And Now for Something Completely Different, 2nd Round: Thanksgiving Musings

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According to the Smithsonian Magazine, the First Thanksgiving menu likely included wildfowl, corn, porridge and venison.

It’s been almost a year since David from Albuquerque wrote our first guest blog on BigLittleMeals.com.  And he’s been kind enough to come back on board for a follow-up…this time with a focus on Thanksgiving.  Those who know David know how witty and curmudgeonly he is.  Others may only know that in his professional life he is/was a geriatric psychiatrist.  Could that explain a lot? 🙂  What few knew prior to our blog is that David is an excellent and passionate cook – and a little sentimental, too.

David describes himself as a “seriously selcouth sesquipedalianist.”  Look it up.  I had to.

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That will make a really big pumpkin pie!  Or is it a squash?  David points out that they’re both cucurbitaceae.

Thanksgiving Musings from David:

Ann asked if I could have another blog contribution ready by the middle of November. Not surprisingly, this has me thinking about Thanksgiving. For me, Thanksgiving is the most important holiday of the year. I suppose Christmas has been a bigger deal for the children, but the way we celebrate Christmas always makes me grumpy. We are all drowning in objects that do little but make work for us and yet we “celebrate” by showering one another with ever more of the stuff. I threw an embarrassing tantrum on Christmas morning a few years ago and my family seems finally to have gotten the message that if they want to give me something, it had darned well better be something that can be drunk or eaten or put into a vase for a few days and then composted. And yet I am expected to do to other people what I hate when they do it to me. Who turned the Golden Rule on its head? I thought to solve or at least mitigate the problem a few years ago by giving Frankie something that would actually be useful in the household, which we were going to have to buy anyway even if there were no gift-giving occasion. I gave her a lovely new vacuum cleaner for Christmas. Sweet Jesus! You’d have thought I threw a turd in the soup.

Ah, but Thanksgiving! No one needs to bring anything but whatever friends or orphans are at hand. Extra side dishes or wine is welcomed but certainly not necessary, and no one brings gifts. Hurray! We can focus on eating ourselves into a stupor. When I was in the Navy, some of my shipmates and I had rented an apartment in Waikiki and we made a big Thanksgiving dinner in which every dish contained what we called “herbal hilarity” back in the day, of which we had plenty, just having returned from Bangkok. Wowsa. We got hungrier (and stupider) after every bite. I have no idea who cleaned up the mess, if indeed anyone did. Most of us were nailed to the rug.

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We do not wish to imply that this was David’s mother.  Rather, she represents all of those 1950’s Uber Mothers!

In my childhood home, Mom cooked the dinner. She started by simmering the turkey neck and giblets to make stock for the gravy. After a couple of hours when things were smelling awesome and the neck was falling-apart tender, Dad and I would fish it out of the stock, salt the hell out of it and suck on vertebrae until they were shiny clean. I do that still, and think of him fondly every time. Now, I don’t put the liver in the stock, but fry it up for breakfast on Thanksgiving morning. It is delicious and as an added bonus, onlookers are revolted. Speaking of which, my mom also put marshmallow topping on her sweet potato casserole, which would put poor Frankie completely over the edge of revulsion. I don’t even joke with her about that, lest I get puked upon. But sometimes the grandkids do.

Early in our family life, I didn’t do as much cooking as now. I did the pancake breakfasts, guacamole, outdoor cooking, and maybe a pot of chili or spaghetti once in a while, but Frankie did most of the cooking. I always cooked the turkey at Thanksgiving, though, and gradually began to make the side dishes as well. For several years, I experimented and cooked “creatively” after the fashion I described in the January blog, even at Thanksgiving. One year I even made “Mama Stamberg’s Cranberry Relish,” which actually doesn’t taste too bad, but we couldn’t get over the fact it looks like lumpy Pepto Bismol.

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Cranberry Relish – from Susan Stamberg’s NPR series.  Yum?

In a joint effort with friends and family one Thanksgiving, we deep-fried five 10# turkeys. Scary dangerous and an enormous mess, I’m afraid, but pretty tasty for all that. I made a wild rice stuffing for the turkey one year, a couple of years made corn bread and green chile stuffing, drove myself crazy trying to pick the husks off hazelnuts one year, and even added oysters to the dressing once. I thought the oyster stuffing was great, but that went over like the aforementioned turd in the soup. As did giblets in the gravy–now, I eat them with my turkey neck, all alone, missing my dad. And I make what I take to be the best turkey dressing on the planet–not surprisingly it’s a tweaked up version of what my mom used to make. Without oysters. (A word that she pronounced to rhyme with “moisture,” which she was more apt to use to refer to the testes of a bull than to a bivalve, though as far as I know, she never ate any of either).

Gradually, our favorite dishes became obligatory. Frankie used to tell me a couple of weeks before the big day that it was time to plan the menu and we would sit and discuss. I was always ready for new ideas, and though she was not frankly opposed, she would always say, “Well, we have to have turkey and your dressing, of course, and mashed potatoes and gravy, and sweet potatoes, and spinach and artichokes, and cranberry sauce, and pies…” By the time she got through the list of obligatory dishes, the meal was planned. Finally, ten years ago I made a “Thanksgiving Menu and Shopping List” template and now just pull it up so that we can save ourselves an hour of dither.

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David’s shopping list

I find it interesting and puzzling not only that we serve the same thing at Thanksgiving every year, but that we almost never have any of these dishes at another time. There are no surprises and not even the most finicky grandchild complains about the food. Even more puzzling is that I not only put up with this, I welcome it, which seems completely out of character for a man disposed to disruption and alert for adventure. A unexpected consequence of cooking exactly the same thing every year is that because of long practice, preparing a huge Thanksgiving feast now takes less time than some dinners that are not for especially special occasions. I do a little prep work the day before, start the turkey in the morning on Thanksgiving Day, have everything else ready to go in the oven by noon and serve the meal by 3 PM.

So, what’s for dinner?

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Brined Turkey, Stuffing, Sweet Potato Casserole, and Spinach and Artichoke Casserole.  Yum.

Turkey

You could write 16 blogs on how to cook a turkey. I always brine mine. My Swinger® cooler is just the right size for a 20# bird. The day before Thanksgiving, I dump the ice maker supply full of ice on top of the turkey in the brining solution (brine is 1/4 cup salt and maybe 2 or 3 TBSP sugar per quart of water) and set the cooler out on the porch, which is cool enough to pass for refrigeration in NM in November. I no longer try to fool with actually stuffing the bird with “stuffing,” and cook that on the side. I usually put a couple of fistfuls of fresh herbs, a quartered onion and maybe a couple of orange rinds left over from Frankie’s ritual juice squeezing that morning into the cavity. I’m thinking about spatchcocking the bird or cooking the dark and white meat separately this year because wrestling a hot 20# bird around has become such a chore for a tired old man. Whatever you do, please don’t overcook the bird. Blast it at the start to kill the bugs on the skin, then go low and slow. Look it up. And when you are carving the turkey, throw the bones in the stock pot then and there and get a head start on the soup you’ll serve on the weekend sometime.

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Ready to brine the Thanksgiving turkey

Gravy

Plain old pan drippings and flour gravy. I’d like to put some giblets in it, but the grandkids would gripe, and I already ate them. I remember one year my mom’s gravy was lumpy and someone complimented her on the “mushrooms.” Now, I always refer to lumps in the gravy as mushrooms, but I never put any actual mushrooms in turkey gravy. And no wine, for Chrissake. Drink the wine. Make stock for the gravy with the turkey neck, giblets and wing tips, maybe supplemented with a chicken carcass if you happen to have had the foresight to throw the decimated remains of a roast chicken into the freezer. (Pssst. Better Than Bouillon® Roasted Chicken Base is a terrific hack for the improvident among you.) (Editor’s note: we wholeheartedly agree with the rec for Better than Bouillon; we also would like to suggest using your leftover turkey and homemade turkey broth in our Jook Chicken recipe, simply substituting turkey every time it says chicken.)

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Brandied and Baked Cranberries

Cranberry Sauce

Use fresh whole cranberries and make whole berry sauce by following the recipe on the bag. If you insist on fancying it up some, add a little orange zest. And a pinch of salt.

(Editor’s note:  we believe David will agree that another Bestie’s recipe for Brandied and Baked Cranberries is something special.  I’ve included it below.)

Pies

Easy peasy–get somebody else to do this. Frankie makes the pumpkin pies, Heather makes apple, and Amy makes cherry and pecan. All I need to do is make sure we have some whipping cream and ice cream on hand.

(Editor’s note: lacking recipes from David,  we at BigLittleMeals.com heartily recommend you try our Pecan TassiesPumpkin Pie O’Brien or Pumpkin Chiffon Pie to accompany your Turkey Day meal.)

Other Stuff

Other stuff is overkill. Mom used to serve carrot sticks and celery sticks stuffed with some kind of godawful yellow cheese product–substituting blue cheese mixed with a little mayo makes these better, but scarcely worth the trouble. The kids really like the cheap black olives that come in cans because they can put them on their fingers, which I am not sure should be encouraged. I guess if you serve carrot sticks you can dice them up after dinner and put them in the soup. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to eat a raw carrot at Thanksgiving. Rolls–but who’s got room?

David's Stuffing

  •  2 lb Bread (I like to use sourdough but any firm bread will do.)
  • 4 Large Yellow Onions, peeled and chopped (maybe 6 cups?)
  • One Bunch Celery, washed and chopped (maybe 3 cups?)
  • 1 lb Bacon, cut crosswise into ¼ inch strips
  • Butter, for the baking dish and maybe an extra stick if not enough bacon grease renders to cook up the onion and celery properly, which it probably won’t
  • Sage, Rosemary, Thyme (beaucoup fresh herbs or 1/3 beaucoup dried ones. How much is a beaucoup, anyway? Maybe about a coup. Or rather, cup–but I mean total, not each.)
  • ½ c Piñon nuts (or a few more, if you are flush. Piñon is pretty darned spendy these days, but at least you don’t have to peel ‘em.
  • ½ c dried Currants, rehydrated
  • 4 Eggs

A couple days ahead, cut the bread into cubes and let it go stale—dried out some, but not hard dry.

In a cook’s pan sauté the bacon until it gives up its grease and starts to crisp, add chopped onion, chopped celery and spices, then cook until the vegetables are soft. If there is not enough oil, add butter–maybe ½ cup. Push the vegetables away from the middle of the pan and brown the piñon a little. Add another pat or two of butter if the bottom of the pan is dry. Watch the piñon closely; it goes from not brown to burned in a heartbeat.

Remove from heat, drain the currants and add them, then transfer the mixture to a big container and fold in the bread cubes. Beat the eggs with some salt and pepper and a little water or stock—anywhere from zero to ½ cup, depending on how dry the bread is—and combine with the bread mixture. I use my hands for this. When this is all mixed up well, you should be able to squeeze a handful of it into a ball that sticks together but is not sopping. If it is too dry, sprinkle with a little more liquid.

Butter a big casserole dish and pack the dressing in. It is ok to mound it up in the middle. I make a smooth top and press some fresh sage leaves in for garnish.

Cover with aluminum foil and bake in a 350° oven for 45 minutes or so, removing the foil for the last ten or fifteen minutes to allow the top to brown a little. The doggone aluminum foil is apt to stick to the garnish and take it off. Be careful to tent the foil high enough over the garnish to prevent that.

Recipe brought to you by David in Albuquerque and BigLittleMeals.com.

Sweet Potatoes with Apples and Pineapple - and definitely without marshmallows

  • 4 lb Sweet Potatoes (whatever kind, but I usually use garnet ‘yams’)
  • 3 or 4 Granny Smith Apples
  • One 20oz Can Sliced Pineapple (or part of a fresh one, sliced)
  • Dried Cranberries
  • Pecans
  • Brown Sugar, Maple Syrup, Pineapple syrup from the can if you have it (How much? How sweet do you like it?)
  • Butter
  • Salt, Pepper, cinnamon & whatever other spice you like (I like garam masala, but Frankie hates it for this dish. Probably for Thanksgiving, less is more.)

Cook the sweet potatoes, but not too much. They should still be firm-ish because you’ll cook them again. I’ve always roasted these whole and then peeled and sliced them, but since I’ve been reading Samin Nasrat (and watching her on NetFlix!), I’ve been thinking maybe I should peel and slice them before roasting so as to get more caramelization.

Peel and slice the apples and pineapple. Keep the apple slices in some water with a squirt of lemon until you are ready to use them. Rehydrate the cranberries.

Arrange the slices artfully in a buttered casserole dish, tuck in cranberries and pecans here and there, sprinkle some brown sugar and spices, dribble with maple syrup and pineapple juice if you have it (and a little water if you don’t), and dot with butter. Be careful with the pecans–any left high and dry on top will burn.

Bake at 350° covered with aluminum foil until the apples and sweet potatoes are soft–maybe a half-hour or so, then take off the foil and brown the top some. Mind that the pecans don’t burn.

Recipe brought to you by David in Albuquerque and BigLittleMeals.com.

Spinach and Artichoke Hearts

David in Albuquerque notes that this recipe has been a part of all of their Thanksgiving dinners for over 45 years.

  •  5# Fresh Spinach, steamed, drained and with as much liquid squeezed out as possible. Chopped a little, maybe. Some people use frozen, but you’d need several beaucoups of that.
  • 2 cups Marinated Artichoke Hearts, drained and coarsely chopped
  • 1 cup sour cream (maybe a little more?)
  • 1/2 c grated Swiss Cheese–enough to cover the top of the dish
  • Salt and Pepper to taste
  • Butter

Butter a baking dish. Mix everything else except the grated cheese together and put it in the dish. Spread the cheese on top. Bake it at 350° until it’s heated through and the cheese melts. Duh.

Recipe brought to you by David in Albuquerque and BigLittleMeals.com.

Brandied and Baked Cranberries

According to my Bestie, Janet, this was most likely from a Sunset Magazine article circa 1997. The recipe came from the wine-making Wente family – and is simple, gorgeous, and delicious.

  • 1 bag (12 oz.) fresh cranberries
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 1/3 to 1/2 cup brandy
  • 2 tbsp. finely shredded orange zest

Preheat oven to 325°. Discard any soft or decayed cranberries.

Mix cranberries, sugar, brandy to taste, and orange zest in an 8- or 9-inch square baking dish. Bake, uncovered, until most of the liquid has evaporated, 1 to 1¼ hours, stirring occasionally. (Editor’s note: there is no need to cook them longer than 1 1/4 hours.  At that point take the cranberries out and don’t be shocked if there seems like way way too much runny cranberry juice.  Trust me, the juice will thicken as it cools.  If you still think that the berries are too juicy even after cooling, simply dump a little of the juice out…or better yet, experiment with it in a cocktail!).

The sauce can be made ahead and kept chilled for up to a week.Recipe brought to you by Janet in Boise and BigLittleMeals.com.

 

 

2 Comments

  1. David Ewing says:

    I thought Ann made a typo in our Spinach & Artichoke recipe, but I see she faithfully transcribed what I sent her. Even so I think one-and-one-half cups of grated cheese on top of the casserole is about 3x too much. This is not French Onion soup–you shouldn’t put so much cheese that you can’t still see the mixtue below it in places.

    Like

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