A live Dungeness crab. Credit: David Gomez/iStock

As Americans there are certain holiday food traditions many of us share: turkey at Thanksgiving, gingerbread at Christmas. But in addition to these commonalities, regional specialties, from tamales in Texas to kalua turkeys in Hawaii, contribute local flavor to our celebrations. In the San Francisco Bay Area, the holiday table wouldn’t be complete without Dungeness crabs.

This succulent bottom-feeder was first harvested commercially from the San Francisco/Bodega Bay waters in the mid-1800s, and Bay Area residents have been feasting on its sweet meat ever since.

The region’s commercial crab fishing season opens just before Thanksgiving and lasts only as long as the crabs do. Often, the supply runs out not long after the ringing in of the New Year. With such a short season, Northern Californians strive to eat as many Dungeness crabs as possible before they disappear — and what better time to do it than the holidays?

Unlike the ubiquitous Thanksgiving turkey, Dungeness crabs are not associated with a particular winter holiday. Some people have them for Christmas, others for New Year’s Eve, or even Black Friday.

For Joy Sterling, whose family owns Iron Horse Vineyards in western Sonoma County, Thanksgiving is the best time for crabs. “Our tradition is to start with cold, cracked Dungeness crab fresh from Bodega Bay, just 13 miles from us as the crow flies,” she said. It’s served buffet style, as a pre-turkey appetizer, along with the winery’s unoaked Chardonnay. “We like a traditional Louis dressing, which is a Northern California invention, sliced Meyer lemons, bright Rangpur limes and regular limes.”

At the Stony Point location of Oliver’s Market in Santa Rosa, people begin lining up at 6:30 a.m. on Christmas Eve to buy Dungeness crabs for their holiday feasts. Before the day is over, the store will easily sell 1,000 pounds of crab. “It takes at least an hour to get through the line,” crab-lover Kelly Keagy of Santa Rosa said, “but people are nice and in a good mood.”

Keagy’s family has been eating crabs on Christmas Eve for the last 10 years, accompanied by warm sourdough bread and salad. “When the kids were little, crab wouldn’t have been high on their list of favorite foods,” she said. “Now that everybody is older, crab and Champagne are the highlights of our Christmas Eve.”

Supply and demand

Having a family tradition of eating Dungeness crabs at Thanksgiving can be a bit risky, due to supply fluctuations. Some would even call it foodhardy.

“Three things can affect availability at Thanksgiving,” said Scott Lenhart, founder of San Francisco Crabs, which supplies live Dungeness crabs to individuals, restaurants and retailers. “One is a bad crab season, or something like the oil spill a few years ago where they don’t catch any. Second, there can be strikes, when crab fishermen are negotiating for pricing. Then you can also have horrendous weather.”

International orders can also cut into the local crab supply. “China’s taken a huge amount of crab from us, and that’s one reason the prices are going up,” Lenhart said. “There’s a huge Asian market for Dungeness crab for special occasions, and for the rising middle class.”

Nick’s Cove crab cakes. Credit: Justin Lewis.

Nick’s Cove crab cakes. Credit: Justin Lewis

And because Northern California’s Dungeness crab season opens before those in Oregon and Alaska, out-of-state crabbers head south to get an early start. “They come to our waters and scour our crabs,” Lenhart said.

Even so, he always has Dungeness crabs on his Thanksgiving table. “I’ve been having Dungeness crab with turkey for a long time,” he said. The crabs are simply boiled with a little sea salt, and eaten without embellishment. “You don’t need garlic or butter. It’s good right out of the pot as soon as it’s cool enough to eat.”

Getting creative with crabs

At Nick’s Cove Restaurant, in the town of Marshall on Tomales Bay, executive chef Austin Perkins gives Dungeness crabs a gourmet twist. For the restaurant’s annual Thanksgiving dinner, as an alternative to the traditional turkey entrée, he serves up wood-fired whole Dungeness crab with fingerling potatoes and rosemary butter.

“Dungeness is a little bit sweeter and a lot milder than most other types of crab,” Perkins said. “We use it in many different ways at the restaurant, from crab cakes to our Dungeness crab mac and cheese.”

For those boiling crabs at home, he offered this advice: “After cooking, you need to remove the top part of the crab’s shell and remove all the intestines. After that, look for grayish gills on the sides and scrape those away as well.” Then the crab is ready to crack and eat, or use in a recipe.

Although Lenhart of San Francisco Crabs prefers his Dungeness crabs unadorned, he said he also likes them deep fried, or simmered in cioppino, San Francisco’s signature fish stew. “There’s nothing wrong with ginger crab at a nice Chinese restaurant, either,” he said. “But for Thanksgiving, you don’t need any sauces. You just can’t beat it.”

Nick’s Cove Dungeness Crab Cakes

Cooking Time: About 6 minutes per batch (3 minutes per side)

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

3/4 pound Dungeness crab meat, cooked and shelled

2 cups mayonnaise

2 tablespoons Old Bay seasoning

1 teaspoon salt

1/8 cup panko bread crumbs, plus an additional 1/2 cup for coating

Oil for pan frying (preferably rice bran oil or vegetable oil)

For garnish:

Spicy Paprika Aioli (recipe below)

Arugula and shaved fennel

Directions

1. Place all ingredients in a large bowl and combine with hands until thoroughly mixed.

2. Weigh out 1 1/2 ounce portions and form them into cakes.

3. Roll cakes to coat in more panko, and brown them on the top and bottom surfaces in a hot sauté pan coated with oil (about 3 tablespoons, enough to cover the bottom of the pan).

4. Serve with Spicy Paprika Aioli, arugula and shaved fennel.

Spicy Paprika Aioli

Yield: About 1 cup

Ingredients

1 cup mayonnaise

2 tablespoons smoked paprika

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1/2 tablespoon cayenne pepper

1/2 tablespoon salt

Directions

Whisk everything together to combine.

Main photo: A live Dungeness crab. Credit: David Gomez/iStock

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Salmon in pastry is an alternative Thanksgiving dish. Credit:

Lots of our traditional Thanksgiving dishes come from the English. Food we think of as American, like apple pie and turkey with stuffing, originated in Elizabethan England in the time of Shakespeare.

Pies, both sweet and savory, were popular back then. Savory pies were always a part of  festivities and were often made into the shape of the ingredients inside. I especially love the fish pie dishes from that era, which were made into the shape of lobster, crab or salmon with the crust embellished with elaborate pastry scales, fins, gills and other details.

This salmon in pastry recipe is a real showstopper, gorgeous and delicious. The recipe includes artichokes and asparagus, both considered aphrodisiacs in Elizabethan England and expensive delicacies in Shakespeare’s day, enjoyed only by the nobility and wealthy. The ingredients paired with the salmon here are unusual — grapes, asparagus, pistachios and oysters — but surprisingly the flavors work wonderfully together, creating a memorable dish. Perfect for Thanksgiving!

Salmon in Pastry

From: “Shakespeare’s Kitchen” by Francine Segan (Random House)

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Bake Time: 40 minutes

Total Time: 55 minutes

Yield: 12 servings

Ingredients

Store-bought or homemade pie dough

4 artichoke bottoms

1 salmon fillet, cut into twelve 2- by 3-inch pieces (about 1 1/2 pounds)

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon coarsely milled black pepper

1 dozen medium oysters or 1 can smoked oysters

12 thin asparagus stalks, cut into 1 inch pieces

24 green seedless grapes

1/4 cup coarsely chopped pistachios

1/4 cup finely ground pistachios

1 large egg, beaten

3 lemons, cut in wedges

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 375° F.

2. Roll out slightly less than one-half of the dough into a 5- by 13-inch rectangle about 1/4 inch thick and place on a parchment-lined baking sheet.

3. Place the artichoke bottoms in a long line down the center of the crust. Sprinkle the salmon with the salt and pepper and put over the artichokes. Arrange the oysters, asparagus stalks, green grapes, and both the coarsely and finely chopped pistachios over the salmon.

4. Roll out the remaining dough into a 5- by 13-inch rectangle and place on top of the ingredients. Trim the dough into the shape of a fish and pinch the edges to seal. Using the excess dough, add fish details, such as an eye or fin. Using a teaspoon, imprint scale and tail marks on the dough, being careful not to cut through the dough. Brush with the egg.

5. Bake the salmon for 40 minutes, or until golden brown. Serve with lemon wedges.

Main photo: A salmon in pastry dish is a real showstopper, gorgeous and delicious. Credit: “Shakespeare’s Kitchen” by Francine Segan (Random House)

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L. John Harris' Broom Ballet. Illustration credit: L. John Harris

La Vie en Rose: Île Saint-Louis, one of two small islands floating in the middle of the River Seine and hyped in travel literature as “a peaceful oasis of calm” in the heart of busy Paris, is anything but. A tourist mecca, bien sûr (of course), filled with snazzy shops and restaurants — and home to the legendary Berthillon ice cream — the scene is more Coney Island fun park than Parisian island oasis.

Our Café French lesson today takes us to the island’s trendiest cafe, Café Saint-Régis on Rue Jean du Bellay. Just across — via the Pont Saint-Louis bridge — from Paris’ other natural island, Île de la Cité, where Notre Dame resides in all its gloomy Gothic glamor. The Café Saint-Régis is what I would call faux belle, refurbished to evoke the gaudy Art Nouveau atmosphere of Belle Epoque Paris, with gaudy prices to match. It can be, like the island itself, cloying.

Living in a Parisian broom closet

Whatever joie de vivre Parisian cafes provide their devotees — like me — I’m just not buying it today at the Saint-Régis. Lest we forget, cafes have their dark side: Revolutions and assassinations have been plotted, even launched in Parisian cafes throughout history, and the despair-laden philosophy, Existentialism, was hatched in Jean-Paul Sartre’s favorite cafes after World War II.

My dark mood today is more ennui – that perfect French word for melancholy — than despair. I’ve been staying in a very small apartment on the island — much smaller than the rental agency photos indicated. So I vegetate (call it work) in the island’s cafes to escape domestic claustrophobia, something apartment-dwelling Parisians have been doing for centuries.

The only joie of note at the Saint-Régis today is triggered by my waiter waltzing (literally) around the cafe with his broom — a  push broom, a smaller version of the broom type we use in the U.S. for exterior cleanups. I could write a whole treatise on France’s bizarre broom methodology: In short, the French push, they don’t sweep!

A broom ballet on Rue Jean du Bellay

Googling broom history and etymology — in both French and English — I come across our lesson’s homophones, le ballet (the dance) and le balai (broom), identically pronounced — bal-ai.

Illustration credit: L. John Harris

Illustration credit: L. John Harris

Aha! My waiter, dressed in formal cafe black and white, is executing un ballet de balai – a broom ballet. Ennui morphs into bonheur (happiness).

But back at the apartment, my mood darkens again. The sight of the kitchen push broom leaning against the wall triggers gloom, not cafe joie. Maybe this is just a case of generic Island Fever (la fièvre de l’île), or the oppressive weight of French history that floats over the island like a giant bejeweled crown.

A whole lot-a Louis going on

Everywhere you go on Île Saint-Louis there are references to King Louis IX, the island’s beloved Saint Louis. Bridges, streets, hotels, churches and cafes carry the name or variants. Even the word régis in Café Saint-Régis, means “of the king.” My corner cafe/brasserie where I go for my morning petit déjeuner is Le Louis IX. It was Louis XIII in the 17th century, dubbed “the Just,” who developed the island’s urban plan — it had been a cow pasture — and named it in honor of Saint Louis.

À propos royal sobriquets, several of the 18 Frenchmen who have served as King Louis have earned less-flattering nicknames. In the ninth century there was “the Stammerer” (Louis II), in the 10th “the Lazy” (Louis V) and in the 12th, “the Fat” (Louis VI). You could say that the French have had a love/hate relationship with their mostly House of Bourbon Louises.

Shrimp Louis. Illustration credit: L. John Harris

Shrimp Louis. Illustration credit: L. John Harris

Honestly, I’m surprised there was never a “Shrimp Louis.” The likely candidate would be King Louis XVII, son of guillotined King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Never attaining the throne after the revolution, the Dauphin died in prison at age 10. He didn’t live long enough to earn a snappy moniker.

Speaking of salads

If I thought my one-bedroom apartment was small, I was corrected at a dinner in the chambre de bonne (maid’s quarters) of Paris guidebook author Annabel Simms, an English expat. Her book, “An Hour From Paris,” is a perennial seller in Paris and is designed to take tourists out of crowded Paris for memorable day trips.

The fifth floor studio walk-up on the island’s main drag, Rue Saint-Louis-en-l’Île (of course), is equipped with a tiny wall-mounted kitchenette — two burners, under counter fridge and sink. “And,” Simms boasts, “no microwave!” Simms, who is currently working on a cookbook geared to simple French apartment cooking, serves me her version of Elizabeth David‘s “Salade Parisienne,” from “French Provincial Cooking” (1962), composed of fresh vegetables, hard-boiled egg and slices of room-temperature roast beef, dressed with a vibrant vinaigrette. Simple, delicious and perfect for a warm summer night.

The conversation drifts toward my host’s mixed reviews of her island oasis lifestyle. She’s been living frugally and productively on the pricey Île Saint-Louis for more than 20 years and avoids the expensive touristy spots like Café Saint-Régis. “I love their baby Spanish sardines served in the tin with the lid rolled up,” she admits, “but I’d rather go to the cheaper Café Lutèce next door with its terrace facing north towards the Seine and the quieter right bank.”

The next day, back for a farewell crème at Café Saint-Régis before heading back to the States, I ponder Simms’ somewhat cloistered life on Île Saint-Louis. It’s telling that over the course of decades on the island, Simms has built her career as a writer in Paris based on a book that encourages tourists to get out of Paris. After only three weeks here, I’m ready to get out, too. Or is that just my Île Saint-Louis ennui speaking?

Main illustration: “Broom Ballet.” Credit: L. John Harris

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The ubiquitous chicken tikka masala can be delicious. But why stop there? Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

Chicken tikka masala — a fairly delectable concoction of tomatoes, cream, fenugreek and grilled, boneless chicken — has become the poster child of stereotypical Indian food, leading most of us knowledgeable in Indian cuisine extremely hesitant to associate with it.

When done right, it can be a palate-pleasing dish. I mean, who can argue with smoky chicken morsels smothered in a mildly spiced tomato cream sauce? All things considered, it’s a fairly good introduction to the world of Indian cuisine before moving on to bigger and better things.

But this is where the problem lies. The love for chicken tikka masala does not leave much room for taking that next step. On the contrary, it seems to be gathering more fans and converts in its wake. A few cohorts that aid in its cause are the saag paneer (Indian cheese morsels in a creamed spinach sauce) and the leavened, butter-slathered naan bread. They woo the spice-averse with cream and butter and the novelty of a tandoori oven.

 Lights … camera … stereotype

A recently released food movie, “The Hundred-Foot Journey,” takes us from the bustling markets of Mumbai to farm markets in rural France and on a journey of reinventing Indian food in chic Paris — all in an hour and a half. However, before moving on to molecular gastronomy, the movie’s central character, Hassan Kadam, wows us with his fare in his family restaurant, Maison Mumbai, with dishes such as saag paneer and butter chicken, essentially enough hackneyed restaurant fare to make any true-blue Indian foodie shudder.

Departing from the author’s original fairly adventurous food renderings, the movie makers introduce the viewer to Hassan’s talents by talking tandoori, showing stunning pictures of saag paneer before moving onto other essentials and brave and bold fusion.

This creates the same frustration that leads most Indian food professionals to shy away from the chicken tikka masala, as the dish has stymied the broadening of the essential Indian repertoire.

Certainly, we have come a long way. There is a lot of exploration in Indian cuisine. Yet few restaurants leave this staple off their menus. They call it different names and sometimes add nuances to it that might add a layer of sophistication or a somewhat varied touch, but it is there — in some shape or form.

Even sandwich chains have moved on to include tikka sandwiches or wraps in their repertoire as a nod to the cuisine of India.

Is chicken tikka masala even originally from India?

Chicken tikka masala also suffers from heritage issues. It is difficult to bond, I mean, truly bond, with a dish that supposedly was invented in a curry house in London. It is hard to wax poetic about it like it was something conjured up in your grandmother’s kitchen.

If you are a fan of this brightly hued, rich-tasting curry, it is not my intent to offend you. Instead, it is to move you along to the other aspects and dimensions of your Indian restaurant menu. Yes, you can be adventurous, too. Explore, and you might surprise yourself with a new favorite or maybe a few. Imagine the possibilities.

If you like it spicy, a chicken chettinad from Southern India might please with its notes of garlic and black pepper. A simple chicken curry with ginger and tomatoes could tantalize the taste buds, without any unnecessary cream. And, of course, a kerala coconut and curry leaf chicken curry might also satisfy the indulgent palate with gentle citrus notes from the curry leaves.

The objective here is to taste the complete bouquet of flavors that good Indian cooking offers, rather than a muted version that is further masked with too much cream.

I offer you as a peace offering a nuanced cauliflower dish, which is creamy and richly flavored with ground poppy seeds and cashews. No cream here. This recipe for cauliflower rezala is a vegetarian adaptation of the Mughlai style of cooking found in Eastern India. This variant combines traditional Mughlai ingredients, such as yogurt and dried fruits, with core Bengali ingredients, such as the poppy seeds used in this dish. A mutton or chicken rezala is fairly rich. I first lightened the original with chicken in theBengali Five Spice Chronicles” and have adapted this for the cauliflower and kept it relatively simple. If you can find pale cheddar cauliflower, it should result in a pretty rendition.

Cauliflower

Cauliflower Rezala provides the creaminess without the cream. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

 

Cauliflower Rezala – Cauliflower in a Cashew, Yogurt and Poppy Seed Sauce

Prep Time: 4 hours (mainly to marinate the cauliflower)

Cook Time: 30 minutes

Total Time: 4 hours, 30 minutes

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

For the marinade:

3/4 cup Greek yogurt

1 teaspoon salt (or to taste)

1 medium-sized cauliflower, cut into medium-sized pieces

For the cashew cream paste:

1/2 cup cashews

1/2 cup poppy seeds soaked in warm water for 2 hours or longer

Water for blending

For the base:

2 tablespoons oil

1 teaspoon caraway seeds (know as shazeera)

1 medium-sized onion, grated on the large holes of a box grater

2 to 3 bay leaves

4 to 6 green cardamoms, bruised

3/4 teaspoon red cayenne pepper

1 tablespoon clarified butter (ghee)

To finish:

1 tablespoon rosewater (optional)

Slivered almonds and or pistachios

Directions

1. Beat the yogurt with the salt and marinate the cauliflower pieces in the mixture for at least 3 hours.

2. Grind the cashews and poppy seeds into a smooth paste and set aside. You need to start with the poppy seeds, without too much water, just enough to create a paste, and then add the cashews with 1/3 cup water.

3. Heat the oil and add the caraway seeds. When they sizzle, add the onion.

4. Cook the onion for at least 7 minutes until it begins to turn pale golden.

5. Add the bay leaves, cardamoms, cayenne pepper and then the cauliflower. Cook on medium heat until well mixed. Cover and cook for 7 minutes.

6. Remove the cover and stir well. Add the poppy seed and cashew paste and mix well.

7. Stir in the clarified butter and cook on low heat for another 3 minutes. Note: The gravy should be thick and soft, and the cauliflower tender but not mushy.

8. Sprinkle with the rosewater, if using, and garnish with slivered almonds or pistachios.

Main photo: The ubiquitous chicken tikka masala can be delicious. But why stop there? Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

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Chestnut soup. Credit: Courtesy of Jennifer Jasinski

Jennifer Jasinski is a James Beard Award-winning chef with four acclaimed Denver restaurants, a cookbook and an impressive stint on “Top Chef Masters” to her name. Now she’s about to tackle a whole new challenge: cooking Thanksgiving dinner for American expats in Paris.

Jasinski knows a thing or two about the cravings that come with homesickness. The Santa Barbara, Calif., native admits to missing Mexican food mightily while training in France as a young Wolfgang Puck protégée. So the opportunity to treat the guests at Auberge Flora to a good, old-fashioned turkey feast isn’t one she’s taking lightly.

Granted, “old-fashioned” doesn’t, in this case, mean the same thing as “down home.” Take this wonderfully rich and elegant chestnut soup, which I first sampled a few years ago at one of Jasinski’s Denver restaurants, Rioja, where it came in a tiny pumpkin “lidded” with a foie gras-topped slice of brioche. Though you can serve it in plain old bowls, squash vessels do make for an impressive flourish. In fact, having just reprised the appetizer at a charity event in New York City, Jasinski acknowledges, “I’d forgotten what a really cool dish it is, but people were freaking out about it!”

Though you’ll find the recipe in her cookbook, “The Perfect Bite,” she graciously allowed us to reprint it here as well. And she adds that gourds serve as equally lovely containers for soufflés, wild-rice salads and the like.

Savory Chestnut Soup

Prep Time: 10 to 25 minutes

Cooking Time: 1 1/2 to 2 hours

Total Time: 1 3/4 to 2 1/2 hours, including time for the optional step of making the bowls.

Yield: 8 servings

Ingredients

For the soup:

1/4 cup duck fat (preferred) or pure olive oil

1 1/4 cups sliced onion

1/4 cup garlic cloves, peeled

1 1/2 cups domestic mushrooms, sliced

10 sage leaves, destemmed

1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns

1 bay leaf

12 to 14 ounces whole, fresh, peeled chestnuts

1 1/4 cups white wine

6 cups chicken stock

1-inch cinnamon stick

1/2 teaspoon finely ground cardamom

1 1/4 cups heavy cream

1 to 2 teaspoons kosher salt, or to taste

1/2 teaspoon black pepper, or to taste

1 tablespoon sugar

For the assembly (optional):

8 mini pumpkins, 8 small butternut squash or 1 large pumpkin

Duck fat (preferred) or extra virgin olive oil, as needed

Kosher salt and black pepper, to taste

Directions

For the soup:

1. In a large stockpot over medium heat, melt the duck fat, then add the onions and garlic and sauté until translucent — do not let them color. Add the mushrooms, sage, peppercorns and bay leaf. Sauté a few minutes, until the mushrooms have softened.

2. Add the chestnuts to the pot and deglaze with the wine. Let cook until the wine has reduced completely, then add the chicken stock. Raising the heat as needed, bring the soup to a boil and then reduce heat and simmer on very low for about 45 minutes.

3. Add the cinnamon stick, cardamom and cream and continue to simmer for 10 minutes. The chestnuts should be very soft by now. Removing the cinnamon stick, take the soup off of the heat, transfer it to a blender and blend until smooth. Season with the salt, pepper and sugar, then strain the soup through a china cap. If you will not be serving it immediately, store it in the refrigerator.

For the assembly:

1. Preheat oven to 350 F.

2. If you are using mini pumpkins as serving bowls, cut off the tops, clean out the insides and then brush the hollows with the duck fat and season them with salt and pepper. Place the pumpkins on a sheet pan and roast in the oven about 20 minutes — until the flesh can be removed easily with a fork or spoon, but not so long that the skin becomes weak and fragile, as this will make it difficult to use as a serving bowl.

If you are using butternut squash as serving bowls, remove the tops so you are left only with the bulbous bases, then follow the instructions for the mini pumpkins.

If you are using a large pumpkin as a soup terrine, cut the top off and clean out the insides. Boil some water and ladle it into the pumpkin to warm the flesh, then pour it out.

3. Ladle the soup into the squash(es), or regular bowls if you prefer, and serve.

Main photo: Chestnut soup. Credit: Courtesy of Jennifer Jasinski

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Savoy cabbage, a winter vegetable, is a milder and sweeter alternative to green and red cabbage varieties. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

For years, I thought Savoy cabbage was a specialty of the great London hotel of that name, a way of cooking the vegetable that transformed it into a dish fit for kings. Even today, frilly Savoy cabbage remains, in my eyes at least, the classiest brassica on the block, a glamorous, swanky sibling to pale, pointy spring or hard white winter cabbages. Less aggressive than kale, more versatile than red, a good Savoy bursting with squeaky-clean health and goodness, is a far cry from the flabby cabbage-swamp clichés of British school dinners that linger long in collective memory.

The evolution of the great family of brassica cabbage cultivars, which also includes broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts, originated in spindly, “headless” plants that were known throughout the ancient world. The Greeks cultivated such headless cabbages, believing they originally came from the sweat of Zeus, chief of the Gods (it must have been something to do with their, er, pungent smell when over-cooked).

However, generations of children who have been told to eat their greens to a refrain of cabbage-is-good-for-you (an unpopular, as opposed to a popular saying) can really blame the Romans. Cato, in the 2nd century BC, devoted a long passage to the plant in “De Re Rustica.” And Pliny the Elder, in “Historia Naturalis,” described a swollen-stemmed plant (perhaps another brassica, kohlrabi) and an exaggerated reference to “headed” cabbages 30 centimeters (about 12 inches) across, as well as 87 cabbage-related medicines.

The lore about cabbage

Over the centuries, cabbage has been credited with many medicinal properties, from curing snake bites, to growing hair on bald spots and preventing drunkenness (wrong!).

Savoy, as a newly developed variety with a loose “head,” came to prominence in medieval Germany, the great center of cabbage culture, although the name suggests an earlier French or northern Italian origin, with a possible link to Catherine de’ Medici.

Slow-growing Savoys are particularly good after the first frosts. They are hardy enough to stay in the ground through the winter, and bring a swathe of colorful, ruffled cheer to the stews, casseroles and thick soups of the winter months. Cabbage soup is a rustic favorite still in France and Germany, cooked with pickled pork or confit goose and duck.

The flavor of Savoy is nutty, and the texture crisp and firm (when not, of course, boiled lifeless), although a slow braise with rich flavorings, such as beef stock, Marsala wine and thyme, can also work well. Its natural color ranges from acid yellow to Day-Glo lime and from vivid emerald to deep forest green. The wrinkled leaves are supple and strong enough to be stuffed with meat and rice and rolled, before being bathed and baked in rich tomato and sour cream sauces spiked with caraway seeds or paprika. One of the greatest spectacles of the East European repertoire is a stuffed whole cabbage winched like a missionary’s head from a cannibal’s pot.

Simplicity of cabbage

But you don’t have to attempt this culinary equivalent of climbing Mont Blanc to enjoy a Savoy. If you wish, and have time, soak the leaves in cold water for a few hours before cooking to crisp them up further, then simply remove the tough central stalk and chop roughly. Steam or cook in plenty of water at a rolling boil with the lid off to retain the bright green color for a few minutes before tossing in butter, sea salt and black pepper. Or, just slice and cook briefly in butter. Leftovers can make a splendid bubble and squeak (see recipe below).

Savoy is also excellent and surprisingly sophisticated when shredded and stir-fried with seasonings such as red chile, sesame, garlic, ginger and soy sauce. It also goes well with aniseed flavors such as tarragon, fennel and Chinese five-spice powder.

The Savoy is the cabbage that even cabbage-haters can learn to love. If all else fails, try calling it an adorable petit choux, because everything sounds better in French, of course. Even cabbage.

cabbagehead

cabbagehead
Picture 1 of 6

The leaves of Savoy cabbage are very distinctive, a combination of green hues combined with a distinctive crinkled texture. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

Stir-Fried Savoy Cabbage

A quick and vibrant dish that perks up the taste buds. Add garlic and/or 5-spice powder if you like, but the key thing is not to overcook it.

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cooking Time: 5 minutes

Total Time: 15 minutes

Yield: 2 servings, as a side dish

Ingredients

Half a small Savoy cabbage

1 tablespoon sesame oil

4 green onions, sliced

1 tablespoon fresh ginger, finely chopped

1 small fresh red chile, de-seeded and finely chopped

Soy sauce to taste

Directions

1. Shred the cabbage leaves, wash and drain well. Set aside.

2. Heat the oil in a wok until sizzling, then add the green onions, ginger and chile. Stir-fry briefly, then add the cabbage.

3. Stir-fry over medium heat for about 5 minutes until the cabbage is tender but still has a little crunch.

4. Season with soy sauce and serve immediately.

Buttery Braised Savoy Cabbage

An excellent dish to serve with meatballs or chops.

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Cooking Time: 15 minutes

Total Time: 35 minutes

Yield: 4 servings, as a side dish

Ingredients

1 Savoy cabbage

3 tablespoons butter

1 onion, chopped

2 large tomatoes, skinned, de-seeded and chopped

1 tablespoon paprika

2 tablespoons freshly chopped fennel leaves or dill leaves

Juice of half a lemon

Salt and black pepper

2 tablespoons toasted almonds

Directions

1. Discard the very coarse, outer leaves of the cabbage, then cut into quarters and then into thin strips.

2. Melt the butter in a large saucepan and stir in the onion, tomatoes and paprika.

3. Add the cabbage, fennel and lemon juice and mix well together. Season with salt and pepper.

4. Cover the pan and simmer for about 10 minutes or until the cabbage is tender. Add a splash of water or a little more butter if the cabbage mixture seems to be drying out.

5. Sprinkle with the toasted almonds just before serving.

White Fish, Green Cabbage

A surprisingly delicate dish that gives an interesting edge to simply baked white fish.

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cooking Time: 25 minutes

Total Time: 35 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

6 thick fillets of white fish

1 large Savoy cabbage cut into wedges

1/3 cup butter

Juice of half a lemon

2 two-ounce tins of anchovies in olive oil

14 fluid ounces sour cream

Black pepper

1 bunch of parsley, chopped

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 392 F (200 C).

2. Arrange the fish in a well-buttered oven dish. Sprinkle with the lemon juice and dot with flakes of butter. Cover with foil and bake for 20 minutes.

3. Steam or microwave the cabbage wedges until tender.

4. Put the anchovy fillets and their oil into a small pan. Gently mash with a wooden spoon over low heat until the anchovies disintegrate. Add the sour cream and black pepper and stir well. Simmer for a few minutes.

5. Arrange the fish and cabbage wedges on a warm serving platter or individual plates. Pour some of the sauce over the fish and scatter with parsley. Serve the remaining sauce separately.

Bubble and Squeak

Originally, this old-fashioned British dish of cooked potatoes and cabbage fried together, was made with leftover beef and cabbage. Potatoes appeared in 19th-century recipes and the beef was discarded. The name supposedly refers to the noise made by the vegetables as they fry in the pan.

Prep Time: 10 minutes (30 minutes if not using leftovers)

Cooking Time: 40 minutes

Total Time: 50 minutes

Yield: 8 servings, as an accompaniment

Ingredients (Amounts are variable, depending on how much leftovers you have.)

1 small Savoy cabbage, shredded, cooked and set aside

2 pounds leftover mashed potatoes

1 onion, thinly sliced

4 to 5 tablespoons butter, drippings or goose fat

Salt and pepper

Directions

1. Mix the cabbage and potatoes together.

2. In a large frying pan, heat some of the fat and fry the onion slowly until soft. Mix into the cabbage and potatoes. Season well.

3. Add the remaining fat to the pan and spoon in the cabbage, potato and onion mixture. Press down with a wooden spoon or spatula until it makes a flat cake. Fry over medium heat until the bottom crisps.

4. Stir to mix the crust into the vegetables, pack down again and then fry to make another crust. Continue until the crisp brown pieces are well mixed with the cabbage and potato. This should take about 20 minutes. Serve hot.

Main photo: Savoy cabbage, a winter vegetable, is a milder and sweeter alternative to other green and red cabbage varieties. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

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Sausage and squash are a nice flavor combination for a Thanksgiving pasta dish. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

I will confess right from the start that I’ve never been a big fan of Thanksgiving. Call me Scrooge if you will, but I’ve never seen the point of eating oneself silly one day of the year.

And I hate to call attention to it, but the food isn’t even all that interesting. An unnaturally plumped out bird, its interior filled with sundry pastes made from stale bread, roasted for hours until the meat is dry and stringy; a traditional sauce that is too tart to eat on its own and requires massive quantities of mashed potatoes to make it go down; a selection of vegetables cooked to death then beaten to a uniform pap; and finally a selection of desserts about which the less said the better — pumpkin pie (another pap), mincemeat (like Christmas fruitcake, nobody actually likes it but we all pretend to) and pecan pie so sweet it makes my teeth ache just to write the words.

That was Thanksgiving when I was growing up, before my mother saw the light and began serving lobster instead, which she did only after her children had left home and she no longer had to maintain the Rockwellesque illusion of the holiday. You can see why my memories are not exactly nostalgic for Thanksgivings past. The only things I really liked were the silver bowls of nuts and mints (each one hiding a spot of jelly inside) and the peculiar divided crystal tray that was brought out once or maybe twice a year in which to serve celery sticks stuffed with Philadelphia cream cheese.

But truth be told, the real reason I didn’t like Thanksgiving — which has remained a secret until the present day — is that there are no presents! We had gifts at Christmas, gifts at Easter, gifts at birthdays and fireworks on the Fourth of July, but nothing at Thanksgiving — and no overstuffed, over-roasted bird could make up for that. Not even the exciting presence of my uncle from Boston, who always brought a collection of guns and taught me to shoot them at targets on the river below our house, could overcome my disappointment in the holiday.

The pleasures of Thanksgiving

So to ask me to think about the pleasures of Thanksgiving, as the Zester Daily editors have done, is to ask pretty much the impossible. I could tell you about the best turkey I ever made, one deep fried in extra virgin olive oil from a 4-year-old stash I found hiding in the back of our Tuscan pantry. OK, so it was only a quarter of a very large Tuscan turkey, but it was memorable nonetheless. Or I could tell you about the chestnut soup, potage de marrons, with which we began the meal one year. Made from a recipe in an old Elizabeth David cookbook, it required skinning and peeling the chestnuts (not a task for pikers, requiring as it does a hot oven and a very sharp knife), making a vegetable stock, cooking the peeled chestnuts in the stock until soft, pureeing them and finally thinning the puree with milk or cream. “Although all this may sound a lot of fuss to make a chestnut soup,” David comments, “it is well worth the trouble.” And so it is, especially when made with the marrone (chestnuts) gathered from the line of trees that extends below our house.

After all, isn’t Thanksgiving supposed to be about giving thanks for an abundant harvest? A harvest of chestnuts, a harvest of olive oil, a harvest of squash and pumpkins? Moreover, to celebrate the harvest, to celebrate the goodness of what has been safely gathered in, even if you’ve gathered it from only your local supermarket, is a way of honoring and paying respect to all the people who made the harvest possible, especially the farmers. It’s a good time to remember that without farms, we have no good food, and without good food, in my reckoning, we have no real happiness.

So presents or not, I plan to celebrate Thanksgiving in my own quiet way. But not with turkey and not with squashed squash. Instead, I’m going to make a very special pasta dish developed by my daughter, who often serves it at her restaurant, Porsena, in New York. We’re featuring it in our almost completed book, “The Four Seasons of Pasta,” which we hope will be out in time for Christmas 2015.

Here it is, and if you’re as tired as I am of squashed squash, pureed turnips, boiled onions and mashed sweet potatoes with marshmallow sauce, just try this and see if it doesn’t bring some seasonal delights and maybe even a little applause for daring to step outside the envelope.

Sausage and squash is a nice flavor combination for a Thanksgiving pasta dish. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Try hard winter squash for this recipe. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Pasta With Crumbled Garlic Sausage, Sage and Winter Squash

For this pasta, we use pennette, but any small, shaped pasta will do — try orecchiette, creste di galli (cock’s combs), Pasta Faella’s lumacchine (small snails), Benedetto Cavalieri’s ruote pazze (crazy wheels) or any similar quirky shape. This is a particularly good treatment for whole-wheat pasta, with the flavors of squash, sausage and wheat all marrying together nicely.

For the squash, use any hard winter squash, such as Hubbard, butternut or buttercup; sugar pumpkins will be too sweet, but one of the pumpkins grown for eating (and not for Halloween), such as Long Island cheese pumpkin with its pale skin and flattened shape, would do very well. The squash should be about 2 pounds when trimmed. Chop the squash coarsely, and don’t worry if the pieces are not equal. Part of the charm of the dish comes from some pieces disintegrating almost into a puree while others stay a little firm to the bite.

For the sausages, look for pure pork sausages with nothing but salt and aromatics (and garlic) added. We use sweet Italian sausages for this, and when we can find them, fennel-flavored ones. If you like spicy food, however, use the hot kind. If you use sweet sausages, consider adding a pinch of ground or flaked red chili peppers or a teaspoon of wild fennel pollen or crushed fennel seeds to perk things up a bit. And if you cannot get garlic-flavored sausages, by all means add more garlic to the sauce.

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Cook Time: 30 minutes

Total Time: 40 minutes

Yield: Makes 6 servings

Ingredients

10 to 12 sage leaves

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided

1/2 cup finely chopped onion, red or yellow

2 garlic cloves, crushed and chopped

2 Italian-style sausages, sweet, fennel or spicy (about ½ pound)

2 teaspoons wild fennel pollen or ground fennel seed (optional)

Pinch of ground or flaked red chili pepper (optional)

About 1 pound (500 grams) pasta (see headnote for suggestions)

4 1/2 to 5 cups coarsely chopped firm, orange-fleshed squash (see headnote for suggestions)

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1/3 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano, plus more to pass at the table

1/2 cup chopped flat leaf Italian parsley

Directions

1. Set aside 4 or 5 of the largest sage leaves to crisp in oil and use for a garnish. Chop the rest to make 1 to 2 tablespoons chopped sage.

2. In a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan, heat 2 tablespoons of the oil over medium heat then add the chopped onion and garlic. Remove the sausage meat from its casings. As soon as the vegetables start to sizzle, crumble the ground sausage in. Let the sausage meat cook briefly, tossing, stirring and breaking it up until it has rendered out its fat, then, when it just stops being pink, add the chopped sage along with the fennel and chili pepper (if using) and stir it in.

3. Set a large pot of abundantly salted water on to boil.

4. Heat the remaining tablespoon of oil in a small saucepan over high heat and add the reserved whole sage leaves. Saute, turning, until the leaves are crisp, then remove to a paper towel to drain.

5. When the pasta water is boiling vigorously, add the pasta and stir with a long-handled spoon. Pennette will take about 10 minutes to become al dente, but start testing at 8 minutes.

6. While the pasta water returns to a boil and the pasta cooks, add the grated squash to the sausage in the saucepan and turn up the heat to medium high. Cook briskly until the squash is soft, cooked through and some pieces are beginning to disintegrate. Add a ladleful of pasta water to the sauce and stir it in. Keep the sauce warm over low heat while the pasta cooks.

7. Have ready a warmed serving bowl.

8. When the pasta is al dente, drain it and transfer to the warm bowl.

9. Season the sausage-squash sauce with salt and pepper, along with the grated Parmigiano, and toss. Garnish with chopped parsley and finally with the crisp-fried sage leaves.

10. Serve immediately, passing more grated cheese at the table.

Note to cooks: Use this as a master recipe for all sorts of sausage-and-vegetable pasta sauces. Once Thanksgiving is past, try it with broccoli rabe or turnip greens, or chop a bunch of leeks into smaller pieces, rinse them thoroughly and add in place of the squash.

Main photo: Sausage and squash are a nice flavor combination for a Thanksgiving pasta dish. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

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Apple Cider-Cranberry-Cornbread Stuffing. Credit: Kathy Hunt

Most of my friends possess heartwarming tales about Thanksgiving, of a day spent roasting aromatic turkeys, peeling and mashing potatoes and hanging out with their families in warm, inviting kitchens. My stories have a far less romantic bent. For me, this holiday brings back memories of my parents bickering over whether to stuff or not stuff the turkey.

In my mother’s eyes, a stuffing-filled turkey was tantamount to serving her guests a platter of salmonella. If you craved a savory dressing, you baked it in a separate dish. In any case, you always roasted your turkey au naturel.

My dad took a different stance. He argued that without a moist, herb-laced stuffing bundled inside, the turkey would be dry and flavorless. So too would the filling isolated in another pan. The two had a symbiotic relationship and needed each other to shine.

Keeping this in mind, he often snuck into the kitchen and shoved a halved onion, celery stalk, slice or two of bread, dried thyme and butter into the bird’s empty cavity. With that, the annual stuffing war commenced.

Over the years I’ve struggled with which position to take. I know history favors the stuffers. Since classical Roman times cooks have filled meat and poultry with sundry foods. Roast pigs packed with sausages and black pudding and geese overflowing with bread, onions and sage commonly graced the Roman dinner table. These additions were used to dress up the main course and make dining less mundane.

By the 19th century, French cooks had upped the ante on dressings. To spice up their offerings, chefs would shape minced and seasoned veal, pork or chicken, which are known as forcemeats, into whimsical shapes. They tucked these objects into roasts, whole fowl or fish. When diners cut into their entrees, they were surprised and amused to find ball-, egg- or carrot-shaped treats inside.

Throughout the ages people have used stuffing to stretch their meals. During tough times, when meat was expensive and scarce, cooks would extend their protein allotments by filling them with hunks of inexpensive bread and seasonings. The starchy stuffing absorbed the roasting meat’s rich juices and produced a hearty side dish.

Is stuffing in the bird a food-safety risk?

Although my dad had tradition and practicality on his side, my mother had the ultimate ally, the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Because of the risk of salmonella poisoning, the USDA advises against stuffing turkeys.

The problem with filled poultry involves bacteria and undercooking. Unless the stuffing reaches a minimum internal temperature of 165 F, bacteria from the turkey will survive and thrive in it. This tainted filling can, in turn, give diners a nasty case of food poisoning.

Common sense tells me to increase the cooking time and temperature of a stuffed turkey. These steps would kill off the bacteria and eliminate the risk of illness. Yet, if I do this, I could end up with fully cooked stuffing and a parched, inedible main dish.

Over the years, I’ve come up with a suitable compromise. In deference to my mother and the USDA, I bake my dressing in a greased baking dish. To keep the stuffing luscious and full-flavored, I may add extra butter or turkey drippings to it. Fat doesn’t dry out in the oven, nor will it turn bread crumbs gooey the way stock sometimes does.

In honor of my dad and his desire for a succulent, full-flavored bird, I also slide a few celery stalks, sliced onions, sprigs of rosemary and thyme and chunks of butter inside the turkey. As the turkey’s temperature nears the requisite 165 degrees, I remove and discard the produce.

For those who have never had to play peacekeeper and stuff or not stuff at will, I offer these bits of advice. If you decide to fill your turkey, cook and then cool your dressing before putting it in the turkey. To prevent bacteria from forming, add the bread crumb mixture right before putting the turkey in the preheated oven. Lastly, loosely and lightly pack the filling so everything cooks evenly.

A dressing that satisfied both my parents’ preferences is this Apple Cider-Cranberry-Cornbread Stuffing. Loaded with flavorful fruit and herbs, moistened with apple cider and then baked in its own dish, it’s a delicious detente for the longstanding Thanksgiving stuffing debate.

Apple Cider-Cranberry-Cornbread Stuffing

Prep Time: 30 minutes

Cook Time: 45 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour 15 minutes

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Ingredients

3/4 cup dried cranberries

1 cup apple cider, plus more if needed

1/3 cup chicken stock

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided

1/2 cup finely chopped white onion

1/2 cup finely chopped celery

5 cups toasted cornbread crumbs

1 cup toasted wheat bread crumbs

1 1/4 cup diced Granny Smith apples (about 1 1/2 apples)

1 1/2 tablespoons minced fresh flat-leaf parsley

2 teaspoons minced fresh rosemary

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

1/2 teaspoon salt

Directions

1. Place the cranberries, cider and stock in a small bowl. Allow the cranberries to steep in the liquid for 20 minutes or until plumped up and soft.

2. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Grease a large baking dish.

3. In a small sauté pan, heat half the butter. Add the onion and celery and sauté until soft but not browned, about 5 minutes.

4. Spoon the sautéed vegetables into a large bowl with the bread crumbs. Add the cranberries and cider mixture, apples, parsley, rosemary, thyme and salt and stir until the ingredients are well combined. Taste the stuffing to ensure it doesn’t seem too dry. If it needs more liquid, sprinkle up to 1/3 cup cider over the stuffing and stir to combine.

5. Loosely layer the stuffing in the buttered baking dish. Dot the top with pieces of the remaining butter.

6. Cover the dish with foil and bake for 30 minutes. After 30 minutes, remove the foil and continue to bake for an additional 10 minutes until browned. Serve warm.

Main photo: Apple Cider-Cranberry-Cornbread Stuffing. Credit: Kathy Hunt

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