Expecting guests for Thanksgiving? Rather than summer’s alfresco meals, think après-ski. It’s a great way to keep your family and guests safely socially distanced with an outdoor meal that can accommodate cool to cold temps and all but stormy weather.
To that end, this year I’m taking inspiration from the cuisine of European mountain huts, where skiers refuel mid-day or after skiing (après-ski). It’s food that’s hearty, uncomplicated, and simply served.
Adapt—As You Would Camping
The main idea here is not to mourn the loss of the traditional holiday spread. The COVID-19 pandemic’s health, economic, and social tolls create more-than-sufficient stress. Don’t add to it by trying to force 2020 holiday dinners into traditional molds. I had originally planned to serve a Thanksgiving dinner inspired by the dishes mentioned in Optics: A Novel About Women and Work and Midlife Muddles, but that was not to be.
If you anticipate cold rather than cool temps, consider using patio heaters or any other outdoor-approved heat source. Where fire safety allows, a bonfire or fire pit would be welcome. Even a gas grill—lid open, left on low after any grill-top cooking is completed—would help.
Ask guests to dress for outdoor dining and to bring their own insulated cup or thermos. At the appropriate time, fill those beverage holders from an insulated coffee carafe, which can hold mulled wine or spiced cider just as easily as coffee.
One way to work with colder weather is to devise a chilled menu. Cold cuts, cheese plates and crudité—all standard après-ski offerings—will stay fresh rather than be harmed by chilly temps. You can even include sliced turkey. Dress up the charcuterie board with assorted breads, either homemade or purchased. A combination of your prized sourdough, a hearty whole grain, and a fruit-and-nut loaf should satisfy everyone at the table.
To evoke the spirit of holidays past, cranberry sauce and a slaw of brussels sprouts would complement any meat and cheese spread. Wine won’t be harmed by cooler temps, though you might opt for something closer to jelly jars than the family crystal.
With a cold menu you needn’t worry about maintaining ideal food temperature. But what if you want to take the edge off the bracing air? Enter the time-tested flame-heated fondue pot—one per person or per household to ensure social distancing. The fondue party was enjoying popularity again in the pre-COVID-19 era, so the sets are easy to find if you don’t have one packed away from the 1970s.
With a fondue set, or two or three, you could ditch the turkey completely and fully embrace ski slope cuisine. After all, what more do you need for a celebration than cheese fondue and chocolate fondue?
In November and December many grocery stores stock ready-to-heat fondue mixes as well as traditional European cheeses to make your own fondue from scratch. Want something a bit less pricey than imported cheese? You can also keep a Southwestern queso dip warm in fondue pots or in any flame-proof pot placed on a low-flame grill or camp stove.
To give your fondue a Thanksgiving spin, cut up herbed rolls or bread to substitute for traditional stuffing. Want to double down on the Alps vacation vibe? Dip pieces of soft pretzel or pretzel roll in your cheese fondue. It’s untraditional, but so is 2020. If you’re trying to limit carbs, swap the bread for cubes of ham, chunks of boiled potato and crisp-steamed cruciferous veggies—cauliflower, broccoli, or brussels sprouts.
Want more American Thanksgiving flavor in your heated pots? Fill them with homemade, restaurant-supplied or store-bought gravy. Of course, if you’re a chile-loving New Mexican, you might fill the fondue pots with red or green chile sauce.
Gotta Have Turkey?
Even those who can’t conceive of Thanksgiving without the flightless bird can enjoy the meal adapted for après-ski presentation.
You can turn a mostly traditional homemade or restaurant takeout Thanksgiving meal into a fondue party with gravy or chile sauce standing in for cheese. Just cut poultry, bread, roasted sweet potatoes, and brussels sprouts into bite-size pieces for dipping. If you happen to have a couple of chafing dishes tucked away in storage, this is the time to pull them into service. Place a ramekin of dipping sauce inside a round chafing dish and surround it with the other menu items.
No fondue set or chafing dishes? Check local thrift shops. I found round chafing dishes at Santa Fe’s Kitchenality for $15, $30 and $35; each one is large enough to be shared by a couple.
But if you don’t want to purchase any new tools, you can still enjoy Thanksgiving flavors outdoors. Begin by thinking beyond the plate.
Oven-preheated bowls—preferably the thick stoneware variety that was popular in the 70s, when fondue was hot—can hold any number of turkey-based tummy-warmers. Make turkey and green chile stew, or pasta with turkey and sweet pepper ragu for less-adventurous palettes.
For something simpler, serve grilled turkey and cheese sandwiches with each diner’s favorite cheese; Swiss gruyere, Italian fontina, and French reblochon are recommended for the Alps vibe, but turkey with American cheddar is a classic. Grill the sandwiches in cast iron skillets over a gas or charcoal grill and serve with a side of homemade, canned, or gourmet takeout cranberry sauce.
Got picky eaters? Create customized turkey “pizzas.” Toss some pre-roasted turkey, a cheese, maybe a handful of sliced mushrooms, and a few thinly sliced oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes (and/or green chiles!) on a small flour tortilla, naan, or other flatbread. Heat the mini pizzas directly on the grill, in a cast iron skillet, or in the oven.
Don’t Forget Dessert
You could easily pass pieces of pumpkin and pecan pie with whipped cream or ice cream. But you might as well continue the fondue theme, if you can, with butterscotch- or chocolate-dipped apples and pears. (You’ll need either extra fondue pots or a dish-washing intermission before dessert.)
Of course, you’ll want to linger and digest a bit, which calls for a steaming cup of spiced cider for children and a spiked cider, coffee, or chile-infused hot chocolate for adults. With individual thermos cups or bottles keeping beverages warm, you’ll have plenty of time to share stories of holidays past while creating indelible new tales.
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