Thanksgiving dinner tastes a little different in the West than around the rest of the country. The veggies are more likely to be fresh, the dressing might contain anything from sourdough bread to Chinese sausage, and sweet potatoes rarely sport marshmallows.
With Safeway as our partner, we held our biggest Thanksgiving recipe contest ever at Sunset this year; more than 6,500 entries came in. The winners―from all over the West, including Hawaii―reflect our region's diversity and creativity. The winning dressing is a Southwestern mix of cornbread and chorizo. Our top Thanksgiving appetizer is built around wild Northwest salmon. Kabocha squash becomes a serving bowl for vegetables. Fresh herbs are steeped in a cocktail. And sweet potatoes find their way into the grand prize winner, the best cheesecake you'll ever eat.
How the contest worked
We asked for your best original Thanksgiving recipes in six categories. Based on their originality, taste, ease of preparation, and visual appeal, the entries were first screened by former Sunset food editors and writers for 100 of the most promising in each category. Then our current food editors and writers narrowed each field to the top 20 to 40 dishes, which our retesters cooked in Sunset's test kitchen―213 in all. We tasted Thanksgiving dinner for 10 weeks straight, scoring each dish, and then judged the finalists in each category side by side to pick the winners. Our thanks to all contestants for a delicious and creative Thanksgiving summer―we're looking forward to enjoying the holiday all over again this month.
CATEGORIES: Beverages, Appetizers, Turkeys, Dressings, Side Dishes and Desserts
The winner in each category received a trip to Sunset's headquarters for a special harvest dinner. And, with Safeway's support, the top winners earned these awards.
Grand Prize: $50,000 kitchen makeover and Safeway or Vons groceries for a year
Kari Bowers, Bellevue, WA
Roasted-Sweet Potato Cheesecake with Maple Cream
"My two sons, ages 10 and 12, normally don't like sweet potatoes," says Kari Bowers. She suspected that roasting the potatoes for deeper flavor and then putting them into a cheesecake would change things. Many trials later, she came up with this recipe, which the whole family loves. In our test kitchen, it produced a luscious, silky texture every time―and rave reviews from our entire staff.
First Place: $5,000
Helena Darling, Ashland, OR
Dry-Cured Rosemary Turkey
The dry-cure for this turkey was born during a party-advice phone call Helena Darling had with her bachelor brother in Hollywood. It reflects her idea of Thanksgiving dinner―"an earthy feast that acknowledges our farm-to-table roots," she says.
Second Place: $1,000 gift certificate to Safeway or Vons
BEST SIDE DISH
Kristine Snyder, Kihei, HI
Roasted Kabocha Squash Bowl with Autumn Vegetables
When Kristine Snyder saw kabocha squash on sale, she imagined a multicultural twist on the more common soup-in-a-squash bowl: She turned the kabocha into a sort of Moroccan tagine for fall vegetables and added an Asian-flavored sauce. The medley would also make a good vegetarian main course.
Third Place: One-year membership in the Sunset Wine Club
Carry Porter, Kirkland, WA
She wasn't willing to miss out on a moment of the party by making cocktails one by one, so Carry Porter created her "herbaltini" in a pitcher. This refreshing drink "combines the fresh herbs that many people have left over after cooking holiday dishes," she explains.
Nancy Hess, Portland, OR
Northwest Smoked Salmon Crêpes
"A holiday in our house is not complete without these crêpes," says Nancy Hess, who smokes local salmon herself for the filling.
Victoria Johnson, Gilbert, AZ
Southwest Cornbread and Chorizo Dressing
When Victoria Johnson moved to Arizona, she created a dressing to introduce Southwest flavors to some out-of-state relatives "who didn't even know what chorizo was," she says. "They loved it."
Heidi Ebner Just, Steilacoom, WA
Sake Plum Cocktail
"Fresh ginger with plum is always good," says Heidi Ebner Just. She put together this innovative cocktail while drinking sake with her sister.
Jennifer Scully, Seattle, WA
Sweet Potato-Cotija Triangles with Red Chile Jellye
These crisp filled wontons capture a Western mix of flavors. Mexico, the Southwest, and the Pacific Rim bring their inspirations to a Central American native: sweet potatoes. "Thanksgiving is about bringing different cultures together," says Jennifer Scully.
Diane Lauer, Loveland, CO
New Mexican Red Chile Turkey
Diane Lauer recalls her first Thanksgiving in New Mexico, as a teacher at the San Diego Mission School at the Jemez Pueblo Indian reservation: "It was sure different from the Thanksgiving dinner I grew up with in Illinois―red chile gravy instead of giblet gravy … The garlicky spiced bird was heaven."
Lynn Lloyd, Santa Cruz, CA
Basmati Rice Dressing with Dried Fruit, Toasted Almonds, and Coconut
A longtime maker of traditional Indian pilafs, Lynn Lloyd wanted to create a special one a couple of years ago. Her family all stood around the stove with forks, tasting and suggesting. "After I added the cinnamon, everyone said, 'Stop! This is it.'"
SIDE DISH RUNNER-UP
Erin Hess, Telluride, CO
Potato, Leek, and Mushroom Gratin
"I live to eat, and I do think holidays should be decadent," admits Erin Hess. Great argument for this vegetarian Thanksgiving recipe for a cream- and cheese-rich potato-shiitake gratin.
SIDE DISH RUNNER-UP
Carole McDonald, Milwaukie, OR
Poached Pear, Macadamia, and Spinach Salad with Goat Cheese
The McDonald family loves wine-poached pears for dessert. With a can of honey-roasted macadamias on hand from a recent trip to Hawaii, plus some tangy goat cheese and spinach, Carole McDonald decided to put the usual dessert in a salad.
SIDE DISH RUNNER-UP
Dorothy Reinhold, Malibu, CA
Fresh Cranberry-Ginger Relish
"I'm the candied ginger queen," says Dorothy Reinhold. "Many things are improved by ginger. Cranberry sauce can be a one-trick pony―all sweetness and not much else. But if you add something with bite, suddenly you have an adventurous meal on your plate."
Kathy Masur, Broomfield, CO
Praline Pumpkin Torte
This showstopping dessert came from Kathy Masur's Aunt Katy―"a wonder in the kitchen." Although her aunt passed away years ago, Masur still makes the pumpkin torte every year as a tribute.
Edwina Gadsby, Great Falls, MT
Pumpkin Chai Pots de Crème
Last year, inspired by the popularity of Starbucks' pumpkin lattes, Edwina Gadsby decided to incorporate those flavors into her favorite dessert, pot de crème. "My sister Leanne, a huge chai fan, suggested I try it with chai instead of coffee, and everyone loved it," she says.