Thanksgiving Meal Makeovers

Thanksgiving – redolent of tradition and green bean casserole.

But scrolling through Twitter recently, I halted at a photo cheerfully captioned “holiday ideas.” It was of a squid-stuffed turkey, tentacles bursting from the bird’s cavity and swirled around the roasting pan. Turquid? Squirkey? It was horrifying, it was intriguing and it got me thinking – green bean casserole is not mandatory. So, I turned to a superstar team of culinary advisors who could guide me down unknown paths.

First up, David Guas – the popular, NOLA-born chef behind numerous award-winning projects who has made DC home. His most recent adventure began this fall with the opening of Lil’B, a New Orleans-infused coffee bar and eatery just off Scott Circle. Guas, who has hosted his family’s Thanksgiving celebration for 15 years, advises me to slow down.

“It’s not about breaking tradition,” he says. “It’s about mixing things up, and making the celebration fun and different.”

Guas gets the party started with lots of appetizers and snacks.

“Getting to the table is almost as important as the dinner itself. It’s the little things that bring people together and put them in the mood for the table.”

These “little things” include shucking raw oysters to start, and then enjoying homemade pimento cheese and breads and cranberry-infused sippers. Guas says he does something different every year. For the centerpiece, he sources black-feathered heritage breed turkeys from Pennsylvania, which he brines using apple cider and honey. The bird is then spatchcocked, the recently-trendy method that involves removing the backbone and flattening, and which allows for quicker and more even cooking. This bird is served with oyster dressing, a Louisiana tradition.

For the dessert makeover, I pick the brain of pastry chef legend Tiffany MacIsaac of Buttercream Bakery fame. I bemoan the ubiquitous pumpkin pie, often with soggy crusts and bland fillings. MacIsaac has the perfect rescue: use apple butter instead of pumpkin puree. I am startled by this brilliant simplicity.

“My friend raved about finding this at a random side-of-the-road stand, so I decided to take a stab – and it was amazing,” she remembers. “When we introduced the pie in the store for our first Thanksgiving last year, it sold out immediately.”

I begin mentally bracing myself to stand in lines in a few weeks.

“Oh, we’ll probably do something different this year,” she laughs.

Okay, fine – the most creative bakery in DC has to keep us on our toes for its second Thanksgiving. So what’s her pro-tip for us hardened DIYers?

“Just make sure the apple butter is dense. It should look like pumpkin puree, which could just as easily be called pumpkin butter!”

My dinner planning is almost complete – except for one key detail: drinks. Growing up, our Thanksgivings were PG, with kids and adults alike downing sparkling cider and organic eggnog – and only because my parents are good hosts, a bottle of Bushmills would emerge from storage so our wayward cousin Jerry could spike his eggnog. But now that the kids are grown up, the cider has been replaced by champagne and everyone is taking nips of Bushmills. It’s time to mix things up.

I catch up with the crazy-talented head bartender at Hank’s Cocktail Bar, Jessica Weinstein, for guidance. Her “Yam, Van, Thank You Ma’am” is Thanksgiving in a glass: Angel’s Envy Bourbon, black pepper-sweet potato-vanilla syrup, lemon and Bordeaux. To make the syrup, she roasts and purées sweet potatoes, then sugars them down, with a final push through a strainer to remove any remaining starchiness.

“I use a lot of sweet potatoes during the holidays,” she notes.

The “Aunt Ruth,” coming to the new Hank’s at The Wharf, will feature sweet potato-sage-marshmallow syrup, along with Smooth Ambler Contradiction Bourbon and an egg white.

“There are just fewer things in season I can use in cocktails.”

But seasonality is no barrier to creativity.

“We are doing a Thanksgiving tasting menu at the cocktail bar,” Jessica begins.

I instantly blurt, “Gravy shots!”

She laughs.

“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t try that about four weeks ago. But no, that won’t be on the menu!”

Instead, the bar’s popular “Food Production 101” – a rotating cocktail menu that riffs off classic dishes and food preparation techniques – will feature a half-dozen drinks directly inspired by Thanksgiving.

“Think a Waldorf salad cocktail,” she hints.

For the home cocktail enthusiast, Weinstein recommends looking at what you’re already cooking with.

“Some folks use a lot of honey during the holidays, and honey gives amazing depth to cocktails. What herbs are you using? Popular flavors like rosemary can be incorporated into so many classic cocktails.”

So I’m set. Nothing as weird as a squidurky for me this year, but the party is getting a makeover. Mom, brace yourself!

Buttercream Bakeshop: 1250 9th St. NW, DC ;

Hank’s Cocktail Bar: 819 Upshur St. NW, DC;

Lil’B: 1515 Rhode Island Ave. NW, DC ;