Thanksgiving Traditions: Memories and Recipes from Local Chefs

By Frederick Jerant

There’s no record of the first Thanksgiving menu – other than deer and wildfowl – but culinary historians surmise that the table might have been laden with native fruits like plums and melons and local vegetables (perhaps leeks, beans and squash), along with fish and shellfish.

As time and customs passed, huge turkeys took center stage, surrounded by staples such as corn, bread stuffing, sweet potatoes (all unknown to the Pilgrims), and more modern favorites, including the ubiquitous green-bean casserole.

The date of celebration varied, too, according to each state, and mainly in the north. Its date was fixed for the first time by Abraham Lincoln in 1863, who called for “a day of Thanksgiving and Praise” on the last Thursday of November. It was a response to the urgings of Sarah Josepha Hale, who had lobbied for 15 years to make the event “an American custom and institution.”

Thanksgiving Day became a national holiday in 1941, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a bill that also set its date as the fourth Thursday in November.

Despite all those changes, though, two things have remained constant: it’s still a time for family gatherings, and it’s still a time for plenty of food, glorious food.

I asked several local chefs about their own family memories of Thanksgiving days past, and invited them to contribute a dish to an imaginary holiday feast.

Some are traditional, some are a bit offbeat, but all of them could be wonderful additions to your own table.

But now…to the table!

Soup’s On

Peter Felton, Chef, Pearly Baker’s Ale House, Easton

Felton recalls a holiday memory from his childhood:

“When I was about 10 years old,” he says, “the four of us moved to South Carolina for my dad’s job. We were always surrounded by our extended family for Thanksgiving, but this would be the first one by ourselves.”

“One of our neighbors invited us into their home to celebrate with them. It was really an enjoyable experience – I got to taste new foods, and make some new friends.”

Felton’s offering is Roasted Pumpkin Soup with Autumn Spices.

The Main Course

Mark Prostko, Owner/Chef, Weaversville Inn, Northampton

“My father-in-law’s birthday falls around Thanksgiving,” says Protsko, “so that holiday’s even bigger than Christmas for my wife’s family. Relatives from Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and other states congregate in Rockwell, Massachusetts for a three-day celebration.

“They have the usual turkey, but also a Grilled Leg of Lamb. The grill area is almost as popular as the kitchen – the guys hang out there, tending the fire and trading stories. It always seems like we had seen each other just a week ago, instead of a year.”

(The grilled lamb requires a 15-hour soak in a savory wine-based marinade prior to hitting the grill.)

Paolo Nota, Head Chef, Paolo’s Italian Restaurant, Northampton

Nota says, “In 1987, the Winter Olympics were held in Turin – my hometown, and where I’ve owned several restaurants. I was invited to prepare a special Thanksgiving meal for the American ambassador and his wife. One of the dishes I served him was a Stuffed Boneless Turkey Breast – light on bread crumbs, but rich with apples, sausage, cinnamon and rosemary.”

Side Dishes

Tony Page, Executive Chef, Emeril’s Chop House and Emeril’s Italian Table, Bethlehem

Page recalls, “I came to my mom’s house for Thanksgiving, and to introduce my fiancée (now wife) Kristina to the family. My mother pulled a beautiful roasted turkey from the oven…and then proceeded to strip off all of the skin and toss it in the sink! “Through the entire meal, I used any excuse I could to go into the kitchen, where I’d retrieve bits of turkey skin for Kristina and myself. Mom caught me a couple of times, but all I could tell her was ‘It’s Thanksgiving, and it tastes good!’”

His Braised Brussels Sprouts with Bacon and Caramelized Onions is a simply made dish with lots of flavor.

Joe Sweeney, Sous Chef, Paolo’s

“Working in the restaurant business, I often miss meals with my family,” says  Sweeney, “so Thanksgiving Day is very special to me. About 20 of us – including both sets of grandparents – congregate at my Aunt Kim’s house in Egypt, and there’s plenty of turkey, ham, two stuffings, creamed corn, soup and lots more. But the best part is having the chance to catch up on the past year with everybody.”

Sweeney offers a Broccoli-cheese Stuffing that he describes as “super-simple but phenomenal. It’s my favorite Thanksgiving dish.”


Tony diMaio, Owner, Gio Italian Grill, Macungie

“My in-laws have a tradition that startled me the first time I encountered it,” says diMaio. “They set the turkey on fire.”


“The lights were dimmed, and my mother-in-law’s father poured a flaming ladle of brandy over the bird. We offered some toasts, and the carving began when the flames died out.

“They’ve been doing it for generations,” he adds, “but no one is really sure how or why the tradition began!”

DiMaio presents Tiramisu with espresso and dark rum. “The word ‘tiramisu’ means ‘pick me up,’ and the sugar and espresso really will!” he says.

Janice Clauser, Chef, Hanoverville Roadhouse

“Twenty years ago, I had a baby on the day before Thanksgiving,” remembers Clauser, “which means I spent the holiday in the hospital. Their ‘Thanksgiving dinner’ included turkey loaf, instant mashed potatoes and cold thick gravy, served around 11 AM. The kitchen staff had the rest of the day off, so the last meal of the day was a boxed peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich! My husband is a chef, too, and we agreed – it was the best Thanksgiving ever…but with the worst food!”

Janice’s Pumpkin roll is a family favorite; the recipe was handed down by her husband’s late Aunt Janet.  Janice often twists the traditional pumpkin roll by adding extra flavors – apple schnapps, brandy and chocolate have appeared in various versions.

The Wines

“Drinking good wine with good food in good company is one of life’s most civilized pleasures.”— Michael Broadbent

It’s hard to argue with that sentiment, so we asked Elizabeth Carlson Palmer, sommelier and beverage director at Sette Luna Tuscan Trattoria, Easton to suggest some appropriate wines for each part of our feast. Palmer shared that Thanksgiving is her favorite holiday—no gift-giving, no wild shopping sprees…just good food, family gatherings and the chance to make some outstanding memories. That’s really what Thanksgiving Day is all about, isn’t it?

“This has been fun for me,” Palmer says, “because it brings me back to what we do as a family: we serve only American wines on this very American holiday.” (NOTE: All of these wines are available through Pennsylvania’s wine and spirits stores, although some may be online purchases only:

The dish: Pumpkin Soup with Autumn Spice
The drink: Pacific Rim Riesling Wallula Vineyard Columbia Valley 2007
The details: it offers soft pineapple, stone fruit and nutmeg notes to complement the spices and fruit flavors in the soup. “It brings hints of the holiday, of cozy warmth,” Palmer says, “and enhances the sweetness of pumpkin, while cutting the richness with a bit of acidity.”

The dish: Stuffed Turkey Breast
The drink: Roederer Estate L’Ermitage Brut Rose Anderson Valley Vintage Reserve 2003
The details: “You can’t go wrong with a sparkling wine,” she says. “The sound of a popping cork means there’s a celebration.” Palmer adds that the wine’s yeasty overtones (in addition to strawberries and vanilla) connote the comfort and warmth associated with fresh-baked bread.

The dish: Broccoli-cheese Stuffing
The drink: Shafer Winery Chardonnay Red Shoulder Napa Valley 2007
The details: “This full-bodied wine has beautiful acidity, with tropical and melon notes,” Palmer observes. “Americans are often turned off by excessively ‘oak-y’ Chardonnays, but this one is quite subtle.”

The dish: Grilled Leg of Lamb
The drink: Chateau Montelena Zinfandel Estate Napa Valley 2006
The details: “This Zin is fruit-forward, and not overly dry,” Palmer observes. “It has a good amount of spice, and enough tannin to cut through any fat on the lamb.”

The dish: Braised Brussels Sprouts
The drink: Priest Ranch Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley Estate Grown 2009
The details: “Sprouts need some acidity to cut the bitterness of cabbage, as well as some fruity notes,” she says, “and the Priest Ranch is fabulous in this regard. Look for notes of soft melon, as well as a chalky minerality.”

The dish: Pumpkin Roll
The drink: Pacific Rim Framboise
The details:
“This is a raspberry-driven dessert wine,” Palmer says. “It’s sweet and very concentrated. Framboise is best served in a smaller glass, like a cordial, and sipped.”

The dish: Tiramisu
The drink: Espresso, caffé corretto, coffee porter or stout
The details: Palmer takes a different tack here. “This isn’t a classic Thanksgiving dish,” she says. “Instead of wine, I’d serve it with well-made espresso, a caffé corretto [coffee with a splash of Sambuca, an anise-flavored liqueur], or a dark, chalky coffee beer.”

The recipes

Roasted Pumpkin Soup with Autumn Spice, Toasted Walnuts and Sherry Gastrique
Makes 4 portions

5 lb pumpkin, kabocha squash, or butternut squash
2 T cinnamon, fresh ground
2 T allspice, fresh ground
1 T cardamom, fresh ground
3 sprigs thyme picked
1/8 C dark brown sugar
3 shallots, sliced
2 carrots, peeled and small diced
1 Qt heavy cream
2 C chicken stock
Oil as needed
Salt to taste

6 oz shelled walnuts
2 T butter
Salt to taste
Sherry gastrique:
1/4 cup sugar
1 cup sherry vinegar
Water as needed

Split and seed pumpkins, oil lightly and place on baking sheet. Bake at 350 degrees until soft. Heat a stock pot heat over medium heat and cover bottom with oil. Place shallots and carrots in the pot. Sweat until tender then add spices and herbs then toast for a moment. Add sugar and stock and simmer. Add soft squash and puree, adding cream, until silky and smooth. Season with salt to taste.

Place butter in a saute pan and heat over medium heat. Add walnuts to pan and toss while cooking to golden brown. Drain on paper towels and salt to taste.

Place sugar in small pot and wet with water just enough to cover. Place on medium-high heat and bring to simmer. Simmer until water is gone and sugar begins to caramelize to golden brown. Add vinegar to sugar and simmer until thick and syrupy.

For plating
Place ladle of soup in a bowl and drizzle on gastrique then top with walnuts.

Courtesy of Peter Felton, Pearly Baker’s Ale House

Grilled Leg of Lamb
1 boneless leg of lamb, 7-8 lbs
2 cups of Cabernet wine
1 medium red onion, thinly sliced
8 cloves of garlic, slightly bruised to release flavor
1/2 cup of salad oil
5 5-inch (approx.) branches of rosemary
10 black peppercorns
1 gallon size Ziploc-style plastic bag

This dish is started the day before. Lay the lamb on your cutting board and separate the muscles and trim the pieces of fat and silver skin, as best you can. Place the lamb in the plastic bag and add the remaining ingredients. Seal the bag, massage the ingredients to allow the marinade to coat the lamb. Place in the refrigerator and let marinate overnight up to 15 hours, occasionally turning the bag to agitate the mix.

On Thanksgiving Day, remove the lamb, drain the marinade and discard. Place the lamb on towels to dry the surface. Season the lamb with salt and pepper. Meanwhile, preheat your grill, once hot, spray the grate and place the lamb on the grill. The various sizes of the meat will cause different cooking times, but grill approximately 5-7 minutes per side. Once at desired doneness, remove, allow to rest on a plate for a few minutes before slicing. Enjoy.

Courtesy of Mark Protsko, Weaversville Inn.

Paolo Nota’s No-Fuss Turkey Dinner
Serves 4

2 # sausage, removed from casings
4 medium apples (Golden Delicious or Macintosh) peeled and cut in large cubes
1 large Spanish onion, peeled and cut into small dice
1 clove garlic, pressed
2-3 stalks of celery, finely chopped (optional)
1 glass white wine (optional)
2 c. bread cubes (store-bought or hand-cut)

Brown sausage in a large saute pan over medium heat, using a fork to create chunks as small as possible.

When meat is brown, add onion and garlic (and celery, if using). Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until all is brown. Add wine, if using, and stir in bread cubes.

When all juices are absorbed, add apples and mix well. Simmer about ten minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat, and keep warm. (Keep or remove the garlic clove, according to personal taste.)

10-12 lb. deboned and skinned turkey breast half
3-4 peeled cloves of garlic
2 yellow onions, peeled and cut into chunks
2 carrots, peeled and cut into chunks
1 glass of white wine
Salt, to taste

Preheat oven to 450°.
Turn the turkey upside down, and use your fingers to push garlic cloves into the bird’s natural pocket.

Sear the turkey, along with onions, carrots and salt, in an ovenproof saute pan. Flip turkey every 3 or 4 minutes to ensure even browning and a crusty surface.

Transfer the cooking pan (with turkey and vegetables) to the preheated oven, and bake for about 20 minutes, rotating the pan every 4 or 5 minutes for even cooking.

Remove cooked turkey, and set aside to rest for about 5 minutes.

While turkey is resting, return the same pan to high heat. Add a glass of white wine and bring the vegetables and juices to a boil. Reduce for a few minutes, then whirl the pan’s contents in a food processor until fairly smooth.

To serve: Place a layer of hot stuffing on a dinner plate, add several slices of turkey, and finish off with a ladleful of sauce.

Courtesy of Paolo Nota, Paolo’s Italian Restaurant.

Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Smoked Bacon and Caramelized Onions
Yields:  4 side dish portions
1 lb        Brussels sprouts, blanched (recipe follows)
6 oz     slab smoked bacon, diced ¼”
2          caramelized onions (recipe follows)
1 oz     whole butter
Splash water

Cook smoked bacon over low heat in a flat-bottomed sauté pan until golden brown and crispy.  Remove bacon but leave fat in pan.  Place Brussels sprouts, flat side down, into sauté pan and cook over medium heat until nice charred color develops on Brussels sprouts (about 4 minutes). Add caramelized onions and bacon and cook until hot throughout. Add a small splash of water and the butter.  Toss all ingredients in pan until the butter coats everything. Season with salt and pepper as needed and serve in a bowl with serving spoons.

Brussels Sprouts
3 gallons water
¼ c Kosher salt
1 gallon ice
1 lb Brussels sprouts, halved and cleaned

Bring one gallon of water to a boil in a stockpot with the salt.  Make an ice bath out of the remaining two gallons of water and ice. Add Brussels sprouts to boiling water and blanch for six minutes or until soft. Plunge the Brussels sprouts into the ice bath and allow to cool for 10 minutes. Remove Brussels sprouts from ice bath and air dry for ½ hour.

Caramelized Onions
2 ea.  Sweet onions
1 T butter
1 T olive oil
1 t salt

Peel and halve onions.  Slice onions 1/8” thick with the root end facing you.  Heat olive oil and butter in sauté pan. Add onions and salt and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally. Cook onions until they are a very deep golden brown color. If the onions start to get too dark, you can add a splash of water and scrape the fond off the bottom of the pan. Remove from pan and store in refrigerator until needed.

Courtesy of Tony Page, Emeril’s Chop House and Emeril’s Italian Table

Aunt Kim’s Broccoli-Cheese Stuffing

Preheat oven to 350°

1 pkg. frozen broccoli florets
8 oz.  extra-sharp Cheddar cheese, shredded
2 cans cream of mushroom soup (undiluted)
1 box of Stove Top chicken-flavored stuffing mix

Mix first three ingredients in a large bowl and set aside.

Prepare entire box of stuffing mix as directed on the package.

Spread the broccoli/cheese/soup mixture over the bottom of an ungreased average-sized casserole dish (about 10” x 13”). Cover this mixture with the prepared stuffing mix.

Bake uncovered for one hour.

Courtesy of Joe Sweeney, Paolo’s Italian Restaurant.

3 lbs Mascarpone cheese
1 lb box of confectioners’ sugar
4 oz dark rum
4 (7-oz) packages of lady fingers
10 oz ground espresso (3 qts. brewed)
2 oz cocoa powder

1. Brew 3 qts. of espresso coffee, refrigerate for 2 hours

2. Mix Mascarpone, sugar and rum in mixing bowl, using a spatula

3. Dip lady fingers in espresso and lay in two shallow stainless-steel half-pans to cover entire bottom of each pan

4. Take half the Mascarpone mixture and spread over the top of the soaked lady fingers

5. Repeat step 3 and 4

6. Sprinkle cocoa powder over entire top as garnish

Courtesy of Toni diMaio, Gio Italian Grill

Pumpkin Roll

3 eggs
1C sugar
2/3 C canned pumpkin
3/4 C flour
1t baking soda
1t cinnamon

Bake at 375° on a well-sprayed cookie sheet (I use 11 x16) 10 to 12 minutes; do not overbake.

Take a non-fuzzy dish towel & sprinkle generously with powdered sugar,  Flip the finished cake on that immediately and roll while still warm. Let cool.

8 oz. cream cheese
1 C powdered sugar,
4 T butter
1 t vanilla

When cake is room temperature, gently unroll, spread filling, and reroll. Wrap in plastic wrap, and chill.

Apple brandy pumpkin roll:  add 1 shot brandy or cognac to batter and 1 T of apple schnapps or apple brandy to filling.

Irish pumpkin roll:   1 shot whiskey to batter and 1 T Irish cream to filling.

Mocha pumpkin roll: add 1 shot Kahlua or coffee liqueur to batter & 1 T unsweetened cocoa to filling.

Courtesy of Janice Clauser, Hanoverville Roadhouse.

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