What do you cook for Thanksgiving dinner? In our modern society, the menu for holidays is not static and that can be a beautiful thing. In this article, we talk about some of the foods you can grow and include in your Thanksgiving dinner.
There is a very long list of vegetables that go well for Thanksgiving Dinner and for other holidays too. Thanksgiving is kind of the perfect holiday for gardeners. It occurs not so long after the summer peak and harvest and not so late that fall gardens are bare. Fall is also a prime season for many foods such as apples, pumpkins, and root vegetables such as parsnips and potatoes.
The aim of this article is to illustrate how much food one can grow and why we should focus on growing foods that we love. We discuss:
- Sweet Potato
Traditional Thanksgiving and the First Thanksgiving – not quite the same thing
The very first Thanksgiving Dinner – with the Native Americans and the Pilgrims – is not much like what we consider a traditional Thanksgiving Dinner. That meal is thought to be very simple by today’s standards and may have included fowl – duck, goose, swan and perhaps wild turkey, venison, corn porridge, pumpkin, nuts, and fruit such as blueberries, wild grape, gooseberries, and cranberries, though not in sauce form. The staple of the meal was likely seafood and oddly, there were no potatoes. Those would not have caught on until much later in history. This according to History  and pieced together from clues as sadly, nobody documented what was actually served.
Thanksgiving is a time of being thankful and for the pilgrims, this was a time of understanding and survival. The first dinner was about what was in season, not what was found at the store. In fact, their stores of food were dwindling. One of the lessons of this time for gardeners is to embrace what is in season. Another is to plan for crop yield and production. The menu from the first Thanksgiving was rich in food, but sparse the foods we consider traditional Thanksgiving foods. What this teaches us is that we need not be tied to tradition when it comes to what we eat for Thanksgiving.
Carrots and Roots
There are many varieties of carrots and other roots that make wonderful meals. My favorite root vegetable is parsnips, and these make a wonderful addition to a late summer or early fall garden. Parsnips need a bit of a cold snap to sweeten.
Turnips, radish, carrots, yams or sweet potato, and parsnips are a great place to start for holiday meals and are easy to grow. Yams and sweet potato are also easy to grow, but they need a warmer climate. Parsnips are a little more difficult to grow – rather germinate – but once you get them sprouted they generally do just fine. Many of us are familiar with turnips in soups and stews, but they are lovely roasted and baked. In fact, these can all be mixed together with other root vegetables and roasted in the oven.
Basic Roast Vegetables
- Set the temp to 450 and cook for about 30 minutes or until a fork can pierce the roots easily.
- Mix in herbs, butter, onions, garlic, and sprinkle with salt and pepper and a good drizzle of olive oil.
About 15 minutes or so into the roasting or baking process, I dump in 1/8 cup of water. The steam from the water helps the herbs to add a delicious aroma to the room and to the roots. Options for herbs include sprigs of thyme, rosemary, oregano, Marjoram, etc.
Tip: Leave the herbs on the twig so you can remove the woody herbs easily.
In fact, one of the amazing things about being able to grow your own food is the fact that you can experiment with seasonings and develop your own “special” recipes. When my family gathers for a holiday meal we all bring our “special” foods. That tradition makes these meals more delicious and memorable. For us, that is what this holiday is about anyways – Good food, fond memories, and being together as a family.
The Art of Potato
Potatoes are truly an amazing food. We spend all year eating them as French fries or hash browns and god help you if all you know is boxed mashed potatoes. A good red or fingerling potato, chunked, rubbed in olive oil, tossed in a rub, and baked with herbs is something I look forward to all year long. Growing potatoes is easy and there are many types of potatoes you can grow. We are fond of the little red potatoes which are lovely steamed or baked. For mashed potatoes, we mix half Russets with half Yukon Golds. If potato salad is your thing, then stick with those potatoes that hold their shape when cooked. You cannot really beat the red potatoes for potato salad.
The key to understanding which potatoes to grow is about understanding how the starch content will stand up during meal preparation. The rule of thumb is higher starch means the potato breaks down easier while a lower starch content means the potato holds their shape. For baking, you want lower starch levels in potatoes and for mashing, you want higher starch levels.
When planning your garden think about how you use potatoes and do a little research on the starch content by type of potato. Then put in a few varieties to see which you like the best.
Growing Herbs for Thanksgiving and Holiday Meals
In my opinion, every yard should have an herb garden. Herbs are one of the most commonly used ingredients – thyme, basil, dill, oregano, etc. – and most people buy them at the store. Herbs are generally not difficult to grow, and many require little care once they are established. There is a little bit of consideration to growing herb because some, such as mint, are highly invasive. Not to worry, though, those overly aggressive plants are perfect for pots and container gardening.
Earlier, I touched on the joy of making your own special recipes. Herbs are another one of those categories that allow you to create dishes that have unique and special flavors. When you pick up a jar of seasoning at the grocery store you are picking up a proprietary blend of spices. There is no reason that you cannot do the same thing in your own kitchen. There are also many reasons to do just that – Pumpkin Pie Spice, poultry seasoning, etc.
Key Herbs for Thanksgiving and Holiday Meals
Focus on the plants that grow tall as opposed to the ones that are more of a groundcover. Rosemary is generally a Mediterranean plant – long hot summers, cool wet winters – Therefore if you live in a cold climate, you might need to keep rosemary in a pot and bring it indoors or protect it from the cold. There are a few cold-weather varieties of rosemary. The general rule of thumb is that if your winter temperature drops below freezing – 32°F – then it should go in a pot.
Another key to growing rosemary is that it does not like to be transplanted. So, consider carefully where you will plant it or keep it in a pot.
Rosemary is well known as a meat herb – it adds a beautiful flavor to red meat, pork, poultry, and fish. It also mixes well with most vegetables – We love rosemary potatoes, herb roasted vegetables, and of course as a seasoning in tomato dishes including sauces.
Rosemary is also a lovely companion to other herbs such as oregano, thyme, sage, basil, and even cilantro.
Basil is a warm loving plant that turns black and dies at the first hint of cold weather. It dries easily so you can overplant it in summer, dry it and have it around all year long. If you love fresh basil, you can generally grow it in a sunny window in winter but will need to add a mild heat lamp on cold nights. There is an incredible variety of basil. Concentrate on growing sweet basil and then branch out from there. The cinnamon basil and cultured aromatic varieties are also lovely. Not all basil is the same. African Blue basil has small leaves in comparison to sweet basil and those small leaves are very potent. When growing different varieties of basil, take in the potency factor for cooking. A little too much of a potent species of basil will ruin a dish.
Basil goes so well with tomatoes that the two are considered companion plants. I cannot imagine salsa without basil or pasta sauce. Even on a sliced tomato, a leaf of basil will delight. Basil will also add a little heat to a green salad or perk up eggplant.
Such a versatile plant. It dies back in the winter, so plants enough in the summer to dehydrate or dry. We dry it and then put it into freezer bags and store it in the freezer. Oregano is a staple herb in Italian dishes but goes so well with poultry, and meat that is should be part of every garden. Like rosemary, oregano is probably a “world” plant in that it is used in so many cultures.
There are countless varieties of oregano and each offers a slightly different flavor. A good tip is to grow a variety and them mix them together in recipes. This is kind of a trial an error method, but a healthy garden will support experimentation in cooking. Eventually, you will find varieties of oregano that are perfect for what you love to eat.
Oregano is another herb that blends well with other herbs, so you can make proprietary blends and rubs that fit your lifestyle. Try pairing oregano with thyme, marjoram, sage, rosemary, and coriander for rubs on beef, bison, and venison. If you love fish, mix oregano with tarragon and or mustards. For poultry mix with coriander and marjoram – even tarragon.
Sage is a huge family of plants so when you buy sage plants for the garden make sure that you are buying culinary sage. Some types of sage are ornamental, and others have medicinal value. Start with Garden Sage and explore from there. I have a few varieties in my garden, but I most often cut from the Garden Sage plants. Sage is an essential part of poultry seasoning and goes well with other foods such as pork and beef. The best meats to pair sage with are those that are fatty as the oils help to bring out the flavor of the herb.
A little warning about sage – It is very potent. Use it a little at a time and build up to the level that you like. Also, keep in mind that fresh herbs are by far more potent than dried herbs. When cooking does not use the same amount of fresh herbs as you would dry.
There are some 300 species of thyme some of which are beautiful, and all are aromatic. So, which is best for a garden? A good place to start is with basic garden thyme which is often sold as Summer Thyme and/or French Thyme. English Thyme is another great choice. If you live in colder climates, your thyme plants will need protecting. There are cold-hardy varieties. Thyme not only adds a great dimension to foods but makes an amazing tea herb too. On hot days, cold Thyme tea is very refreshing.
Cold Thyme Tea
- Boil 4 cups of water in a saucepan with a lid and then remove from heat.
- Cut and wash ½ cup to 1 cup of thyme. (I please it in a cheesecloth bag) and add to the hot water. Cover.
- Let the mixture sit for 15- minutes for average tea or a ½ hour for stronger tea.
- Strain the tea to remove the leaves and twigs.
- Fill a pitcher half full of ice cubes, add the cool tea, and season with a dollop of honey. If the tea is too strong, add more water or ice cubes. For a little zip… add a few ice cubes of lemon juice.
- Serve immediately and refrigerate the leftovers.
Thyme is a wonderful herb if you love to bake. It works well in bread and it helps to balance the flavors in soups and stews. It is also quite lovely as an ingredient in rubs for chicken, pork, or beef.
This is a species of oregano with a milder flavor that pairs nicely with many foods and herbs. This is an herb that is best grown in a pot, though it will do well in the ground too. Around my garden, marjoram is an annual though in warmer climates it is a perennial. It does not like the cold much which is why it is good to grow it in a pot. I have a little pot that I bring in during the colder months of the year that I use for winter herbs. Otherwise, I grow 3-5 plants around the garden. That is a lot of marjoram plants and nobody in their right mind would ever need five marjoram plants. Most of the marjoram plants in my garden are for attracting bees. The native bees love it as do the honey bees. In fact, most herbs make great bee attractants and bees help to increase the yield in any garden.
There are a couple of varieties of marjoram. Start with sweet marjoram and experiment. You can also try pot marjoram and wild marjoram.
Marjoram goes well with most meats and is an essential part of poultry seasoning. It is also good on eggs, in omelets, and with most vegetables, especially corn and tomatoes. It is an herb that I use in quiche, in salads, and with beans – both dried beans and string beans.
Herbs for Seasoning
Most people look forward to a beautifully roasted turkey for Thanksgiving and herbs are a wonderful way to improve the flavor of turkey. Traditional poultry seasoning includes:
- And Thyme.
- Options include nutmeg, pepper, and clove.
A well-stocked herb garden is a wonderful way to create your own version of traditional spices. You are not obligated to used dry herbs. I use fresh herbs that are chopped fine and then I mix them into two cubes of softened butter, add salt and pepper. The mixture is placed under the skin of the turkey along the breast and the butter helps the skin crisp without the meat drying out. The herbs impart a wonderful flavor to the meat. This is a process that you can experiment with. Remember that fresh herbs are far more potent than are dried herbs to use them sparingly.
Greens and Salad Greens
There are so many types of salads that one can add to Thanksgiving dinner. Those range from potato and macaroni salad to garden and chef salads too. Don’t forget the carrot and raisin salad or the Waldorf Salad.
Waldorf salad is a fruit and nut salad in a mayonnaise dressing. Traditionally served with apples, this salad makes a beautiful addition to Thanksgiving because fall is apple season. The main ingredients are apples, grapes, walnuts, and celery but you can mix it up by adding carrots and other veggies too.
Prepper gardens should include fruit trees and vines, which means that many of us can grow all the ingredients in a Waldorf Salad – Walnuts, apples, grapes, and celery.
Other greens include collard greens, chard, and spinach which all go in salads, baked in quiche or casseroles, added to pieces of bread, or as steamed side dishes.
Fall is a great time to grow lettuce too, so, you can literally grow a wide range of salad greens.
A cherry tomato plant – and I am quite fond of sun golds – will often produce in warmer climates well past the first frost. You might also coax a cucumber plant to thrive a little while longer by adding a cover to it.
In the first Thanksgiving, corn was probably served as a porridge rather than on the cob. Growing corn is easy so long as you have a long growing season and plenty of sunshine. Corn, unlike many vegetables, is wind pollinated so when you plant corn, plan on planting it in blocks rather than in rows. This will help with pollination. Corn should be planted about 1 or so inches deep after the last frost and when the night temperature remains above 55°F. Plants should be about 1-foot apart and rows should be between 2-3 feet apart. Sweet yellow corn and white corn are good varieties. The key to growing corn is heat. These are plants that are tropical, and they are used to 8-12 hours of sunlight per day. They, like tomatoes, require a nighttime soil temperature of 55°F or higher to thrive.
How Much Corn to Plant?
Plan on one ear per plant but some cultivars may produce two ears per plant. If you are trying to grow corn in a limited space, do the research on the best varieties for your area and pick a cultivar that produces more. The healthier the plant, the better the yield, so corn is one vegetable that should not be crowded. The root system of corn is 8-12 inches wide and about that in depth, so space the plants accordingly. Corn also likes water so be prepared to water it regularly.
There are two general types of corn – those that mature early and those that mature late. The later varies tend to have two ears per plant, and the early maturing corn cultivars generally produce a single ear of corn. This is because the plant puts a lot of its energy into faster production.
Pumpkin and Squash Pie
Pumpkins are fairly easy to grow but you don’t have to limit yourself to just pumpkins. Most winter squash varieties make an excellent pie filling too. We mix pumpkin with Hubbard and banana squash for Thanksgiving and holiday pies and they are wonderful.
Sugar pumpkins are one of the best for baking and pie filling. The Cinderella pumpkins are also good for baking. Sugar pumpkins are small pumpkins – usually smaller than a bowling ball but packed full of flavor. For winter squash try acorn squash, Hubbard’s and butternut squash. If you are daring, the banana squash is amazing. The Banana squash can reach four feet in length and be a foot thick. The flesh is bright yellow or sometimes an orange-red. I prefer them baked in the oven.
Cooking Winter Squash
- Cut the squash in half or for banana squash into 4″x5″ boats. – Remove seeds.
- Add a dollop of butter and a spoon of brown sugar to the boat
- Bake at 350 until you can insert a fork into the flesh easily. Cool and enjoy.
You can season as you like with salt, pepper, nutmeg, and cinnamon.
Pumpkins and winter squash are ready to harvest when the main stem of the squash becomes hard and withers. Many people say if the stem is not easy to score with your thumbnail then the squash is ready to harvest.
Onions and Garlic
Both are easy to grow foods. I plant a large variety of onions. The primary staple for my kitchen is sweet yellow onions. I also plant white onions and green onions. Red onions are another favorite. I plant sweet reds and those that are hot.
Garlic is also a staple of my kitchen. I mix the softneck and hardneck varieties of garlic in my garden. You can find good garlic seed stock at your organic grocery store. This allows you to try the garlic and pick a variety that you love.
Both garlic and onions are easy to grow. I only grow onions from seed sets rather than from seeds. I overplant garlic so that I have a store of garlic for next season. Here, we plant both on the cusp of fall/winter. They are usually ready to harvest by June or July. Both store well and I usually have onions and garlic from harvest through March. I do dehydrate garlic so that I have it for use all year long.
This is a pretty comprehensive list of foods that you can grow for Thanksgiving or holiday meals. Others include peas, which are easy to grow. I plant peas along the fence and they climb the wire and produce all summer long. Shelling peas are great for salads, steamed or as a side. Snow peas produce most of the late fall and into spring if your temperature is not too cold.
Other Foods You Can Grow
Beets are another great food. We enjoy pickled beets and I love them roasted with salt, pepper, and butter. The golden beets are great for roasting and the red beets are wonderful steamed or pickled.
Fruits that you can grow for Thanksgiving include ground cherries, which are sweet and delicious and go great in pies. Persimmons can also be a wonderful treat. I grow Fuyu persimmons which are a Japanese variety. They do well here in the cold and the fruit is akin to an apple rather than the traditional persimmon which must be nearly rotten to enjoy. Apples, peaches, and apricots are other staples of my garden. We can peaches and other fruit for use all year long but apples are a fall crop as are persimmons.
One of the biggest tips for gardening is to plan your garden by what you eat or will use. If you are new to gardening, start small. Gardening can be a lot of work and many people try it and then fail at it because they cannot keep up with the chores. Simple gardening projects can be planting an herb garden in a small barrel or container.
When it comes to growing a garden there is no reason that we cannot grow most of the food we eat. Around my house, I grow about 75-80 of the food that I eat. I am very blessed to be able to fish. For meat, I buy from local ranchers that raise their livestock in healthy and sustainable ways. As Thanksgiving approaches, may your yields be strong and your gardens rich.
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