Thankfully delicious holiday potluck

Dining critic Paula Johnson’s “tradition with a twist”

By Paula Johnson

Photo:El Meson’s Drunken Tequila Turkey


It’s that time of year again. Thanksgiving. The time of gloppy, canned green bean casseroles and treacly, marshmallow-topped sweet potatoes. Don’t forget the winning combination of dry turkey slices with lumpy gravy over bland mashed potatoes. All this to be slogged through to reach the dinner’s final insult: a mushy apple pie with a leaden crust. Yes, we’ve all been to that Thanksgiving dinner, sometimes eating multiple versions at various relatives’ and friends’ houses. Salivating yet? Yeah, me neither.

But what if you could escape those turkey travails? How about a Thanksgiving feast prepared by the best chefs and restaurants in the Dayton area? A culinary dream team lined up to prepare each course of that most traditional of American meals in completely original ways – combining tradition with twist. If this makes you salivate, read on!

I asked some of Dayton’s top chefs to each do their favorite versions of individual dishes to contribute to my Thankfully Delicious Holiday Potluck. And to inspire you to try out some of these for your own feasts, all of the recipes are available online at So this is your year. Stuff that old stuffing recipe! With our chefs’ advice and guidance, you’ll be the talk of the table!

There’s an app for that

I love beginning Thanksgiving before sitting down at the table with an appetizer to share while everyone is arriving. Lily’s Bistro, located in the Oregon District, has been on the scene offering a changing menu of eclectic American food and beverages to accompany each season since May of 2013. Executive Chef Mariah Gahagan is known for offering vegan-friendly choices. Her Stuffed Acorn Squash Appetizer will appeal to vegans and non-vegans alike with its savory combination of herbs, kale, wild rice and shiitakes. (This could also work well as a side dish.)

Soup’s on

For the dinner opener, I turned to the on-the-verge-of-opening team of Natalie and Jack Skilliter. Corner Kitchen, located in the Oregon District on East Fifth Street, is their new concept. Though under construction and a few months away from opening, it’s already eagerly anticipated. Focusing on farm fresh updates on familiar classics, the Skilliters’ combined significant experience with fine dining in New York and Washington, D. C., already has the Dayton food community talking. Their offering of Roasted Butternut Squash Soup is a fabulous starter, featuring fall’s root vegetable bounty. The texture is silky smooth, with the crème fraîche topping providing the perfect counterpoint to the soups’ s sweetness. Toss a few candied pecans on top, and let the feast commence!

Go green

Since the rest of the typical Thanksgiving meal can be heavy, it’s a great idea to start with a salad. If that sounds uninspired, Rue Dumaine’s Chef Anne Kearney has the salad for you. It’s a wilted salad of Jamestown petite Tuscan kale, pancetta, sweet and sour red onions, toasted pistachios and red wine vinaigrette. It’s quite a mouthful to say and quite a mouthful to taste – as I did in preparation for this article. Reminiscent of my grandmother’s German sour lettuce, with sophisticated updates, this is the salad I will be serving. Rue Dumaine features it on their menu, along with Provence-inspired French fare with an American touch. One of Dayton’s dining gems to be sure.

Wilted salad recipe

Let the sides show begin

Interesting side dishes make for a memorable meal. Chef Kearney offers a hard-to-forget Haricot Vert dish featuring golden roasted beets and shallots. Top it off with goat’s cheese before serving, and the green bean debacle you’ve been eating for years will become a distant memory.

“If you can peel a carrot you’ve got this!” according to Chef Elizabeth Wiley of The Meadowlark Restaurant. Meadowlark is known for its inventive takes on seasonal cuisine. Her quick and easy recipe for roasted carrots introduces smokey, slightly spicy Moroccan flavors to one of Thanksgiving’s standard sides.

As an added bonus, Chef Wiley is including a recipe for her famous chipotle sweet potatoes. “It’s a recipe I’ve put out there before, and people just keep asking for it again every year!” As a matter of fact, she just served them to none other than famed TV chef, author and restaurateur Lidia Bastianich, who was recently in town for an event. So how did Lidia like them? She cleaned her plate, reported a beaming Chef Wiley.

Pan-brazed Spiced Carrots recipe

Hot potatoes

Back to Chef Gahagan of Lily’s Bistro for the potatoes. Here’s where simple is pretty wonderful, with Yukon golds and sour cream. It’s her technique that allows these potatoes to shine. “I am an Irish girl who likes simple potatoes,” she said. “The skin adds some texture, and it’s nice to leave a few small lumps for the homemade taste. Salting your cooking water will prevent you from having to use too much salt in the final product.”

“We are making our most popular side dishes available for purchase this Thanksgiving,” said Lily’s Bistro General Manager Emily Mendenhall. So if you want to cheat instead of cooking, you can call ahead to order side dishes to pick up, including their famous blue cheese bread pudding or creamy macaroni and cheese. I promise not to tell.

Drunken tequila?

It’s probably better not to mention to Aunt Martha that the turkey you’re serving is made with tequila, cumin and peppers … and that it’s called Drunken Tequila Turkey – that is, until she tastes it, along with the chorizo bread stuffing and tropical pineapple cilantro cranberries, at which point she will most likely begin salsa dancing. And Aunt Martha can continue her salsa dancing at El Meson, where it’s offered regularly along with an eclectic menu of tapas from around the globe. El Meson has been, for more than 35 years, one of Dayton’s dining staples. According to owner Bill Castro and Chef Mark Abbott, “We got so many requests from regular guests who don’t want to cook, so we are offering a full Thanksgiving spread for the first time this year. There will even be paellafor those who are tired of turkey!” Hours for serving will be from 4-9 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day. But, if you are game, Chef Mark’s recipes are, with easily accessible ingredients, simple and easy to follow, as I learned at their recent Thanksgiving cooking class. These ideas will be certain to liven up your celebration!

All’s well that ends deliciously

The Winds Café in Yellow Springs finishes this feast with a velvety pumpkin cheesecake that has a gingersnap crust. Chef Mary Kay Smith specializes in changing seasonal menus highlighting organic produce and humanely raised meats. Chef Smith has been with The Winds almost since its inception in 1977 and has seen it evolve and grow into the landmark destination it is today. Her recipe is adapted to be easily prepared by the home cook.

And what libations should accompany a Thanksgiving spread? To toast the turkey, I turned to Bonnie Nolan, of Miamisburg’s A Taste of Wine. “I love to start with something sparkling, like a Cava from Spain,” she said. “A customer favorite is Kila Cava or a sparkling rose like Gruet from New Mexico. It’s unusual and the color is festive.” For the turkey course, Nolan favors a spicy red Zinfandel – one with juicy berry notes. “If your guests prefer white, a Gewurztraminer or Riesling both match equally well with turkey.” And with the pumpkin pie? “A Zinfandel port, such as Terra d’Oro,” recommended Nolan. No room for pie? “Try it with some stilton and walnuts for a lighter finish to the meal.”

Is Uncle Biff more of a beer guy? Ale and beer expert Jennifer Dean, along with a partner, runs Dayton’s annual AleFest. “I recommend a stout, like Great Divide’s Yeti, with turkey and gravy,” she said. She went on to point out that the pilgrims drank ale, and MadTree has a seasonal one called, appropriately enough, Pilgrim Pale Ale. “I just had it the other night. It’s fabulous, brewed with cranberries, walnuts and vanilla beans!” Dean’s latest venture, Mudlick Tap House, is in the permitting process and will open in mid-December in Germantown. The name is a nod to the Mudlick Distillery, which operated there from the mid-1800s to 1914 and supplied the entire northwest region with whiskey. Her plan is to serve an edgier and more diverse selection of beers than are currently available in most places, so it’s no surprise Dean is an iconoclast when it comes to Thanksgiving. “We serve salmon and my mother’s IPA Crab Cakes with Spicy Beer Hollandaise.” (Look for the link to the recipe.) Now there’s an idea for an appetizer every fan of a good brew will enjoy.

IPA Crab Cakes recipe

So everything you need for a new Thanksgiving tradition has been covered: options to take out, eat out or make at home are all at the ready. Heed this call to arms (or roast pans), brave epicure! Shake loose the shackles of past holiday meal mediocrity. Whatever your plan of attack, Thanksgiving triumph awaits!

Lily’s Bistro is located at 329 E. Fifth St. in the Oregon District. (Call 937.723.7637 or visit for more information.) Corner Kitchen will open at 613 E. Fifth St. in the Oregon District. (Visit for opening information.) Rue Dumaine is located at 1061 Miamisburg-Centerville Road. (For more information, call 937.610.1061 or visit The Meadowlark Restaurant is located at 5531 Far Hills Ave. in Dayton. (Call 937.434.4750 or visit for more information.) El Meson is located at 903 E. Dixie Drive in Dayton. (Call 937.859.8229 or visit for more information.) The Winds Café is located at 215 Xenia Ave. in Yellow Springs. (For more information, call 937.767.1144 or visit A Taste Of Wine is located at 90 S. Main St. in Miamisburg. (For more information, call 937.247.1120 or visit Mudlick Tap House will open at 3 E. Market St. in Germantown. (Visit for opening information.) 

Reach DCP freelance writer Paula Johnson at

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Paula Johnson
Dayton City Paper Dining Critic Paula Johnson would like every meal to start with a champagne cocktail and end with chocolate soufflé. As long as there’s a greasy burger and fries somewhere in the middle. Talk food with Paula at

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