Appetites: Thanksgiving bring-alongs for those who don't cook

Thanksgiving pumpkin pie
Pumpkin pie, made with real pumpkins, can be ordered from Heartland's Farm Direct Market, downtown St. Paul, for your Thanksgiving celebration.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Thanksgiving is a time of long-standing food traditions for many families. Year after year, each of us contributes our signature dish. Elderly aunts bring the green-bean casserole or marshmallow-topped sweet potatoes. Bachelor uncles bring deer sausage and crackers.

But what if you don't have a go-to Thanksgiving bring-along? Or the time to whip something up?

Rachel Hutton, senior editor of Minnesota Monthly magazine, shares her recommendations for Thanksgiving food and beverage contributions that will impress everyone, even picky in-laws.

MPR News: How can you contribute to a Thanksgiving meal when you don't know how to cook or where to start?

Hutton: I think the best way to be helpful is to ask the host or hostess what they'd like you to bring. This being Minnesota — home of the obligatory three-polite-refusals-before-acceptance rule — your hostess will often just cheerily tell you to "bring yourself."

MPR News: Should a person stick with something simple, like green-bean casserole?

Hutton: I'd recommend avoiding "traditional" dishes, because people grew up on these foods and they tend to have a certain idea about how they should taste, based on how their grandma or their mom made it. If yours doesn't taste like that, they will let you know.

Brasa sides
If you are asked to bring a dish to share to Thanksgiving dinner, food writer Rachel Hutton recommends sides from Brasa, including Crispy Yuca with Citrus & Garlic; Collard Greens with Smoked Chicken; and Roasted Yams & Andouille, left to right.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

MPR News:What are examples of some of these less-traditional items?

Let's start with side dishes. One outside-the-box place to consider is Brasa Rotisserie, which specializes in homestyle fare from Latin America, the Caribbean, and the American south.

The Pilgrims may not have had yuca at the first Thanksgiving, but Brasa's sides — roasted yams and Andouille sausage, collard greens with smoked chicken, fried plantains — are typically paired with slow-cooked chicken, pork, and beef and would be very complementary to turkey.

MPR News: A guest could bring a dessert, and I am thinking pumpkin pie.

Hutton: Desserts are a good way to contribute because there is really no such thing as too much dessert and if there are leftovers, guests can easily be persuaded to take some home.

There are tons of great bakeries in the metro, so you could easily pick up a pumpkin or pecan pie, or some other sweet dessert at places like Salty Tart, Lucia's, Turtle Bread, the Birchwood, or Patisserie 46.

One pumpkin pie that's definitely worth checking out is found at Heartland in St. Paul. Since the restaurant makes everything from scratch with local ingredients, they're one of the few places that makes their pumpkin pie with fresh pumpkin instead of canned.

MPR News:What is the difference between pies made with fresh and canned pumpkin?

Hutton: Flavor-wise the differences are subtle. The Heartland pie — made from pie or sugar pumpkins which are smaller and sweeter than the varieties used for carving jack-o-lanterns — it did taste slightly fresher and more squash-like. The difference is probably more political in terms of supporting small, local farmers and keeping your food dollars in the local economy.

MPR News: There's always wine. But what about the challenge of what pairs with, not just turkey, but the whole meal?

Hutton: I don't know that I'd spend too much effort trying to pair a wine with food since people typically load their plates with everything from turkey to mashed potatoes to marshmallow-Jello salad, and you're not going to find one wine that goes equally well with everything.

Since Thanksgiving is a celebration of the local harvest, I'd recommend bringing a Minnesota wine. I know Minnesota wines don't have the best reputation when compared to wines from say, California. I find many of them to be too sweet.

When I've polled sales associates at some of my favorite liquor stores — Haskell's, Surdyk's, France 44 — about recommendations for Minnesota wines, they all name the same one as their favorite: Alexis Bailly's Voyageur.

It's a red blend that includes Frontenac grapes developed at the University of Minnesota and it's very smooth and drinkable, well-balanced with a little berry, a little smoke. If you're one of those people who is skeptical about all the obscure adjectives that pretentious wine-writers use-like "does this wine really taste like leather or cat pee or whatever," the Voyageur will convince you that a wine can have notes of vanilla. It's a very noticeable aroma imparted from the oak barrels in which the wine is aged.

You can pour glasses of wine and see who can identify the scent. Then you can enjoy the wine and also have something to talk about.

Rachel Hutton is restaurant critic and food editor at "Minnesota Monthly." Her work has been featured in the "Best Food Writing" series. Follow her @rachel_hutton.