Thankful for Thanksgiving

Photo illustration by Daniel Marsula/Post-Gazette

Thankful for Thanksgiving

Food, family and gratitude are what Thanksgiving is all about for these notable Pittsburgh natives, residents and transplants. They savor the turkey and fixings, familiar and differing traditions, and value of family. Pull up a chair and join the holiday feast, by sampling their favorite recipes. You don't have to RSVP.

Bill Fuller, of the Big Burrito Group, shows the Post-Gazette's food writer Gretchen McKay how to carve a holiday bird. (Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

Julia Erickson
Gretchen McKay/Post-Gazette

The best thing about Thanksgiving for Julia Erickson, principal dancer at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, is that she gets to eat all the fall flavors. She loves the stuffing and cranberry sauce, but if there’s one favorite dish she had to choose, it would be her mom’s sweet potatoes. Ms. Erickson says it’s fairly free form, but she loves it because it’s a classic example of her mother’s cooking style.

“It’s never really the same twice, but is tended to with lots of love and lots of butter,” she says. “It's also got that great balance of sweet tempered with a little salt.”

Ms. Erickson says she has a lot to be thankful for this year. “I’m thankful for my health and the health of my loved ones. I’m thankful to get to do what I love every day and continue to explore and discover new things about it.”

Mom’s Sweet Potatoes
2 pounds sweet potatoes
1 stick butter
1 cup brown sugar, plus more for topping
Sprinkle of cinnamon
Sprinkle of nutmeg
1 teaspoon salt or to taste
¾ to 1 cup toasted pecans

Peel and chop sweet potatoes into 1-inch cubes or thereabouts.

Place them in a big Dutch oven, cover with enough water and bring to a boil. Cook until tender.

Drain water. Partially mash potatoes, but leave some chunks.

Add butter, brown sugar, spices and salt to taste. Top with additional brown sugar and pecans.

Manfred Honeck
Larry Roberts/Post-Gazette
Bill Wade/Post-Gazette

Manfred Honeck, music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, was first introduced to Thanksgiving in Pittsburgh, as he did not celebrate it when growing up in Austria. “I must say that it is wonderful, and I quickly fell in love with the stuffing, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie,” he says.

Ever since he moved to Pittsburgh, Mr. Honeck has celebrated the holiday at the home of the former board chair of the PSO, Dick Simmons, and his wife, Ginny. “They took me in as a part of their family,” he says, and it meant so much to him personally.

“I am thankful for every minute in my life and to have the opportunity to meet so many people,” he says. Also, there has been an arrival in his family, grandchild No. 5, Lucas, for which Mr. Honeck is thankful.

Dottie's Cranberry Sauce
1 pound cranberries
1½ cups water
3 cups sugar
1 cup crushed pineapple
½ cup raisins
1 seedless orange, chopped
½ cup chopped walnuts

Place cranberries in water, and bring to a boil. Then simmer 5 to 8 minutes.

Stir in sugar, pineapple, raisins and orange. Simmer for 20 minutes.

Add walnuts. Remove from heat.

When cool, transfer to jars and seal well. Refrigerate.

Rick Sebak
Larry Roberts/Post-Gazette
Bill Wade/Post-Gazette

Film director and WQED producer Rick Sebak’s favorite holiday food comes the day after — a leftover turkey sandwich. So for Thanksgiving, he likes to make a sausage stuffing and his favorite cranberry relish, primarily because he likes them both on his sandwich.

His cranberry recipe is from his friend Kathy Little Brinson, who’s the wife of his former cameraman and buddy Buck Brinson. “When I tasted Kathy’s cranberry relish, I think it was love at first bite. I’m pretty sure I’ve had it at every holiday dinner since,” he says. “I like its uncooked nature, its subtle crunch, its fruitine, and the tartness from the cranberries. I think orange brandy also adds the perfect zing to the mix.”

This year, Mr. Sebak is thankful for his work (including two new PBS programs); that he sold his mom’s house in Bethel Park; for his family, friends (real ones as well as the ones on social media); for health and happiness; and a new KitchenAid mixer that his sister gave him.

Little Family Cranberry Relish
1 bag cranberries
2 good oranges (organic if available)
2 apples with a deep red skin, cored and roughly cubed
½ cup sugar, or less
½ cup Grand Marnier or Triple Sec, or more

Wash and dry the cranberries. Place them in a food processor and blend them a bit.

Cut one orange into quarters and add it to the food processor, skin and all. Juice the other orange and add the juice.

Add apples to the mix, and process until it looks like relish.

Add ¼ cup sugar. Taste, and then add more as needed.

Then add ½ cup Grand Marnier or more.

Put in an air-tight container and refrigerate till dinnertime.

Esther Barazzone
Larry Roberts/Post-Gazette
Larry Roberts/Post-Gazette

Chatham University president Esther Barazzone loves the traditional aspect of Thanksgiving, mostly when it is done in a Southern way. So this means a holiday menu of cornbread stuffing, especially buttermilk cornbread without sugar, giblet gravy, braised Brussels sprouts, and pecan and pumpkin pies. But she has adopted a new recipe to the mix that her two sons, Matthew and Nicholas, love — Fiery Sweet Potatoes. They are not really so fiery but very tasty, she says.

Ms. Barazzone, who will be retiring from Chatham next year, says she is grateful for the 23 happy years she has had at the university, and “to be able to celebrate a successful transition to coeducation and the opening of the nucleus of the Eden Hall campus [in Richland]. I am also grateful that my family is thriving, well and expanding. Life is good.”

Fiery Sweet Potatoes
5 pounds sweet potatoes
1 cup canned coconut milk
1 tablespoon Thai red curry paste
½ cup dark brown sugar, divided
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
1 teaspoon salt

Heat oven to 375 degrees. Bake potatoes on a baking sheet until very soft, about 1 hour and 15 minutes. When cool enough to handle, peel and mash.

In a small saucepan, heat coconut milk with curry paste over low heat. Mix coconut milk mixture, half the sugar, half the butter and salt into potatoes. Keep warm until ready to serve, or cover and refrigerate up to two days.

At least 30 minutes before serving, heat oven to 425 degrees. Put potatoes in a baking dish, cover with foil and bake for 20 minutes. Uncover potatoes, dot with remaining butter and sugar and broil until brown and crusty on top, checking often to prevent scorching.

— The New York Times

Lidia Bastianich
Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette
Diana Delucia Photography

“My favorite Thanksgiving food is turkey,” says Lidia Bastianich, owner of Lidia’s Pittsburgh in the Strip District, chef and author, who gives the bird an Italian accent by glazing it with balsamic vinegar. She says she has finally perfected the two-stage, wet-then-dry turkey roasting procedure to produce moist and flavorful meat with a crispy, caramelized exterior and a rich pan sauce.

“But, of course, our mahogany, balsamic-glazed turkey comes after a huge Italian antipasto buffet, followed by soup with anolini, small round raviolis stuffed with Grana Padano. Along with the turkey is also a table full of vegetable side dishes including sweet potatoes, a mean sausage and mushroom stuffing, cranberry citrus chutney and desserts such as apple pie, pumpkin pie and chocolate chip cookies,” she says.

Every year, Ms. Bastianich says she is mostly thankful to God for her beautiful family and that they are all healthy. “This year I have special thanks to give, as I was blessed to cook for Pope Francis during his visit to New York,” she says.

Roast Turkey and Pan Sauce With a Reduced Balsamic Glaze
1 12- to 14-pound turkey, including neck and giblets
2 tablespoons kosher salt
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
For roasting pan
1 pound carrots, peeled and cut into 2-inch chunks
2 large onions, peeled and chopped into 1-inch pieces
¾ pound celery, rinsed and cut in 2-inch chunks
1 ounce dried porcini mushrooms, crumbled into ½-inch pieces
1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns
6 sprigs fresh rosemary
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon kosher salt, if needed
4 to 6 cups vegetable broth
For balsamic glaze
2 cups balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon honey
1 bay leaf
4 whole cloves, branch of fresh rosemary or sprig of fresh thyme, optional

Prepare turkey: Arrange a rack low in the oven so turkey will fit in easily. The foil tent should be an inch or 2 higher than the turkey itself. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Remove giblets and neck from turkey; save. Remove and discard any lumps of fat from the cavities. Rinse bird inside and out, and also giblets, with cool running water. Pat dry with paper towels.

Set turkey on its back, wings folded under and breast up, on rack in roasting pan with neck and giblets in the pan bottom. Sprinkle 2 teaspoons of kosher salt inside the main turkey cavity and remaining 1½ tablespoons over the outside of the bird. Pour olive oil on turkey, a little bit at a time, and coat the entire skin, including the back.

Toss vegetables and seasonings (except salt) in large bowl with ¼ cup olive oil. If using salted broth, don't add salt. If using unsalted stock, add 1 teaspoon kosher salt. Put 1 or 2 handfuls mixed vegetables (and one of the rosemary branches) loosely into the cavity of turkey. Spread all the rest in one layer in pan bottom, all around the turkey. Push vegetable pieces under the rack, if your pan is small, so they will cook in the stock.

Move pan close to oven and pour broth into roasting pan on the side, without wetting the turkey. Depending on pan size, you'll need 4 to 6 cups of stock to fill the bottom about ⅓-inch deep. Add more stock (or water) if necessary.

Tear two long sheets of aluminum foil. Cover one side of pan with the first sheet, arching it well above the turkey. Crimp foil against the pan’s rim so it stays in place without touching the bird. Cover rest of the pan and turkey with the second sheet of foil (or more if needed), overlapping the sheets by several inches. Press bottom of the foil tightly against the sides of pan, all around, sealing the tent completely. Carefully place covered pan on oven rack. Push it well to the back of the oven for maximum heat and let turkey roast undisturbed for 2 hours.

Open oven, pull roasting pan to front, and lift off foil sheets. Pan juices should be bubbly, and the steaming turkey will be mostly pale. Baste turkey with pan juices and return to oven. Roast turkey uncovered for 30 minutes to an hour, basting occasionally, until thermometer inserted in thickest part of a thigh reaches 165 degrees If breast is getting too dark, cover it loosely with a sheet of foil.

While turkey is roasting, make glaze. Pour balsamic vinegar into a heavy bottomed saucepan and place over moderate heat. Stir in honey, drop in bay leaves and optional cloves or herbs, and bring to a low boil. Adjust heat to a steady simmer and allow vinegar to reduce slowly to ⅓ of original volume, about 30 minutes. It should be the consistency of molasses, thick but still spreadable. Pour syrup through a small strainer into a heatproof bowl or measuring cup. Discard bay leaves and seasonings.

Start sauce: Lift turkey out of pan and onto a baking sheet. Cover turkey loosely with foil and keep in a warm place while you make the sauce. Keep oven at 375 degrees. Remove turkey neck and giblets (not the liver) from pan and put into the saucepan. With a potato masher, crush the cooked vegetables in the roasting juices, breaking them up into little bits. Place sieve on saucepan and pour everything out of the roaster into the sieve. Press vegetables and other solids against sieve with a spoon to release their liquid, and then discard what's left. You should have 1 to 2 quarts of pan juices. Set saucepan over high heat, bring juices to a boil and let them reduce, uncovered.

Finish turkey: Brush glaze all over the bird in smooth, even coat. Return to the oven for 10 to 15 minutes, or until the glazed skin is crisp, shiny and deeply colored. Let it rest in a warm place, tented with foil, if you wish.

Finish sauce: Pour into the boiling sauce any turkey juices that accumulated in the baking sheet. When sauce has reduced almost by half, taste for salt and add a bit more if you like. Remove turkey neck and giblets and bring back to a simmer. Strain it once again, this time through a fine-meshed sieve into a measuring cup or other narrow container. Let it rest for a minute, then spoon off the fat layer that's accumulated on top. If too thin, thicken sauce with bread crumbs.

To serve: For formal occasions, present the whole turkey and carve it at the table. For most family dinners, cut bird up in the kitchen as follows: cut the wings off, slice the breast meat, then remove the legs at the joint and slice the leg and thigh meat from the bones for dark meat lovers. Arrange pieces on serving platter. Pour any juices left in the pan or on cutting board over meat, and then top all the pieces with a cup or more of the finished sauce.

Serves 12 or more.

Lana Neumeyer
Larry Roberts/Post-Gazette
Pam Panchak/Post-Gazette

Every year for Thanksgiving, fashion designer Lana Neumeyer invites families from Brazil who come to Pittsburgh for medical treatments for a reason that’s close to her heart.

When she first came to Pittsburgh in 1990 from Brazil, her first husband, Jose Moraes-Filho, needed a liver transplant. But then he died after he received two transplants. So she tries to make the holiday special for those who are sick, especially if they are children. Arthur Santos, 13, has been a special guest at their house since he was 5. While Mrs. Neumeyer makes the turkey and decorates the house, her husband, Fred Neumeyer, and Arthur make the mashed potatoes. “The excitement he shows is indescribable when he stands on top of chair or ladder to make the mashed potatoes, and how important it is for him to celebrate Thanksgiving at our home,” she says.

Mrs. Neumeyer is looking forward to this Thanksgiving as there will be a large gathering and it will include her son from Atlanta and his family. “It will be special because we will be having our grandchildren with us.” Mrs. Neumeyer says she is thankful that everybody in her family is in good health, for her new baby granddaughter and her continued success as a fashion designer.

Mashed Potatoes
5 pounds potatoes, peeled and cubed
½ stick butter
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup of milk, warmed
1 large onion, chopped finely

Boil potatoes until they are very soft. Drain water.

With a mixer, beat potatoes on a medium-low speed.

Add butter and salt, until light and fluffy. Then add milk in slow stream, and mix again. Finally, stir in chopped onion with a ladle.

Mike Tomlin
Larry Roberts/Post-Gazette
Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

On the night before Thanksgiving, not one, but three sweet potato pies are prepared in Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin’s house by his wife Kiya. A few years ago, Mr. Tomlin decided to start a tradition that a pie gets eaten the night before Thanksgiving. So Mrs. Tomlin makes three pies so that they could eat one on Thanksgiving Eve, and get a taste of what’s to come at the holiday feast.

Mr. Tomlin says he is thankful for his family every day of every year.

Sweet Potato Pie
1 10-inch pie crust
2½ cups cooked, mashed sweet potatoes
1 stick unsalted butter, softened
1¾ cups sugar, or less, to taste
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon rum extract
2 large eggs
1 (7-ounce) can evaporated milk
Pinch of dried orange peel, diced

Preheat oven to 300 degrees.

Beat the sweet potatoes and butter with an electric mixer until smooth. Add sugar, nutmeg and rum extract, and continue beating until incorporated.

Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add milk, beating continuously. Stir in the orange peel.

Transfer filling to the pie crust, and smooth the top with a spoon.

Bake until pie is set in the center and lightly browned, about 40 minutes.

Brenda Waters
Gretchen McKay/Post-Gazette
Sue Coflin

Everything her mother made for Thanksgiving dinner “was mouthwatering and finger-licking delicious” for Brenda Waters, weekend anchorwoman at KDKA-TV. “But my absolute favorite side dish was her Southern Cornbread Dressing,” she says. Some of it also was stuffed in the turkey. “My father would always say after eating more than his share, ‘That tastes like more.’ ”

Ms. Waters was very close to her mother. “We did everything together up until the day she died in 1999. We were so close that my sister would often say, ‘Mom, you can inhale now; Brenda is exhaling.’ ”

Ms. Waters is thankful for the time she spent with parents and her brother, Haywood, and his family. “They are gone now, but what great memories. It was always a good time in the kitchen and around the dinner table. There was always grace by my Dad (often too long, because we were hungry) and everyone recited a Bible verse and said what we were thankful for. Those are my best memories,” she says. “My sister, Mildred Davis, was often with her family in Los Angeles. I will fly to L.A. on Thanksgiving morning. She is my only sibling now, and I am grateful.”

Southern Cornbread Dressing
For cornbread:
1 cup self-rising cornmeal
½ cup self-rising flour
¾ cup buttermilk
2 eggs
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
For dressing:
7 slices oven-dried white bread
1 sleeve saltine crackers
8 tablespoons butter
2 cups celery, diced
1 large onion, diced
7 cups chicken stock
1 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon sage
1 tablespoon poultry seasoning
5 eggs, beaten

For cornbread: Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Combine all ingredients well. Pour batter into a greased shallow baking dish. Bake for approximately 20 to 25 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool.

For dressing: Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a large bowl, combine crumbled cornbread, white bread slices and saltines; set aside.

Melt butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add celery and onion and cook until transparent, approximately 5 to 10 minutes. Pour vegetable mixture over cornbread mixture.

Add stock, and mix well. Add salt and pepper to taste, sage and poultry seasoning. Then add beaten eggs, and mix well.

Reserve 2 heaping tablespoons of this mixture for the giblet gravy.

Pour remaining mixture into a greased pan, and bake until dressing is cooked through, about 45 minutes. Serve with turkey as a side dish.

Tunch Ilkin
Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette
J. Monroe Butler II/Post-Gazette

Thanksgiving has a special meaning for Tunch Ilkin, former Steelers Pro Bowl offensive tackle and current broadcaster. Since 1987, he has been volunteering at Light of Life Mission on the North Side on the holiday morning to serve turkey and fixings to the homeless and needy.

Then he heads home for a holiday feast prepared by his wife. “I love Thanksgiving, and all the types of food that goes with it,” he says. Mr. Ilkin especially loves any type of green bean casserole; he doesn’t have one favorite recipe as long as it is green bean casserole.

Mr. Ilkin is thankful every day, but on Thanksgiving he’s especially “thankful for God’s grace and love, my wife, Karen, and the entire family and friends,” he says.

Classic Green Bean Casserole
1 can (10½-ounce) Campbell’s Condensed Cream of Mushroom Soup
½ cup milk
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1 dash black pepper
4 cups cooked cut green beans
1⅓ cups French Fried Onions, divided

Stir the soup, milk, soy sauce, black pepper, beans and ⅔ cup onions in a 1½-quart casserole.

Bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes or until the bean mixture is hot and bubbling. Stir the bean mixture. Sprinkle with the remaining onions.

Bake for 5 minutes or until the onions are golden brown.

Serves 6.

— Campbell’s Kitchen 

Design: Kelly Mills

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