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Tastes of Thanksgiving, with a detour to the Caribbean along the way

Haitian-born Sylva Senat incorporates tastes of home into Thanksgiving dinner.

Chef Sylva Senat cuts the Thanksgiving turkey at Maison 208. DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer
Chef Sylva Senat cuts the Thanksgiving turkey at Maison 208. DAVID SWANSON / Staff PhotographerRead moreDAVID SWANSON

For Sylva Senat's first Thanksgiving dinner, the year his family moved to America from Haiti, the turkey was almost an afterthought.

"At the beginning, it was just, 'Well, everyone's home and there's Haitian food, and, oh, we got to make a turkey today,' " said Senat, executive chef at Philadelphia's French-influenced Maison 208. "We put it in the oven and forgot about it. It wasn't the focus."

Over the years he's spent working in restaurants, Senat learned more about American cooking and to prepare the turkey so that it took on more of a starring role. But some relatives remained part of the time-honored American tradition of loving the side dishes most, which means that every year the Thanksgiving table is laden not just with stuffing and gravy, but also with tastes of the Caribbean, like rice and beans or plantains.

"It becomes a perfect hybrid of both places," Senat said. "A multitude of sides."

Senat, who was raised in  Brooklyn, and who worked stints at Jean-Georges, Tashan, and Buddakan, and who opened Maison 208 this year, said Thanksgiving with his family is an all-day eating event, featuring multiple meat courses and endless sides made by his five sisters.

Since his oldest sister realized Senat knew how to cook turkey, it has been his job every year.  He came up with ways to incorporate Caribbean flavors into the bird: he brines his turkey — in this case a 36-pound organic bird from Jaindl Farms in Orefield, Pa. —  in 32 ounces of Haitian coffee from La Colombe. Salt, oregano, rosemary, thyme, and Scotch bonnet peppers add flavor and heat to the skin and meat.

Senat leaves two types of bread out overnight to harden — brioche and plain white — to use in his stuffing. He bakes it with a variety of wild mushrooms and spices, eggs, and whole milk, turning it into a moist, addictive dish that's gooey on the inside, crisp at first bite, and infused with texture and earthiness.

For the gravy, Senat fashions a thickening slurry out of potato starch and water, then cooks it with chicken stock, rosemary, and thyme. The resulting sauce is light and aromatic, almost delicate. Crunchy, bright haricot verts are blanched and tossed with fresh herbs de Provence for a simple, clean flavor that's refreshing against the richness of the other dishes.

Rice and beans, always served in a pot on the table to keep it warm, is a staple. "It's not a Haitian meal without rice and beans," said Senat, who makes his with thyme, onions, and kidney beans.

There is always a second meat at Senat family Thanksgivings, such as rack of lamb or pork shoulder. There are usually a few dishes of plantains, glistening brown and served as snacks between courses. Senat dusts them with a hint of truffle salt to cut the sweetness. A bowl of Haitian pikliz slaw, a pickled vegetable relish made with Scotch bonnets, is always on the table so anyone can add spice to the turkey or anything else.

Chocolate flan rounds out the dessert offerings, along with chocolate bread, a scone-brioche hybrid pastry with chocolate chips that is one of Senat's 8-year-old daughter's favorite parts of the meal. Perhaps Senat's largest concession to American Thanksgiving traditions is his pumpkin pie, made from  the recipe on the can of Libby's pumpkin puree, except that he adds condensed milk. Senat bakes it in several small pie shells because he prefers the way it looks.

"As we all got older and had our own families, the meal became more about creating these traditions for ourselves," he said.