I had a house full.
“Full of what?” you might ask. “We know that you, personally, are generally full of it … but, your house?”
Full of people.
Not entirely full, as in full to the point where you can’t turn around without knocking someone over. Not full to the point of driving one to detest relatives and guests.
Folks in town for a couple days, plenty of folks over for dinner; two or three dinners, as a matter of fact.
It’s a lot of work and, thus, not much of a holiday.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to see family and friends, but the food situation demands long and hard labor. They all eat.
And I cook.
So, first, there’s the Thanksgiving dinner: the traditional boring fare with no substantial, initial returns on the investment . In my estimation, the regular Thanksgiving dinner is no more than an excuse for leftovers that can then be transformed into something interesting.
Roasted turkey, spuds, veggies, desserts.
On their own, nothing to champion. Dull business.
As you can gather, I am not terribly enthused about producing Thanksgiving dinner. It is a matter of a lot of time and work for delayed gratification. I have ADD, so delayed gratification is problematic.
This year, however, I got a bit of help: Ivy and my niece, Kelsey, volunteered to cook the turkey — at Ivy’s house. This had the obvious benefit of sparing me some effort with the poultry, as well as a second advantage: it freed oven space for the sides — the most important elements on the otherwise dreary, Thanksgiving food palette.
Ivy and Kelsey stuffed the cavity of the bird with clementines, onions and other aromatics, and made a clementine-based glaze that they applied at the tail end of the roasting process as well as at the tail end of the bird. It made for some mighty tasty skin.
Kathy, the baker in the family, made an incredible pumpkin chiffon cake with a cream cheese frosting, then did some snazzy turns with orange zest to top the whole thing off.
Ivy and Kelsey said they would bake a pie and, indeed, they brought a couple pies to the dinner. They bought them at the store, took them out of the flimsy aluminum plates and put them in pie pans to make it look like they did the work.
Clever girls. Wish I had thought of that.
I started the day by preparing a stock. I simmered aromatics and several turkey thighs in a couple quarts of chicken stock, putting the brew on at 9 in the morning and letting it cook oh-so-slowly throughout the day.
Pearl onions and green peas in cream sauce. Can’t get any easier than this: cook frozen pearl onions in lightly salted water until tender, then drain. Make a medium-thick bechamel. Toss in the onions and a mess of frozen peas. Season with salt, pepper and a touch of nutmeg. Heat slowly and thoroughly. Keep hot in a double boiler.
Braised Brussels sprouts. Take the hard stem ends off with a paring knife and remove any scrungy leaves. Saute some diced pancetta and finely diced shallot in a mix of olive oil and butter until the pancetta renders its fat. Toss in the sprouts and roll them around for a minute or two. Pour in a couple cups of hot chicken stock, bring to a boil, turn down the heat to a simmer, cover and let the sprouts braise for 45 minutes to an hour. Take the lid off the pan for a while at the end of the process to ensure the liquid nearly evaporates and forms a nice glaze. Season with Kosher salt and fresh-ground black pepper. Add a touch of butter at the end, if you so desire (and who in their right mind doesn’t?).
Twice-baked potatoes — the potatoes are baked, the top third of each is sliced off (use a serrated knife) the flesh is removed while still hot, then mashed with plenty of cream and butter, seasoned with salt and pepper. The potato mixture is topped with sauteed bacon bits and diced shallots once it is nested back in the skins. Baked for an hour or so at 375 … very tasty
A dressing — fairly traditional, baked in a pan rather than inside the bird (dressing is cooked outside the bird, stuffing within). I trimmed the crusts off two loaves of white artisanal bread and one loaf of Italian bread, cubed the bread, toasted it slightly in the oven. Kelsey brought four massive links of sweet Italian sausage from Tony’s Market in Denver. I took the meat from the casings, tore it into smallish chunks, sauteed the meat until most of the pink was gone, tossed in a major league amount of chopped white onion and a stalk of celery, diced, and cooked until the veggies were soft. I threw in some salt, pepper and chopped fresh sage then added the mix to the bread cubes.
In went a cube and a half of butter, melted, and several ladles full of my turkey stock — enough to moisten the bread. I whipped up a couple eggs and mixed them in as well. Baked for a hour or so at 375 … very tasty.
Then, Ivy was seized by inspiration. A special occasion is always enlightened by inspiration, don’t you think?
Sweet potato, in some form or another, has always made its way to our Thanksgiving table. For years, Kathy fought for the inclusion of common sweet potato slices cooked in some sort of sticky, sweet syrup.
We finally broke her of that nasty habit and, for the last few years, I have made mashed sweet potatoes baked with green chile and sharp, white cheddar cheese. Easy business: bake the tubers, scoop out the flesh, mash it, season with salt, pepper, add chopped green chile and cubed sharp white cheddar and toss the mix in the oven until the cheese melts.
“Why not deconstruct the idea of that recipe,” says Ivy. I love it when terms originally used in philosophy and literary criticism are applied to food, don’t you?
Deconstructionists fought the attempt to hold to ultimate, set meanings in texts. In this case, we are dealing with a refusal to hold to standard methods of assembly of ingredients — the “words” in a text (recipe) — and using the notion that the “words” of the recipe relate only to one another. Derrida, eat your heart out!
“You know you love to examine the items in a recipe, disconnect them and reassemble them in a new way. Well, how about this: Why not roast and skin whole pasilla peppers, then stuff them with a mashed sweet potato and cheese combo?”
Oh so postmodern.
I bought seven pasillas at the market and gave them to Ivy and Kelsey, trusting them to roast the peppers on Ivy’s grill until the skins charred, bag them to steam the skins loose, and to peel and seed them, leaving each pepper as intact as possible.
I roasted six large sweet potatoes and removed the flesh. I mashed the sweet potatoes, seasoned the mash with salt, pepper and ground cumin, then turned in plenty of small cubes of sharp cheddar. I stuffed each pepper with the mix and folded the peppers around their chubby cargo. Some grated cotijo went on top of each. Baked for an hour or so at 375 …very tasty.
Ivy and Kelsey brought the turkey over just before the meal. It had rested for more than half an hour and was ready to go. It was cooked perfectly. As were the liver, giblets and the heart in the sack they had forgotten to remove from the neck cavity of the bird.
Extra flavor, I say.
I made gravy from my stock — a roux, cooked a shade or two to the light side of mahogany (the more you cook a roux, the less its thickening power), turkey stock, a bit of cream, salt, pepper. Turkeyish, but nothing spectacular. Something to lube the drier goods.
Kathy crushed up a bowl of her primo cranberry relish/salad. We baked some rolls.
Ten of us sat down to dinner and had a very nice time. My grandson, Banzai, crawled around beneath the table and fought the dog for scraps.
Crowded, but nice.
Then it was on to the serious business of the leftovers. The good stuff.
The next night: turkey molé served on macaroni and cheese cakes with a side of mixed beans (pintos, black beans, Great Northerns, cooked with diced fire-roasted tomato, seasoned with oregano and cumin, a quarter of the beans mashed for texture’s sake).
Night three: leftovers from the Thanksgiving meal — a move needed to clear refrigerator space. The gravy helps a lot when the sides have spent two nights in the fridge and dehydrated a bit. I warmed the turkey with a bit of chicken stock. No one got sick.
Night four: turkey mole tamales. Labor-intensive, but worth the effort. Nothing beats the combo of lard and poultry.
Actually, lard goes fine with just about anything. You can keep your heart-healthy spreads and oils for when you entertain anal retentive, Food Facist diners … in my world, some things scream for the presence of pig. And I make it a point never to ignore a scream
Not bad, when you think about it: one titanic but boring meal, and enough jetsam to sustain the crew for four days.
Now, I need to get to work finding someone who will invite me to Thanksgiving dinner next year.
I’ll bring the pies.