The big day is just hours away and for many of us the dinner prep work has already begun in full force…yet somehow we almost always manage to fall behind on Thursday morning and barely get everything ready in time for dinner.
Just remember, there is a reason you probably have never seen turkey tartare on a menu before. Then again, there is always a time maybe to try something new? Not necessarily in this case.
By now you’ve spent weeks reading through every cooking and food related publication’s blockbuster “Super Bowl of Food” Thanksgiving issues, probably using a maximum of two of their recipes total. Thanksgiving is really about tradition. Once you have found a consistent turkey and pumpkin pie recipe, you stick to it.
Each year we stick to the same recipes that have now become our tradition, while I tinker with one or two aspects of the meal to add some fresh appeal. Sometimes it’s a rousing success, like an apple cider based gravy or a bourbon chocolate pecan pie, or the umami rich addition of shiitake mushrooms to the stuffing. Other times, well, the recipes won’t become part of the tradition, including a real pumpkin and apple cobbler that was more a bland side dish than a proper meal-ending dessert or a desert dry cornbread recipe that may have passed for acceptable in the 1800’s.This year the new excitement will be my hors d’oeuvres. Instead of the usual heavy, but superb mushroom gruyère tarts from the Los Angeles chef Suzanne Goin, I will craft three smoked salmon crudité variations from my recent travels (jalapeno and cilantro for Latin America, pickled ginger and plum sauce for Japan, and dill and capers for Scandinavia). The smoked salmon will be served on sliced cucumber coins instead of toast points since more carbs on Thanksgiving is the last thing this dining audience would enjoy.
For a decade now, our stand-by turkey and gravy recipe has been a maple-glazed bird with Dijon gravy that not once has underwhelmed. The maple butter is rubbed under the turkey’s skin, helping add additional moisture. The Madeira and Dijon mustard add a touch of spice, sweet, and a robust edge to the gravy, perfect on turkey and mashed potatoes.
Mashed potatoes involve both Yukon gold and red varieties. Don’t try all red potatoes like I did once. The consistency is too tough and the taste bitter. Add milk, butter, and cracked black pepper. Then mash. It’s rich. It’s simple. It’s just what you want for the gravy.
Stuffing involves a loaf of day to week old wheat bread, ripped, then mixed with diced apple, sliced shiitake mushrooms, diced summer sausage (better for stuffing than crumbly chorizo), caramelized onions, diced celery, and various herbs tossed in (rosemary, dry parsley, sage, thyme, black pepper), then stuffed into the bird.
We are a family divided on cranberry. Some prefer a real relish, others want nothing more than good ol’ Ocean Spray rolls from the can. Thanksgiving always has both and I have equal parts of each.
My Grandmother’s excellent Cranberry-Orange Relish is terrific alone or paired with the maple-glazed turkey. You just need a pound of cranberries, an orange, and the key ingredient, 1/4 cup of Amaretto (1/2 cup if you slip a sip for an apértif). Combine the two fruits in a fruit processor then stir in a pinch of sugar and the Amaretto. Give the relish at least two days to rest. My Grandmother adds the relish improves with age.
Since we’re a small family (yours truly has one sibling and two cousins…), there are almost never any additional side dishes steakhouse style. One day I will have to tackle the sweet potatoes, the Brussels sprouts, the peas with bacon…but usually none of that makes its way to the already full plus a month’s worth of leftovers covered table.
Bread always includes my beloved olive bread from the virtuoso baker Jim Lahey. Some years I’ll rotate in cranberry biscuits, baguettes, Provençal fougasse, or cornbread, but not this year.
With all of the turkey and butter, we must not forget the vegetables! My relish tray creations aspire to imitate city landscapes, where olives are fountains, radishes are towers, cucumbers are plazas, and celery sticks act as bridges.
Then the classic Joy of Cooking pumpkin pie for dessert, with some cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and cloves added to the always stellar Libby’s Canned Pumpkin filling. Trust me, canned is superior to fresh in this case. The one change this year will be the crust. I’m going with a flakier graham-cracker cinnamon based crust in place of the usual starchy-oily flour based crust usually used.
To drink? Well, since my beloved Patriots have a game this Thanksgiving beer must be involved. The sensational Ninkasi Tricerahops Double IPA is already chilling for kickoff.
A pre- dinner cocktail, which I usually concoct, would be excessive so I’ve made the executive decision to pour a Pol Clément Rosé Champagne Demi-Sec. It’s fresh, it’s floral, and and bubbles always are a way to pique the appetite with a celebratory vibe (hopefully with a Patriots win).
If I were in a cocktail mood, Thanksgiving always seems like a Sazerac time. Perhaps it’s because of the connotation with Wild Turkey? Then again, a Sazerac calls for whiskey, not Kentucky bourbon like Wild Turkey produces.
The family is all over the map for wines with dinner. Some drink only crisp Sauvignon Blanc, one drinks only big, oaky Chardonnay, and yours truly prefers Syrah or Pinot Noir with turkey. All four will be covered: Sauvignon Blanc from California, a Washington state Chardonnay, Pinot Noir from Burgundy, and Australian Syrah (Shiraz). The key with Thanksgiving is to resist opening the special library wines. Turkey isn’t the best pairing with any wine. Everyone will be devouring their meal with wine used a bit like water, so now is not the time for a $100 Penner-Ash Pinot Noir brought from a trip to Oregon. I seek the best “non-special occasion” wines in the cellar. They should be wines you can always rely on, very much enjoy and even savor, but can always find another bottle next week to re-store the cellar.
Most importantly on Thanksgiving, celebrate with your friends and family, and give thanks for being with them! Don’t fret over the meal’s details and please don’t argue with Uncle Gunther over the recent election. Enjoy the turkey, enjoy the stuffing, and then enjoy the weeks of leftovers.
We’ll meet again next week as we head into the holiday season, with reports from a recent return to Los Angeles, including the week’s review of the re-launch of a certain Beverly Hills iconic restaurant.
For now, Happy Thanksgiving!