Sometimes, learning to cook is the best thing a child can do
In our house, the first smell of Thanksgiving was not turkey roasting or pumpkin pie but the bleach-sweet steam of my mother ironing the good tablecloth. I remember it from a time when I was small enough to creep unnoticed beneath the ironing board while she painstakingly transformed an undistinguished hump of wrinkled linen into a curtain of shimmering white. With a curt flick of her wrist, my mother sprinkled each length with water from a yellow, plastic bottle designed for this purpose, and then the iron would sizzle a path just above my head. Soon I was surrounded by a linen tent. The smell sparkled like hot stars.
So my Thanksgiving apprenticeship began.
Discovered, I was set to work folding the napkins, the first task allotted to small children wanting to be holiday helpers. The next year, I was allowed to place them beside each plate. My eyes were not that much higher than the table's surface and it seemed the most glamorous thing I had ever seen, a snowy landscape forested by crystal trees, glittering with silver and dishes of every size.
My grandfather and several of my great uncles had a fur store in N.Y. It was called Windsor Furs (to indicate, one can only guess, a regal presence previously unknown to 14th Street and 7th Avenue). Uncle Simon and Uncle Harry kept Windsor Furs well into their 90’s. And I would like to tell you all the funny, memorable stories I know about them and the shop. But the thing that springs to mind at this moment is their business card.
“Windsor Furs - Shop Here! Soon you will know the reason why.”
It started simply enough: the other half felt the need to bake. For me, well, I’m no baker and the urge to do so is akin to washing my car or preparing receipts for tax purposes. I’ll do it but only begrudgingly. But like many things I’m fully prepared to participate in the end result, and in this case it was a pie of monstrous proportions.
I’m not quite sure of his thought process as I wasn’t in the kitchen when he found the recipe, but I know it involved tons of pecans, a spring form pan and the new oven. I was a bit relieved that I wasn’t around as anyone knows to mess with a Texan’s Pecan Pie is clearly not the smartest thing to do (even if said Texan lives in California.) It’s not quite sacrilege — but it’s pretty damn close.
"So this pie I’m baking, I found a recipe online and I’m not sure how it’s going to come out," my big red-headed angel tells me.
"You’re a baker, I’m sure it’ll be just fine," I respond.
"I don’t know about that, it’s kind of a different sort of Pecan Pie."
Different sort of pecan pie. Different sort of pecan pie. DIFFERENT SORT OF PECAN PIE. DIFFERENT SORT OF PECAN PIE! Are you getting that, folks? As those words floated around the kitchen they took their sweet little time worming their way into my brain. A what type of what pie? Did I really hear you correctly? Would you like to grab an enchilada while you’re at it and poke me in the eye? How about hitting me over the head with a rib bone from Tyler, Texas? Come on, I’m all yours, just do it! You already started.
I’m grateful for many things at Thanksgiving– family, friends, health, light traffic on the 405…all the usual suspects. But as the person who hosts that gathering year after year, I am also grateful for this technique for a perfect dry-brine roast turkey that makes my old wet-brine birds seem spongy, bland and far too much work by comparison.
The method was developed by one of my favorite San Francisco chefs, Judy Rodgers. In her 2002 The Zuni Cafe Cookbook, Rodgers goes into great detail on why salting meats and poultry days ahead of the actual cooking promotes juiciness, texture and enhances flavor…flying in the face of what, until then, had been the conventional wisdom that the salting of meats should be done only at the last minute. Per her instruction, I tried it with dozens of dishes–from chickens to chops to pot roasts–and, in every instance, the technique worked beautifully. But it never occurred to me to use it on the all important Thanksgiving turkey until The Los Angeles Times’ Russ Parson, one of my favorite food writers, declared it the definitive way to beautify the bird. And, boy, was Russ right.
I love cranberries. I do. I love Ocean Spray whole cranberry cranberry sauce. It has to be whole berry and I’m addicted to it. I can’t even serve a roast chicken without cranberry sauce. We were once out of cranberry sauce (which I didn’t realize) as I put the chicken on the table and I started crying. Literally.
Alan was so annoyed at me he stormed out and bought ten cans of whole berry cranberry sauce and we had a very pleasant dinner. The roast chicken was very good by the way. But it just feels naked to me without the “sauce” and gravy might do the trick but it’s fattening and bad for you and over-indulgent on a Wednesday night.
On Thanksgiving, I like to take two to three cans of Ocean Spray, put them in a decorative mold (like you make a bundt cake in) but I have one that’s in the shape of a rose, put it in the fridge for three hours and then carefully place a plate over it, hit the bottom of the pan and serve it on the plate and pretend I made it myself.
My friend Carol Caldwell once made a spiced up cranberry sauce for Thanksgiving that we thought was pretty great. She has no recollection of this. But I do. What I remember is that it had jalapenos in it, a kind of zingy (or California) addition and some kind of alcohol (which may be why she doesn’t remember it). I think it was bourbon. She thinks it was Vodka. I’m pretty sure I’m right. And for sure, a little bit of grated orange rind for flavor.
When I decided to move across the country, my parents believed that I would quickly get over my folly of living in the Golden State and return to life in New England. Unfortunately for them, California felt like home the minute I crossed the border and I haven't looked back since. The only time I regret being so far away is at Thanksgiving.
It's all about the food and a fairly simple concept of sharing one's bounty. A day to give thanks for the good things in your life. Everyone eats too much, drinks too much, maybe says things they shouldn't, but in the end it's a holiday of inclusion. Even when I was single, I've never had to celebrate Turkey Day alone. Unlike Christmas, with its unwavering traditions, which usually include immediate family only, on Thanksgiving I've found it's "the more the merrier."
After 20 years, my parents still hope that I will return for a Thanksgiving. That they could travel here, never occurs to them. They know we're not coming, but that doesn't stop them from complaining about it. It's just too expensive and difficult. Every year travel horror stories on the news prove that it's not worth the trouble just to share turkey and cranberry sauce. Over the years, my family has come to indulge us with a Thanksgiving dinner on our early Fall sojourns East. Believe me, it tastes just as good in late October. They pull out all the stops and never fail to include the one item I still sorely miss – my mother's meat stuffing.
It's already in full swing. Thanksgiving turkey mania. You know what I'm talking about. The endless, frenzied debate over how to cook the perfect turkey. With all the food magazines, cooking shows and turkey hotlines available, I know you'll find more information than you ever wanted on the bird. That's why I'm posting about Thanksgiving side dishes: They're much less controversial. You can't brine sweet potatoes or deep fry cranberry sauce. At least, I don't think you can.
Last year I shared four Thanksgiving side dishes with a twist: Perennial favorites like sweet potatoes and string beans got a makeover. They looked fabulous. But we can't make the same veggies this year. Well, except for the String Beans with Prosciutto, Pine Nuts, and Lemon. I have to make those again. Don't worry though. I've got a few new ones for you that won't disappoint.
Let's start with Festive Stuffed Acorn Squash. A robustly sweet and tangy filling of shallots, cranberries, prunes and pecans is nestled inside of a hot roasted acorn squash half. If you've just wrinkled your nose at the word "prunes," trust me, they're the ideal foil to tart cranberries. But if you just can't abide the thought of them, swap them for sweet Medjool dates. Everyone loves Medjool dates.
Contrary to popular belief, you don't need a whole turkey to make gravy. However, you must slow-roast turkey to get good gravy.
I have to admit I have witnessed some pretty seasoned cooks have complete breakdowns at Thanksgiving when it comes time to gravy making. There is just too much going on at that moment; the bird is out of the oven, they are trying to deglaze the pan, the side dishes are almost ready or are getting cold, there are too many people around...let's face it, gravy anxiety is real.
However, all of this pandemonium can be eliminated with a little planning. The secret is turkey wings from the grocery store. Every store has them and they are so cheap. When you roast the wings with celery, onions and garlic, you have the makings of a perfect turkey stock which you will make into the perfect gravy. This can be done months ahead and frozen, taking out the stock when you need it.
On Thanksgiving you can make the gravy while the bird is in the oven as opposed to when it's out, which many of you know is a very stressful activity.
Thanksgiving isn't complete without some sort of sweet potato dish. There's the traditional marshmallow-topped sweet potato side dish or the classic dessert of sweet potato pie. Sweet potatoes are almost magical when cooked or baked. Their bright orange flesh turns soft and almost creamy. Roasting them heightens their natural sweetness even more. Many holiday recipes further improve upon the sweetness by adding brown sugar, honey, or maple syrup. With the holiday only one week away, it's time to start planning. I'll be making a few new recipes to add to my repertoire.
Sweet and savory flavors are the basis of many classic Thanksgiving recipes. This side dish strays from the typical in favor of something a bit more gourmet and savory. Roasted sweet potatoes are mashed with butter, cream, and maple syrup and then spread in a gratin dish. The mashed sweet potatoes are then topped with fluffy panko breadcrumbs, fresh sage, and chopped walnuts. It's then drizzled with melted butter and broiled, turning the top golden and crunchy. It's a side dish that's sure to please both sweet potato traditionalists and those looking for a new take on a holiday favorite.
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Pumpkin is going to be with us for the next two months and I want to capitalize on all that it has to offer. As I start to plan my Thanksgiving feast, in my head, I take into consideration all the wonderful flavors of the season; pumpkin, chestnuts, sweet potatoes, corn, cranberries, brussel sprouts, citrus, apples, pears, pecans, baby squash,...Read more...
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