Sunday, November 18, 2007

Taking on Thanksgiving

I’m not normally a fan of potlucks, but let’s face it, Thanksgiving is the ultimate potluck dinner and the best. Of course, every family has its ironclad traditions when it comes to food—don’t bother to rhapsodize about your mom’s oyster stuffing or your grandma’s cornbread stuffing; I want my mom’s chestnut stuffing. Period. So, if you’re a guest, it’s going to be a challenge to make everyone happy with a dish that works with the dinner you’re invited to. And, if you’re the host, how do you get your guests to bring a dish that complements what you’re serving?

I think the answer is to keep all the hardcore dishes intact—the turkey, the stuffing, the gravy, the mashed potatoes and the sweet potatoes probably all revolve around recipes handed down through generations. They’re the immovable objects of the meal. So, do the novel flourishes at the periphery—the appetizers, side dishes, salad and dessert.

Certainly, the recipes for Thanksgiving dishes overfloweth. But, if time or talent is in short supply and you need to bring something smashing to the big meal, you’ve got a great selection of high-impact, low-fuss prepared foods from around San Diego County that you can choose from.

Let’s address appetizers. No, we don’t want to fill up on them before the main act, but no one wants a crowd so hungry they feel compelled to pounce on the food as it makes its entrance. So, here are some suggestions for host assignments or guest offerings—and some will work well as side dishes, too:

  • Brie en croute or a plate of luscious cheeses from Venissimo (Del Mar and Mission Hills). If you’re confused about what to order, Gina and her staff can help you select just the right cheeses, along with crackers, bread or fruit to accompany it. And, in Mission Hills, head across the street to Sausage King to pick up sliced Hungarian salami to accompany it.
  • Homemade vegetable salads from the newly revamped Aaron’s Eatzz on Convoy—the spicy Turkish salad with carrots, tomatoes, onions and spices like cumin; the Matbucha salad (also with a bit of a bite) with tomatoes, eggplant, red and green peppers, onions and garlic; the sweet Spanish sliced eggplant with tomato sauce and the grilled chopped eggplant that’s magnificently rich in flavor. They also have tahini and baba ganoush and chopped liver, and in their refrigerated section, smoked mackerel in oil, herring and vegetarian chopped liver.
  • Fresh ceviche (fish, shrimp or octopus) from Northgate Gonzalez Market, along with freshly made tortilla chips.
  • Dolmas (stuffed grape leaves) or other stuffed vegetables (cabbage leaves, peppers, zucchini, eggplant and kale), fried eggplant and grilled eggplant are a little exotic and truly delicious. And, is there anything easier than buying cans of these at Balboa International Market, North Park Produce, Aaron’s Eatzz or Parsian? I’ve tasted them all and, yes, they are perfect party pleasers. All you need to do is plate them. Another option is a plate of fresh sliced feta, olives, hummus and freshly baked flat bread.
  • The beet salad at Continent European Deli in La Jolla. It converted me to beets, with its sweet accompaniments of walnuts, prunes, garlic and mayonnaise. And, that beet vinaigrette salad with potatoes, pickles, carrots and sauerkraut is delicious with sliced mini rye bread. Like garlic? Try their mushroom salad. Finally, I’d suggest the Israeli salad, with its mild flavors of eggplant, garlic and mayo.

Assigned to make the green salad? Trader Joe’s comes in handy here. All you need to do is buy some bags of pre-washed lettuces—perhaps baby spring mix or the herb salad mix—along with a bag of dried cranberries, a package of candied pecans, a container of pomegranate seeds and their cranberry, walnut and gorgonzola salad dressing (or make a vinaigrette yourself). Add some thinly sliced red onions and slices of peeled orange and you have an amazing salad. Want to really impress? Add crumbled cranberry stilton from Venissimo (yes, I do love the place).

Speaking of Trader Joes… they really are the go-to resource for prepared foods for Thanksgiving. My friend Paula is a sucker for their corn and chile tomato-less relish, as am I. She loves to serve it as an appetizer with tortilla chips on a bed of greens. Pick up a few jars of one of their tapenades—olive or roasted red pepper and artichoke—or bruschetta—plain, mixed olive or mixed grilled vegetable—and loaves of sour dough baguettes to slice. Just stand in front of the refrigerated section of dips, close your eyes and pick. You’ll land on something amazing, like their spinach and artichoke dip, cilantro roasted pecan dip, artichoke jalapeño, or three-layer hummus (traditional, cilantro jalapeño and spicy). Then all you need are some boxes of crackers or, better yet, bags of pita chips with sea salt or “everything” bagel chips.

What about dessert? Again, Trader Joe’s is easy with their fresh pumpkin and pecan pies and a delicious-looking pumpkin cranberry pecan upside down cake. They also have pumpkin and apple pies as well as a lovely French apple tart in the frozen food section.

Of course, Julian pies are always a pleaser. If you can't get up to Julian, lots of shops sell them year round. I can find them locally at my little Tierrasanta Farmers Outlet and their sister store off Friars Road and Mission Gorge.

Want to send the crowd swooning though? Go for the non-traditional but oh so amazing pastries at Sage French Bakery on Convoy, next to Nijiya. Owned by a Korean baker, this Japanese-style French Bakery is one of the best in town and you can focus on chocolate with the Chocolate Mousse cake, Raspberry Ganache or Elby or enjoy the raspberry Mistral. This man is truly gifted.

I’ve only touched the surface. So, I leave it to you, dear readers, to offer some other irresistible ideas. Just click on “Comments” below and add your thoughts.

And, have a wonderful Thanksgiving!


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  1. Hey, you have to add my favorite always-have-several-in-the-fridge desserts from Trader Joe's: their lemon tart (read that as lemon pie), in the bread section (where the pumpkin pies are) is absolutely everybody's favorite, especially with a little vanilla ice cream. It's tart, the crust is flaky AND it keeps in the fridge for about a month. It's my standby for drop ins. Also, as companion pie, same location, their cranberry/walnut pie-tart-whatever. Equally good and fun to serve both together and let people have a little slice of each. A bit sweet on its own, at least for me, but people seem to love it. I'm a lemon gal myself.

    Great useful blog! My kind of shopping!

  2. Hi Caron - hope you are well! I am attending this dinner in case you're interested?
    Hope to get together for a meal soon!

  3. Hi there, Caron!

    My name is Shannon and I'm the editorial assistant at I am very impressed with the quality of your posts and to that end, I’d like to invite you to be a part of our newly launched Foodbuzz Featured Publisher program. I would love to send you more details about the program, so if you are interested, please email me at


    Shannon Eliot
    Editorial Assistant,

    P.S. I just graduated from UCSD in June and it is great to see such a focused culinary look at the area. I only wish I had found your blog when I was still living there! I guess I'll just have to check out some of these spots when I come back to visit. =)