There are only a few things in this world you can absolutely count on. Death and taxes are the two most familiar. Another one: Come this time of year, food forums will be covered up with discussions about Thanksgiving---the only American holiday whose sole purpose is gluttony.

Cheftalk is, of course, no exception. In fact, the fun got started early this year, with a massive discussion about "traditional" foods (

Tradition is a slippery concept. For most folks, Thanksgiving tradition is a meal with turkey and dressing as the centerpiece, surrounded by the usual sides: cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, green bean casserole, and pumpkin pie.

As you can see from the discussion, most folks hold these "traditional" dishes as sacrosanct. Which is somewhat amusing, being as they only go back to mid-20th century and later.

The so-called first Thanksgiving never happened. True, the Pilgrims did hold a large feast to celebrate their first successful year in the colony. But it was more a combination harvest festival and state dinner. And it took place in September.

Virtually none of the foods we associate with Thanksgiving were present. There was no sugar in the colony, as yet. So neither cranberry sauce nor pies would have appeared. And, while there are no clear-cut references, the evidence indicates that wild turkey was absent from the table.

Thanksgiving, as such, was first degreed by George Washington, who issued a proclamation to that effect. The first Thanksgiving, however, was a one-time thing. Half a century later, Abraham Lincoln issued a similar proclamation, this time making it an annual observance.

In both cases, however, Thanksgiving was a day devoted to solemnity and prayer, not to feasting. It wasn't until FDR, who used the economic stimulus projects of the New Deal to promote the sale of turkey, that our "traditional" dishes started appearing. Many of them, such as the revered string bean casserole, were actually created by food companies to sell their products.

Those of us who hunt, fish, and gather wild foods have an advantage in that we can celebrate Thanksgiving in ways more similar to how the Pilgrims actually did so---that is, with a feast that gives thanks to the bounty of the earth by celebrating with those very foods. For those who don't hunt, fish, or glean, most "wild" edibles now are available, farm raised, from specialty purveyors.
For my Thanksgiving menu I wanted to highlight as many wild things as possible. In each case, the main component is something you could have collected yourself, but which also is available commercially. So, while I have personally made each of these dishes, at one time or another, they do not represent an actual Thanksgiving dinner. Think of it, rather, as a possibility. Here's the menu:

Gamebird Croquettes in Mushroom Curry Sauce
Venison Albondigas in Almond Sauce

First Course:
Charlotte of Potatoes and Shrimp in an Herbed Tomato Sauce

Cream of Goose

Wild Turkey Breast Wellington with Wild Mushroom Sauce
Broccoli and Black Walnut Terrine
Vegetables of Choice

Blueberry Panna Cotta Parfait


Gamebird Croquettes with Mushroom Curry Sauce

This recipe was adapted from a chicken croquette recipe, which was paired with a different sauce.

2-3 cups coarsely ground cooked gamebird meat (pheasant, quail, grouse, or mix of them)
½ small onion, minced
3 garlic cloves, minced
½ stalk celery, minced
1 tsp rosemary, crushed
1 tbls fresh ginger, minced
1 egg
¼ cup breadcrumbs (approx)
Chili sauce to taste
Six strips bacon
Butter as needed

for the sauce:

6-8 mushrooms, chopped
3 tbls butter, divided
1 tbls curry powder
1 tbls flour
1 cup hot cream
Hot sauce to taste

Sauté the garlic, onion, celery and ginger until almost soft. Sprinkle with the salt, pepper, rosemary and chili sauce. Let cool. Incorporate about ¼ cup breadcrumbs so mixture forms a coarse meal. Mix veggies and ground gamebirds.

Using a two-tablespoon sized disher, or similar measure, form mixture into small patties about ½ inch thick. Coat well with breadcrumbs. Chill while you make the sauce.

Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a saucepan. Stir in the curry powder and cook one minute. Add the mushrooms and sauté, stirring often, until mushrooms release their liquid. Set aside.

Make a roux with remaining butter and flour. Add cream, stirring constantly, until thickened. Add a couple of drops hot sauce. Stir in mushrooms. Set aside and keep warm.

Fry bacon until browned. Remove from pan. Add butter to bacon drippings, if necessary. Sauté croquettes until browned, 3- 4 minutes per side.

Spoon a little sauce over each croquette.

Venison Albondigas in Almond Sauce

A traditional Spanish tapas, albondigas can be made from a variety of meats. So it was easy to adapt them to venison.

1 lb ground venison
½ lb ground pork
2 slices bread, crusts removed
3 tbls water
1 onion, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, crushed
1 tsp minced fresh rosemary
1 egg, beaten
Salt and pepper to taste
All purpose flour
2 tbls extra virgin olive oil

for the sauce:

2 tbls extra virgin olive oil
1 slice bread
Heavy ¾ cup blanched almonds
2 garlic cloves, minced
2/3 cup dry white wine
Salt and pepper to taste
1 ¾ cups chicken stock

Soak the bread in the water for 5 minutes. Squeeze out the water and return the bread to the bowl. Add the venison, pork, onion, garlic, rosemary, salt, pepper and egg. Combine well.

Form the meat mixture into balls, about one-inch in diameter. Roll in flour until well coated.

Heat the oil in a large, heavy bottomed skillet. Add the meatballs in batches so they do not overcrowd the pan. Cook until browned on all sides, 3-5 minutes total cooking time. Set aside until all meatballs are cooked.

Make the sauce: In the same skillet heat the oil. Break the bread into pieces and add to skillet, along with the almonds, and cook gently, stirring frequently, until bread and almonds are golden. Add garlic and cook 30 seconds more, then pour in the wine and boil 2 minutes. Season to taste with salt & pepper. Let cool slightly.

Transfer almond mixture to a food processor. Add the vegetable stock and blend until smooth. Return sauce to skillet. Return meatballs to the sauce and simmer until meatballs are tender, about 20 minutes. Adjust the sauce with salt and pepper if needed.

Charlotte of Potatoes and Shrimp in an Herbed Tomato Sauce

I unabashedly stole this recipe from Chef Nino Graziano. It appears in his book, "My Sicilian Cooking." If chervil isn't available, it works just as well with tarragon. I make molds for dishes like this from appropriate sized PVC tubing.

16 large shrimp

for the sauce:

1 white onion
1 ¾ oz extra virgin olive oil
14 oz firm ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and diced
Small bunch mixed herbs (parsley, basil, thyme, bay leaf), chopped
½ cup dry white wine
1 ¾ oz fresh chervil
1 oz sugar
Salt & pepper to taste

for the potato puree:

14 oz potatoes
1 ¾ oz butter
1 ¾ oz heavy cream

Make the sauce: Chop the onion and sauté in the olive oil until wilted. Add the diced tomatoes, mixed herbs, white wine and chervil, and continue cooking for 20 minutes. Add the sugar. Blend in food processor until smooth. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.

Make the puree: Peel the potatoes and cook them in boiling water until tender. Pass them through a ricer, add the butter and cream (heated slightly) and mix well. Add salt to taste.

Steam the shrimp for two minutes (note: I prefer lightly sautéing them).

Presentation: Using a four-inch ring mold to provide the form, create a disc of mashed potatoes on each of four serving plates. Top with 4 shrimp each and nap with the tomato sauce. Garnish with chervil sprigs if desired.

Cream of Goose Soup

No matter how well you carve, there's always an incredible amount of meat left on a wild goose carcass. This soup helps recover that great protein. Doesn't hurt anything that it tastes great, too.

1 cooked goose carcass
1 large onion, chopped
5 celery tops
1 ½ tsp salt
Half dozen or so black peppercorns
1 carrot, diced
2 quarts rich chicken stock

Put the goose carcass in a stock pot with the other ingredients. Bring to boil, reduce heat, and simmer one hour. Remove carcass and let cool. Strain the liquid, reserving 3 cups. Pick as much meat as possible from the carcass.

for the soup:   

2 tbls unsalted butter
3 tbls flour
1 cup milk
1 tbls pimiento, chopped

Melt butter in a soup kettle. Blend in flour and cook the roux, over low heat, until it turns almond color. Add the reserved goose stock, stirring until thickened. Add milk and goose meat and stir until heated through. Stir in pimiento just before serving.

Wild Turkey Breast Wellington with Wild Mushroom Sauce

For some reason, many people think game dishes have to be rustic. Nothing can be further from the truth, as this dish proves. Because I'm not a baker, I buy pre-made dough for recipes like this. But don't hesitate to make your own.

¼ cup chicken liver or other spreadable pate
½ oz Cognac
1 pate brisee or other pastry dough
2 wild turkey breast filets, deboned, and tied to form cylindrical shapes
¼ cup butter
2 egg whites

Mix the chicken liver pate and Cognac and spread over the pastry to a thickness of ¼ inch or thinner.

Sauté the shaped turkey breasts in the butter until browned on all sides. Remove from the pan and allow to cool. Remove the ties and roll up in the pastry, pinching the edges to seal. Place on a sheet pan, seam side down.

Whip the egg whites and brush onto the Wellingtons. Bake in a hot oven (375F) for an hour and 15 minutes until the pastry is golden brown. Cut Wellingtons in slices about an inch thick and serve over a pool of sauce.

Wild Mushroom Sauce

¼ lb wild mushrooms, thinly sliced
2 tbls unsalted butter
2 tbls flour
1 cup chicken or turkey stock
½ cup white wine
¼ tsp tarragon
Salt and white pepper to taste
½ cup cream
1 egg yolk

In a saucepan melt the butter. Add the flour and cook the roux a minute or two. Gradually add the stock, white wine, tarragon, salt and pepper. Simmer the mixture a few minutes and add the mushrooms. Simmer five minutes.

Remove pan from heat and stir in the cream with the egg yolk. Cook the sauce, stirring, until it is heated through, but do not let boil.

Broccoli and Black Walnut Terrine

Vegetable terrines never suffer from having a little crunch factor. In this case, the black walnuts also add an earthy note of decadence  to the dish.

1 lb broccoli, cut in small florets
8 oz black walnut meats
1 tbls butter
1 cup bread crumbs
¼ cup yogurt
2 tbls grated  pecorino cheese
2 eggs, beaten
Pinch nutmeg
Salt and pepper to taste

Melt the butter in a small skillet. Add the walnut meats and cook, stirring, until lightly toasted. Set aside. When cool, chop coarsely.

Blanch the broccoli 3-4 minutes until just tender. Drain. Reserve one quarter of the florets and chop the rest finely.

In a large bowl, mix together the nuts, bread crumbs, yogurt and pecorino. Season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Fold in the chopped broccoli, reserved florets, and eggs.

Butter an 8-cup loaf pan and line with parchment paper. Pour in the broccoli mixture, leveling as best you can. Put the loaf pan in a roasting pan and pour in boiling water to come halfway up the loaf pan. Bake at 350F 20-25 minutes. Turn out on a plate or cutting board and slice evenly.

Blueberry Panna Cotta Parfait

I love making panna cotta desserts. They're simple to prepare but elegant to present, and are a perfect ending to an otherwise heavy meal. Plus they can be made ahead, a decided advantage during the busy holidays. This one uses layered, wild-gathered blueberries for an added touch of elegance.

2 ½ cups cream   
½ cup sour cream
1 ½ tsp vanilla extract   
9 tbls sugar, divided
2 ¾ tsp gelatin, divided   
½ cup warm water, divided
1 ½ cups (12 oz pkg) frozen blueberries, defrosted and pureed
Squeeze lime juice
Whipped cream & additional berries for garnish

Sprinkle 1 ¾ tsp gelatin over ¼ cup warm water to dissolve. Meanwhile, heat the cream, sour cream, vanilla, and 6 tablespoons sugar until sugar dissolves. Add gelatin and stir until gelatin dissolves.

Remove 1 cup of mixture and set aside. Add ½ cup blueberry puree to mix and stir until mixed evenly.

Divide mixture evenly among 8 champagne flutes. Cover with film and refrigerate until set. Cover reserved mixture with film and refrigerate.

Combine ½ cup warm water with lime juice. Sprinkle 1 teaspoon gelatin over water to dissolve. Meanwhile, heat balance of blueberry puree with 3 tablespoons sugar until sugar dissolves. Add gelatin mixture, stirring, until gelatin dissolves. Set aside to cool at room temperature.

Pour a layer of blueberry gelee over set panna cotta. Return to fridge to set.

Carefully melt reserved panna cotta in microwave. It should be liquid, but still cold. Spoon it evenly over the blueberry puree and return glasses to fridge.

At service, top panna cottas with some whipped cream and garnish with a few whole blueberries.

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