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Many turn to their roots for the holiday feast

Nothing says Thanksgiving like… pastitsio?

“For Thanksgiving, my mother actually did a turkey, which was a pretty big step for her, but everything else on the table was Greek,” says Michael Psilakis, the chef behind New York’s Anthos restaurant.

For his family, pastitsio, a lasagna-like dish of noodles and eggy, Greek bechamel sauce, was just as important as the bird.

Thanksgiving called for a similar blending of cultures in the Korean household of chef David Chang, who dubs the famous pork buns, ginger scallion noodles and ramen of his Momofuku restaurants “American” food.

“Thanksgiving was almost a potluck,” Chang says, remembering the dozens of relatives who tottered in with heaping trays of short ribs called kalbi-jim, the pickled cabbage called kimchi, and the noodle dish chop che. “We would have Korean dishes that were traditionally cooked on celebratory occasions and your Thanksgiving go-to classics. It was a feast.”

Americans come from more than 125 nations, according to Census figures, and more than 299 million people – or 97 percent of the population – claim ethnic roots. So it’s only fitting that on this iconic American holiday people draw on the melting pot for inspiration.

At the turn of the 19th century, Thanksgiving was appropriated as a way to “Americanize” new immigrants, says Sandra Oliver, the editor of Food History News and co-author of “Giving Thanks,” a history of the holiday.

“There was considerable effort put into teaching these kids about the Thanksgiving holiday – it was done in the schools – and attributing all kinds of virtues to the sainted pilgrim forefathers, really elevating them beyond their significance,” Oliver says.

“There are pictures of these little kids kitted out in pilgrim hats, no matter who they were. It met with some success. Kids are really good about going home and saying, ‘We have to have turkey on Thursday.’ ”

The founders probably didn’t count on the ingenuity of the newcomers, many of whom did adopt the holiday, but in their own way.

Marcela Valladolid, author of the cookbook “Fresh Mexico,” grew up crossing the U.S.-Mexico border every day, leaving her Tijuana home before dawn to attend school in San Diego. She says she absorbed both cultures “100 percent” and so has her Thanksgiving celebration.

“We don’t segregate it,” she says. “It’s not like the turkey is American, and then there are tamales. There’s chili in the turkey.”

Valladolid glazes her turkey with an apricot, tequila and chili sauce and serves it alongside roasted chipotle acorn squash and Brussels sprouts in morilla cream. Valladolid says the feast was inspired by her cross-border experience, but also was a way to make the holiday truly inclusive for everyone in the family.

“My father barely speaks English,” she says. “This holiday is very new for him. He started celebrating Thanksgiving when he married my mom. Try to sit down and have Thai food for the first time. It’s intimidating. And I imagine that was the way my father felt the first time he sat down in front of a big fat turkey.”

If Valladolid sees ethnicizing Thanksgiving as a way to bring the family’s older generation into the new tradition, others see the reverse: a way to preserve and communicate culture to the next generation.

At New York’s Tabla, Bombay-born chef Floyd Cardoz is known for merging Indian spices and sensibilities with American ingredients. After more than 20 years in the United States, he does the same at his Thanksgiving feast.

Cardoz brines his turkey in a pungent solution of fresh ginger and bay leaf, then dry rubs it with black pepper, chilies, fresh garlic and crushed bay leaf. “I rub it all over the bird and under the skin, too,” he says. “It makes it more flavorful.”

His stuffing spikes a cornbread base with Goan-style pork sausage, redolent of vinegar, garlic, cloves and cinnamon. The homemade cranberry sauce has touches of ginger, black pepper, cloves and cinnamon. “So it’s a little more interesting than plain old canned cranberry,” he says.

He also makes sure there’s lots of heavy, Indian-style snacking on items such as samosas and spiced potato dumplings before the meal, and that there are plenty of Indian specialties as well, like rice pulao and a Goan pork stew full of pork belly, shoulder, liver and chili.

“By putting our beliefs into a meal, it ties my past with my kids’ future,” says Cardoz, whose sons are 12 and 16. “At some point when they have their kids and they’re doing their Thanksgiving tradition, maybe there will be something from India in there, and it will bring them back. It ties up the generations when you do this.”

Roasted Turkey in Apricot-Chili Glaze

Recipe adapted from Marcela Valladolid’s “Fresh Mexico,” Clarkson Potter, 2009. Valladolid uses a version of this glaze to combine her Mexican roots with the classic Thanksgiving staple. The turkey also can be stuffed, but will take longer to cook.

3 cups chicken broth

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/4 cup tequila

2 Anaheim chilies, stemmed, seeded and cut into large chunks

3/4 cup apricot jam, divided

Salt and ground black pepper, to taste

12- to 14-pound turkey

Heat the oven to 350 degrees.

In a medium saucepan over medium, combine the broth, butter, tequila, chilies and 1/2 cup of the apricot jam. Bring to a boil and cook until the chilies are soft and tender.

Transfer the mixture to a blender and puree until smooth. Press the mixture through a fine-mesh strainer. Discard the solids.

Return 1 1/2 cups of the mixture to the saucepan, reserving the rest for the gravy. Simmer over medium for 10 minutes, or until reduced by half. Stir in the remaining 1/4 cup of the apricot jam to make the glaze. Season with salt and pepper.

Place the turkey on a rack set in a large roasting pan. Carefully separate the turkey’s skin from the flesh, trying to avoid breaking the skin. Pour half of the glaze under the skin and rub it into the turkey.

Replace the skin, then rub the remaining mixture over the outside. Wrap the wing tips in foil and roast for 1 hour. Cover the turkey with foil, then roast for another 1 1/2 to 2 hours, or until the breast registers 160 degrees and the thickest part of the thigh reaches 170 degrees.

Allow the turkey to rest in the pan for 10 minutes. Transfer the turkey to a serving platter and let it rest another 10 minutes.

While the turkey rests on the platter, place the roasting pan with the drippings on the stovetop. Bring to a simmer over low, then stir in the reserve chili sauce. Scrape the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon or silicone spatula to loosen any brown bits.

Simmer for 10 minutes, or until thickened, then season with salt and pepper. Strain out the chunks or leave them in to add texture.

Yield: Makes a 12- to 14-pound turkey with gravy

Relleno de Pan (Oaxacan Stuffing)

Recipe from the November 2009 issue of Saveur magazine. Give your Thanksgiving stuffing a taste of Mexico with this recipe from Susan Trilling, who runs a cooking school in Oaxaca, Mexico. The stuffing has a sweet and spicy flavor from a combination of chilies, fennel, prunes and cumin.

12-ounce chunk whole-wheat bread, cut into 1/2-inch cubes (about 7 cups)

14 tablespoons (1 3/4 sticks) unsalted butter

2 large white onions, chopped

2 ribs celery, chopped

1 bulb fennel, cored and chopped

4 apples, cored and chopped

4 cloves garlic, finely chopped

2 poblano chilies, roasted, peeled, stemmed, seeded and chopped

6 ounces pitted prunes (about 26), halved

3/4 teaspoon ground cumin

3/4 teaspoon ground black pepper, plus more to taste

1/2 cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley leaves

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh chives

1 tablespoon orange zest

Kosher salt, to taste

3 eggs, lightly beaten

Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Spread the bread cubes on a large baking sheet and bake until lightly toasted and dry, about 15 minutes. Transfer the bread cubes to a large bowl and set aside.

In an 8-quart Dutch oven over medium-high, melt the butter. Add the onions, celery and fennel and cook until soft, 15 to 20 minutes. Add the apples, garlic and poblano chilies, then cook until the apples are tender, about another 10 minutes.

Add the prunes, cumin, pepper, parsley, chives, orange zest and salt and cook, stirring occasionally, until hot, about 2 minutes.

Transfer mixture to the bowl with the bread cubes. Gently stir until combined. Let cool for 10 minutes.

Stir in the eggs and season with salt and pepper. Transfer the stuffing to a 2-quart oval baking dish and bake until browned, about 1 hour and 15 minutes. Let cool for 10 minutes before serving.

Yield: 14 servings

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