This is a food history blog, not a cooking blog, but Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, and a lot of traditional cooking happens. This year, I made dinner for sixteen. We celebrated on Friday instead of Thursday, so I had an extra day to prepare.
It helped that the weather here in the upper Midwest was pretty mild. It’s not unusual to get a serious snowstorm and some nasty cold temps over Thanksgiving, but not this year. It was just cool enough, with temps in the mid-30s, that I could keep dishes outside on the deck, instead of jamming them into the kitchen refrigerator or marching up and down the steps to the refrigerator in the basement.
The centerpiece of any Thanksgiving feast is the turkey. I’m not sure why that is. Most folks don’t seem that crazy about turkey. Like most industrial meat in this country, turkeys aren’t as flavorful as they were once upon a time. But their symbolic value persists. Recently, I found this medieval French illustration of some royal feast. Note that the center and right platters have some sort of fowl, perhaps geese or capons. (I’m not sure what the creatures on the left platter are, though they look disturbingly similar to the rodent on the floor.) In any event, it seems that a feast just doesn’t look like a true feast unless there’s a big roasted bird on the table.
This year, I roasted a small turkey (about 13 lbs) using duck fat on the outside and a citrus and herb butter tucked under the skin, following pretty closely a recipe from Angela Davis’ new Kitchenista Diaries cookbook. The recipe also calls for a dry brine overnight, which worked great. Everyone remarked on how moist the turkey was, and it was a lot easier than the wet brine we’ve been doing the last few years.
The only surprise was that the turkey got done a lot faster than I’d anticipated. I had figured that a turkey this size would clock in around three hours. But this one was done in barely two hours. When I pulled it out to baste it, I checked the temp, and after about two hours and ten minutes, the breast was already at 180. That set off a bit of a scramble to get the rest of the meal up to speed.
We’re not a fancy appetizer people, but for Thanksgiving, I like to have some food set out so that people can nibble, and not bug me about how long it’s taking to get the dinner ready. This year, I had four appetizer plates:
In the upper left corner, we have lefse. It’s a Norwegian specialty (I’m 1/4 Norwegian ancestry). It’s widely available in supermarkets in this part of the country, but some families still make their own. Lefse looks like a flour tortilla, but it’s made from potatoes, and lightly fried on a special grill. These were served with butter and sugar, but others add cinnamon, or perhaps jam or preserves.
In the lower left corner, we have meatballs in a homemade Cheerwine bbq sauce. The Cheerwine soda gives the sauce a distinctive cherry taste. No special recipe here. I looked up a handful of recipes online and followed my instincts. The plates on the right are pretty self-explanatory. The red pepper dip on the veggie plate was store-bought. The cheeses on the cracker plate are a Tillamook extra sharp cheddar, and a Havarti.
In addition to the turkey, I made a small ham with an orange marmalade glaze. Since the turkey got done so much faster than we expected, we rushed the ham, and didn’t get it plated in a pretty way, but it tasted fine. The orange marmalade was homemade. Our oldest son, who lives in southern California, made it from oranges in his backyard. For his family back in Iowa, that counts as pretty cool.
The meal began with a Tomato and Squash soup. Nothing fancy: We served it in disposable bowls. The recipe was very much improvised, but it turned out to be a good blend of flavors, and offered another option for our vegetarians.
Along with the turkey, I served homemade cranberry sauce and turkey gravy. Some folks like the jellied kind of cranberry sauce, plopped straight out of the can. I like to make my own. This was a simple recipe: I blended a cup of orange juice and a cup of sugar, heated it up, and then popped the cranberries in the mix. If you’ve never made your own sauce before, I mean “popped” literally. As cranberries heat up, their skins burst, and then it’s just a matter of cooking it down to the desired consistency.
The gravy was made from turkey stock and pan drippings. I’d made the stock the day before from turkey necks. (The meat, in turn, went into the collard greens described below.) My stock-making abilities are pure trial-and-error, but it allowed me to flavor up my future gravy with some Slap Ya Mama seasoning. The next day, the pan drippings added more flavor, not just from the brined turkey itself, but from the bed of diced vegetables below it, including a Trinity of onion, celery, and pepper, plus carrots and some chicken stock. I left the gravy on the thin side this year. I made a little butter and flour roux, but I didn’t want the butter flavor to overshadow the turkey flavors.
Another dish closely associated with the turkey is the dressing. I don’t think I’ve ever made the same dressing twice, but this one might well show up again on our holiday table. It’s a sausage and brioche dressing, tapping another Kitchenista recipe, with a couple of minor modifications. Instead of golden raisins, I added some dried mixed berries, and a handful of walnuts.
It seemed to catch some people’s attention. Some liked the sage sausage. Some appreciated that the dressing stayed so moist. That wasn’t intentional. If the turkey hadn’t gotten done so fast, I probably would have let this dish cook and set up another 30 minutes or so.
There’s some controversy over what the dish should be called. Some people think the difference between “stuffing” and “dressing” is a North-South thing, and there is an element of truth to that. In my part of the country, at least, it has more to do with where it’s cooked. If it’s cooked separately from the bird, it’s “dressing.” If it’s cooked in the bird, it’s “stuffing,” i.e., you stuffed it inside the turkey cavity.
Stuffing has the advantage of soaking up extra juices from the bird. But it also adds cooking time to the turkey itself. Sometimes, I’ve done it both ways. I’ve put some in the turkey, and cooked the remainder separately. Southern cooks also seem to have a preference for cornbread dressing, while northern cooks generally prefer white bread. One of the things that attracted me to use the brioche was simple necessity: I’ve had the better part of a brioche loaf sitting in the cupboard for a while, and decided it had reached the point of use-it-or-lose-it.
As much as the turkey is the centerpiece of a Thanksgiving feast, it’s the sides that signal the difference between a festival meal and a simple meat-potatoes-vegetable Sunday dinner.
The white potatoes were a no-brainer. My Dad loves his potatoes. I served these coronary-style, with an amount of butter and cream cheese that I can’t reveal without blushing in embarrassment.
I made mac and cheese for the sake of the family vegetarians, and also for the four grandsons. This was a six-cheese mac, with three cheddars, colby, Monterey Jack, and a layer of Munster on top. The recipe is my own, but it’s similar to Robbie Montgomery’s Sweetie Pie’s recipe that’s been floating around online for years.
The mashed sweet potatoes were pretty standard: butter, sugar, some select seasonings, and a few pecans on top. Instead of boiling the sweet potatoes, I roasted them, which seemed to bring out more flavor and a deeper orange color. The “festive” part was to serve them in hollowed-out orange halves, letting the orange juice in the pulp add a little more flavor. It worked. If I do it again, I’ll probably use smaller oranges.
The fourth dish there is a corn pudding. It’s a quick, six-ingredient dish but it has a real down-home, comfort food flavor.
Next come the green vegetable sides. I wanted to make collard greens because just a week or so ago, our youngest son had brought in a batch from his garden. The meat you see is from the turkey necks I’d used to make stock the day before. The greens broth, however, was made with ham hocks. I’d made my “pot likker” the night before, let it cool and blend flavors, and then added the greens in the morning.
It’s hard to know what to do with peas. I wanted to leave them as another meat-free option for the vegetarians, so no bacon. I ended up melting in some citrus and herb butter, the same stuff I’d used in the turkey.
And finally, the sweets. The dish on the left is a cranberry fluff. My youngest son made it, and it was terrific. It was one of my Mom’s signature dishes. A year or two before she passed, I tried to wheedle a recipe out of her, but all she could give me were the ingredients: cranberries, crushed pineapple, walnuts, marshmallows, and whipped cream. I’ve come up with dishes close to it, but not quite. This year, my son nailed it on the first try. It tasted like Mom’s, and suddenly, it was like Mom was there with us.
The pie was a blend of roasted butternut squash and a roasted sugar pumpkin. Turns out that Libby’s canned “pumpkin” isn’t really pumpkin, but a proprietary variety of squash. So I wanted to try my own hand at it. Rather than follow the seasoning in the classic recipe on the Libby’s can (which is foolproof), I used one more Kitchenista recipe: her pumpkin spice mix. I made a couple of very good pies. At this point, I can’t swear that my puree is all that much better than the canned stuff that it’s worth the extra work, but I don’t think that will stop me from tinkering and trying it again.
What’s the moral of the story? If I can put together a decent home-cooked meal for Thanksgiving, you can too. I didn’t screw up any dishes this year, and was proud to serve each one. We’ll see how my luck holds out in December. We have two more comparably big family meals coming up.