Articles in Holidays

Pumpkins for Thanksgiving. Credit: Scott Hirko/iStock

There are basically three approaches to devising a Thanksgiving menu.

In the first, the foods are typical of New England where the first thanksgiving was celebrated some 250 years before it became a national holiday with a capital “T” in the mid-19th century.

In the second, families follow local and regional traditions. Or, if they are first- and second- generation immigrant families without a familiarity of traditional American Thanksgiving foods, they add avocado salad, curry or lasagna to the menu.

In the third, which no one I know uses other than the historically re-created village denizens of Plimouth Plantation in Massachusetts, cooks attempt the authentic 1621 menu.

The hardest part of the last approach is that no actual menu exists. We are left with just some cursory description from two sources supplemented with comparative studies of what we know American Indians and Englishmen ate in the 17th century.

At the center of the 1621 table was probably roast venison and a variety of water fowl. There were no mashed potatoes, no cranberry sauce and no pumpkin pies, although there were probably dried cranberries and pumpkins in some form. There was probably maize in the form of bread, griddle cakes or porridge.

Pilgrims’ harvest celebration

We know this from the two and only surviving documents from the harvest celebration shared by the Pilgrims and Wampanoag at Plymouth Colony in 1621. The sources are the English leader Edward Winslow’s “A Letter Sent From New England,” “A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth” and Gov. William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation.”

Winslow wrote to a friend that the governor (Bradford) had sent “four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors.” The hunters brought back enough food to feed the colony for a week along with “their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others.” Bradford adds that “besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys” venison and Indian corn.

As far as all the other food the colonists and Wampoanoag ate, culinary historians only have educated guesses based on a number of secondary sources including archeological remains such as pollen samples. The Wampanoag ate wildfowl, deer, eels, lobster, clams, mussels, smoked fish, and forest foods such as chestnuts, walnuts, and beechnuts, and they grew flint corn, the multicolored Indian corn suitable only for being ground into flour and never eaten off the cob. They also had pumpkin and squashes, sunchokes and water lily. We can surmise that those foods were on the table. The Indians had taught the colonists how to plant native crops, which they did in March of 1620, but the things grown are only known from a later time, namely turnips, carrots, onions, and garlic.

In 1621, the sweet potato and the white potato had not yet arrived in New England, so they were not found on the Pilgrims’ harvest table that autumn. Later Plymouth writings mention eagle and crane begin eaten.

Winslow, in his letter to a friend, describes the foods available in Plymouth in 1621. “Our bay is full of lobsters all the summer and affordeth variety of other fish; in September we can take a hogshead of eels in a night with small labor, and can dig them out of their beds all the winter. We have mussels … at our doors.”

Stewed Pompion (Stewed Pumpkin). Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Stewed Pompion (Stewed Pumpkin). Credit: Clifford A. Wright

He went on to describe plentiful strawberries, gooseberries and many varieties of plums. “These things I thought good to let you understand, being the truth of things as near as I could experimentally take knowledge of, and that you might on our behalf give God thanks who hath dealt so favorably with us,” Winslow wrote

“Our Indian corn,” wrote Winslow, “even the coarsest, maketh as pleasant a meal as rice.” In other words, traditional English dishes of porridge, pancakes and bread were adapted for native corn.

In September and October, a variety of dried and fresh vegetables were available. The produce from Pilgrim gardens is likely to have included what were then called herbs: parsnips, collards, carrots, parsley, turnips, spinach, cabbages, sage, thyme, marjoram and onions. Dried beans and dried wild blueberries may have been available as well as local cranberries, pumpkins, grapes and nuts.

One dish that very well might have been on that harvest table of the fall of 1621 is “stewed pompion,” as it was called by the 17th-century English. One of the earliest written recipes from New England is found in a book by the English traveler John Josselyn who first went to New England in 1638 and whose book “Two Voyages to New England” was published in 1674. He called it a “standing dish,” suggesting that it was an everyday dish. The adapted recipe you can make is based on his original description where he says “it will look like bak’d Apples.”

Stewed Pompions (Stewed Pumpkins)

Ingredients
4 cups cooked (boiled, steamed or baked) pumpkin flesh, roughly mashed
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 to 3 teaspoons apple cider vinegar
1 or 2 teaspoons ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon salt

Directions

In a saucepan over medium heat, stir and heat all the ingredients together. Adjust seasonings to taste, and serve hot.

Main photo: Pumpkins for Thanksgiving. Credit: Scott Hirko/iStock

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Simplify side dishes on your Thanksgiving table with easy-to-prepare and healthy vegetable dishes like this stuffed acorn squash. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

It has taken me some analysis of classic side dishes — especially the vegetarian ones — to realize why we tend to get so overwhelmed by Thanksgiving meal planning. We have over-complicated our vegetable dishes.

A green bean casserole or even a sweet potato gratin with marshmallows can be fussier than we realize. The heavy ingredients end up competing with the real taste and appearance of the vegetable.

The summer months, with their ever-flowing bounty of produce from my garden, have taught me to keep it simple, flavorful and fresh. This is also my mantra when I plan my Thanksgiving table.

I have wasted no time in playing around with the harvest table to give it my own personal stamp. This is an interactive process with my children, who like that our Thanksgiving table meshes the traditional with elements of Indian cooking, giving the holiday an Indian-American touch.

Spice up simple side dishes with not-so-simple flavors

My Thanksgiving table gets a nice touch of Indian flavor from all the fragrant spices and herbs at my disposal. I have also worked at simplifying dishes to create an assortment of sides that get done without much fuss — but with that nice boost of flavor.

Whole fragrant spices, such as fennel or cinnamon, tart citrus flavors, and herbs such as sage and cilantro are easy and healthy. They add loads of flavor and pizzazz to that side dish without much effort.

The purpose of the side on the Thanksgiving table is to showcase the bounty of the year — or at least, of the harvest season — and add some flair and color. I try to do that with dishes that don’t take loads of extra time. That can mean a side of serrano-spiked macaroni and cheese, kale livened up with caramelized onions and cumin, roasted beets with a fresh sprinkle of lime and black salt, and variations of sweet potatoes and winter squashes.

Winter squashes and sweet potatoes are not uncommon to Indian (especially Bengali) harvest celebrations, so I feel right at home with them. They also have been created with the perfect color coding for Thanksgiving, when orange, red and golden hues dominate. Those colors balance out the greens on the table, and they are good for you.

The cooking technique that I often favor for Thanksgiving sides is to roast the vegetables, which works very well for the squashes and roots that abound in markets this time of year. You can pop in the vegetables right alongside the turkey. An added plus: Those vegetables can be prepped and assembled ahead of time and then cooked, just in time for dinner.

Simple sides make for a happy cook

Cooking can be enjoyed best when the cook does not get too worn out or overwhelmed in the process.

I am sharing two of my favorite harvest recipes with you here. Both feature minimal prep time and mostly unattended cooking time. Both can be made ahead of time — and reheated to serve on Thanksgiving Day.

The butternut squash recipe uses sage leaves that are still growing or available in abundance in East Coast gardens — including mine — along with a nice bouquet of flavors from panch phoron or the Bengali Five Spice Blend.

The second dish features acorn squash stuffed with finely crumbled tofu, spinach, collard greens, pecans and some coconut milk. It also can be the perfect main dish for someone who is adhering to a vegan or gluten-free diet. I love to make this sometimes with mini-squashes so that everyone can have a personal squash. A dish that does double duty as a centerpiece and meal all at once!

Whole Spice Roasted Butternut Squash With Sage

(Recipe from my cookbook “Spices & Seasons: Simple, Sustainable Indian Flavors.”)

This roasted butternut squash is perfect for simplifying your side dishes at Thanksgiving, with just five minutes of prep time. Credit: Simplify side dishes on your Thanksgiving table with easy-to-prepare and healthy vegetable dishes like this stuffed acorn squash. Credit:  Rinku Bhattacharya

This roasted butternut squash is perfect for simplifying side dishes at Thanksgiving, with just five minutes of prep time. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 45 minutes (mostly unattended)

Yield: Serves 6

Ingredients

1 large butternut squash (about 2 pounds)

2 tablespoons oil

1 teaspoon Bengali Five Spice Blend (panch phoron)

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon ginger paste

Salt to taste (optional, I really do not think that this dish needs it)

1 tablespoon salted butter

15 fresh sage leaves

Directions

1. Heat the oven to 375 F.

2. Peel the squash, remove the seeds and cut the squash into 2-inch chunks.

3. Heat the oil in a skillet. Add the Five Spice Blend and when it crackles, mix in the black pepper and ginger paste and mix well. Add the squash and stir well to coat.

4. Place the seasoned squash on a greased baking sheet.

5. Roast the squash in the oven for about 35 minutes. It should be soft and beginning to get flecks of golden brown at spots. Taste to check if it needs any salt.

6. Heat the butter in a small skillet on low heat for about 2 to 3 minutes until it melts and gradually acquires a shade of pale gold. Add the sage leaves and cook until they turn dark and almost crisp.

7.  Pour over the squash and mix lightly.

8. Serve on a flat plate to showcase the spices and sage.

Rainbow Stuffed Acorn Squash

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 30 minutes (mostly unattended)

Yield: Serves 4 to 6

Ingredients
4 small acorn squash or other winter squash (use evenly shaped, colorful squash)

2 tablespoons oil

1 medium-sized onion, diced

1 teaspoon grated ginger

3 cups of chopped spinach

1 cup (about 12 ounces) crumbled tofu

1 teaspoon garam masala

1 teaspoon cumin coriander powder

1/2 cup chopped pecans

Salt to taste

1/2 cup coconut milk

3 tablespoons fresh lime juice (about 1 juicy lime)

1/2 cup finely chopped cilantro

2 tablespoons pomegranate seeds

Directions

1. Heat the oven to 350 F.

2. Place the squashes in a single layer and bake for 15 minutes. Cool.

3. While the squash is cooking, heat the oil and add in the onion and cook until soft. Add in the ginger and cook for another 2 to 3 minutes. Add in the spinach; cook until just wilted. Add the tofu and mix well.

4. Stir in the garam masala and the cumin-coriander powder with the pecans, salt and coconut milk and mix well. Bring to a simmer.

5. Carefully cut the tops from the squashes using a crisscross motion to follow the grooves of the squash and remove the top.

6. Remove the seeds and scoop out the flesh, leaving the shell intact.

7. Add the flesh to the spinach tofu mixture and mix and mash. Add in the lime juice and cilantro and some of the pomegranate seeds. Turn off the heat.

8. Stuff the prepared filling into the squash shells.

9. This can be served right away or set aside and then heated for 10 minutes in a hot oven before serving.

Main photo: Simplify side dishes on your Thanksgiving table with easy-to-prepare and healthy vegetable dishes like this stuffed acorn squash. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya 

 

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This prized Turkish pumpkin dessert, kabak tatlisi,

Pumpkins are a fixture at autumn farmers markets in Turkey, where they grow so large that they’re often cut with saws and sold in halves or by the slice. Like Americans, Turks love their pumpkin both savory — in soups, stews and as stuffed vegetables — and sweet.

Perhaps the most prized Turkish dessert is kabak tatlisi (literally, “pumpkin sweet”), wedges of pumpkin simmered in a syrup made by using sugar to leach the gourd of its natural juices. Because the recipe doubles or triples easily and the result keeps well for a day or two in the refrigerator, it’s a perfect dessert for holidays that demand do-ahead short-cuts, like Thanksgiving.

A sweet dessert tamed by nutty toppings

I’ve been a pumpkin lover all my life, yet until recently, kabak tatlisi, which is often served on its own or with kaymak (Turkish clotted cream), left me cold. Then I sampled it in Hatay province in southeast Turkey, where the pumpkin is served drizzled with tahini (that is a Turkish pantry staple) and sprinkled with crushed walnuts. The tahini’s slight bitterness tames the cloying sweetness of the pumpkin and crunchy walnuts complement the pudding-soft texture of the vegetable. The tahini’s oil content lends a rich, satisfying mouth feel, but since it’s made up mostly of vegetable, kabak tatlisi settles lightly in the stomach.

Though Turkish cooks usually make kabak tatlisi in a covered pan on top of the stove, I’ve found that the dish cooks wonderfully — and with less bother — in the oven. It emerges a lovely burnt orange, tinged with brownish bits from the caramelization.

Do not fear the sugar

Be prepared. This recipe calls for what will seem like a lot of sugar. Resist the temptation to cut back. The sugar is there to pull liquid out of the pumpkin. Yes, the result is super-sweet, but kabak tatlisi isn’t meant to be eaten in American pumpkin-pie-sized wedges. Just a few cubes per diner — three or four little bites of caramel-y,  tahini-nutty sweetness to end a meal — will do.

Resist also any urge to reduce cooking time by cutting the pumpkin into smaller pieces than this recipe indicates, or it will turn to mush before it caramelizes and the syrup has reduced. Be sure to use unadulterated tahini, without peanuts or peanut butter. Its bitter edge is essential to the success of this dish.

Plan ahead: the pumpkin must “soak” in the sugar for 8 hours (or overnight) before baking.

Caramelized Pumpkin with Tahini and Walnuts (Firinda Kabak Tatlisi)

Note: This recipe can easily be doubled, halved, cut into thirds. The rule of thumb is one part sugar to two parts pumpkin. Do not serve kabak tatlisi hot out of the oven. Room temperature or slightly chilled is best. Make sure your tahini is at room temperature when you serve.

Prep time: Up to 1/2 hour to prep the pumpkin; 8 hours to “soak” the pumpkin

Cook time: 45 minutes

Yield: Serves 8

Ingredients

1  1/2 pounds peeled pumpkin

3/4 pound (1 1/2 cups white sugar)

12 tablespoons pure tahini, at room temperature and whisked to remove any lumps

3/4 cup chopped walnuts

This Turkish pumpkin dessert features pumpkin wedges "soaked" for hours in sugar to draw out the liquid from the gourd. Credit: David Hagerman

This Turkish pumpkin dessert features pumpkin wedges “soaked” for hours in sugar to draw out the liquid from the gourd. Credit: David Hagerman

Directions

Prepping the pumpkin:

1. Cut the pumpkin into wide (3-inch) wedges and/or large (4-by-4-inch) chunks.

2. Arrange the pumpkin pieces in a baking dish or tray just large enough to hold them closely, but without crowding.

3. Sprinkle the sugar over the pumpkin and cover the dish with plastic wrap.

4. Leave the pumpkin at room temperature for 8 hours or overnight. Turn the pumpkin pieces occasionally – once every few hours, or once before bed and once after you get up — to expose all sides to the sugar.

Baking the pumpkin: 

1. Preheat the oven to 350 F.

2. Before baking, turn the pumpkin pieces one last time in what has likely become a mixture of syrup and lumps of wet granulated sugar.

3. Place the baking dish on the middle rack of the oven and bake for 40 minutes, gently turning the pumpkin pieces and basting with the sugar syrup once or twice.

4. Check the pumpkin for doneness by piercing a piece with a sharp knife. There should be no resistance.

5. Baste the pumpkin once more, then raise the heat to 400 F and continue to bake until it shows bits of caramel brown in some spots and the syrup bubbles, about 10 to 15 minutes.

6. Cool the pumpkin in its baking dish.

7. To serve, cut the pumpkin into small cubes or wedges and carefully transfer to bowls or plates. Spoon a bit of syrup over it, if you like, or leave it in the dish. Drizzle 1 1/2 tablespoons of tahini over each serving of pumpkin and sprinkle with walnuts.

Main photo: This prized Turkish dessert, kabak tatlisi, features pumpkin wedges simmered in a sweet sugar-based syrup and topped with tahini and walnuts. Credit: David Hagerman

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Turkeys at Ham Sweet Farm in Williamston, Mich. Credit: Kate Spinillo

On a long trip across America’s heartland, I spotted a pair of button eyes peering out at me from a passing semi truck full of livestock. The pig that I had locked eyes with was probably being taken to slaughter. I lost count of how many large-scale animal-transport trucks I saw while traveling Interstate 80 through farm country, each carrying animals, including turkeys for Thanksgiving, shoulder to shoulder, listless as wet carpet.

Those images made for a stunning contrast when I arrived at Ham Sweet Farm in Williamston, Mich., owned and operated by Kate Spinillo and her husband, Christian.

It looked so peacefully perfect that it might well be an artist-created movie set, from the goats sitting on a kiddie playhouse in a pen nearest the road, to the sweet yellow house with the wrap-around porch, to the pigs eagerly grunting and munching on leftover jack-o’-lanterns and enjoying scratches behind the ears, to the acres of oak and hickory that stretch out at the furthest reaches of the property.

Theirs is the idyllic farm that concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) want you to picture when they advertise industrially-raised meat, the same type of  animals that were being transported in those interstate semis. But that sort of advertising is an illusion that attempts to mask the reality of how mass-market animals live and die.

The Spinillos say that putting the finest product out to market begins and ends with happy animals. Selling direct-to-customer and as part of a meat CSA, Ham Sweet Farm provides heritage breeds of pork, beef, chicken, turkey and eggs to their community, including restaurants and a food truck. Amazed by the fact that they are able to maintain their operation while they both work full-time jobs outside the farm, I asked Kate how Ham Sweet Farm came to be.

“It started simply enough, with both of us working on farms, more as an outlet and interest than anything else. But once you start, it gets into your blood. You want the work, the challenge, the tangible reward at the end of a day of work and problem-solving.

“It’s as much about the relationship you have with the land you’re working on or with, as it is about the animals you’re raising or the produce you’re growing. It all falls together into one panoramic picture of the way you want to live your life, and also the way you want the food you eat to live its life.”

While we were enjoying a drink on the front porch and taking in the cornfield across the street, the gang of turkeys strolled in front of us, seemingly with a group goal or destination. With an arresting blend of humor and salt in her voice, Spinillo pointed out the difference between pastured and CAFO turkeys.

“Our turkeys are pretty friendly, and like to climb out of their mobile fencing to parade around the house, the driveway, the shop, various barns, our neighbor’s house, the mailbox and occasionally our front porch.

“The toms also like to get out and torment our big Blue Slate tom, ‘Phil Collins,’ but the joke is on them, because he is a permanent resident of the farm. Being heritage breeds, they retain their abilities to fly, so some of them roost in the trees or on top of our garden fence posts at night. Industrially-raised turkeys grow so fast and have such large breasts that they can hardly walk, let alone fly, toward the end of their lives.”

She explained the turkeys consumers find in most stores are broad-breasted white turkeys, which take about 5 months to raise before they go to the butcher. The Spinillos’ birds, by contrast, hatch in the spring and grow for about nine months before slaughter. They’re smaller than typical turkeys you find in the grocery store. Butterball would consider them “average,” Kate said.

 

Turkeys roaming free at Ham Sweet Farm in Williamston, Mich. Credit: Kate Spinillo

Turkeys roaming free at Ham Sweet Farm in Williamston, Mich. Credit: Kate Spinillo

“The flavor of our turkey last year, though, was phenomenal. One family worried about the smaller size of our birds, and so purchased an extra breast to serve on Thanksgiving … no one ate it, because our pasture-raised turkey was just that good.”

In an age where some stores put turkeys on sale for as little as 50 cents a pound, the cost of a pasture-raised bird — $9 a pound for a whole turkey — might seem shockingly high to some, but it takes into account the value of what it takes to bring the animal to market.

“Other than pigs, which we are raising to three times the age of the average CAFO pig, turkeys are our greatest investment. Seventy percent of the cost of a Thanksgiving turkey is to cover hard feed costs; the other 30% should theoretically cover the cost of the bird itself, processing, equipment, and your time.”

The percentage is theoretic, she said, because of the amount of human labor it takes to care for them daily for nine months is quite great.

Deeply committed to being a part of the local economy, the Spinillos understand well that not everyone can afford their meat, and go to great lengths to meet the needs of their customers, even arranging payment plans and deliveries for families who need those options. Still, it causes them to flinch when someone tries to imply their product isn’t worth the price.

“People see your heritage bird pricing and balk, but they forget that a turkey is good for multiple meals,” Kate said. “Thanksgiving dinner, leftovers, and then you make soup and stock from the bones. Turkeys should not be a disposable dinner, and we don’t price them like they are.”

Spinillo suggests that one of the easiest and most budget-friendly ways to support a small farm like theirs is to learn to make use of less-popular cuts.

“What’s frustrating is that people love the idea of the farm, they love coming to visit, and I think they love the romantic idea of purchasing directly from the farm raising the meat (or eggs or produce). But everyone wants the cuts that they know — steaks, belly, eight-piece chicken.

“The parts that we cannot GIVE AWAY are things like poultry feet and necks (duck, chicken, turkey), gizzards of all kinds, pork and beef offal (liver, kidney, heart, tongue). These all represent some of the best and most nutritious eating on the animal, as well as the cheapest cuts, but much of it we end up eating ourselves because we cannot give it away, let alone sell it.”

Slow Cooker Turkey Neck Bone Broth

Prep time: 5 minutes

Total time: 24 hours

Yield: 8 cups

Ingredients

1 turkey neck

Any other bony pieces, including feet or tail

1 onion, halved

1 large parsnip, peeled and cut into 2-inch chunks

10 whole peppercorns

2 bay leaves

1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

10 cups water, or enough to generously cover the ingredients

Directions

1. Place all of the ingredients in a large slow cooker and heat them on low for 4 to 6 hours.

2. Pull out the turkey neck and any other bones that may have meat attached. Pick off the pieces of meat and save them for another meal. Return the bones to the slow cooker and let the bone broth cook on low for an additional 20 hours.

3. Strain out the bones, vegetables and spices. Let the bone broth cool to room temperature before storing it in the refrigerator. It should be quite gelatinous by the time it is chilled. Bone broth also takes well to being frozen and can be a go-to for holiday meals.

Main photo: Turkeys at Ham Sweet Farm in Williamston, Mich. Credit: Kate Spinillo

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Apple Pumpkin Pie. Credit: Michael Krondl

Was there pumpkin pie at that first legendary Thanksgiving? My bet is there was.

You will recall from grade school that the first grand feed was held in Plymouth, Mass., in 1621 by the Pilgrims to mark their first harvest — and the fact they were alive. This was something to celebrate, given that 50% of their compatriots didn’t make it through the first year. We know they the feast lasted more than three days, but exactly what was on the menu remains a bit of a mystery.

The English being English, the reports of the event mention only the meat. We know they invited about 90 Wampanoag who brought plenty of venison, and the Englishmen managed to bag a week’s worth of unnamed game birds, so there’s a pretty good chance wild turkeys were among them. As far as cranberry sauce and mashed potatoes, marshmallow-topped yams and Campbell’s green bean casserole, or even pie, the record is silent. We know they had no potatoes, marshmallows or Campbell’s soup.

But there’s a semi-decent chance they might have sent the kids into the cranberry bogs to pick the autumn fruit and stewed some sort of condiment out it. After all, this sort of thing was popular enough in England at the time. And they probably did have pie, an English staple if ever there were one, though apple pie would have been out of the question — not because they wouldn’t have been familiar with it. Apple pie is mentioned as early as the 14th century, and the cookbooks familiar to the Puritans included plenty of apple pie recipes. The trouble was, any apple trees in Massachusetts would have been no more than seedlings.

What were the other options? Back across the Atlantic, pie shells — or “coffins,” as they were known — could be filled with just about anything: pigeons, mutton haunches, minced meat, baby pigs, rabbits. For a lark, four and twenty live blackbirds might be tucked away in a pie crust and released at the dinner table. Fruit and vegetables were popular fillings as well, often sweetened, but not always. Pumpkins, or pompions, as they were called, had taken up root in England long before the Mayflower sailed and consequently pumpkin pie recipes showed up early, though not in a form the test kitchens at Libby’s would recognize. John Gerard recommended baking them sliced with apples in the 1590s. Hannah Woolley’s popular 17th-century culinary guide, “A Gentlewoman’s Companion,” described a “pompion pye” made by sautéing pumpkin pieces with thyme, rosemary, marjoram, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and pepper. These are mixed with eggs and sugar and layered in the pie shell with apples and currants. To serve the pie, you lift off the lid, stir the pumpkin to a purée and replace the lid.

Apparently, there were parts of England where pumpkins were cultivated specifically for a custardy apple pumpkin pie. It’s reasonable to surmise that early New England settlers made something similar but with just pumpkins. Maybe pompion pye, made of familiar native squash, was one of the exotic European preparations the Wampanoag guests got to taste in 1621.

Inside the pumpkins. Credit: Michael Krondl

Inside the pumpkins. Credit: Michael Krondl

Certainly the kind of smooth pumpkin custard-filled pie we’re familiar with became commonplace in New England. Amelia Simmons’ “American Cookery” from 1796 has a couple of recipes for it as well as a variant made with apples mixed with squash. All these are based on old-world models, on pies filled with a sweet purée of potatoes, chestnuts, quinces or even African yams. The main difference: In the king’s English, these were called “baked puddings”; in America they eventually came to be “pies.”

No Libby’s for this apple pumpkin pie

Compared to 100 or more years ago, today’s cook is presented with both advantages and impediments to making a decent pumpkin pie. Canned pumpkin is ubiquitous, almost all of it made by Libby’s, from a pumpkin variety called Dickinson that resembles a giant, tan football. Finding your own cooking pumpkin, however, isn’t always easy.

Pumpkins for pie. Michael Krondl

Pumpkins for pie. Michael Krondl

There are plenty of those big, happy, orange pumpkins, but they are intended for carving jack-o’-lanterns, not eating. Their flesh is scrawny, insipid and altogether useless for pie, or any other culinary effect. Like the Libby’s variety, cooking pumpkins tend to be the color of butternut squash, with a thick layer of orange flesh. The so-called cheese pumpkin is one kind that can be found at farmers markets this time of year. But even these, you can’t just roast and use. To get the desired density for a custard-type pumpkin pie, the roasted pumpkin flesh needs to be lightly puréed (a food processor or food mill will do the job) and then drained. The easiest way to do this is to line a large sieve or colander with a coffee filter. After two or three hours, the consistency will approximate what comes from a Libby’s can.

Is it worth the effort? That’s not the sort of question a Puritan would ask.

Apple Pumpkin Pie slice. Credit: Michael Krondl

Apple Pumpkin Pie slice. Credit: Michael Krondl

Apple Pumpkin Pie

Adapted from “The Great Little Pumpkin Cookbook”

Prep time: about 1/2 hour

Cook time: about 1 hour

Total time: 1 1/2 hours plus time needed to make pastry

Yield: 8 to 10 servings

While this doesn’t exactly reproduce the consistency of the old British custardy pumpkin apple pies, it is a tasty departure from the usual autumn staples. If a cooking pumpkin isn’t available, a butternut squash will serve the same purpose.

1 recipe double crust pie pastry (recipe follows)

1 1/2 pounds cooking pumpkin or butternut squash

1 pound firm cooking apples such as Northern Spy, Baldwin or golden delicious

2 tablespoons cider vinegar

3 tablespoons flour

3/4 cup dark brown sugar

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Large pinch nutmeg

Large pinch cloves

1 egg, lightly beaten

Directions

1. Roll out half of the pastry for a bottom crust and place in a 9-inch pie pan. Refrigerate.

2. Preheat oven to 425 F.

3. Scoop out the pumpkin seeds, cut the pumpkin into 1-inch strips, cut away the peel and slice the strips into 1/8-inch thick pieces. (You should have 4 cups.)

4. Peel, quarter and core the apples. Cut into 1/4-inch slices.

5. In a large bowl, toss the pumpkin with the apples, vinegar, flour, brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. Arrange in the pastry-lined pie pan.

6. Brush the edge of the dough with the beaten egg.

7. Roll out the remaining dough and place on top of the filling. Crimp the edges. Cut vent holes in the top crust and brush the top with the egg.

8. Set on the bottom shelf of the oven. Bake 20 minutes. Lower temperature to 350 F. Continue baking until golden brown and the pumpkin offers no resistance to a knife or skewer, about 1 more hour.

9. Cool at least 2 hours before serving. Serve at room temperature or slightly warm.

Double Crust Pie Pastry

Prep time: 10 minutes

Total time: 10 minutes plus 2 or more hours of chilling

Yield: Makes enough dough for 1 double crust or 2 single crust pies.

Ingredients

2 1/3 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

8 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

6 tablespoons lard or vegetable shortening

about 1/3 cup ice water

Directions

1. Sift together the flour, and salt. Add the butter and shortening. Using your hands or a pastry cutter, break up the two fats in the flour until the mixture is about as fine as rolled oats.

2. Add just enough water to moisten the flour. Toss to form a rather dry dough. Do not overmix. Gather the dough together and wrap in plastic film. Refrigerate at least 2 hours.

Note: The dough may be made ahead and refrigerated for up to 3 days or frozen for several months.

Main photo: Apple Pumpkin Pie. Credit: Michael Krondl

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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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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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Pickled shrimp goes way back in the South, and it's still a treat among modern-day holiday fare. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen

“Swimpee! Swimpee!” shouted the shrimp vendors of years past in Charleston, S.C., as they wended their way through the streets, the fresh shrimp in their baskets glistening in the early morning light.

Southern hospitality being what it was, hostesses served that shrimp to their guests in velvety bisques and bubbling stews and pickles. Happily, not much has changed. Now as then, any gathering in the South, especially around the winter holidays, demands a lot of food. Pickled shrimp is just one option for you as you plan your upcoming holiday get-togethers.

One of the easiest ways to prepare an excess of shrimp came from the long English tradition of pickling. And so it’s no surprise to find a recipe for pickled shrimp in an early manuscript cookbook from the well-connected Pinckney family of Charleston, published in 1984 as “A Colonial Plantation Cookbook: The Receipt Book of Harriott Pinckney Horry, 1770.”

Some other so-called Southern traditions are relative newcomers to the Southern table, but beloved nonetheless.

Bring on the butter and cheese

For instance, roast some pecans and douse them in a bit of butter, salt, and black pepper. They’ll be gone before you get back to the kitchen for a refill.

Another possibility includes that old standby, pimento cheese. It’s actually not so Southern after all, but originally the offspring of industrial food – cream cheese and canned pimentos, dating to around the 1870s in New York state. But the South adopted the concoction straight away, eventually gravitating from the industrialized version to recipes using white and yellow cheddar.

Make a Pecan-Crusted Cheese Ball and put a definite Southern signature on it all. Or go for tiny, open-faced grilled cheese sandwiches. Create them by spreading dollops of pimento cheese on toasted bread rounds, topping the cheese with a thin slice of tomato, placing the rounds on a cookie sheet, firing up the broiler, and cooking the rounds until the cheese bubbles. You’ll never have enough, so popular are these with guests of all ages.

Why the devil is it called deviled ham?

Or what about deviled ham, a preparation harking back to medieval recipes for various types of potted meats, always preserved in some type of fat? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, around 1786 the word “devil” became associated with spicy foods. The William Underwood Company in Boston, Mass., began canning deviled ham in 1868. And many home cooks made a version with a meat grinder, called it ham salad. After all, as Abraham Lincoln once supposedly said, “Eternity is two people and a ham!” Deviled ham is a good way to use up leftover ham, spread on crackers and garnished with a bit of sliced pickle.

And then there are fried dill pickles, absolutely delicious, crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside. A real treat. Popular history claims that in Atkins, Ark., in 1963, Bernell “Fatman” Austin originated the fried dill pickle craze at his Duchess Drive-In. You have a choice here: You can rustle up some dill pickle spears this way or stick to the “old-fashioned” way with dill pickle chips.

The beauty of these appetizers, except for the fried dill pickles, is that you can make them all ahead. And as for the fried dill pickles, hey, just tap one of your talented-in-the-kitchen guests on the shoulder and ask him or her to don an apron and get to work. You just kick back and enjoy that shot of bourbon. And tell some tall tales about the origins of the appetizers on your table.

Bring true Southern hospitality to your holiday meals by pickling shrimp for your guests. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen

Bring true Southern hospitality to your holiday meals by pickling shrimp for your guests. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen

Pickled Shrimp

Yield: Makes about 1 quart

Ingredients

1 cup distilled white vinegar

1 cup water

1/4 teaspoon ground mace

1/4 teaspoon ground ginger

1/4 teaspoon dry mustard

3 tablespoons coriander seeds

2 teaspoons yellow mustard seeds

2 pounds shrimp, cooked, peeled

1/2 cup thinly sliced mild (sweet) onion

Zest of one lemon, cut into strips (be sure to not include the white pith under the zest)

2 bay leaves

1 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt or more to taste

1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

Directions

1. Put the vinegar, water, mace, ginger, dry mustard, coriander seeds, and mustard seeds in medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and let simmer 10 minutes. Cool.

2. Wash and sterilize two 1-quart canning jars.

3. Put shrimp, onion, lemon zest, bay leaves, kosher salt, red pepper flakes, and olive oil in a large glass or ceramic bowl. Pour the brine mixture over it all and stir. Taste for salt. You want the salt to cut the strong tang of the vinegar.

4. Fill each canning jar with half of the pickle mixture, making sure to put one bay leaf in each jar. Place jars tightly sealed in the refrigerator and let sit for 36 hours. Do not be alarmed that the oil will rise to the top; this helps to preserve the shrimp, and is actually an old, time-honored method of food preservation. The brine will be slightly cloudy and that’s OK too.

5. To serve, fish shrimp out of the brine, place on crackers with a bit the onion, or serve in the brine in a small glass bowl, with toothpicks for serving. Pickled shrimp keeps in the refrigerator for up to two weeks. If it lasts that long.

Pimento cheese is not so Southern in its origins after all, but it has been heartily accepted there. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen

Pimento cheese is not so Southern in its origins after all, but it has been heartily accepted there. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen

Pimento Cheese

Yield: Makes about 3 1/2 cups

Ingredients

6 ounces sharp yellow cheddar, grated

12 ounces sharp white cheddar, grated and divided

1/4 teaspoon salt or to taste

A few grindings of black pepper or to taste

1/2 teaspoon dry mustard

1/8 teaspoon cayenne or to taste

1 1/4 cups Duke’s mayonnaise or other commercial or homemade mayonnaise

6 ounces chopped, drained piquillo peppers or other roasted red peppers, from a jar*

Directions

1. Put all of the ingredients except for half of the white cheddar and the piquillo peppers in a food processor.** Purée until slightly lumpy. Scrape cheese mixture into a medium-size bowl and add the remaining grated white cheddar and the peppers. Stir gently. I have found that adding some of the grated cheese at the end gives the pimento cheese a more interesting texture.

2. Scrape cheese into an airtight container and refrigerate for up to a week.

3. Serve on crackers, as a filling for tea sandwiches or stuffed celery, as a dip for vegetables, and even in grilled cheese sandwiches.

*You can roast and peel your own red peppers if you prefer. Piquillo peppers are sold in most grocery stores these days.

** If you don’t have a food processor, a blender works fairly well. You just have to divide the ingredients, pulse them in the blender separately, and then mix together in the bowl. If you don’t have either a food processor or a blender, simply mix all the ingredients together except the peppers, with a metal spoon, which will break up the cheese somewhat. Then add the peppers and fold in. You can also make a Pimento Cheese Ball; just roll the ball in roasted pecans. See recipe for pecans below; crush the pecans into smallish pieces for this.

Roasted Pecans

This buttery treat will be gone before you can return to the kitchen for refills. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen

This buttery treat will be gone before you can return to the kitchen for refills. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen

Yield: Makes about 2 1/2 cups

Ingredients

10 ounces pecan halves

2 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces, at room temperature

Sea salt, to taste

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 250 F.

2. Put pecans in a 9-by-12-inch baking pan. Bake 1 hour, turning occasionally, making sure they do not burn.

3. At the end of the hour, stir butter into pecans and roast another 10 minutes.

4. Remove from oven and season with salt and pepper to taste. You can experiment by adding other ground spices like cayenne, ancho pepper, and smoked paprika or smoked chipotle.

Deviled Ham

Yield: Makes about 3 cups

Ingredients

1 cup heavy cream

1/2 cup country ham, minced

1 1/2 cups smoked ham, minced

1/4 cup butter, melted

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

1 tablespoon dry mustard

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

1 1/2 teaspoons hot sauce (Texas Pete, etc.)

1 1/2 scallions, finely minced

3 tablespoons flat-leaf parsley, finely minced

Sweet pickle relish (optional)

Crackers or toasted bread rounds

Sliced dill pickle spears (to make small triangles)

Directions

1. Lightly oil a 1-quart crock or similar container.

2. Bring cream to a boil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Cook until slightly thick. Add all of the ham, and bring back to a boil. Let cool for a few minutes off the heat.

3. Place all ingredients, except the scallions and the parsley, in a blender or food processor and process until almost smooth, with a few large pieces of ham still visible.

4. Scrape mixture into a large bowl, stir in the scallions and the parsley. And if you wish, add sweet pickle relish to taste.

5. Spoon mixture into the crock, cover tightly with plastic wrap, and refrigerate until chilled.

6. Serve spread on crackers or bread, topped with a small slice of a dill pickle spear. Or spread on sandwich bread, top with a lettuce leaf and another piece of bread, cut into four triangles. Then you’ll have tea sandwiches ready to go on platters for your guests.

Fried Dill Pickles

Yield: Makes 12 spears

Ingredients

Vegetable oil for frying

1 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper or to taste

2 eggs, beaten

12 dill pickle spears or 2 cups dill pickle slices/”chips”

Ranch dressing — homemade or commercial

Directions

1. Heat oil over medium-high heat until almost smoking in a heavy, wide-bottomed saucepan or a deep, heavy skillet.

2. Mix the flour with the seasonings in shallow baking dish, like a pie pan. Place beaten eggs in another, similar pan. Set aside.

3. Dip pickles in beaten egg, shake off excess egg, and then roll pickles in the seasoned flour.

4. Carefully slide the pickles into the hot oil. Fry until crisp and golden brown. Drain briefly on paper towels.

5. Serve immediately with ranch dressing on the side.

Main photo: Pickled shrimp goes way back in the South, and it’s still a treat for modern-day holiday fare. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen

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