An Outdoor Thanksgiving Feast with Friends
Recipes, decor and a planning guide to celebrate and give thanks with good food, friends and nature in this al fresco Friendsgiving
Dani Blasena knows how to host a party. The HauteFêtes founder, creative director and lead designer specializes in event design that brings the effortless grace of European elegance to whatever she does. Though Thanksgiving is not a European holiday, the British transplant hosted the celebration in the garden of her Rancho Santa Fe home. And though the food was somewhat traditional (as in there was a turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and Brussels sprouts) the manner in which some dishes were prepared and cooked was not.
Dani also challenged tradition when it came to the color palette. Her inspiration called for muted shades and soft wood tones that would blend seamlessly with the garden. She partnered with Kasia Mikulska, owner and designer at Plenty of Petals, to create florals that avoided the typical orange, yellow and red tones that mark the harvest celebration, and invited in pale pinks, blues, greens, creams and coppers to help set the scene.
Read on to get Dani’s tips for stylishly bringing the holiday outside, modifications (and dare we say, improvements) she and her husband Kurt made to those classic recipes by cooking some of them outdoors, a fun take on dessert, a signature cocktail and more.
It’s All About Location
Dani’s landscape offers the perfect natural setting among her olive trees—the ground is relatively flat, and there’s lots of areas to string lights or put lanterns. Dani left nature alone, moved her antique table from the dining room and rented Scandinavian-inspired chairs to make it feel a bit more modern. “We wanted the event to feel like a fine-dining experience in the yard,” Dani says. “The existing patio furniture feels heavier and more casual; we wanted to elevate the experience.”
Bring Texture to the Table
Barley, rust and dusty rose are the colors that Kasia used as a springboard to create the centerpiece and bud-vase arrangements that decorate this Thanksgiving table. She chose coppery ranunculus, pink amaryllis, and shades of pink sweet peas, bunny tails and smoke bushes—all textures that mimicked the existing landscape.
Besides flower markets, Kasia likes to find unique foliage and blooms at local nurseries. Check out some of her favorite places to shop in San Diego here.
Centerpieces: Beyond Flowers
If centerpiece creation intimidates you, Kasia, owner of Plenty of Petals, says a collection of potted plants in simple ceramic or wood vessels creates a modern centerpiece with little hassle. “I like to incorporate food into floral arrangements, too,” she says. You can partially stick the blunt end of a florist’s pick into a pomegranate or other seasonal fruit or vegetable to work it into a vase of flowers. “I also like to forage for things like bunny tails or something you’re already cooking with such as rosemary. Bud vases filled with herbs would be pretty.” And aromatic.
Simple and Elegant Outdoor Thanksgiving Table Settings
Dani used wooden chargers and ceramic plates and bowls to add a clean-lined element to the tabletop. “Everyone should have a few good staples on hand for entertaining,” Dani explains. “You should have chargers and white plates—food always looks good on white plates.”
From there, you can change things up inexpensively for different events or holidays. Dani purchased these pale blue napkins and gave them “the ghost fold,” which is a knot at the top that highlights the fringe. She printed her guests’ names on torn pieces of paper in an orange font and tied each to a single wheat stem using twine. “You should always make individualized place settings; it feels thoughtful,” she advises.
Naming Conventions: Outdoorsy Place Cards
Other than sprigs of wheat, Dani likes the idea of introducing an easily accessible fall element to the table with the place cards. Try slender grasses that don’t shed too much, mini specialty peppers from the grocery store or squash blossoms from your garden.
Create Outdoor Thanksgiving Ambience
Enchanted evening meals in the garden depend on the magic of lighting. Dani and Kasia lined the table with candles and Dani positioned lanterns nearby for this late-afternoon soiree. You might also wrap the trunks of trees in twinkling lights or string market lights overhead. You want to make the space feel as intimate and cozy as your dining room. Dani suggests filling baskets with blankets or putting small throws on the backs of chairs to encourage people to snuggle up as the evening progresses.
Make All The Fixings
Kurt and Dani planned a menu that included some holiday favorites like mashed potatoes dusted with fresh herbs, Brussels sprouts accompanied by bacon, in-season roasted vegetables, fresh cranberry sauce and a twist on the typical turkey (Kurt finished theirs in the couple’s outdoor pizza oven). “We loved the idea of giving the turkey a slightly woodsy flavor,” Dani says. “So we placed the turkey in the pizza oven on a piece of citrus wood.”
Another atypical component? The build-your-own s’mores bar that guests created—using Dani’s homemade marshmallows (adapted from Ina Garten’s recipe)—around the fire pit. And besides the welcoming signature cocktail, Dani and Kurt complemented the s’mores with drinking chocolate (served hot). Find all of their recipes below (or jump straight to them here).
Preparing a S’mores Board
In addition to her homemade marshmallows, Dani placed graham crackers, chocolate-covered cookies, Reese’s peanut butter cups, pretzels (hers were dipped in sea salt and lavender), peanuts, walnuts, cranberries and an assortment of different types of chocolate including milk, dark and white, on a wooden serving board.
Dani opted to forgo the traditional pies in favor of a do-it-yourself s’mores bar that allowed each guest to customize their dessert, and added to the outdoor Thanksgiving magic with a backyard firepit. “You want to offer options so guests can come up with their own creative combination,” she says. She introduced various nuts and dried fruits to the platter to add a bit of texture and fun flavor. Who knew dark chocolate, cranberries and walnuts would taste so lovely smushed between graham crackers and toasted marshmallow?
The Outdoor Thanksgiving Recipes
2 oz. Hendricks gin
1/4 oz. lemon juice
Agave nectar to taste
Sparkling apple cider
Fresh thyme and apple slices for garnish
Pour gin in shaker, add lemon juice and agave nectar, shake and pour into a high-ball glass. Top with sparkling cider. Garnish with fresh thyme and an apple slice.
Succulent Lemon-and-Herb Basted Turkey
Serves 10-12 (with plenty of leftovers)
For the brine
1 turkey, thawed
1 cup salt
1/2 cup fresh sage leaves, roughly chopped
5 bay leaves
1 Tbsp. whole peppercorns
4 cups plus 3 quarts water
Rinse the turkey and pat it dry. Remove the giblets. Place the turkey in a pot large enough to keep the turkey submerged.
Strip the peels from the lemons using a vegetable peeler. Try to remove just the peel, leaving behind as much of the bitter white pith as possible. Set lemons aside for later use.
Bring 4 cups of the water to a boil in a large saucepan or stock pot. Once boiling, add the salt and stir until dissolved. Add the lemon peels, sage, bay leaves and peppercorns and let the water return to a boil, then remove from heat.
Let it cool until no longer steaming, then stir in the remaining 3 quarts of water. Check the temperature of the brine; it should be room temperature or lukewarm.
Pour the brine over the turkey. Make sure the turkey is submerged, though it’s OK if the boney tips of the legs stick out the top.
Cover the turkey and keep refrigerated for 18 hours.
Remove the turkey from the brine and rinse.
For the turkey
1 onion, quartered
3 lemons, quartered
Fresh herbs, including sage, rosemary, thyme and parsley
When ready to roast the turkey, position the rack in the bottom third of oven and preheat to 425°F. Place turkey in a roasting pan, and put the onion and lemon into the cavity of the turkey as well as the herbs.
Roast the turkey until the skin starts to brown in spots, about 20 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 325°F and roast for another 45 minutes.
Rotate the roasting pan, baste the turkey with the pan juices and tent the breast with foil to prevent it from overcooking. Continue roasting until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of a thigh without touching bone registers 160°F. A brined bird cooks much faster than one that is not brined. Plan to cook the bird for 10 minutes per pound. (Note: If you have a wood-fired oven—a perfect but not necessary outdoor Thanksgiving touch—place the turkey in it for the last hour of cooking.)
Transfer the turkey to a clean cutting board and tent with foil. Let it rest for 30 minutes before carving.
4 russet potatoes
4 Yukon Gold potatoes
1/2 cup butter
3/4 cup sour cream
1 cup half and half
Salt and pepper
1/4 cup fresh chives
Place potatoes in a large pot. Cover with water and bring to a boil. Boil potatoes until fork tender.
Strain potatoes and put them back into the hot pot. Add the butter, sour cream, half and half and plenty of salt and pepper.
Using a hand-mashing utensil (or a hand blender), mix all the ingredients until fully incorporated. “We do not mix for perfect smooth texture,” Dani says. “We prefer a more rustic texture.”
Transfer to an oven-safe vessel with a lid. Bake at 350°F for 30 minutes. Remove from the oven and garnish with chives.
Crispy Brussels Sprouts with Bacon
1 lb. Brussels sprouts, rinsed, ends trimmed, rough outer leaves of larger sprouts removed
1 Tbsp. garlic, minced (about 3 cloves)
1 tsp. lemon juice
2 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 lb. bacon, cut into 1/4-inch pieces
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
If you’re not using a wood-fired oven, preheat the oven to 350°F.
Place Brussels sprouts in a large bowl. Toss with garlic, lemon juice and olive oil so that the sprouts are well coated. Spread the Brussels sprouts out in a large cast-iron frying pan or roasting pan in a single layer with plenty of space between the sprouts. Sprinkle generously with salt (at least half a teaspoon) and plenty of turns of black pepper.
In a medium-sized frying pan, place the bacon on medium heat stirring regularly until browned. Ladle out the bacon onto a paper towel-lined small plate. Set aside.
Put Brussels sprouts in oven on top rack, roast for 30 minutes, stirring the sprouts about halfway through the cooking. Adjust the timing depending on the size of the sprouts and your particular oven. The sprouts should be nicely browned with some of the outside leaves crunchy and the interior cooked through.
Place the Brussels sprouts on a serving platter. Sprinkle the bacon and Parmesan on top.
Roasted Butternut Squash, Parsnips and Carrots
1 medium butternut squash (about 2 pounds), peeled and cut into chunks
3 large parsnips, peeled and cut into pieces
3 large carrots, peeled and cut into pieces
Extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup parsley, chopped
Balsamic vinegar to taste, about 1 Tbsp.
Preheat the oven to 400°F. Toss the squash, parsnips and carrots in olive oil and salt them well. Arrange in one layer on baking sheets (you may need two) and put them in the oven. Roast the vegetables until their edges are nicely caramelized, turning them over about halfway through the roasting.
Toss roasted vegetables with parsley, balsamic vinegar and black pepper and transfer to a serving tray.
Orange-Infused Cranberry Sauce
1 12-oz. package fresh cranberries
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup sugar
Zest from 1 orange
Juice from 1 orange
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
Place the cranberries in a colander and rinse them.
Put the water and sugar in a medium saucepan on high heat and bring to a boil. Stir to dissolve the sugar.
Add cranberries. Lower the heat and simmer for 10 minutes or until most of the cranberries have burst. Don’t overcook; you want to see the form of the cranberries.
Once the cranberries have burst add the orange zest, orange juice, cinnamon and nutmeg.
Remove from heat. Let cool completely and serve.
3 packages unflavored gelatin
1 cup cold water, divided
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 cup light corn syrup
1/4 tsp. kosher salt
1 Tbsp. pure vanilla extract
Confectioners’ sugar, for dusting
TIP: Dani suggests adding 3 tablespoons of lemon juice to the sugar syrup portion of this recipe, 4-5 teaspoons of rose water and a drop of red food coloring in lieu of vanilla for a light-rose flavor and pink color.
Combine the gelatin and 1/2 cup of cold water in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment and allow to sit while you make the syrup.
Meanwhile, combine the sugar, corn syrup, salt and 1/2 cup water in a small saucepan and cook over medium heat until the sugar dissolves. Raise the heat to high and cook until the syrup reaches 240°F on a candy thermometer. Remove from heat.
With the mixer on low speed, slowly pour the sugar syrup into the dissolved gelatin. Put the mixer on high speed and whip until the mixture is very thick, about 15 minutes. Add the vanilla and mix thoroughly.
Using a sieve, generously dust an 8-by-11-inch nonmetal baking dish with confectioners’ sugar.
Working quickly, scrape the marshmallow mixture into the prepared pan using a cake spatula or flexible scraper. Smooth the top using an oiled spatula, and dust with more confectioners’ sugar. Allow it to stand uncovered on the counter overnight or for at least 6 hours, until it dries out.
Turn the marshmallows onto a board and use an oiled knife to cut them into squares. Dust them with more confectioners’ sugar.
Homemade Hot Chocolate
1 oz. semisweet or dark chocolate
1 Tbsp. unsweetened cocoa powder
1 cup milk
1 pinch salt
2 Tbsp. granulated sugar (optional, to taste)
Whipped cream, marshmallows, chocolate shavings or cinnamon for garnish
In a small saucepan, mix the chocolate, cocoa powder and 1/2 cup of the milk over low heat. Stir continuously until the chocolate is completely melted.
Add the rest of the milk and the salt. Stir, and heat the rest of the way through.
Stir in sugar to taste. Pour into a mug and top with marshmallows, whipped cream, chocolate shavings or cinnamon,