be made ahead and reheated or even served at room temperature. Store-bought dough further simplifies things.

'The Art of the Host,' by Alex Hitz.
Rizzoli
'The Art of the Host,' by Alex Hitz.

Another nibble that can be prepared in advance is praline bacon from The Art of the Host. Thick-cut bacon is baked, then covered with a blitzed mixture of brown sugar and pecans, baked again, and cut into bite-size pieces. These addictive sweet-salty tidbits can be prepared up to three days beforehand; just leave time to bring them to room temperature before serving.

New sides

Now that your guests have a beverage in their hands and a little something to eat, it’s time to move to the main event. No offense to the turkey, but the sides are the real star of Thanksgiving. Look to Justin Devillier’s The New Orleans Kitchen: Classic Recipes and Modern Techniques for an Unrivaled Cuisine for inspired sides. Celery root and apple salad with blue cheese, toasted walnuts, and fresh herbs is Devillier’s crunchy, tangy spin on the classic Waldorf. Hazelnut spaetzle with butternut squash and maple syrup may be a bit more time-intensive, but the tiny dumplings are 100% worth the effort (the spaetzle also doubles as an excellent brunch dish). Ditto the savory bread pudding, a great addition (or alternative) to stuffing or dressing. The custardy mix of bread, garlic, shallots, and fresh thyme bakes until golden-brown, a textural wonder capped with crusty edges.

Celery root and apple salad with blue cheese, toasted walnuts, and fresh herbs from the cookbook 'The New Orleans Kitchen.'
Dennis Culbert
Celery root and apple salad with blue cheese, toasted walnuts, and fresh herbs from the cookbook 'The New Orleans Kitchen.'

Alison Roman reminds us in Nothing Fancy: Unfussy Food for Having People Over that entertaining should have a relaxed but impressive vibe and “the permission to be imperfect.” High-key flavors, low-key stress, and a make-the-best-of-the-situation attitude are the tenets of Nothing Fancy. Sticky roasted carrots with citrus and tahini provides a delicious, healthier alternative to typical cloying sides. Blood orange, lemon, maple syrup, and olive oil-tossed carrots and onions are roasted, then finished with a drizzle of tahini sauce. The vegetables can be roasted a few hours ahead of serving, while the sauce can be made a week prior. Another flavor-packed side, perfect at room temp, is roasted squash with yogurt and spiced buttered pistachios. The dish hits every note on the palate: Sweet, caramelized squash; crunchy pistachios fragrant with cumin, turmeric, and cinnamon; and a lemony-tart yogurt base.

Have a plan and prep what you can in advance. Enjoy your effort, your guests, and the day. Be thankful. You can knock this out of the park!

Honeycrisp Apple Bourbon Smash


Makes 1 drink


¼ cup apple cider

1 teaspoon orange zest

2 tablespoons orange juice

1 tablespoon apple butter

2 ounces bourbon

1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar (optional but delicious)

Ginger beer, for topping

Honeycrisp apple slices, for garnish


In a cocktail shaker, combine the apple cider, orange zest, orange juice, apple butter, bourbon, and vinegar (if using). Shake well to combine.


Add ice to an old-fashioned glass and strain the bourbon smash over it. Top with ginger beer and garnish with apple slices.


— Reprinted from Half Baked Harvest: Super Simple by Tieghan Gerard

Pomegranate-Thyme Vodka Spritz


Makes 4 drinks


¼ cup honey

2 sprigs fresh thyme, plus more for serving

One 1-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and sliced

8 ounces vodka

4 ounces elderflower liqueur, such as St-Germain

1½ cups pomegranate juice

Juice of 2 limes

Three to four 12-ounce ginger beers


In a medium saucepan, combine the honey, thyme, ginger, and 1/2 cup water over high heat. Bring to a boil and cook until the ginger is fragrant, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature. Remove and discard the thyme and ginger.


In a large pitcher, combine the syrup, vodka, elderflower liqueur, pomegranate juice, and lime juice. Chill in the refrigerator until ready to serve, at least 1 hour.


Add the ginger beer to your taste just before serving and stir to combine.


Add ice to 4 glasses and pour the spritz over the top. Garnish each drink with fresh thyme.


— Reprinted from Half Baked Harvest: Super Simple by Tieghan Gerard

Celery Root and Apple Salad with Blue Cheese, Toasted Walnuts, and Fresh Herbs


Makes 4 servings


White Wine Vinaigrette

½ cup white wine vinegar

¼ cup Dijon mustard

2 teaspoons sugar

1½ cup vegetable oil

Kosher salt

Freshly cracked black pepper


½ cup walnut halves

1 small celery root, peeled and cut into matchsticks

2 Gala apples, cored, seeded, and thinly sliced

2 teaspoons thyme leaves

2 teaspoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley leaves

1 teaspoon finely chopped tarragon leaves

1 teaspoon finely chopped chives

2 ounces crumbled blue cheese

Kosher salt

Freshly cracked black pepper


To make the vinaigrette: In a small bowl, whisk together the vinegar, Dijon, and sugar. Whisk in the oil. Taste and season with salt and pepper. The vinaigrette will keep, tightly covered, in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.


Preheat the oven to 325°F.


Spread out the walnuts in an even layer on a baking sheet and toast until fragrant and golden brown, checking after 5 minutes and cooking for up to 10 minutes. Set aside to cool, about 10 minutes.


In a large bowl, combine the celery root, apples, thyme, parsley, tarragon, chives, cheese, and walnuts. Dress the salad generously with the vinaigrette, toss gently, and taste. Season with salt and pepper and serve immediately.


— Reprinted from The New Orleans Kitchen by Justin Devillier