6 Delicious Thanksgiving Recipes With a Native Twist

For the indigenous people of the region, Thanksgiving is much more than a once-a-year celebration

As a professional chef, Pocknett has learned to incorporate the native traditions and indigenous ingredients she was taught as a child into celebrated dishes, some of which have modern flair. She agreed to share some of her favorite Thanksgiving dishes with Connecticut Magazine. These dishes use traditional flavors and ingredients from Connecticut and the surrounding region.

“In the Eastern Woodland area we kind of eat the same with the exception of a few different things,” Pocknett says. “For instance, a lot of mushrooms are harvested here, versus where I grew up on Cape Cod we didn’t really harvest mushrooms.”

This rich cultural history is also delicious and any one of the dishes below is guaranteed to be the talk of the table at your Thanksgiving Day feast.

Those unskilled in culinary arts who still want to enjoy this traditional-style cuisine can try many of these dishes at the Pequot Museum restaurant run by Pocknett. She will also prepare all these dishes at a special Native Thanksgiving dinner on Nov. 19 from 3 to 5 p.m. Tickets are $70 and available through the Pequot Museum.

Corn cakes with cranberry chutney

“What I love about the corn cakes, it’s like corn bread, just grilled,” Pocknett says. She adds, “It’s really a good treat versus your regular dinner roll. It’s quick, it’s easy and flavorful. We put cranberries on it because it’s cranberry season.”

The dish is derived from the Johnnycake, “a traditional food staple in the 1600s diet,” she says. “Before it was called the Johnnycake, it was called a Journey Cake. This is what native people would take when they would go out walking for days because it didn’t spoil.”

Corn cake ingredients

2 cups cornmeal

1 cup flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 tablespoon salt

1 tablespoon cracked black pepper

1 bunch chopped scallion greens

1 cup sundried cranberries

1 cup corn (fresh cut off the cob or frozen)

1 cup sunflower oil

1 to 2 cups hot water

Combine all ingredients, with the exception of the water, and mix well. Add water one cup at a time so the mixture is the consistency of a thick hot cereal. Ladle onto a hot griddle with sunflower oil and cook until golden brown on both sides.

Cranberry chutney ingredients

1 lb. washed cranberries

2 lbs. washed and hulled strawberries

4 cups sugar

Juice of 1 lemon

Dash of salt

Place all ingredients in a stock pot and cook on low heat until it cooks down, becomes thick and half the size. This will take about 40 minutes.

Venison tenderloin with beach plum reduction

Native Americans avoid eating venison in the warmer months because the deer get skinny during the winter and need time to bulk up. Come Thanksgiving, venison meat starts to be consumed again. “As soon as it gets cold, that’s when I start craving venison,” Pocknett says.

The beach plum reduction is a way to flavor the meat that is in keeping with traditional approaches. “We like to use very little seasoning and herbs in our food. Anything that is indigenous to New England or this area of Connecticut, this is what we like to try and use. It’s the most fresh and most flavorful when it comes from the region.”

Venison tenderloin ingredients

3 lbs. venison tenderloin

2 tablespoons sea salt

1 tablespoon cracked black pepper

2 garlic cloves, finely diced

½ cup olive oil

Season tenderloin with all the ingredients overnight. Place the venison on a hot charcoal grill and sear all sides. Remove from grill and place in a 500-degree oven for 5 minutes. Remove from oven and let rest. Do not overcook, as venison is lean and will be tough. It should be a medium rare.

Beach plum reduction ingredients

Harvest 4 cups of beach plums

1 teaspoon salt

Juice of 1 lemon

Place all ingredients into a small saucepan and reduce until thick and silky. If you do not have access to fresh beach plums, you can use a jar of beach plum jelly and warm on the stove over low heat.

Maple-brined turkey with quahog stuffingWild turkeys were hunted and consumed in what would become Connecticut long before the first European settlers arrived. Pocknett says she likes to use a heritage turkey brand because “they’re more of a wild turkey.” She says, “If you try this recipe, you’re never going to cook your turkey any other way, I promise you.”

She adds, the recipe incorporates “a lot of things we use every day out of the woods for medicine, for cooking. Those are the best ways to really enhance your food and get the whole New England experience, the whole Native American experience, because let’s face it, Native American, New England, it is all really one.”

Turkey

20-lb. heritage breed turkey (go to buyctgrown.com/connecticut-turkey-guide for a list of state farms)

Brine ingredients

8 quarts water

2 cups kosher salt

2 cups real maple syrup

4 sprigs fresh thyme

4 cedar needle fronds

1 bulb garlic, finely minced

¼ cup whole black peppercorns

Quahog stuffing ingredients

2 sticks butter

3 medium onions, diced

3 cloves garlic, finely minced

6 stalks celery, chopped

2 cups quahog meat, finely chopped

10 sleeves Ritz crackers, crushed

1 loaf diced white bread left out to air dry

3 tablespoons Bell’s Poultry Seasoning

1 teaspoon black pepper

1 cup quahog juice (if needed)

Preparing turkey

Bring water to a boil and add all the ingredients so they dissolve and set aside the brine to cool. Once the brine is cool, place turkey in the brine so that the entire turkey is covered. A five-gallon bucket works perfectly. The turkey should brine overnight in a refrigerator.

Preparing stuffing

In a large cast-iron skillet, add the butter, onions, garlic, celery and sauté until it is well done. Then add quahog meat to this mixture and cook on medium heat until it is just barely cooked (about five minutes).

In a bowl, add Ritz crackers, bread, Bell’s seasoning, black pepper and the mixture from the cast-iron skillet. Mix thoroughly. Depending on the amount of liquid from the quahogs, you may need to add quahog juice to this mixture so that the consistency is just moist and not dry.

Remove turkey from brine, drain and dry. Put stuffing in the cavity and salt, pepper and garlic the outside of the turkey. Take a brown grocery bag and slide over one side of the turkey and the baking pan. Take a second bag and slide this over the other side of the pan and turkey. You may need to cut the second bag to fit over the first bag. The brown bags should go over both the turkey and the pan. Do not place the turkey in a brown bag and then put that into a pan. Place the turkey and pan that are covered with the two brown paper bags in a 375-degree oven for about three hours until the inside temperature of the turkey is 165 degrees.

Sassafras martini

This cocktail uses a traditional ingredient, sassafras, to power a modern cocktail. It is perfect for sassafras tea drinkers and martini lovers. “This is the best martini I’ve ever tasted,” Pocknett says. Her vodka of choice is Ketel One; as far as the sassafras roots, well, you’ll have to harvest those yourself. Fortunately the plant is abundant in the Connecticut countryside. “It’s everywhere. It’s probably in the backyard of your woods,” Pocknett says.

Ingredients

6 medium-sized sassafras roots harvested in the woods

10 cups water

1 cup pure white cane sugar

1 cup vodka

Sassafras simple syrup

Place water and sassafras roots in a stock pot. Boil until the liquid is a dark amber color and is reduced by at least half. The more reduced, the stronger the sassafras flavor. Add sugar and cook until dissolved and then let this mixture cool.

For an 8-ounce martini, add 5 ounces of sassafras simple syrup to 3 ounces of vodka. Garnish with four fresh cranberries and a sassafras twig.

For an added treat, the rim of the martini glass can be dipped in the sassafras syrup and then dipped in brown sugar.

Eastern stuffed pumpkin

Ingredients

8- to 10-pound pumpkin

2 tablespoons sunflower or olive oil

1 large onion, roughly chopped

4 chopped garlic cloves

2 pounds cubed venison stew meat

1½ cup wild rice, cooked

1½ cup brown rice, cooked

1½ cup white rice, cooked

1 cup whole kernel corn

1 cup kidney beans

1 cup cubed butternut squash, cooked

1 cup diced sunchokes (aka Jerusalem artichokes), cooked

1 cup dried cranberries

½ cup whole cranberries

½ cup chopped kale

1 cup minced scallion

½ cup maple syrup

½ teaspoon cracked black pepper

1 teaspoon salt

Optional: ½ cup toasted, salted pumpkin seeds

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Cut top from the pumpkin and remove the strings and put the seeds to the side.

Place pumpkin on a parchment-lined sheet pan and bake at 400 degrees for 25 minutes. Do not overcook. Remove pumpkin from oven and let stand.

Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the venison cubes, onion and garlic to the skillet, stirring occasionally until they are browned for about 1-2 minutes. Add enough water to cover the meat, onions and garlic and turn heat to low, place a cover on the skillet and let simmer until meat is tender (this will take about 45-60 minutes).

In a large bowl, combine all the rices, corn, beans, squash, sunchokes, both cranberries and maple syrup.

In a separate small skillet, add 1 tablespoon sunflower oil and sauté kale and scallions for 1-2 minutes until they are vibrant green and wilted.

Mix all ingredients together and stuff back into the pumpkin and serve.

Toasted, salted pumpkin seeds may be used as a garnish. Makes 10-12 servings.

Cranberry pear crisp“That is my favorite winter dessert,” Pocknett says, adding that the pears cut through the tartness of the cranberries. “It really does something good for the cranberries. It makes those cranberries happy, I like to say.”

Ingredients

2 sticks salted butter

2 cups brown sugar

3 teaspoons cinnamon

2 cups cubed white bread

2 cups fresh cranberries, roughly chopped

2 cups pears, roughly chopped

1 cup chopped walnuts

4 cups oatmeal

¼ teaspoon nutmeg

1 teaspoon salt

Juice of 1 lemon

Melt one stick of butter and place in the bottom of a 9-inch-by-12-inch baking dish. Take ½ cup of brown sugar and one teaspoon of cinnamon and sprinkle on top of the melted butter. Layer bread crumbs on top of the sugar and cinnamon mixture. Mix cranberries, pears, walnuts, oatmeal, nutmeg, lemon and salt in a bowl and place on top of the bread crumbs. Melt the remaining cup of butter and drizzle over the top. Cook in a 375-degree oven for 30 to 40 minutes. Makes 8-10 servings.

All recipes and cooking instructions courtesy of chef Sherry Pocknett and the Mashantucket Pequot Museum & Research Center at 110 Pequot Trail, Mashantucket. 800-411-9671, pequotmuseum.org

Contact me by email eofgang@connecticutmag.com and follow me on Twitter, and connect with Connecticut Magazine on Twitter, on Facebook and Instagram

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