That sound you hear all across the country is the brains of millions of home chefs kicking into high gear as they begin to contemplate preparing Thanksgiving dinner for their loved ones in just over a month. (Full disclosure: I regularly begin thinking about this in September, dragging my wife into my dark, turkey-filled obsessions. Please save her while you still can.)
But the stereotype of the bland, dried-out, mushy mash of starches that typifies so many American Thanksgivings still holds true for even some of the best home chefs out there. And that was why I wanted to have Samin Nosrat on an episode of my podcast, I Think You’re Interesting, just before Thanksgiving 2017.
Nosrat, an incredible chef who began her career training at Berkeley’s Chez Panisse and has since worked at restaurants all over the world, has written my favorite cookbook in many years: Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. The book provides not only recipes but also tons of diagrams and charts meant to help you figure out how to start preparing meals without recipes, by thinking of what you might want on your dinner plate and finding ways to help balance out those flavors. And now, it’s a terrific Netflix show of the same name, hosted by Nosrat.
Nosrat spends most of the book and TV series talking about the four elements in the title and how they come together to create great food. She digs into the science behind why we love salty things, or why fat is so versatile in so many different dishes, or why the acidic zing of lemon juice is often what a dish is missing. If anyone could help me figure out the way to a better Thanksgiving table, I thought, it was Nosrat.
She did not disappoint. Here, she diagnoses the single biggest problem with most Thanksgiving menus:
Most Thanksgiving dinners, traditional menus, really, really lack acid ... anything tangy or sour. What acidity does in our cooking is it provides a contrast. Contrasts are what we find to be so delightful and give us so much pleasure when we’re eating. Everything on the Thanksgiving table tends toward the salty, the starchy, or the rich, or sometimes even the bland. Often, the only acidic thing on the entire table is cranberry sauce, which is why most people just keep spooning cranberry sauce onto their plates.
For me, the biggest takeaway that I can hope to pass on to people who read the book or are listening today is, make a few more acidic condiments! And really do your best to work a little bit of wine or citrus juice or vinegar or apple cider or something into your meal into unexpected places, to offer that contrast.
Even in a lot of the most traditional dishes, there are simple ways to work a little bit of acid in. For example, in Thanksgiving stuffing, which is probably my very favorite part of the whole meal, I often will make a little bit of ground-up sausage meat with some white wine in there. I’ll soak prunes or any dried fruit, which is a little bit acidic, in white wine, which adds a little bomb of acidity. I’ll use sourdough bread, which is naturally sour.
I’ll work crème fraîche or sour cream instead of cream and butter into mashed potatoes. When I’m making the gravy, I might add a fresh little splash of white wine. Pickled shallots on top of green beans.
And of course, I’m a big salad person, so I’ll make a bunch of really, really nicely bright salads. Things like chicory salad with persimmon and pomegranate and balsamic vinaigrette. But just a squeeze of lemon over some greens [will work, too]!
This is Nosrat’s very first answer of the episode. From there, we talked about everything from how to prepare a wonderful vegan Thanksgiving (it involves pumpkins or squashes) to how one actually goes about writing a cookbook to why she keeps going to restaurants, even though she’s an amazing chef herself. It’s a terrific discussion, especially for any of you who are foodies, chefs, or aspiring versions of either.
To hear more interviews with fascinating people from the world of arts and culture — from powerful showrunners to web series creators to documentary filmmakers — check out the I Think You’re Interesting archives.