Behind The Recipe(s): Over the Top Thanksgiving

The cooks in our test kitchen show you how to create a show-stopping feast with a minimal amount of effort.
turkey with truffle butter

Thanksgiving food can sometimes be so dowdy, but this menu, created by former food editor Shelley Wiseman, is very chic. And—from the sheer number of dishes to the extravagant ingredients and the clever ways they’re used—it definitely qualifies as “over the top.” The surprise is that many of these spectacular dishes don’t require a tremendous amount of effort. For example, the incredible foie gras toasts with Sauternes gelée: Shelley had a very clear vision of how she wanted this appetizer constructed: stacked like a wedding cake, so that you see the foie gras through the looking glass of the gelée. Gorgeous, yes, but the gelée is the only thing you have to make from scratch, and it’s remarkably easy.

There are fun little twists all over this menu, such as the pecan and goat cheese marbles—a tongue-in-cheek homage to those Port wine cheese balls of the ’60s. Sautéing Brussels sprouts leaves and using them as a garnish for the parsnip purée is a delicious and visually contemporary spin, as is scattering fried sage leaves over the roasted sweet potato rounds. These are the kinds of details that really stop you in your tracks.

Obviously, when it came time to photograph this menu late last fall, we needed some kind of motif that played with that over-the-top concept. As we were bouncing ideas around, someone said, “Wouldn’t it be amazing to have a gazillion pumpkins for the shoot?” Everyone immediately agreed that this was a brilliant suggestion.

Prop stylist Jeffrey Miller was the perfect person to style this over-the-top menu because he is such a fanatic for detail. For instance, he’ll show up with hand-hammered spoons or custom-made napkins that he has commissioned explicitly for that photo shoot. Right away, Jeffrey began researching farms to find the most beautiful pumpkins. After he settled on Bill Maxwell, a New Jersey farmer who sells at the Greenmarket, he went out to Bill’s farm, hand-picked dozens of pumpkins, and convinced Bill to hold them for several weeks until the shoot day.

When we walked into the photo shoot, which took place in a big loft building in downtown Manhattan, we were greeted by pumpkins in all different shapes and sizes, colors and textures. Everyone on the shoot became kind of childlike, almost giddy, in the face of them—there’s an innate festivity in such abundance.

The shoot went well. And that image of a wall of pumpkins—there’s something beautifully bizarre and fantastical about it. But at the end of the day, we had a lot of pumpkins to deal with. Everyone took one or two home, but there were still dozens and dozens left. So we called City Harvest, a local nonprofit that “rescues” food and delivers it to community food banks. One of their roving trucks soon arrived and loaded up all the pumpkins, ready to brighten up many, many others’ Thanksgiving tables.

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