Thanksgiving menus on the island are as diverse as the folks who live here. The common theme that runs from home to home is the cooking and eating marathon during which we all gobble ‘til we wobble. It doesn’t matter if your main course is turkey, ham or lasagna, because these seven island chefs agree that the stars of the Thanksgiving table are always the sensational side dishes.
As children, they prepped, cooked, and served meals to extended families at the side of their grandmothers. As adults, Thanksgiving is the beginning to the busy holiday season and, if they’re really lucky, a day off to celebrate with family and friends.
“I was the first granddaughter in the family, preceded by 14 grandsons. Someone had to learn how to cook,” Soul 2 Soul Café owner and executive chef Oida Cook said.
“I spent the summers at my grandparents’ farm in Mississippi. Cooking came easy to me. I worked in the kitchen with grandmother. We shelled, shucked, pickled, preserved, and plucked whatever the boys brought in off the farm,” Cook said. “At five years of age, I could cut up a chicken and knot a necktie. I had skills!”
BLVD Seafood executive chef Chris Lopez said his family traveled to spend the holiday with his grandparents.
“As a kid, we’d do road trips to my grandparents’ family home in Alabama,” Lopez said. “They had a big house with a huge dining room table that had so many leaves, it fit us all.”
“I watched my grandma cook all day, and I would help with small tasks, and washing dishes. As I grew older, I became hungry for cooking. I was fascinated by the science of it. Cooking was a team sport in my family, and everyone played in the game.”
He will be starting a new tradition this year as his daughter will marry the youngest son of the Lo family who own Yamato Japanese Restaurant. “We are combining two great cooking families in matrimony. From now on, Thanksgiving will be a celebration of our children’s wedding anniversary,” he said.
When Saltwater Grill executive chef Megan Walker was a child, Thanksgiving meant everyone coming together in one house. “My siblings were home from school, and we celebrated with all generations. Everyone chipped in,” said Walker who likes to spend the day cooking, eating and watching football in her pajamas with her guy and her cat. “As an adult, Thanksgiving is a day of rest.”
Walker, who grew up in the northeast, had never heard of green bean casserole, but it was love at first bite at her first Friendsgiving in Galveston. “I mean, what’s not to like about green bean casserole?” she asked. ‘It’s got everything that I love in it. It’s perfect food.”
For Tara Flinn Head, chef and co-owner of Koop’s BBQ, the holiday was all about family. “Food equaled happiness in my family, and Thanksgiving always revolved around food,” Head said.
Thanksgiving for her evokes childhood memories of performing skits with her cousins; entertaining the older generation of her family. Present day traditions include early mornings sipping coffee - which may or may not be spiked with something sassy - and watching the Thanksgiving Day parade while her husband and business partner, P.J., sleeps in.
“Thanksgiving is a day off from the daily grind of running a restaurant,” she said. “Sometimes, it’s the only day of the year that we see our friends and share a meal with them.”
The black-eyed pea medley, or hoppin’ John as her family calls it, was her mother’s recipe, which she only made on Thanksgiving. “I try to make it Thanksgiving for our customers every day at Koop’s, so this has become a staple on our daily menu.”
Katie’s Seafood House head chef Alex Mendez enjoys the camaraderie of Friendsgiving, as his family lives in Mexico, where Thanksgiving is not a traditionally celebrated holiday. “We do a potluck meal, and I enjoy tasting all the different dishes,” Mendez said.
“This seafood stuffing is a collaboration of family recipes and Katie’s culinarians. It’s a tradition we started for owners Katie and Buddy’s first Thanksgiving,” he said.
“For a lot of us who work in the restaurant industry, this is the only holiday we can celebrate with family and friends, and I am thankful for that.”
Faye Powell and Casie Benson are students in the Culinary Arts program at Galveston College. Both women host family Thanksgiving dinners for large crowds.
“Thanksgiving is one of those perfect times of the year to show your family love by cooking an amazing meal for them,” Powell said. She usually enjoys a cocktail and a lively game or two of Scrabble with the family after the big meal.
“Don’t turn your back on the family dog,” she warned. “One year, I set the turkey out to rest, and my cocker spaniel walked by with a leg in his mouth. He tore it from the turkey and was eating it Henry-the-VIII-style.”
Attending culinary school was a life-long dream, and she plans to take the skills learned in culinary school and turn them into a catering business after graduation.
Casie Benson remembers being chased from her grandmother’s Thanksgiving kitchen. “I loved sneaking bites of this and that while she was cooking. I was into everything,” Benson said.
“My grandmother was in a wheelchair but still managed to make a fantastic meal. She was a queen in the kitchen; she would stand on one foot for hours cooking. That’s determination.”
Benson, whose children are grown and on their own, lets the kids pick each year’s theme to keep her Thanksgiving menu fun and exciting. “Last year, it was Mexican, and we were making tamales for days.”
Benson is just a few days from completing her program at Galveston College and plans to run food stands during the island’s larger events. “There are a lot of opportunities for vendor booths at large-scale events like Mardi Gras, Dickens on the Strand and the Lone Star Rally,” she said. “And that’s the dream.”
All of these award-winning chefs live and work on island. Most of the restaurants take orders for Thanksgiving meals. Although cut-off dates for catering vary for each restaurant, everyone agrees you should put your orders in early.
Although these are traditional dishes, these sides pair easily with any protein, any day of the week. Give them a try; you might just find a new family favorite.
Sweet Potato Puree
½ pound sweet potatoes;
2 cups heavy cream; 1-pound unsalted butter;
1 cup brown sugar; ½ tablespoon cinnamon;
1 tablespoon kosher salt;
1 tablespoon black pepper,
and 2 tablespoon TW Samuels Whiskey.
Peel, cut, and boil potatoes. When tender, strain into a mixing bowl and add the rest of the ingredients.
Green Bean Casserole
2 medium sliced yellow onions;
1.5 pound trimmed and halved green beans;
8 ounces chopped baby bella mushrooms;
¼ cup chicken stock; 1 cup heavy cream;
1 cup half and half;
1 cup shredded smoked gouda;
2 tablespoons cornstarch;
6-ounce jar French-fried onions;
1 tablespoon of water; salt and pepper to taste.
Pan sauté onions, about 15 minutes or until nearly caramelized, deglaze pan as needed with chicken stock. While onions are cooking, get a pot of water to a rolling boil, and add green beans. Cook 5 minutes and set aside. Add more olive oil and mushrooms to onions. Cook for 2 minutes. Add remaining chicken stock. Slowly add creams, stirring constantly. Add cheese and salt and pepper. In a separate bowl, create a slurry with the cornstarch and water and add that to the pan. Finally, add green beans and stir to combine.
Pour into a 10-inch by 12-inch baking dish and cover with entire jar of fried onions.
Bake at 350 Fahrenheit for 1 hour. Let stand for 10 minutes. Garnish with green onions.
Hoppin’ John (Black-eyed Pea Medley)
1-pound smoked bacon;
4 bunches fresh spinach;
2 cups black-eyed peas (drained);
16 ounces shredded sharp cheddar;
10 dashes of Tabasco;
8 cups cooked white rice;
garlic powder, salt and pepper to taste and green onions for garnish.
In the same pot, cook strips of bacon to crisp but not burnt. Remove bacon, leaving grease. Sauté spinach with salt, pepper, and garlic. Add black-eyed peas, cheese, and Tabasco, cook on low until the cheese has melted. Crumble the cooked bacon into the pot. Add rice and stir until all ingredients are mixed thoroughly. Top with green onions and fresh cracked black pepper.
Katie’s Seafood House Stuffing
9 cups whole wheat (or gluten free) bread cubes (about 18 slices of bread cubed and toasted);
3 cups chopped celery including celery leaves; 3 cups chopped red or yellow bell pepper;
3 cups chopped sweet onion;
24 ounces sliced mushrooms;
3 pounds chopped raw shrimp;
1 16-ounce container of crab meat with juices;
½ pound drained and chopped smoked oysters;
1.5 teaspoons Katie’s Falcon Dust seasoning (or Old Bay);
3 teaspoons sage; ¾ teaspoon each of thyme and dill;
3 small finely chopped sprigs of fresh rosemary;
¾ cup butter or bacon fat (or 6 tablespoons of each);
¾ cup white wine; 3 cups seafood broth; salt and pepper to taste.
Olive oil for sautéing.
Mix well and place all ingredients in a buttered casserole dish. Cook covered for 30 minutes at 375 Fahrenheit and uncovered for an additional 15 minutes.
Macaroni and Cheese
2 cans evaporated milk;
1 cup whole milk;
1 stick butter;
2 pounds elbow macaroni;
3 cups shredded American cheese;
2 cups shredded mild cheddar;
salt and pepper to taste.
Preheat oven to 425 Fahrenheit. Cook macaroni to al dente and not mushy. Drain well. Pour noodles into a 13-inch by 9-inch baking pan and mix in the rest of the ingredients, leaving some cheese aside for later. Bake 45 minutes or until bubbly. Top with remaining cheese and cook 10 minutes or until it forms a cheesy crust.
Winter Vegetable Au Gratin
1 pound butternut squash, peeled and seeded;
1 pound Yukon gold potatoes;
1 pound Brussel sprouts;
1 finely chopped large leek, tender parts only (wash well);
1-pint heavy whipping cream;
1 cup finely grated parmesan cheese;
4.5 tablespoons minced fresh thyme leaves;
1.5 tablespoons garlic powder;
1 teaspoon kosher salt;
1 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
and ½ cup finely grated gruyere or sharp white cheddar cheese.
Spray a 9-inch by 13-inch baking pan with non-stick cooking spray and set aside. Using a mandoline or sharp knife, thinly slice squash and potatoes into separate bowls. Slices should be evenly thick. Slice Brussel sprouts and set aside in a separate bowl.
Combine heavy cream, parmesan, 4 tablespoons of thyme, garlic powder, salt, and white pepper. Divide the mixture evenly into the three separate bowls of vegetables, stir to evenly coat the slices.
Spread the leeks across the bottom of the pan. Layer the vegetables diagonally, alternating vegetables every layer. Cover and bake for 20 minutes, uncover and bake an additional 20 minutes until all of the vegetables are fork tender.
Top with the remaining cheese and broil until golden. Sprinkle the remaining thyme. Serve warm.
This recipe is versatile in that various vegetables can be substituted to suit your needs or the season. Celeriac (celery root) or parsnips, for example, substitute for potatoes beautifully in a low-carb version of this dish. The idea is to create contrasting colors with the layers for a visually appealing and healthier holiday side dish.
Roasted Carrots with Candied Walnuts and Cranberries
2 pounds peeled carrots;
½ cup brown sugar;
4 tablespoons cubed butter;
1 teaspoon salt;
½ teaspoon black pepper;
½ teaspoon cinnamon;
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper;
¼ cup dried cranberries
and 1 tablespoon thyme.
1 cup chopped walnuts;
2 tablespoons sugar;
2 tablespoon maple syrup,
and ¼ teaspoon cinnamon.
Preheat oven to 350 Fahrenheit, and line baking sheet with foil. Place cranberries in a bowl of hot water and cover for 30 minutes to rehydrate, then drain.
Place peeled carrots in a single layer on baking sheet. Evenly distribute cubed butter on top of carrots.
Sprinkle sugar mixture over carrots.
Bake for 1 hour, turning every 20 minutes. Top with candied walnuts, cranberries and thyme.
While carrots are roasting, heat a skillet to medium heat, add ingredients for walnuts, and cook, stirring frequently for 5 minutes to ensure the mixture doesn’t burn and all walnut pieces are coated. Transfer immediately onto parchment paper, and separate nuts right away. Cool 5-7 minutes.