Thursday, November 20, 2008

My Favorite Holiday

Cooking and gardening relax me. I find a similar sense of accomplishment in both: creating a tangible product; putting something beautiful and good into the world; sharing and caring for others. Most of the year, I take that in the little pockets I can squeeze out between teaching, writing, cleaning the house, walking the dogs, and playing cars with my three-year-old. But once a year comes a holiday that grants me my greatest wish: two entire days devoted only to cooking. And a week or two before of perusing recipes, jotting down ideas, scanning cupboards and supermarket isles. The anticipation of Thanksgiving is almost as good as the day itself. And we’ve managed to spread the holiday out, so now it covers two days.

The night before Thanksgiving, we have a full feast with friends and neighbors. This started because Blanca, a firefighter, was working Thanksgiving Day. We just moved the holiday over. Somehow this happened two or three years in a row. Then, a year came when she was off Thanksgiving Day. We told our crowd that we could do a Thursday celebration. Everyone was crestfallen. They had traditions with relatives or travel plans that day, and pleaded with us to stick to Wednesday. So we did. For a few years, we took Thanksgiving day as a freebie, a day when no calls could be made, no errands could be run, and we’d clean the house and take a long hike. Then we reconnected with my cousins who live nearby, and get to enjoy two Thanksgivings, the best of every world. On Wednesday, I get full control of the entire meal. The only thing I delegate is the stuffing, where Blanca reveals her fantastic culinary creativity every year with three or four superb surprises. Then, on Thursday we get to be part of the best kind of pot luck, where Mac and Helen take care of all of the main dishes and the twenty or so other cousins each bring a side or a dessert.

I’ll post some notes on Thursday reflecting on what we actually did, but of course a Thanksgiving blog is most useful the week before.

My meal is about half my own creation, recipes I have made and modified so many times that I’m no longer sure where they originated and can safely claim my own. The other half or so are new experiments, gathered from my favorite cooking magazines. Here’s the current version of the menu. We’re still working on a head count, but it looks like 15-20.

I order a fresh turkey, pick it up Tuesday morning and brine it for about 24 hours in cold water, about a box of kosher salt, about a cup of sugar, a few bay leaves, a handful of pepper corns, and a handful of juniper berries. I use a big cooler which I fill with ice and water, then keep it out on the back porch so it stays below 40 degrees the whole time. Of course, before I put the turkey in the brine I pull out the giblets and save them for the stuffings.

3-4 stuffings, à la Blanca

One goes in the turkey, the others get baked in pans on the side.
There are a few keys to the stuffings. The first is to make a great broth for them by boiling the giblets, neck etc. taken from the turkey with a few stalks of celery, an onion, a carrot, and plenty of salt and pepper. Start this first thing on the day of the meal. Then, we use Stouffers packages, with their proportions. But the real treat is that Blanca at the very end adds in a fantastic selection of fruits, fresh and dried. She works out 3-4 different combinations. I can’t promise what it’ll be, but usually involves apple, mango, dried cranberries, currents, and pineapple.

Baked Ham
Luckily our neighbors come to the meal and let us use their oven for overflow. We just buy a Spiral Honey Ham and follow the directions on the package.

Baked sweet potatoes
These go in the pan stuffed around the turkey. We put them in around the same time as the turkey goes in, and they are very very well cooked when they come out.

Mashed potatoes.
Recipe already in this blog!

4 cranberry sauces/relishes.

I’m still selecting these. I always do the orange and cranberry relish from the recipe on the ocean spray cranberry bag, and one sauce with ginger, shallots, and port or Marsala. I’m still looking through my magazines for two more.

1 green bean dish
I found a recipe in Gourmet Magazine for green beans with chestnuts and bacon that I think I’m going to use.

Creamed pearl onions
I combine the recipes from Joy of Cooking and the Fannie Farmer cookbook.

2-3 salads
These are always new. I’ve found several great ones in Gourmet Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, and Better Homes and Gardens that I think I’m going to do this year.

I have about 10 cornbread recipes, and always forget which is my favorite. I like a sweet cornbread, and always serve it with the Alexanders’ special spread: equal parts corn syrup and soft butter, stirred to a white creamy perfection.

4 pies
I usually use the pâté brisé recipe from Joy of Cooking for all of them, but this year I’m trying Renée’s crust. I do a version of the Joy of Cooking’s pumpkin pie, with a pumpkin left over from Halloween. I do one apple pie where the key is that I use as many different varieties of apple as possible. About 8 apples fills a pie. So if the store has eight varieties, I use eight varieties (regardless or origin, organic-ness… this is a once a year deal). I use a full top crust on the apple pie. I do one berry pie with berries frozen over the summer, usually a mix of red and black raspberries, ½ cup of honey, and 1-2 T of cornstarch. I use a lattice top crust on the berry pie. And then I do one mincemeat pie. When I was little, once or twice my mother found a butcher who made his own mincemeat. I don’t remember the details of how she found him or why we didn’t get it every year, but I will never forget the taste of real mincemeat. One of my projects for next year is to find a local butcher who does or will make real mincemeat. In the interim, I buy the jarred stuff and it’s only a sorry substitute. I’m usually the only one who eats the mincemeat pie, but this year I think I’ve recruited two adventurous new friends, Stephenie and Andrei, to at least try a bite.