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Blending Family Traditions at Thanksgiving

by Beth Herman

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Though tradition is certainly tradition, and there’s no disputing the history and honor that go along with it, times have changed since the Wampanoag Indians and Plimoth colony residents set a precedent with that very first Thanksgiving feast. And though the food they prepared–including wild fowl; shellfish; smoked fish; venison; porridge–only vaguely resembled what we’ve determined to be our typical Thanksgiving meal today, when you think about it, the first Thanksgiving was as much a multicultural event as anything.

Today, with diversity defining our lives, expanding upon tradition only enhances the holiday experience.

For the Lee family of Toledo, Ohio, celebrating–and cooking for– two separate Thanksgivings was exactly what they did the whole time daughter Krista was growing up.

“My dad is Chinese and my mom American,” Krista said. “On Thanksgiving Day, we had all the usual dishes like roast turkey, sweet potato casserole, stuffing, homemade cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie–you name it.” The next day, with extended family from out of town that had come to stay for the four-day holiday, the Lees would once again gather in the kitchen to prepare classic Asian holiday food which they admit was sometimes exhausting and too much for their overly-full stomachs!

“After 15 years, we finally smartened up and decided to combine everything into one huge holiday meal,” Krista said, which the family enjoys on Thanksgiving with leftovers that last for days. “We may substitute roast duck with sticky rice stuffing for turkey and conventional dressing,” she said, “all in the spirit of tradition–two traditions instead of one!”

For the Flushing, Queens, Manetti family, though fourth generation Americans, tradition extends back 200 years and beyond to Sicily. In fact though Thanksgiving is not acknowledged in Italy, family members typically travel more than 4,500 miles to celebrate together in New York.

Roast turkey with Italian sausage stuffing is the centerpiece of a meal that melds old and new country customs and cuisine, and which features side dishes like cranberry-infused polenta, rigatoni with garlic and green beans, and sweet potato gnocchi.

“We take the usual Thanksgiving ingredients and create new traditions by combining them with important flavors and ingredients from our heritage,” said Rob Manetti, whose 89-year-old Sicilian-born- and-bred great uncle flies the 4,500 miles from Italy to New York annually and hasn’t missed a November trip yet. “It was his idea, all told, to bring the family together each year at this time to celebrate our love of family and food, and acknowledge us here in America.”

As recently naturalized U.S. citizens, Texans Jorge and Elena Rivera and their three children couldn’t wait to embrace Thanksgiving the way natives did but don’t want to lose sight of their Mexican culture. Partial to Elena’s grandmother’s tamales, Jorge, a trained chef, created a stuffing using masa–a corn-based dough that generally supports a filling of meats or cheeses, vegetables, fruit, etc.–along with pork and hot chilies. Not content to stop there, the Rivera’s roasted a traditional turkey but in lieu of gravy used a classic Mexican mole sauce to join the two cultures in a single festive, flavorful dish.

What about your family? Though it may have been a long time ago, did they emigrate from Portugal, Venezuela, or Thailand? Is your son’s college roommate from Greece sharing the holiday with you this year, or perhaps you’ll have an Asian guest at your table? This Thanksgiving, why not tempt tradition, family, and friends by honoring the tried and true but adding exciting ingredients and dishes from afar. Start with these recipes and give thanks for a celebration of cultural cuisine:

Sweet Potato Gnocchi with Maple Cinnamon Sage Brown Butter
Ingredients:
For the Gnocchi:
2 pounds sweet potatoes
2/3 cup whole milk ricotta cheese
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus 1/3 cup for the work surface
For the Maple Cinnamon Sage Brown Butter:
1/2 cup unsalted butter (1 stick)
20 fresh sage leaves
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 tablespoons maple syrup
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Directions:
For the Gnocchi: Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.
Pierce sweet potatoes with a fork. Bake until tender and fully cooked–about 40 to 45 minutes depending on size. Cool slightly. Cut in half and scoop the flesh into a large bowl.

Mash sweet potatoes and transfer to a large measuring cup to make sure they measure about 2 cups. Transfer mashed sweet potatoes back to the large bowl. Add ricotta cheese, salt, cinnamon, and pepper and blend until well mixed. Add flour, 1/2 cup at a time, until a soft dough forms.

Lightly flour a work surface and place the dough in a ball on the work surface. Divide the dough into 6 equal balls. Roll out each ball into a 1-inch wide rope. Cut each rope into 1-inch pieces. Roll the gnocchi over the tines of a fork. Transfer formed gnocchi to a large baking sheet. Continue with the remaining gnocchi.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the gnocchi in 3 batches and cook until tender but still firm to the bite, stirring occasionally, about 5 to 6 minutes. Drain the gnocchi using a slotted spoon onto a baking sheet. Tent with foil to keep warm and continue with the remaining gnocchi.

For the Brown Butter sauce:
While the gnocchi are cooking melt the butter in a large sauté pan over medium heat. When butter has melted add sage leaves. Continue to cook, swirling the butter occasionally, until the foam subsides and the milk solids begin to brown. Remove pan from the heat. Stir in cinnamon, maple syrup, salt, and pepper. Take precautions as the mixture will bubble up. Gently stir the mixture. When bubbles subside, toss the cooked gnocchi in the brown butter. Transfer to a serving dish and serve immediately.

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