Thanksgiving is one of our favorite food holidays, but we also know it can be rather bland. A lot of starches, thick gravies, and dishes that can be either too sweet or over-the-top savory – not a whole lot of spice going on. For some thoughts on adding a touch of heat, Francis Lam talked about and tasted Indian-spiced dishes with Chef Vikram Sunderam and David Hagedorn. Sunderam is the James Beard Award-winning chef at the world-famous Indian Rasika restaurant in Washington, DC. Rasika also happens to be the name of the beautiful new cookbook coauthored by Sunderam and David Hagedorn. Add some kick to your Thanksgiving menu with their recipes for Sweet Potato Samosa Purses with Cranberry Chutney, Butternut Squash Bharta, and Green Bean Chili Garlic.

Francis Lam: David, you've worked in food media for a while, so you understand the essential problem of every November issue of every magazine. Which is, “What are we going to do this year?” Everyone says, “I'm so bored of Thanksgiving. Give me something new, something to look forward to.”

David Hagedorn: I know it from three sides. Having had a career as a chef for 25 years and coming up with Thanksgiving menus in my restaurants. I have my family over every year, so I have to do it there. And now, when I had this opportunity working with Vikram – which was tremendous fun – to think of Thanksgiving in another way, which he helped me do completely.

One of the first recipes we tested was the cranberry chutney; it was  such an inspiration, and it really spoke to Thanksgiving. We did all of the recipes first, then we went back later to do the head notes. It was so obvious to me how many of these dishes were appropriate for the Thanksgiving table. I was able to speak to that in the head notes with Vikram, so that we could think of having Americans think of Thanksgiving in a different way. And thinking of Indian food in a different way, for that matter.

Coauthors Chef Vikram Sunderam and David Hagedorn (Sunderam Photo: Shimon + Tammar, Hagerdorn Photo: Bill O'Leary)

FL: Chef Vikram, you are not from the United States. You came here via London from India. In your cooking, you've found yourself inspired to some degree by traditional American Thanksgiving flavors.

Vikram Sunderam: Definitely. When I came to America, I wasn't aware so much of Thanksgiving, but living here for the last 12 years, Thanksgiving is very big holiday here. Every year, we came up with dishes for Thanksgiving at the restaurant. We put some of them on the menu, like the samosas with the cranberry chutney, butternaut squash bharta, and green bean chili garlic. They are some of the dishes we have in the book which can be eaten at Thanksgiving.

FL: And you've brought some of these dishes.

VS: That's right.

FL: This is really all an excuse for me to get to eat your food. [laughs] Can we taste our way through some of these, and you can tell us about the inspiration and how you made them? I'm going to start with the sweet potato samosa with cranberry chutney.

This samosa is like a crispy dumpling. You've filled almost like a filo dough or a spring roll wrapper type of pastry. You've tied it off with a scallion and fried it so the edges come up like a beautiful cloth. Alright, I'm going in.

VS: Again, cranberries is one of the essential ingredients during Thanksgiving. And we made a chutney with it, flavored with spices like cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, and green chilis.

DH: When we were testing the recipe, Vikram would come over to my house so that we could test everything on a home kitchen stove instead of a professional one. By the way, that made me very popular at my neighborhood. Everyone knew when he was there, and everyone knew when he left, because they were standing by our back door. When we first tested the chutney – which was early on – it was a revelation for me, because this popped with so much flavor. I thought, “This needs to be marketed. You need to jar it and sell it for Thanksgiving.” It's such a revelation, especially next to a turkey. To put some of that with a piece of turkey and gravy, it's amazing.

FL: You can taste sweetness, but you get that very bright tartness from the cranberries. And also this little bit of heat sort of sails through it.

DH: Right. Can you imagine that kick of heat on Thanksgiving table? It's something usually not found.

FL: The thing with Thanksgiving is it's brown food and white food, right? It's delicious, but it’s very one-note; it’s a one big warm comforting hug. But this is a little bit more like when your aunt comes and slaps you across the face a little bit. It's like, “Ah, I love ya!”

VS: The Indian spices do give it a bit of a third dimension to the Thanksgiving meal.

FL: Let's talk about your butternut squash bharta, because squash and pumpkins are such a traditional thing here. But this is a different idea of it. How do you make this?

VS: The bharta is traditionally made with eggplant. It's called baingan bharta. But, obviously being Thanksgiving, butternut squash has to be on the table. We made a small butternut squash mash; that’s what it is. It's cooked with onions, tomatoes, ginger and green chilis, and you roast the butternut squash. But, then you cook the butternut squash with the onion-tomato masala, and once that is done we smoke it. You can get the smoke flavor in the butternut squash.

FL: Can we cancel the recording right now, because I'm just going to sit here and eat the rest of this. It's amazing!

DH: The smoking technique is quite brilliant. You take a briquette and get it hot on the stove. You can do it on an electric stove or a gas stove. While that's heating up, you take a piece of heavy duty aluminum foil and on that you put some cloves. Once the briquette is ash hot, put the foil on top of the squash with the cloves. Then you put the briquette on, and pour ghee or melted butter over it, which creates the smoke. Put the lid on; let it stay on until the smoke dissipates – about ten minutes or so. It's such a brilliant smoking technique. They use it for the dal at Rasika, which is a life-altering experience once you've tasted it.

FL: Hearing you describe that smoking technique is changing my life right now. When tasted it, I get the spice, I get the onion, I get the little crunch from onion that's in the mashed sweet potato, which you don't expect. But the smoke was so interesting because it didn't taste like a typical wood smoke. It had that sort of burnt oil flavor – like if you're cooking Chinese food in a wok.

VS: That's right.

DH: Exactly.

Rasika: Flavors of India by Ashok Bajaj, Vikram Sunderam and David Hagedorn

FL: You get that flavor in there because you're actually smoking the oil. You're burning the oil just a little bit to get that flavor. That's amazing.

Okay, so the green beans chili garlic, these look like green beans chopped into little bits that you've stir fried and now almost coated in this paste of onions and aromatics.

VS: Again, in the context of Thanksgiving, green bean casserole is always on the Thanksgiving table. So, this is caramelized onions, burned garlic, chili flakes, green chilis, and ginger. The green beans are tossed in it.

FL: Green bean casserole is no fun compared to this.

VS: It's different. As I said, Indian food adds spice to the table.

FL: The heat is prominent. But it's not just the heat; it’s all the caramelized flavor from the garlic and ginger.

DH: As a recipe developer, what's appealing to me – especially in this day and age of people not wanting to spend much time on things – is that you can blanche the green beans ahead of time, even the day before, and then the dish comes together quickly at the end. Which is so appealing.

FL: Many foods on Thanksgiving are long-cooked, slow-cooked, or have been hanging out for a while; this is something you can do at the last minute to add some freshness to the table.

DH: Exactly.

FL: Chef, I know you wanted to tell us about your stuffed dates with the saffron chili beurre blanc.

VS: It’s a fun way of putting dates on the table. You know the Italians have taste of a mascarpone, but here we've stuffed the dates with goat cheese, chili powder, chaat masala – which gives it a bite. Then we grill the dates on a tawa – which is a flat griddle – and made a saffron chili beurre blanc to go with it.

DH: For people who don't like goat cheese, you can use paneer instead.

FL: It's so good. I have to admit, I was a bit skeptical because I'm not a huge fan of dates fan. Often, to me, they're too sweet – like sickly sweet. Your stuffing it with cheese mitigates the sweetness. I'm fascinated by the way there’s almost a crispness to the dates.

VS: Yes, because you're grilling it on the tawa with a bare minimum of oil or fat.

DF: The sweetness you talk about speaks to Thanksgiving, because when you think about pecan pie and things we use at Thanksgiving – corn syrup, molasses, brown sugar – the dates fall right into that flavor.

FL: As if you had somehow made pecan pie part of the appetizers table instead of the dessert table.

DH: Right.

Francis Lam
Francis Lam is the host of The Splendid Table. He is the former Eat columnist for The New York Times Magazine and is Vice President and Editor-in-Chief at Clarkson Potter. He graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America and has written for numerous publications. Lam lives with his family in New York City.