My first job after college was managing and promoting the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line. That job quickly made Thanksgiving my favorite holiday.
After all, it is a holiday that revolves solely around food. And that's a lot to like. Spending seven seasons helping Americans celebrate Thanksgiving gave me a much broader perspective on what this means than just giving thanks with my family.
One of the best lessons I learned was just how personal and varied Thanksgiving is for Americans. My favorite side dish is a great example. The sage-sausage rich "dressing" of my Southern childhood was the bread-based "stuffing" of the Midwest. And while some people use oysters or cornbread, others prefer apples or pecans.
We don't even all agree on where to cook it — in the bird or in a casserole dish?
Most of us gravitate to what we grew up with, so it's no surprise that I prefer my Thanksgiving dressing served on the side. I love the contrast of a crispy, crunchy top and a moist interior. It also cuts about an hour off the cooking time if you roast an unstuffed bird.
My time studying Thanksgiving traditions also taught me that potatoes are very regional. I grew up with "candied yams," a dark molasses, sugar and aromatic spice sauce poured over sliced sweet potatoes, then baked until bubbly. No mashed potatoes at our table.
As I got older and started experimenting with food, I created a hybrid of the two. A sweet-potato bourbon mash that has the buttery goodness of traditional mashed potatoes and all of the molasses, sugar and spice of the sweet potatoes. And the whole thing is whipped to a luxurious and tasty mash.
In fact, I make it and serve it all year long with roasted — or beer-can — chicken, hearty fish, beef and pork.
As much as I love the sweet potato mash, the dressing still is my favorite part of Thanksgiving. Even if I go to someone else's house for dinner, I have to make this dressing and share it. And if I can't do that, I make it and have a second Thanksgiving at home. I just can't celebrate the holiday without it.
This Southern sausage dressing — also known as my mom's — is baked in a casserole dish and served on the side. But if you love to stuff your turkey, try this recipe and stuff it into your bird. After all, Thanksgiving is about traditions and we are all partial to our own.
SOUTHERN SAUSAGE DRESSING
Start to finish: 1 hour 15 minutes
12-ounce package Cubed Herb Seasoned Pepperidge Farm Stuffing mix
1/2 loaf of favorite bread, crumbled (about 3 cups)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 pound bulk hot sage sausage
1 bunch celery, chopped
2 large yellow onions, chopped
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, melted
2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
Kosher salt and ground black pepper
Heat the oven to 350 F. Coat a large casserole dish with cooking spray (or butter).
In a large bowl, mix together the stuffing mix and crumbled bread. Set aside, but toss occasionally to help the bread dry out.
In a large skillet over medium-high, heat the oil. Add the sausage and cook, breaking up any large chunks, until cooked through, about 8 to 10 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the meat to paper towels to absorb excess fat.
Return the skillet to the heat. Add a splash of olive oil or a small pat of butter. Add the celery and onions, then saute until the onions start to caramelize, about 8 to 10 minutes.
Transfer the cooked sausage and the sauteed vegetables to the bowl of stuffing mix and bread. Toss well. Add the melted butter and toss to evenly mix. Drizzle in the broth, mixing until the stuffing is evenly moist and holds together, but isn't too wet. Transfer to the prepared casserole dish and bake for 35 to 40 minutes, or until browned on top.
Nutrition information per serving (values are rounded to the nearest whole number): 540 calories; 230 calories from fat (43 percent of total calories); 26 g fat (11 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 70 mg cholesterol; 58 g carbohydrate; 19 g protein; 5 g fiber; 1,050 mg sodium.
SWEET POTATO BOURBON MASH
If sweet potatoes just aren't the same without marshmallows for you, top with mini-marshmallows and pop under the broiler for 1 to 2 minutes just before serving.
Start to finish: 2 hours
8 large garnet sweet potatoes
1 pint heavy cream
1/2 to 3/4 cup Maker's Mark bourbon
1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
1/2 cup molasses
1 teaspoon salt, or more to taste
3 dashes hot sauce, or more to taste
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
Heat the oven to 350 F. Prick each sweet potato with a fork, then roast for 1 to 1 1/2 hours, or until tender. Remove from the oven and set aside until cool to the touch.
Peel the sweet potatoes, then cut each into quarters. Place the potatoes in a large stockpot or Dutch oven. Add the cream, bourbon, brown sugar, molasses and salt. Use a fork or masher to mash everything together. If the mixture is too dry, add a bit of water.
Heat over medium-low for 30 to 40 minutes, or until the sweet potatoes are so soft they resemble a puree. This second cooking makes the potatoes foolproof since any hard (under-cooked) pieces of sweet potato will be well cooked before serving.
Stir in the hot sauce and nutmeg, then adjust salt as needed. Also can be prepared a day ahead.
Nutrition information per serving (values are rounded to the nearest whole number): 460 calories; 200 calories from fat (43 percent of total calories); 22 g fat (14 g saturated; 1 g trans fats); 80 mg cholesterol; 56 g carbohydrate; 3 g protein; 4 g fiber; 350 mg sodium.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Elizabeth Karmel is a grilling and Southern foods expert and executive chef at Hill Country Barbecue Market restaurants in New York and Washington, as well as Hill Country Chicken in New York. She is the author of three cookbooks, including "Soaked, Slathered and Seasoned."