Thanksgiving

russparsons.jpgI’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.

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schoolreform.jpgIn November of 1980, I was the director of Juvenile Advocates, a legal advocacy program for incarcerated teens located in Morgantown, West Virginia. My job consisted of monitoring the treatment of juveniles who were locked up in county jails, detention centers and what were known then, as reform schools. Perhaps the most interesting part of the job was that about every two weeks I would drive the roller-coaster roads of the state to interview the kids locked up in the various institutions from the West Virginia Industrial School for Boys in Pruntytown to the West Virginia Industrial School for Girls in Salem and the Leckie Youth Center, located way down in the coalfields of McDowell County.

The names “Industrial School” and “Reform School” were vestiges of the early 20th century reform movement. Prior to that age of enlightenment, teenagers who broke the law were treated identical to adults. They were tried in criminal courts, locked up in state prisons along side adult inmates and even hung from the gallows. With the advent of the progressive movement, delinquency came to be thought of more as a social problem having its roots in poverty, discrimination and family disintegration. I could quote the great turn-of-the century social reformer Jane Adams, but I think the Jets provide the most eloquent explanation: “Dear Kindly Sgt. Krupke, you gotta understand, it’s just our upbringing upke that gets us out of hand, our mothers all are junkies, our fathers are all drunks, golly Moses naturally we’re punks.” Rather than punish delinquents in prisons, the thinking went, they should be sent to schools to be ‘reformed,’ made more ‘industrious.’

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thanksgivingtable.jpgThanksgiving is my favorite holiday. (Although come Christmastime, you know I'll be making the very same declaration, ditto Easter). This year we are having about 22 people for lunch. In LA, people say "What are you doing for the holidays" and I say sunnily "Oh, I'm having 22 people for lunch." They look at me in horror and ask why I'd be doing such a thing or tell me to make it a pot luck. Truth be told (and I am dear reader, a great advocate of truth as you know) I look forward to these great family feasts. I love sticking post-its all over my food magazines, and pulling down dusty cookbooks from the top shelf, and rifling through old recipes, and sitting in bed at night with the Maharishi swapping ideas for stuffing. The most brilliant thing is that my husband, the Maharishi, my very own James Beard (no pun intended) is a fantastic cook and a most excellent collaborator and so these things tend to go pretty smoothly. As long as we don't drink too many glasses of pre-lunch champagne, that is.

If nearly twenty-two years of marriage has given us anything it is the intricate dance of the kitchen. We could be blindfolded and still we'd know where the other was and what they were doing. Words are just superfluous and not because we'll be invariably listening to the NPR Julia Child & Jaques Pepin Turducken story or a lovely festive niblet from David Sedaris (yes, he has become a holiday favorite) but because things no longer need to be spoken. It is the kitchen dance of lerv.

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From the International Herald Tribune

wine550.jpgSuppose I told you that with your turkey, your stuffing, your cranberry sauce, and all the delicious side dishes that will grace your holiday table, one wine and one wine only would match up. Unless you pick that one wine you face the specter of horrible embarrassment. Sound ridiculous? Well, of course it is. Yet more people than I care to think about feel exactly this way when selecting Thanksgiving wines.

Choosing the wine for any occasion is well known as an exercise in agony. Thanksgiving, for some reason, fills people with an extra dimension of dread. Perhaps it's the idea of performing for one's loving family, always so ready to heap scorn for your benefit. Or maybe there's secret pleasure in being squashed in the paralyzing spotlight, dancing, as Tom Lehrer once put it, to "The Masochism Tango."

If the prospect of shame and disgrace is a welcome part of your holiday ritual, by all means enjoy the feeling. But I would be remiss not to point out that it's all so unnecessary! Picking a wine should never be an occasion for self-flagellation, and at Thanksgiving least of all. The meal itself is typically a riot of contrasts - the savory stuffing, the sweetness of yams, the blank slate of the turkey - and wide open to individual eccentricities like marshmallows, almond slivers and the like. The wine selection task couldn't be simpler: versatility and plenitude.

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From the LA Times

stuffingThe annual Thanksgiving feast is a time when home cooks enjoy pulling out all the stops and preparing copious amounts of tradition-loaded dishes to share with friends and loved ones. This excitement often leads to preparing enough food to satisfy roughly twice the number of guests you plan on hosting. But that's not necessarily bad, because it has spawned another equally beloved culinary tradition: Thanksgiving leftovers.

If the traditional Thanksgiving feast is inherently American, then the ongoing use of the surplus it generates is really a nod to the custom universal to good cooks, of making the most out of each ingredient's every part.

Experimentation and exploration are the true loves of any successful cook. This year I challenge you to move beyond your typical leftover-based dishes and to consider broader possibilities. Don't let anything go to waste, not the vegetables or the stuffing or the bones and trimmings of leftover turkey. This doesn't mean repeating the same old things over and over. Use this as an opportunity to push yourself beyond comfortable dishes and explore new flavors. And look afresh at the familiar and see what new forms it might take.

These recipes provide you with a starting point. They are ideas that take into consideration what kinds of leftovers you might have on hand and what kinds of meals you plan to serve.

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