Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Shake up the traditional Thanksgiving spread with cocktails, nibbles, soups, and creative sides

Fall-forward recipes from six new cookbooks, including Honeycrisp apple bourbon smash and a twist on the classic Waldorf salad.

Honeycrisp Apple Bourbon Smash from the cookbook "Half Baked Harvest: Super Simple."
Honeycrisp Apple Bourbon Smash from the cookbook "Half Baked Harvest: Super Simple."Read moreTieghan Gerard

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!