Tastes of Thanksgiving, with a detour to the Caribbean along the way

For Sylva Senat’s first Thanksgiving dinner, the year his family moved to America from Haiti, the turkey was almost an afterthought.

“At the beginning, it was just, ‘Well, everyone’s home and there’s Haitian food, and, oh, we got to make a turkey today,’ ” said Senat, executive chef at Philadelphia’s French-influenced Maison 208. “We put it in the oven and forgot about it. It wasn’t the focus.”

Over the years he’s spent working in restaurants, Senat learned more about American cooking and to prepare the turkey so that it took on more of a starring role. But some relatives remained part of the time-honored American tradition of loving the side dishes most, which means that every year the Thanksgiving table is laden not just with stuffing and gravy, but also with tastes of the Caribbean, like rice and beans or plantains.

The Thanksgiving turkey in a starring role.

“It becomes a perfect hybrid of both places,” Senat said. “A multitude of sides.”

Senat, who was raised in  Brooklyn, and who worked stints at Jean-Georges, Tashan, and Buddakan, and who opened Maison 208 this year, said Thanksgiving with his family is an all-day eating event, featuring multiple meat courses and endless sides made by his five sisters.

Chef Sylva Senat carves the Thanksgiving turkey.

Since his oldest sister realized Senat knew how to cook turkey, it has been his job every year.  He came up with ways to incorporate Caribbean flavors into the bird: he brines his turkey — in this case a 36-pound organic bird from Jaindl Farms in Orefield, Pa. —  in 32 ounces of Haitian coffee from La Colombe. Salt, oregano, rosemary, thyme, and Scotch bonnet peppers add flavor and heat to the skin and meat.

Senat leaves two types of bread out overnight to harden — brioche and plain white — to use in his stuffing. He bakes it with a variety of wild mushrooms and spices, eggs, and whole milk, turning it into a moist, addictive dish that’s gooey on the inside, crisp at first bite, and infused with texture and earthiness.

The haricot verts at Maison 208.

For the gravy, Senat fashions a thickening slurry out of potato starch and water, then cooks it with chicken stock, rosemary, and thyme. The resulting sauce is light and aromatic, almost delicate. Crunchy, bright haricot verts are blanched and tossed with fresh herbs de Provence for a simple, clean flavor that’s refreshing against the richness of the other dishes.

Rice and beans, always served in a pot on the table to keep it warm, is a staple. “It’s not a Haitian meal without rice and beans,” said Senat, who makes his with thyme, onions, and kidney beans.

Chef Sylva Senat’s rice and red beans, a Thanksgiving staple for his family.

There is always a second meat at Senat family Thanksgivings, such as rack of lamb or pork shoulder. There are usually a few dishes of plantains, glistening brown and served as snacks between courses. Senat dusts them with a hint of truffle salt to cut the sweetness. A bowl of Haitian pikliz slaw, a pickled vegetable relish made with Scotch bonnets, is always on the table so anyone can add spice to the turkey or anything else.

Camera icon
Plantains are always on the table as a snack between courses.

Chocolate flan rounds out the dessert offerings, along with chocolate bread, a scone-brioche hybrid pastry with chocolate chips that is one of Senat’s 8-year-old daughter’s favorite parts of the meal. Perhaps Senat’s largest concession to American Thanksgiving traditions is his pumpkin pie, made from  the recipe on the can of Libby’s pumpkin puree, except that he adds condensed milk. Senat bakes it in several small pie shells because he prefers the way it looks.

Chef Sylva Senat’s take on pumpkin pie.

“As we all got older and had our own families, the meal became more about creating these traditions for ourselves,” he said.

Haitian rice and beans

Serves 10-15

Rice and red beans by Sylva Senat of Maison 208.


32 ounces chicken stock

8 ounces water

24 ounces  rice

4 ounces  white onion, diced

10 sprigs thyme

1 tablespoon salt

8 ounces kidney beans, cooked


  1. Add butter, thyme, and onions to a large pot and cook until onions are translucent.
  2. Add rice and saute for 2 to 3 minutes.
  3. Add kidney beans to rice.
  4. Add liquid and bring to a boil. Cook 10 to 15 minutes until almost dry.
  5. Cover and let simmer for 15 to 20 minutes.

-- From chef Sylva Senat of Maison 208

Per serving: 257 calories, 8 g protein, 54 g carbohydrates, 1 g fat, 758 mg sodium, 4 g dietary fiber, 1 g sugar.

Wild mushroom stuffing

Serves 10 to 12


1 loaf white bread

1 loaf brioche

1 ounce garlic, sliced (about 6 cloves)

2 small red onions, sliced

1 large carrot, diced

10 ounces butter

2 cups white button mushrooms

2 cups oyster mushrooms

2 cups shiitake mushrooms

1 ounce fresh thyme

1 ounce fresh rosemary

10 eggs

16 ounces whole milk

16 ounces chicken stock


  1. Cut bread into 1-inch cubes and let dry overnight on kitchen counter.
  2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  3. Saute butter, onions, garlic, and carrots until carrots are tender but not soft.
  4. Add mushrooms, rosemary, and thyme. Saute to a light chestnut color.
  5. Pour over bread mixture.
  6. Mix egg, milk, and chicken stock. Slowly add to bread mixture until moist. Mix well.
  7. Bake at 350 degrees until golden brown, about 25 minutes.

-- From chef Sylva Senat of Maison 208

Per serving: 425 calories, 11 g protein, 34 g carbohydrates, 28 g fat, 16 g saturated fat, 209 mg cholesterol, 694 mg sodium, 4 g dietary fiber, 6 g sugar.

Haitian coffee-brined roast turkey

Serves 10-15

Thanksgiving turkey by Sylva Senat.


1 20- to 25-pound turkey

32 ounces La Colombe Haitian coffee

2 Scotch bonnet peppers

2 cups kosher salt

2 ounces fresh oregano

4 ounces fresh rosemary

4 ounces fresh thyme

1 pound butter

Salt and pepper


  1. Combine ingredients in 18 quarts of water. Submerge turkey in brine and leave for 20 to 48 hours. Place in large cooler or refrigerator.
  2. To roast: Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  3. Remove turkey from brine. Remove all herbs and whole Scotch bonnets from brine and place inside cavity of the turkey.
  4. Let turkey rest in a roasting pan and air-dry for 1-2 hours.
  5. Melt butter with ½-ounce salt and ½-ounce pepper. Rub half the butter on the turkey and put the rest inside the cavity.
  6. Truss the legs and place in oven. Turkey should cook for 15 to 20 minutes per pound.

-- From chef Sylva Senat of Maison 208

Per serving: 209 calories, 19 g protein, 8 g carbohydrates, 10 g fat, 6 g saturated fat, 46 mg cholesterol, 350 mg sodium, 5 g dietary fiber.

Thanksgiving turkey herb gravy

Serves 10 to 15

The Thanksgiving gravy at Maison 208.


4 ounces potato starch

2 ounces water

32 ounces chicken stock

1 ounce fresh rosemary

1 ounce fresh thyme


  1. Mix water with potato starch over heat and slowly bring to a boil.
  2. Add chicken stock, rosemary, and thyme. Bring to a boil and reduce heat to a simmer until liquid reduces by half.
  3. Strain out herbs and serve hot with turkey.

-- From chef Sylva Senat of Maison 208

Per serving: 120 calories, 28 g carbohydrates, 238 mg sodium.

Chocolate-chip brioche rolls

Makes about 26 rolls


4 cups plus 6 tablespoons all-purpose flour

4 ¼  teaspoons salt

¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar

3½ teaspoons yeast

7 eggs

5 sticks plus 2 tablespoons of butter

14 ounces whole milk

10 ounces chocolate chips


  1. Combine all dry ingredients in a mixer. Slowly add the butter, milk, and 6 eggs, leaving one for later.  Add chocolate chips. Continue to beat until dough comes cleanly off the bowl, adding more flour if necessary.
  2. Place dough in large bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit until it doubles in size.
  3. Punch dough down and knead three to five times on a floured cutting board.
  4. Shape balls about 3 tablespoons in size. Line them up on a floured sheet tray and let rise until they double in size, or overnight.
  5. Brush dough with egg wash (1 egg plus 1 tablespoon water).
  6. Bake at 400 degrees for 20 minutes, or until rolls are golden brown.

-- From chef Sylva Senat of Maison 208

Per serving: 360 calories, 6 g protein, 38 g carbohydrates, 20 g fat, 13 g saturated fat, 79 mg cholesterol, 396 mg sodium, 1 g dietary fiber, 12 g sugar.