How to Host a Modern Thanksgiving

A woman prepares a modern Thanksgiving meal.
Tips from local vendors to help refresh your table and hack the holidays.

Plaid potholders, canned cranberries and mom in the kitchen all morning fretting over the turkey. These are some of the images that come to mind when we think of the traditional Thanksgiving, but nowadays, guest-centric holiday parties are much more than meat and potatoes. “It becomes a place the host can show off their own personal style,” says Kelly Bollis, lake-area native and owner and creative director of Maven Events in Minneapolis. “Traditionally, the Thanksgiving table is all about the food and the display and the way the food looks on the table,” she says. “As we’ve evolved, families have gotten bigger and you have a lot more people at gatherings. Families do buffet-style meals, and the table doesn’t have the big turkey as the centerpiece. It’s an opportunity to show off if you like decorating.”

For those ready to bring a modern touch to their Thanksgiving, a fresh-looking tablescape is a great place to start. “A tablescape to me is how you design your table and how you layer all the elements that you put on your table,” says Bollis. “It’s really important to be intentional about this because this can really enhance your guests’ experience when they come to your house.” Her rule of thumb? Incorporate different textures. “Smooth plates with textured napkins. Runners don’t have to be fabric; they could be florals or paper. They could even be the food running down your table. You don’t have to go with traditional setups.”

If you’re unsure where to begin with table design, Bollis recommends considering the logistics first. “Think about whether or not the food is actually going to be served on the table and work around that,” she says. “If food is served on the table, you should be incorporating that in the overall tablescape.” Then think about what guests will need to enjoy their meals, like salad plates, utensils and glassware. Skip what you don’t need, says Bollis. If you’re not serving soup, keep the spoons away. “Don’t have unnecessary elements on the table and don’t overcrowd the table,” she says. Bollis also suggests setting the table the night before, so you can spend time in the kitchen and with your guests the day of.

Another way to spend less time serving and more time enjoying your party is to have a drink station at the ready. “I always recommend having a drink station set up so that you’re not spending your entire night getting people drinks or cocktails,” says Bollis. “Have a display for wine, or one signature cocktail and water pitchers.”

When setting up your drink station, Bollis suggests two types of alcohol and three mixers max, if allowing guests to serve themselves. She recommends a build-your-own Old Fashioned bar that features two or three types of whiskey or bourbon, bitters, syrups, ice and garnishes. “It’s simple and uncomplicated, but people can keep coming back and experiencing different cocktails,” she says.

Keeping it sophisticated but simple is great advice, especially as more people are holding multiple dinner parties during the holidays, celebrating “Friendsgiving” in addition to family celebrations. “Friendsgivings are always so much more casual and laid back,” says Bollis. She suggests holding a Friendsgiving outdoors and incorporating communal activities like having everyone set the table or bring a food item. “You don’t have to do the traditional recipes either,” she says. “It’s just an opportunity to get everyone together for a good dinner party.”

Thanksgiving or Friendsgiving, there are a few planning items to keep in mind across the board. “Communicating time and location to your guests. Especially if your family is always late and not very punctual,” says Bollis. After that, consider the needs of all your guests. “Who is going to be eating the food? Is it kid-friendly? Maybe there’s a new recipe you want to try, but also stick with staples,” warns Bollis. “People don’t like it when you mess with Thanksgiving food.” Finally, have an activity in your back pocket in case of a lull. “Something that works for different groups of people, so they feel they are continuously engaged,” she says.

For Bollis, enjoying the event as a host is just as important as creating a great atmosphere for your guests. “I always say, don’t over-complicate things. Choose one or two special things you want to incorporate for your guests to focus on,” she says. “And remember to have fun yourself. The host always sets the tone for the party, so if they are not having fun, no one will be.”

Tablescape

We caught up with Chloe Lappen, co-owner of Gray Home + Lifestyle in Excelsior, to check in with what’s trending on modern tablescapes. “Greens, linens and handmade pottery make any table extra special,” says Lappen. She suggests starting with a natural linen tablecloth. Use greens from your garden, eucalyptus or even smaller houseplants to bring some life and color to your table.

Start with the basics

“We always use linen napkins; they are actually very easy to keep clean,” says Lappen. Because you can wash and reuse them, they’re a sustainable choice as well. Another essential for Lappen is pottery serving pieces, dinnerware or vases. “The feel and weight of handmade pottery can’t be beat and you can quickly tell the difference,” she says.

Add light

Lighting is an easy way to change the mood of a space. “We are really into the taper candles with a variety of heights,” says Lappen. “We like to use the ceramic taper holders that we carry at the shop for a modern twist.”

Keep it minimal

“We are into the minimal and natural tablescapes with more attention to spacing, to display the carefully selected items that are placed on the table,” she says. “It’s all about balance.”

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Catering

We got in touch with catering pro Heidi Andermack at Chowgirls Killer Catering to source the best tips for impressing your guests this holiday season.

Make it modern
“We cherish and prepare the staples each year but like to switch it up with a few new dishes,” says Chowgirls co-owner Heidi Andermack. “Try adding a new herb or flavor to your already delicious side dishes, but remember to perhaps reserve some plain for the traditionalists.” How to give your staple dishes an update? Andermack recommends the following:

Let the rich flavor of sweet potatoes shine all on its own, no marshmallow needed.
Add pizazz to brussels sprouts with a creamy gorgonzola gratin sauce.
Kick up your cranberry with the addition of a little jalapeno (just make sure to warn your guests).
Bring some drama to your dinner rolls by spreading on flavorful herbed butter. It’s super simple: whip a stick of softened, unsalted butter with a half teaspoon each of fresh rosemary, thyme, tarragon and parsley. Then mix in a teaspoon of kosher salt, and you’re good to go.

Think guests first
“Thanksgiving is a time for us to welcome others into our homes,” says Andermack. “Plan for unexpected guests who don’t have a celebration of their own, but want to enjoy the holiday.” She also recommends planning ahead for dietary needs of guests who are gluten-free, dairy-free or vegan. Like Bollis, Andermack suggests making what you can ahead of time (up to three or four days in advance) so you can spend more time with your loved ones, and having an activity to set the tone.

Buy local
“Fall is the best time to take advantage of the bounty of the season. There are so many great options for buying a local turkey in the Twin Cities area,” says Andermack. Not sure where to find one? Andermack proposes checking your neighborhood co-op, heading to a farm (like Minnetrista’s Gale Woods) or visiting the St. Paul Meat Shop on Grand Avenue. Keep in mind that local turkeys are limited and may need advance ordering.

Serve up some killer grub
Need to refresh grandma’s recipe? Chowgirls was kind enough to share a few of their Thanksgiving go-tos with us (and you!). Keep guests delighted year-round with their cookbook Chowgirls Killer Party Food: Righteous Bites and Cocktails for Every Season.

Recipes from Chowgirls

Sage Woodstock
The bright juice of Meyer lemons contrasts nicely with the woodsy tones of maple syrup and botanical fragrances of juniper and sage, like the sun bursting through the stark branches of a maple tree in the bright white snow. A crisp sip with a smooth finish, this is the cocktail that converted Heidi Andermack into a gin drinker.

Makes 8 cocktails

  • 3 cups (700 mL) water
  • 10 whole leaves fresh sage
  • 1 ½ cups (375 mL) maple syrup
  • 9 Meyer lemons
  • 1 26-oz (750 mL) bottle gin

Directions

  1. In a medium pot on high heat, bring water to a boil. Add sage leaves and maintain a rolling boil for 10-15 minutes, until liquid is reduced by half.  Remove from heat and strain out sage leaves; immediately stir in maple syrup until completely combined. Set aside to cool.
  2. Meanwhile, use a paring knife to slice thin oval pieces of lemon peel, about the size of a bottle cap. Set aside in a small bowl for garnish. Cut lemons in half and extract juice. Strain pulp and pour 3 cups (700 mL) lemon juice into blender. When syrup is cool, add to lemon juice and blend to create a mixer. Just before serving, shake equal amounts mixer and gin over ice. Strain and pour into martini glasses. Twist lemon peel over each cocktail to extract essential oil, then drop in to float in drinks.

Becca’s Butternut Bisque
A colorful respite in the cold winter months, this recipe was perfected by Becca, who’s worn multiple chef hats at Chowgirls. The velvety texture and expertly balanced flavors of this seasonal soup shot are a testament to her talent.

Makes 18-24 shots of soup

    • 2 lb (900 g) butternut squash, peeled and cubed
    • 1 Tbsp. olive oil
    • 5 Tbsp. (75 mL) butter
    • 2 ½ cups (625 mL) chopped
    • yellow onions
    • 4 garlic cloves, peeled
    • and minced
    • ½ cup (125 mL) white wine
    • 2 Tbsp. champagne vinegar
    • 4 cups (1 L) vegetable broth
    • 3 Tbsp. kosher salt
    • ¾ cup (175 mL) heavy cream
    • 2 Tbsp. sherry vinegar
    • Salt, to taste
    • 3 Tbsp. salted butter
    • 3 Tbsp. pistachios, chopped, for garnish

Directions

    1. Preheat over to 350°F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
    2. In a large bowl, drizzle squash pieces with olive oil and toss to coat.
    3. Spread squash pieces in a single later on parchment-lined baking sheet and roast, turning once for 1 hour or until pieces are softened and browned at the edges.
    4. Meanwhile, in a medium stock post on medium heat, melt butter. Add onions and sauté on low heat for 10 minutes, until they have sweated down and moisture has evaporated from pan. Increase heat to medium-high, stir onions frequently and scrape up caramelization from bottom of pan. Once onions are medium-brown, add garlic and sauté for 2 minutes, stirring frequently. Increase heat to high and deglaze pan with white wine and champagne vinegar. Continue to cook for about 5 minutes to reduce liquids.
    5. After wine and vinegar have almost completely evaporated from pan, add roasted squash, broth, salt and cream. Cook on medium-low heat for 10-15 minutes or until squash starts to break down. Transfer soup to a blender and blend on high until soup appears creamy and smooth. (Be careful when blending hot liquids!) Pass soup mixture through strainer. Add sherry vinegar and salt to taste. In a small saucepan on medium heat, melt 3 Tbsp. butter and cook for 1-2 minutes, until solids start to brown. Keep warm.
    6. Pour soup into shot glasses. Top each with ½ tsp. brown butter and ¼ tsp. pistachios.

    Maple Syrup Turkey Brine

    In Minnesota, we are blessed with a bounty of maple syrup. It’s a unique local product in our region, as maple forests are only found in the northeast quarter of the North American continent. The trees thrive only in a specific region from New England to Minnesota and the Canadian provinces that border those states.

    At Chowgirls, we like to use Anderson’s Maple Syrup. Family-owned and -operated since 1928, it’s the real deal. The Anderson family is now on their third generation of maple tapping and producing a great product. Local maple syrup makes the perfect pairing for a tasty turkey.

    Makes 8 cups

        • ½ cup salt
        • ½ cup maple syrup
        • 1 tsp. ginger root
        • 4 bay leaves
        • ½ tsp. coriander seed
        • 2 Tbsp. peeled garlic
        • 1 tsp. whole cloves
        • 1 cinnamon stick
        • ½ tsp. allspice
        • ½ tsp. black peppercorns
        • 2 oz. yellow mustard seed
        • 4 cups water
        • 4 cups ice

    Directions

      1. Mix all ingredients except ice together in a large pot.

      Chowgirls Killer Catering
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      Florals

      Floral arrangements always impress. We asked Bob Bradley, co-owner of Harvest Home in Wayzata, for his advice on creating floral centerpieces that wow. First, consider your table size and how many people you’ll be seating. “The designers typically create a trailing arrangement 24” long and around 8-10” high,” says Bradley. “They want to create a low arrangement for open conversation with family and friends.”

      What to include in your Thanksgiving bouquet: Cedar cones, fall leaves, berries, sunflowers, roses and pheasant feathers are popular fall choices. “Sometimes the designers will add real fruit such as apples, pomegranates, grapes and pears,” says Bradley.

      Another important tip: Make sure guests are not allergic to any flower varieties you set out and watch for strong fragrances that might irritate sensitive noses.

      Harvest Home
      952.476.7603
      Instagram: @harvesthomewayzata