Every fall, families and friends gather around lively communal tables during Thanksgiving to feast on family-style fare, including succulent turkey, jellied cranberries, warm yeast rolls, whipped mashed potatoes and cinnamon-spiced pumpkin pie. After years of eating the same historical dishes, however, diners have formed a somewhat love-hate relationship with the traditional Thanksgiving menu. In that vein, bold cooks and chefs have tossed out tradition and embrace culinary revelry.
Perhaps the most prominent individuals to take liberties with the Thanksgiving feast are our local chefs. Stumble into any local restaurant, grocer or bakery and you'll see chefs whisking away, creating their own personal interpretations of this beloved holiday feast. And as the recipients of the provisions, we couldn't be more grateful for the re-imagination and re-invention.
Take a peek at some unconventional Thanksgiving creations that caught our eye — and inspired our palates.
Benji's Cantina: Pumpkin churro bread pudding
Working its way into frothy lattes, fall pies, local craft beers and other mainstays, the pumpkin has received more than enough accolades over the years. Local Tex-Mex establishment Benji's Cantina, however, has managed to re-invigorate the tired ingredient with a pumpkin churro bread pudding. "This dish is a play on the traditional bread pudding, but we use Mexican churros as the bread and fold in pumpkin puree. I spice the custard with allspice and clove to give it flavors we'd expect from a pumpkin pie as well," Executive Chef Blake Keely says.
Chavez: Sweet potato sopes with spiced marshmallow cream
Sopes are a staple in traditional Southwestern fare, so when it came time to create a Thanksgiving-inspired dish, Chavez infused its flawless cultural spin on the holiday. "[We are] playful with our style while staying true to ingredients that will hit home with what people expect for the holidays. These are exactly the kinds of dishes I enjoy recreating for the holidays," Chef Ben McBride says. The sope — made with sweet potato and masa filled with roasted sweet potato, ancho chile, cinnamon, anise and clove marshmallow fluff — is one of the featured options on the restaurant's Thanksgiving buffet menu.
Winflo Osteria: Thanksgiving Meatballs
In creating a Thanksgiving-inspired dish for the Austin Meatball Festival, Winflo Osteria Executive Chef John Pennington didn't necessarily embrace unconventional ingredients. Instead, he turned to an odd combination of ever-familiar staples: ground turkey, sage stuffing, dried cranberries and turkey gravy over creamy mashed potatoes. "We decided to get people in the holiday spirit by creating a Thanksgiving-inspired meatball," he says. The meatballs are available on Winflo's menu, too.
Driskill Grill: Gingerbread-pecan crusted pork belly with bacon-cornbread puree and spiced honey-ginger glazed baby carrots
Chef de Cuisine Skyler Golden embraced one of America's favorite proteins, pork belly, when he pieced together this savory meat for the Driskill Grill's Thanksgiving feast. The chef also brilliantly utilized one of his favorite spices to create two of the dishes on the Driskill Grill's Thanksgiving menu. "I love to use holiday spices when I cook at home and at The Driskill Grill, and one of my favorites is ginger. The exotic spice cuts the richness of braised pork belly and lends itself beautifully to the tender organic carrots. During the holidays, I like to use traditional items like gingerbread in unique and tasty ways, and fresh-baked gingerbread crumbles add a great aromatic crunch to the tender braised pork belly," he says. The hotel establishment will also offer items like kale salad, beet terrine, free-range turkey, sweet potato gnocchi and prime tenderloin on Thanksgiving Day.
TRACE: Vanilla bourbon braised short ribs with sweet potato polenta, Brussels sprouts and bourbon jus
Turkey is usually the champion protein during the fall and winter holidays, but popular downtown restaurant TRACE opted to pass on the big bird for Niman Ranch-sourced bovine when planning its annual holiday feast. "We thought it would be fun to change it up from the usual Thanksgiving dishes," Executive Chef Thomas Riordan says. "I feel that if someone is going to go out to eat on a traditional holiday like Thanksgiving, they are probably looking for something a little different and more inventive and unexpected than what they could make at home."
St. Philip: Malted walnut pie
Traditional with a modern twist is the approach the St. Philip pastry team has heartily embraced this holiday season. "When I make things that people may find unconventional, I always start with something that is relatable for people and then tweak it just enough to spark some interest, hopefully raising some eyebrows. Like pecan pie, apple pie, pumpkin pie — all pies that people expect to be on table — we're just doing them a bit differently at St. Philip," says Kerstin Bellah, St. Philip's head pastry chef. Two particular pastries the kitchen is dishing out are the malted walnut pie (a twist on the pecan pie) and a sour cream apple streusel (a staple in Bellah's childhood home). "I am pretty traditional when it comes to what I eat on Thanksgiving, but when it comes to dessert I always try to change it up when I’m at home."
Whole Foods Market: Rainbow chard balls
Whole Foods Markets around the city will undoubtedly be filled from wall to wall in the days and hours before the Thanksgiving holiday. One dish shoppers will have access to is a creamy, cheese-laden appetizer: rainbow chard balls. The delicious handheld edible is made with sautéed rainbow chard, Gruyere, Panko bread crumbs, chives, garlic, eggs and an assortment of spices. "The inspiration came from my partner's mom, and is a spin on her spinach balls recipe," says Rachel Dunlap, Whole Foods Market’s research and development chef in the southwest region. "The significant difference is swapping out the spinach for rainbow chard, but I’ve used other leafy greens as well. The farmers market downtown this weekend had some Brussels sprouts greens that would have been perfect in this recipe."
Off the menu
Local chefs share the non-traditional dishes that will be part of their personal Thanksgiving feasts.
Sarah McIntosh: Oyster souffle
In true Creole fashion, Sarah McIntosh, owner and chef of Epicerie, skips out on traditional sides like stuffing and casseroles and opts for a more seafood-centric side in preparing her personal feast. Using Gulf oysters, oyster liquor, cream, egg whites and tarragon, the chef blends together a fluffy, flavorful oyster souffle. "It’s a regional family tradition," McIntosh says. "My grandfather was a huge oyster fan so my grandmother accommodated him for the holiday."
Ted Prater: Pig heart stuffing
Americans are familiar with all the staple Thanksgiving stuffing variations: cornbread, sausage, oyster, rice, mushroom and an array of other varietals. One ingredient guests may not be accustomed to, however, is heart — pig heart to be exact. "I enjoy cooking whole animals and firmly believe of nose-to-tail eating — using every part of an animal, from the liver to the heart," says Ted Prater, chef of Banger's Sausage House & Beer Garden. Prater often prepares the unexpected carb for his personal holiday feasts. Utilizing a traditional cornbread stuffing, Prater adds in the scandalous but sensational organ.
Laura Sawicki: Pumpkin pie trifle
Laura Sawicki is known for her subtle spin on classic desserts, so it seems appropriate the pastry chef wouldn't totally forgo tradition in crafting her holiday dessert. Sawicki utilizes layers of butternut squash puree, chevre cheesecake pudding, spicy sticky ginger cake, coffee-pecan soil, bourbon toffee sauce and toasted marshmallow fluff to make her pumpkin pie trifle. "It's basically the perfect blend of two of my favorite things — pumpkin pie and cheesecake! But it is so much more than that; it's pretty much a Thanksgiving party in your mouth. And the very best part is that it's so massive, we have leftovers for days," she says.