The fourth Thursday in November, Thanksgiving Day, ushers in the Christmas season in America. This secular four-day weekend is marked with huge family feasts featuring turkey, gravy, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie; football, parades, and the Christmas shopping season are some of the other distinctive attractions. Thanksgiving has become such a commercial event that the origins of the celebration have got obscured. Today’s Thanksgiving festivities are adapted to contemporary tastes and flavors.

It all began in the 17th century when, to escape religious persecution in England, the Pilgrims, or members of the English Separatist Church (a Puritan sect), set sail to this country. The first winter of 1620 was devastating. Many died due to extreme cold weather. But the harvest of the following year was bountiful. The remaining colonists decided to celebrate and share a feast with the native Indians who had helped the Pilgrims survive their first year. The three-day feast was more of a traditional English harvest festival.

Even though traditionally turkey is still the preferred meat, other delicacies also grace the Thanksgiving table. For those who prefer to go meatless there is the option of making stuffed tofu mock turkey and other vegetarian specialties. Pumpkins, sweet potatoes, peas, green beans, … the list is endless for the truly creative. Tart cranberries, both dried and fresh, or cranberry chutneys, hot and spicy, have also made their way into the family feast.

Vegetarian or otherwise, the key to a successful Thanksgiving menu is to choose seasonal foods that express our gratitude for nature’s bounty and sharing it with family and friends. In today’s world, the only limit to preparing a Thanksgiving dinner is an individual’s imagination and creativity. To me, the South Indian harvest festival of Pongal and the North Indian Baisakhi resonate these sentiments as well.

With Thanksgiving right around the corner, I thought of sharing with my readers three great recipes that will add pizzaz to any family’s homecoming dinner.

Try this sour-and-spicy cranberry chutney (South Indian style).

Cranberry Chutney

3-4 tablespoons cooking oil
1 tablespoon mustard seeds
1 teaspoon asafetida
4-5 curry leaves
1 teaspoon fenugreek (methi) seeds
12-ounce bag of fresh cranberries, washed and blended with a little water to form a smooth paste
1 teaspoon turmeric powder
2 tablespoons red chili powder
salt to taste

In a pan, heat the oil. Add mustard seeds and wait till they splutter. Then add the asafe-tida, curry leaves, and fenugreek seeds and wait till the fenugreek seeds turn brown. Pour in the cranberry paste. Add the turmeric powder, chili powder, and salt. Simmer on medium heat for 10 minutes or till the mixture starts to bubble.

This chutney, as you can see, is easy to make. When mixed in with basmati rice, the attractive red color and its tartness are sure to get your salivary glands going!


Pumpkin Curry

Whenever I see stacks of pumpkins at any grocery store, my thoughts go back to the day I tried this flavorful pumpkin curry at an Afghani restaurant. A few weeks later, I tried to recreate the dish, using my imagination, and the result was surprisingly delicious. Try it yourself.

1 medium-sized pumpkin
3 to 4 tablespoons cooking oil
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
1 cinnamon stick
2 to 4 cardamoms
1 or 2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon turmeric powder
1 tablespoon red chili powder
1 tablespoon coriander seeds, crushed in a mortar and pestle
salt to taste
4 to 5 tablespoons sugar
a pinch of saffron
coriander leaves for garnishing

Cut the pumpkin into quarters and microwave on high for 5 to 10 minutes. Peel and cut into small cubes and set aside.

Heat oil in a pan. Add cumin seeds, fennel seeds, cinnamon stick, cardamom seeds, and bay leaves. Add the pumpkin cubes. Add turmeric powder, chili powder, crushed coriander seeds, salt, and sugar. Stir the ingredients for 10 minutes until the pumpkin is tender. Garnish it with saffron and coriander leaves.

This sweet pumpkin curry goes well with chapati or rice. Augment it with your favorite dal (lentils) or raita (spiced yoghurt).

Date-and-Nut Balls

Dates with nuts, anyone? Here’s a quick, hassle-free dessert.

½ cup almonds
½ cup raw cashews
½ cup pecans or walnuts
½ cup pistachios
1 lb soft pitted dates (not the dried out ones)
½ cup dried cranberries
1 tablespoon poppy seeds
powdered sugar to garnish

Crush all the nuts coarsely in a dry grinder and set aside. Crush the dates in the grinder as well. Mix the nuts with crushed dates, cranberries, and poppy seeds in a bowl and make them into bite-sized balls. Dust the balls with powdered sugar and serve cold.

Have a wonderful and healthy Thanksgiving.

Vaidehi Madabushi loves cooking and is a connoisseur of great-tasting vegetarian fare.