by Kaitlyn Goalen
photographs by Nick Pironio
Until I was a teenager, my Thanksgivings took place in Mexico. My family would retreat to the beach for a vacation that appeared nowhere in the lexicon of turkey, Pilgrims, or pie.
The first few years, we tried to force the collision of pool time and holiday tradition. Once we attended a “Thanksgiving feast” at a local bar, which translated to a few floppy pieces of turkey and some questionably colored gravy; another time, my mother and I tried to make a pumpkin pie in a hotel kitchenette. The following year, slightly defeated, our Thursday meal took place at a taco shack. Turns out, the carne asada inspired much more gratitude than a Mexican turkey ever could.
As an adult, I’ve cooked a handful of classical turkey dinners, pulling from magazines and cookbooks and always feeling like a bit of an imposter. I have no famous family stuffing that I’ve been making since the dawn of time, no annual claim to stake. This year, when my family comes to celebrate Thanksgiving in Raleigh for the first time, I’ve decided to do what worked best for us in Thanksgivings past and follow the lead of the locals. I spoke with a handful of Raleigh’s home cooks, who generously shared their Thanksgiving traditions with me. (Recipes at end of story.)
Appetizer: Dr. Dianne Boardley Suber
As president of Saint Augustine’s University, Dr. Dianne Boardley
Suber is quite the multi-tasker. It’s a trait that makes her the envy of every cook on Thanksgiving: She has the preparation for the meal down to just a few hours. “I’m a fast cook, and I generally don’t want help,” she says.
The exception to the rule is her mother’s stuffed celery dish, over which Suber and her sister now share dominion. It’s a mandatory menu item, a dead-simple but nonetheless delicious snack that cuts through the richness of rest of Suber’s meal, which includes macaroni and cheese and collards.
“My grandmother and great-grandmother were both great cooks, and my mother learned quite a bit from them, but the celery recipe was her own creation.”
It’s in keeping, too, with Suber’s relaxed, go-with-the-flow outlook on the event. “I used to pull out the registered china and all that, but now we use paper plates! For me, it’s all about enjoying the day with my family and being thankful, so that means no dishwashing duty.”
Turkey: The Dixon family
For most cooks, the turkey only ends up in the garbage if something goes horribly wrong. But for Bill and Elizabeth Dixon, a galvanized trashcan is the key to the success of their holiday feast.
Each year, the Dixons and their children head from their home in Raleigh to Camp Bryan, a hunting camp outside Havelock, N.C., where Elizabeth has been going since she was a teenager.
Thanksgiving morning starts early, with a duck hunt at first light. By 10 a.m., Bill is back at the house, lighting charcoal and preparing his turkey station outside. He suspends the turkey from a stake in the ground inside an upside-down trashcan, and then covers the top and the perimeter with hot coals, creating a Dutch-oven effect.
“The first year I did it was a bit nervy,” he says. “Turkey is the main event, so the pressure was on to make sure it came out well.”
But the technique produced a smoky, moist bird, and he’s been repeating it ever since.
It’s also in keeping with a weekend spent outdoors. The trashcan turkey has become something of a legend, and generally draws a crowd. “You should see the scene! Kids in camo; dogs everywhere; the men hanging around the coals drinking beer; and it’s all set against the backdrop of this beautiful lake,” says Elizabeth.
Gravy: Louis Cherry
When you’re cooking dinner for 30 to 40 family members, as local architect Louis Cherry does each Thanksgiving, division of labor is key.
Preparation of the meal is primarily split among Cherry and his sisters, but his mom Elly is always in charge of the gravy. Made with turkey giblets and crispy bits pilfered from the just-cooked bird, she forms a thick, creamy sauce and studs it with chopped hard-boiled eggs. Served over rice, it takes the place of stuffing entirely.
“She makes her gravy entirely by memory and taste and has never written the recipe down,” says Cherry. “So the last few Thanksgivings, I’ve stood by her side as she’s made it, watching her like a hawk to make sure I could replicate it. Our holiday wouldn’t be the same without it.”
Side dish: Paul Tuorto
One of the first things that 10-year-old Paul Tuorto noticed when his family moved from New York City to Cary in 1994 was that we ate differently here. Olives, salami, and pasta weren’t so much on the menu; casseroles, butter beans, and barbecue were. But the underlying sentiment was remarkably familiar: “Southern families and Italian families are far more alike than they are different,” he notes. “It’s about family, friends and food.”
When it comes to Thanksgiving, the Tuorto family goes all out, with weeks of preparation and a menu that blends their Italian and Southern worlds. The family potato croquettes are a staple, and understandably so: Imagine mashed potatoes that have been injected with cheese and deep-fried.
“The recipe was sort of a wedding gift,” says Tuorto. “When my pops married my mom, my paternal grandmother shared it with my maternal grandmother. After she passed, my mom started making it, and now I’ve taken it over.” The croquettes are great when eaten fresh from the fryer, but Tuorto actually prefers them at room temperature, another reason they make an excellent Thanksgiving dish.
Side dish: Rajani Paletti
A hair salon isn’t the first spot most would look to find top-notch Indian food. But once a year, Raleigh’s Dazzle Salon near Millbrook Road becomes a venue for one of the most authentic Indian meals you can find in the Triangle.
It’s the handiwork of Rajani Paletti, a native of Hyderabad, the largest city in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, who owns the salon with her daughter. For the last four years, she has prepared a vegetarian feast of Indian recipes as a way of thanking her loyal customers.
The event has grown from just a handful of people to more than 100. Paletti starts cooking at 3:30 a.m. in order to finish dishes like spiced biryani, dal, and stewed cauliflower by lunchtime.
“I do make a green bean casserole every year, for the customers that don’t like spicy food.” But for those looking to try their hand at Indian cooking she recommends her stewed cauliflower with tomatoes and peas. “It’s very simple, but the flavors of the toasted spices make it different from the ordinary cauliflower dish.”
Dessert: Valerie Cozart
Valerie Cozart hosted her first Thanksgiving dinner in 1987. “I just pulled a menu from Gourmet and made the whole thing from start to finish,” she recalls. She has stuck with those original recipes, tweaking them over time. Now the dishes are an iconic part of family’s holiday tradition.
“My son has an annual request for my green beans with garlic and country ham, and my mother always asks for my cranberry conserve. Everyone has their personal favorite.”
When it comes to dessert, though, there’s no room for debate: Each year the meal ends with pumpkin cheesecake topped with bourbon sour cream. She’s even toted it across state lines to satisfy the demands of faraway relatives.
Like pumpkin pie’s elegant older sister, it’s sweet, creamy and tart all at once. “My husband always complains that I only make it once a year,” Cozart laughs. “But that’s part of what makes it special, I suppose.”
Dianne Boardley Suber’s STUFFED CELERY
1 head celery, cleaned and stalks trimmed
One 8-ounce block cream cheese (preferably Philadelphia), softened
2 tablespoons mayonnaise, plus more to taste
Dash garlic salt
2 drops Worcestershire sauce
Dash hot sauce
In a large bowl, mash the cream cheese with a fork until soft and creamy. Mix in the mayonnaise, adding more if desired, until the mixture is the consistency of a thick dip. Stir in the garlic salt, Worcestershire and hot sauce, adding more to taste.
Using a knife or a small spatula, fill the hollow part of each celery stalk with the cream cheese mixture. Cut into 2- to 3-inch pieces and transfer to the refrigerator to set, at least one hour. Remove from the refrigerator, garnish with paprika and serve.
Trash can turkey
adapted from a News & Observer recipe
2 tablespoons poultry seasoning
2 tablespoons coarse salt (kosher or sea salt)
1 tablespoon dry mustard
1 tablespoon fresh ground black pepper
1½ teaspoons garlic powder
1 turkey, about 12 pounds, thawed
1 tablespoon olive oil
Heavy-duty aluminum foil
1 (20-inch) wooden or metal stake (a surveyor’s stake can be shortened)
20 pounds of charcoal, plus some extra on standby
Grill or 3 chimney starters
1 clean heavy-duty metal trash can
Heavy-duty insulated gloves for trash can removal
In a small bowl mix together the poultry seasoning, coarse salt, dry mustard, black pepper and garlic powder. Set aside
Remove the giblets and neck from the body cavity and reserve for another use.
Remove and discard the fat just inside the cavities of the turkey. Rinse the turkey, inside and out, under cold running water. Then blot dry, inside and out, with paper towels.
Place 1 tablespoon of the prepared rub inside the neck cavity and 2 tablespoons inside the body cavity. Brush the outside of the turkey with oil and then sprinkle with the remaining rub, patting it onto the skin with your fingers. Cure in the refrigerator, covered, for at least 4 hours or overnight.
Clear a 4-foot circle on the ground, using a shovel. Do this in the dirt, not on your lawn. Cover the circle with heavy-duty foil. Drive a stake into the ground in the center, so it sticks up 16 inches above the ground.
Light the charcoal in a grill or in 3 chimney starters. It’s OK to light the charcoal in several batches, provided each is ready within 10 to 15 minutes of the previous one.
Holding the turkey with the neck end at the top, lower it onto the stake. The tail end of the bird should be about 6 inches above the ground. Place the trash can over the turkey, keeping the bird in the center and resting the trash can on the ground. Shovel a third of the coals on the top of the trash can and the remainder around the outside; these should come to 3 to 4 inches up the sides of the can. This should be enough coals to cook the turkey, but if they burn out before the turkey is done, replenish as needed.
Cook the turkey until cooked through, 1½ to 2 hours. Using a shovel, remove the coals and ash from the sides and top of the can. Wearing the gloves, remove the trash can.
Insert a meat thermometer in the thickest part of the thigh but not touching the bone. It should read 180°.
Hot juices from 1 roast turkey (about 4 cups), plus ¼ cup crispy pieces of wing/leg meat
2 tablespoons turkey fat
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour, plus more as desired
¼ teaspoon dried sage
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Cooked white rice, for serving
Roast the turkey in a roasting pan. When the turkey is cooked, drain off the juices into a bowl and let cool. Skim the fat from the top and transfer it to another bowl.
In a small saucepan, add the turkey gizzard and water to cover by 1 inch. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer until the gizzard is cooked through. Transfer to a cutting board and chop the gizzard. Reserve.
In a small saucepan, add the eggs and cover with water by 1 inch. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat and boil for 3 minutes. Remove from the heat, cover and let sit for 10 minutes. Transfer the eggs to a bowl of ice water. Remove the shells and slice the hard-boiled eggs.
In a large skillet over medium heat, combine 2 tablespoons of turkey fat and 3 tablespoons of all-purpose flour, and stir constantly until it forms a roux. Cook until it is dark brown and fragrant. Add the reserved broth, 1 cup at a time, stirring until fully incorporated before adding more. Add additional tablespoons of flour to reach desired thickness. Add the dried sage, crispy pieces of meat, chopped gizzards and sliced eggs. Simmer over low heat, adding water and/or broth until the gravy is the desired thickness. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Keep warm but don’t overcook or the gravy will become too thick.
Serve over white rice.
(Crochette di Patate)
Yield: 24-30 potato croquettes
6 to 8 Idaho potatoes
1 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese
½ cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
2 large eggs
2 cups fresh breadcrumbs, plus more
Salt and freshly cracked pepper to taste
Extra-virgin olive oil
Fill a large pot with cold water. Add the potatoes and bring to a boil over medium heat. Cook the potatoes until they are tender and have no resistance when stabbed with a paring knife, 25 to 35 minutes.
Drain the potatoes and let cool. Remove skins and place flesh into a large bowl. Add the pecorino, parsley, and eggs, and use your hands or a wooden spoon to combine until the mixture resembles mashed potatoes. If the mixture is too loose, add fresh breadcrumbs 1 tablespoon at a time until it reaches the desired consistency. If it’s too firm, add another egg.
Season with salt and plenty of cracked black pepper to taste.
Place the breadcrumbs in a shallow dish. Form 2 tablespoons of the potato mixture into a cylindrical 3-by-1-inch log. Repeat with the remaining mixture (you should be able to form 24 to 30 croquettes). Once formed, roll the croquettes in the breadcrumbs, making sure to evenly coat all sides.
In a large nonstick skillet over medium high heat, add enough olive oil to reach ½ inch up the side of the pan. To test if the oil is hot enough, drop in a piece of breadcrumb; if it starts to fry and bubble, the oil is ready.
Working in batches, add 6 croquettes to the pan and fry until all sides are golden brown, Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate and keep warm. Repeat with the remaining croquettes, discarding any burnt crumbs from the oil and replenishing it as necessary.
Serve hot or at room temperature with an extra sprinkle of grated pecorino or parsley.
Tomato, Potato and Green Peas
Yield: 4 side servings
1 tablespoon olive oil
½ tablespoon mustard seeds
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
½ tablespoon cumin seeds
3 tomatoes, cored and diced
2 small russet potatoes, diced
½ cup fresh peas
1 head of cauliflower, trimmed into florets
In a skillet over medium heat, warm the olive oil. When it begins to shimmer, add the mustard seeds , turmeric, and cumin seeds, stirring well to coat. When the seeds start to spatter and smell fragrant, add the tomatoes and potatoes. Cook, stirring frequently, until the tomatoes begin to soften, about 2 minutes. Season to taste with salt and cayenne pepper.
Continue to cook until the flavors begin to meld and the potatoes begin to soften, about 10 minutes. Add the green peas and cauliflower and cook for an additional 10 minutes, until the cauliflower has softened but is still al dente. Serve with rice or flatbread.
2 sleeves of graham crackers, broken
½ cup pecans
¼ cup brown sugar
¼ cup granulated sugar
6 tablespoons butter, melted
15 ounce box aseptic pumpkin (such as Farmers Market Organic Pumpkin from Whole Foods)
3 large eggs
1½ teaspoons ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
½ teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup light brown sugar
Three 8-ounce packages cream cheese, cubed and softened
½ cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons heavy cream
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon bourbon
2 cups sour cream
2 tablespoons fine (castor) sugar
1 tablespoon bourbon
For the crust: In a food processor fitted with a metal blade, pulse the graham crackers until finely ground. Add pecans and sugars and pulse until well combined. Pour the crumbs into a mixing bowl and add the melted butter. Stir until combined, then press the mixture into the bottom and up the sides of a 9-inch springform pan. Chill for one hour.
For the filling: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a medium bowl, whisk together the pumpkin, eggs, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, salt and brown sugar. In the large bowl added of an electric mixer, cream together the cream cheese and granulated sugar. Beat in the cream, cornstarch, vanilla and bourbon. Add the pumpkin mixture and beat until smooth.
Pour the filling into the prepared crust and bake in the middle rack of the preheated oven for 50 to 55 minutes or until the center is just set. Transfer the cheesecake to a cooling rack and let sit for 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, make the topping: whisk together the sour cream, sugar and bourbon. Spread the mixture over the top of the cheesecake and bake another 5 minutes. Allow the cheesecake to cool in the pan on a rack, then chill, covered, overnight.
Remove the sides of the pan. Garnish the top of the cake with whole pecans.