Tid-bits and Gravy
Posted on November 25, 2012
Writing about Thanksgiving after it is over is problematic, partly for reasons pointed out hilariously here. In organizing speak, it is time for a debrief. But in this debrief, we are only going to talk about what I liked, because I am running the show here, and I don’t plan to bore you with what I thought could use improvement. Those who attended, feel free to let me know in the comments what you were disappointed by, just make sure you use your real name, okay? And reporting that you hate creamed onions is not a valid critique of my particular creamed onions, so keep this in mind.
But let’s face it, some of us will be doing a similar meal again at Christmas. In an ideal world with plenty of extra leisure time, we would be making gravy much more often, drinking wine while doing it, not to mention making pumpkin puree well in advance of next year, and afterwards sitting in front of the fire and cracking nuts for as long as we want.
Here are some of the food things I emerged from Thanksgiving dinner feeling keen on, some of which I discovered for the first time, some just really made an impression this year. If you have some discoveries of your own– tid-bits you are considering institutionalizing into your next gathering, please share them. I like to preserve food traditions (of my family, or a place), but also I like to experiment a little– and Thanksgiving can be such a massive undertaking, there is room for both. This was kind of on my mind during the cooking this year– some dishes were new recipes but had an “old school” feel to them, and some were departures (perhaps not permanent, but notable) from traditions.
1. Cracking nuts
I remember there being a big bowl of nuts in their shells around the holidays when I was a kid. I remember having a hard time using the nut cracker with my little kid hands. And I remember not really caring for the taste of Brazil nuts. But as a grown-up, I thought this would be a good tradition to revive. Sure enough, the hungry people waiting around for Turkey to be served got to cracking nuts, like they were desperate hunter gatherers, foraging for something to stave off their hunger. Honing their nut-cracking skills with each successive nut, they developed some excellent form, and stayed occupied out of the kitchen. Along with a box of seedless clementines, this was a perfect afternoon snack before the big meal and required no preparation.
2. Mashed potatoes made with a food mill
I got a food mill for Christmas last year. I was looking forward to making applesauce, but haven’t even done this yet. If you are looking for an excellent task to delegate in the kitchen, after boiling your potatoes with skins on (I cut them up to make them cook a little faster and more evenly), running the potatoes through the food mill is a good task for helpers. Partly because it is easy, and partly because they just think you are crazy at first, since it takes a little time, and such little bits come out the bottom (one reason it is also called a “ricer”)– but then mostly just skins and a little potato are left in the food mill, and all the potato gets into the bowl. But the real reason for doing this is that when you then stir in a little butter, salt, and milk, you will have the lightest, fluffiest, most delectable mashed potatoes ever. No gobs of cement. No mashing. We should rename them “milled potatoes.”
3. White wine in the gravy
When you de-glaze the drippings, add a little flour– but you wont need salt if you brined your turkey– and then add one part white wine (1/2 a cup) to four parts stock (2 cups). Let it simmer and thicken a bit, stirring with a whisk. Pour it through a sieve instead of stressing over any lumps from flour. The flavor is off the charts. Make sure you put any leftovers in a camouflaged opaque yogurt container, so no one else but you can find it the next day.
Speaking of white wine, I am not a big fan, but I love Voigner, and it goes particularly well with Turkey. Texas makes some of the best Voigner around.
5. Celery stalks with lots of leaves
Celery is a central ingredient in my mother’s family cooking. It goes into Pennsylvania Dutch stuffing, tomato aspic, and every salad. One day it was explained to me that the leaves– often discarded– as well as the small yellowish center stalks, are the most flavorful. While shopping for celery this year, I put back my regular looking celery bunch and replaced it with one that had an extra foot of greenery on the end. Awkward for storing, but those leaves made my stuffing really tasty and intense.
6. Cranberry gelee = jelly (as close to canned in texture as you can get, but much tastier)
I made this for the first time, and though I still like the relish with whole popped open cranberries (and maybe bit of orange zest), this was very delicious. The genius of this recipe is using ruby Port to cook the cranberries in, not too much sugar, and a few black peppercorns. Cranberries have a good deal of natural pectin, so if you press them through a sieve, the liquid you get will firm up like jelly.
7. Pumpkin pie filling
I got a sugar pumpkin in my farm box, so I was determined to use it for pie. After reading some experts discussion of pumpkin pie filling that claimed Libby’s special breed of pumpkin used in the can is superior to any sugar pumpkin I could cook myself, I was determined to prove it wrong. I almost did, but the method produced only seven ounces of puree from one small pumpkin, so I ended up having to add some canned pumpkin puree also. But the flavor was still much improved upon. Here is the deal: you have to get rid of more water from the fresh pumpkin in order to make it work in pie, and intensify the flavor.
The best way to do this is cut it in half, place it cut side down on a baking sheet, and cook it for about an hour until the skins start to blacken. Let it cool completely. The flesh of the pumpkin should easily separate from the skin. Put it in a freezer bag and freeze it. Then thaw it in a sieve over a bowl. When it is thawed, press it a little to get as much water out as possible. At this point it should be mushy, not stringy, and ready to put in your filling (no need to process into a puree). I actually used the Libby’s recipe (as I love the taste of the evaporated milk– which is not the same as sweetened condensed milk, which will turn your pie into a confection) but cut the sugar down from 3/4 cup to 1/2 cup. I really liked this pie– it was so pumpkiny.