Articles in Tradition
Holiday baking is a great way to get kids into the kitchen. If they don’t have a natural interest in cooking, they might have an unnatural interest in sprinkles, icing and silver dragées.
However, if you blithely attempt to make sugar cookies with a 3-year-old, thinking it will be a living tableau of family harmony, you may end up with something much less pleasing. The holidays are so loaded that it is really, really easy to NOT get those cozy memories you want to create.
Here are a few tips on making a baking session that might just fit the picture books.
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1. Lower your expectations.
Whatever they are, dial them down. If you think matching aprons and carols on the stereo, and a batch of gingerbread men rolled to perfect thickness, think again. Visualize molasses-coated jeans and wildly rippled dough. Picture worst-case scenarios — broken mixing bowls and 2 cups of salt instead of sugar — and be happy when the disasters are minor.
This is crucial. If you want everything to be just-so, you are going to interfere with the experience the child will have. And you want that experience to be pleasant, not scripted to fit an ideal.
Being tender with the impulse to explore tools and materials you are introducing is more important than working toward the most tender sugar cookies. You can make those at nap time, if you must.
2. Suit your crew.
Bear in mind abilities and ages.
Before you start to bake, observe the child — yours or a favorite nephew or pseudo-niece — at a meal. How do they handle forks and spoons? Could they manage pouring the vanilla? Maybe they would do best just opening the sticks of butter and turning on the mixer. Because many cookies require refrigeration, making the dough ahead of time can skirt a lot of trouble.
Don’t set the bar too high, but don’t set it too low, either. That 10-year-old could be incredibly well skilled and training for junior chef Olympics. If that is the kind of kid you will have in the kitchen, do a lot of talking before you get there.
3. Involve everyone as much as possible.
Inclusive planning can be scaled to fit. A 4-year-old should see you take the splattered index card from the inside flap of the “Betty Crocker Cookbook” and hear how you used to bake king-sized gingersnaps every single Christmas. The 5-year-old might want the story in more detail. A 6- or 7-year-old you’ve baked with before might want to plan which kind of cookie to bake at which session.
The fancy-pants chef-to-be is fully capable of planning everything with you, from recipes to shopping, and decorating storage containers. However, be aware that kitchen dreams can overshoot the limits of time and experience. Maybe don’t make sea foam candy together unless one of you is well versed in working with sugar.
Keep the afternoon manageable, especially if you are working with a group of kids. Leave room for tasting the products with a cup of cocoa. You don’t have to make fudge and gingerbread men the same day.
4. Invite another family.
The best way to conquer your own crazy expectations and/or buffer dynamics between you and your kids might be to make a crowd. This will call for you completely surrendering to the crowd, of course, and that is a good thing.
There is a lot of pressure to make holidays all about the nuclear family. Creating a nontraditional scenario might seem sacrosanct, but it could also be the trick you need to trick yourself out of wanting to stage a Tremendously Wonderful Time Baking, which is sure to end in tears.
5. Remember your own holiday times in the kitchen. (And maybe forget them.)
Each holiday recipe is probably linked to some moment in your life. I remember the year I discovered Edith’s Sugar Cookies in a cookbook I took from the library. The year, in my 20s, I learned how to make Viennese Crescents from my boyfriend’s mom.
Stepping into those memories is a beautiful trap. I think I can time travel, or that the cookies will carry me. Repetition seems to be the magic maker. However, if I really think about what I loved about those times, it was exploration, rather than repetition, that seared them into my brain and heart.
When I bake with my kids, I try to remember that exploration is a key wonder to cultivate. Good cookies are great, but curious cooks are in short order. Make me some more of those.
Top photo: Felix, 10, shows off his Christmas cookie. Credit: Amy Halloran
We are concerned about species of animals that might be headed for extinction, but we don’t seem to be as concerned about our endangered culinary traditions. There are recipes that need to be saved. Food is who we are. It’s what binds us together culturally in this multicultural country. One such food from New England is red flannel hash.
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Red flannel hash is hardly made anymore, probably because it’s a way of using the leftovers from a New England boiled dinner, which also is rarely cooked anymore. A boiled dinner is simply corned beef brisket, beets, parsnips, carrots, onions, cabbage and potatoes with a few spices, boiled only in water for dinner and served with a horseradish sauce.
But red flannel hash is so good that it can be made from scratch without using leftovers. How it got its name will be instantly obvious once you’ve made it. If all you’ve ever had is the heartburn-producing canned corned beef hash then what awaits you is a surprise and a delight.
In the modern age of global food distribution and processed consumer food products, regional specialties like this fall out of favor and are in danger of being lost forever. Like recipes that call for local produce grown only in a small area or ethnic delicacies from small immigrant groups, these dishes are in jeopardy of becoming unknown.
Often said to be a food eaten by the colonists, red flannel hash more likely was concocted in the early 20th century as a way of using leftovers. Its characteristic red color comes from corned beef and beets. Typically cooks would start with chopped up leftover boiled dinner and add potatoes to make the dish a hash.
Because it was such a breakfast favorite, especially in New England diners, and not everyone had made a boiled dinner the night before, recipes appeared for making the hash from scratch.
Red Flannel Hash
2 ounces salt pork, sliced and cut into ½-inch pieces
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
½ small onion, finely chopped
6 ounces cooked corned beef, finely chopped, not ground
1 pound cooked Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and finely chopped
¼ pound cooked turnips, finely chopped
1 pound cooked red beets, peeled, trimmed and finely chopped
¼ cup heavy cream
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
4 large eggs, poached
1. Preheat the oven to 400 F.
2. In a 12-inch cast iron skillet, over medium heat, cook, stirring the salt pork until crispy. Remove and leave the fat in the skillet. Add the butter to the skillet, then over medium heat, cook, stirring the onion until translucent, about 5 minutes.
3. Combine the corned beef, potatoes, turnips, beets and cream in a bowl, and toss gently with some salt and pepper.
4. Transfer the hash to the skillet and spread it out with a spatula so it covers the skillet. Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover and cook until a crust forms, about 15 minutes.
5. Place the skillet in the oven and cook until the top is crisp, about 15 minutes.
6. Meanwhile, poach the eggs. Remove the hash from the oven, cut into wedges and serve with the crispy salt pork and poached egg.
Top photo: Red flannel hash. Credit: Clifford A. Wright
For weeks I have been incubating ideas about what in my repertoire I might suggest for your Thanksgiving table. With all that’s abuzz in the food press about dry brining turkey and gussying up pumpkin pie and such, I have decided not to go anywhere near the subject for fear of dishonoring the true spirit of Thanksgiving with ideas about Venetian roast turkey with pomegranate or savory speck-flecked pumpkin pie encased in a rosemary pastry crust.
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I’ll admit I’m not entirely certain what that American spirit is because there is no precise record of the menu on the auspicious day in 1621, auspicious, that is, for the newcomers. While I am as fond of the proverbial bird and all the trimmings as anyone, I haven’t yet swallowed my grammar-school lessons about how it all went down at Plymouth Rock between the Wampanoags and the dour lot of newcomers.
Pilgrims getting creative with pasta
For the benefit of those who, like me, are skeptical of the official version of Thanksgiving history, let me quote how my favorite American writer on food topics, Calvin Trillin, crusader for changing the national Thanksgiving dish from turkey to spaghetti alla carbonara, recounted the story to his children, as told in a 1983 essay in “Third Helpings.”
“In England, a long time ago, there were people called pilgrims who were strict about making sure everyone observed the Sabbath and cooked food without any flavor and that sort of thing, and they decided to go to America, where they could enjoy Freedom to Nag. … In America, the pilgrims tried farming, but they couldn’t get much done because they were always putting their best farmers in the stocks for crimes like Suspicion of Cheerfulness.
“The Indians took pity on the pilgrims and helped them with their farming, even though they thought the pilgrims were about as much fun as teenage circumcision. The pilgrims were so grateful that at the end of their first year in American they invited the Indians over for a Thanksgiving meal.
“The Indians, having had some experience with pilgrim cuisine during the year, took the precaution of taking along one dish of their own. They brought a dish that their ancestors had learned many generations before from none other than Christopher Columbus, who was known to the Indians as ‘the big Italian fellow.’
“The dish was spaghetti carbonara made with pancetta bacon and fontina and the best imported prosciutto. The Pilgrims hated it. They said it was ‘heretically tasty’ and ‘the work of the devil’ and ‘the sort of thing foreigners eat.’ The Indians were so disgusted that on the way back to their village after dinner one of them made a remark about the pilgrims that was repeated down through the years and unfortunately caused confusion among historians about the first Thanksgiving meal. He said, ‘What a bunch of turkeys!’ ”
The real deal with spaghetti alla carbonara
I feel compelled to make a few comments about Trillin’s account as to the nature of the first Thanksgiving Day dish. Everyone knows that recipes, when they migrate from their country of origin to a foreign kitchen, undergo transformation as much as people do. By Trillin’s account, only a few generations after the native dwellers had gotten their hands on it, they had already embellished it, gilding the lily, so to speak, with characteristic American excess so that it would have been hardly recognizable to Cristoforo Colombo who, like every other Italian, suffered the indignities of name change upon reaching the shores of America.
If we are to believe the account, the Wampanoags’ version included two kinds, not one kind, of cheese, and two kinds of salumi. No doubt the spaghetti wasn’t imported. It’s a good thing Italy’s famous native son wasn’t around to see it, or later incarnations that plied the dish further with cream, wine, broccoli and even caviar. Everything but the kitchen sink was lavished onto the once-humble progenitor that was named, or so some think, for the Roman carbonari, men who worked in the forests burning wood to make charcoal.
Probably there is no dish whose origins are as mysterious. Of course, some say the carbonari invented it. By other accounts, Italian women concocted it when presented with bacon and egg rations by American soldiers during World War II. I am assured by reliable sources that it is an ancient dish with roots in the kitchens of the norcini, famed pork butchers of Umbria. That theory would add a bit of credence to Trillin’s pre-Columbian explanation, which is as well founded as any I’ve seen.
What is undisputed is that the mother recipe was a simple affair born in the porky lands of Rome or Umbria, of strand pasta, guanciale or pancetta, egg and sheep cheese, initiated with extra virgin olive oil.
If we are to entertain Trillin’s tale, by the time the Wampanoag were making it in Plymouth, the dish had evolved into the first example of Italian-American cooking, which, as we all know, is as far from the real thing as Plymouth is from Rome.
In any case, the recipe ingredients and method presented here are considered by Italian historians to be the authentic version. Viva true spaghetti alla carbonara and Happy Thanksgiving to all.
The Authentic Spaghetti Alla Carbonara
As with any Italian recipe for pasta, it is necessary to use imported Italian pasta, which is unequaled for its ability to retain a wheaty flavor and elasticity throughout cooking, thus delivering a true al dente result. The recipe is marvelously simple and a revelation to anyone who has not experienced the true spaghetti alla carbonara, as long as it is followed precisely. That means no substitutions, no straying from the instructions, no ad-libbing and no succumbing to last-minute flights of inventiveness. Even if you were to wind up with something tasty, it wouldn’t be the original. If you’re after authenticity, this is it.
5 extra-large eggs, beaten
¾ cup freshly grated aged pecorino romano
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
½ pound guanciale (unsmoked cheek bacon) or pancetta, thickly sliced and diced
1 pound imported Italian spaghetti
2 tablespoons kosher salt
1. In a bowl, combine the beaten eggs with the grated cheese and season with sea salt and pepper to taste.
2. Select a serving bowl for the pasta and keep it warm.
3. In a skillet large enough to hold the cooked spaghetti after it’s drained, warm the olive oil. Add the guanciale or pancetta and sauté over medium heat until nicely colored and crispy around the edges but still chewy (those bits burn awfully fast, so stand over the pan until they’re properly browned, not burnt). Turn off the heat and set aside the pan in a warm spot on the stovetop.
4. Fill a pot with 5 quarts water and bring it to a rapid boil over high heat. Add the spaghetti and the kosher salt together and stir. Check package instructions for cooking time. Cook, stirring frequently, until the pasta is 2 minutes away from being al dente. Drain it, reserving about 1 cup of the cooking water. Transfer the spaghetti to the skillet with the guanciale or pancetta and toss over low heat. Add ½ cup or so of the cooking water to moisten and loosen up the tangles. Simmer until the water is nearly evaporated.
5. Remove the skillet from the heat, transfer the pasta to a serving bowl, and immediately add the egg and cheese mixture while the pasta is steaming hot, tossing vigorously to distribute the egg mixture while making sure it does not coagulate into scrambled egg. The temperature should not exceed 160 F, though it’s not easy to take a reading of it. If the pasta seems to be dry, add more of the reserved cooking water to loosen it up. Serve at once, passing the pepper mill at the table.
Top photo: Spaghetti alla Carbonara. Credit: Hirsheimer & Hamilton from “Italian Home Cooking,” by Julia della Croce
Corn has gotten a bad rap over the past 50 years, especially since it was genetically modified to resist enormous applications of herbicide, and then used primarily for ethanol and animal feed. That No. 2 Yellow Dent corn is a far cry from the delicious and nutritious staple of the Native Americans, who deserve to own the intellectual property of corn genetics for the simple reason that all corn is Indian corn, painstakingly developed by Native Americans from wild teosinte grass.
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Cultivation of maize began more than 8,000 years ago in the Balsas River Valley in what is present-day Mexico, and the plant was considered a sacred gift from the gods. Over the years, thousands of varieties were developed by native peoples throughout Meso-America, and then throughout North and South America, until there were varieties for every altitude and climate, and for every culinary and ceremonial purpose. The Indians categorized their corn by intended use: for flour, for hominy and porridge, for popping, and so on. Of the many edible gifts native peoples have given us, the most important is, arguably, corn.
This Thanksgiving, you can give thanks to Native Americans and recapture some of the rich heritage and rich tastes of corn by seeking out heirloom varieties such as Mandan Bride, and serving them as a side dish or as a gluten-free stuffing for your bird.
My first experience with true polenta was not in Italy, but in my own kitchen using my brother Henry’s freshly ground Mandan Bride cornmeal, water, salt and pepper. Until that silky, creamy, revelatory moment, I thought all cornmeal came in a yellow and blue canister blessed with a smiling Quaker. And I thought it tasted pretty much like the cardboard it came in.
The steaming bowl in front of me was something else entirely — complex, nutty, mildly sweet and altogether comforting. And it got me wondering who and what Mandan Bride was, and why I had lived for 50 years before tasting the earthy essence of corn.
It turns out the Mandan Indians lived in parts of what we now know as Minnesota and North Dakota, and they developed this corn specifically for grinding into meal and making into porridge. They bred it for flavor and nutrition, and quite possibly for beauty as well.
Every ear of Mandan Bride is different, the variegated colors ranging from deep burgundy to hazy purple to smoky white, with some kernels a uniform color and others striped. The ears are so beautiful that you may find it being sold as an ornamental. But after enjoying its beauty, you should do as the Indians intended, and make yourself the most amazing polenta you’ve ever had.
Searching for Mandan Bride
Mandan Bride and other heirloom cornmeals are hard to find from anyone but a small-scale, biodiverse local farmer. The plant’s relatively weak stalks and soft cobs make it nearly impossible to harvest mechanically, so farmers must pick the ears by hand, then hand shuck them, dry them to just the right point and then stone grind them in small batches. Because the whole kernel is ground, heirloom cornmeal is much more flavorful and nutritious than commercial cornmeal for which the outer hulls and inner germ (the protein- and fat-rich center of each kernel) are removed. But freshly ground whole kernels are perishable, and should be kept in the refrigerator or freezer.
If you can’t find Mandan Bride, look for Hopi Blue or Bloody Butcher. Or resolve to grow your own next year. Seeds are available from a number of purveyors who specialize in old varieties, and Mandan Bride is listed as one of RAFT’s (Renewing America’s Food Traditions) “culinary mainstays of the last three millennia.”
Perfect Thanksgiving polenta
Many polenta recipes call for butter, cream or cheese, but if you have freshly ground heirloom cornmeal, there’s no need for anything but water, salt and pepper.
Polenta can be made and served at a loose, custardy consistency using a 5-1 ratio of water to cornmeal, or it can be made with less water (a 4-1 ratio) so that it’s firm and easily shaped into squares or triangles, and then pan-fried or broiled, giving you great crunch on the outside and creaminess on the inside. Either way, polenta pairs perfectly with bold autumn greens like Brussels sprouts or broccoli rabe.
For a less stressful Thanksgiving meal, make this polenta a day or two ahead of time, then broil it just before serving.
Broiled Polenta With Heirloom Cornmeal
4 cups water
1 cup Mandan Bride or other heirloom cornmeal (if unavailable, get the best organic cornmeal you can find)
1 teaspoon sea salt
Freshly ground pepper
1. Bring salted water to a boil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Turn the heat down to medium, and add the cornmeal gradually in a steady stream, whisking constantly until it’s all incorporated.
2. Turn the heat to low and continue whisking for about 5 minutes to prevent any lumps from forming.
3. Continue stirring often for the next 15 minutes or until the water is absorbed. Reduce heat to low and continue stirring until polenta turns creamy and pulls away from the sides of the pot. Taste and add sea salt and freshly ground pepper if desired.
4. Generously coat a 13-by-9-inch baking pan with olive oil. Pour the polenta into the pan and let cool. Cover and refrigerate.
5. Take out an hour or so before you plan to serve it to let it come to room temperature. Set your broiler on high and grease a rimmed cookie sheet.
6. Slice the firm polenta into diamonds, wedges, or squares — or use your favorite cookie cutter. Place polenta slices on the baking sheet and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place on the top rack of the oven and broil for 8 to 10 minutes, or until polenta is crisp and brown on top.
Top photo: Mandan Bride corn. Credit: Terra Brockman
I have never been a “decorate for the holiday” kind of gal. As I was looking for a pan to bake this pie, I found my mom’s pumpkin pie pan, which I had not seen in years. I was reminded of what a fantastic hostess she was.
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Every holiday meant some kind of décor change signifying the importance of said holiday. Acorn door hangings for Thanksgiving, Easter baskets with colorful eggs and Christmas joy everywhere! Christmas hand towels for the guests, Christmas wreaths, Christmas candies placed into crystal candy dishes. Crystal candy dishes shaped like Christmas trees, naturally.
If there is such a thing as an anti-hostess, that would be me. As a chef I can fill a table with amazing foods, but that’s as far as it goes. I put out plates, napkins and cutlery. Then I turn to my guests and say, “Bon Appetit and help yourself!” And I am often barefoot, because I like to be.
In my mother’s day, if someone stopped by, they were immediately asked whether they were hungry. Then she went in the kitchen and emerged a few moments later in a frilly apron with a fully loaded hors d’oeuvre tray and cocktails. How did she do that?
Being an anti-hostess, if you are a good friend, I will generally wave dismissively toward the kitchen and say, “You know where everything is.” My attire tends to run toward yoga pants and a T-shirt. And no shoes.
Finding the pumpkin pie pan, I knew it was time to turn over a new leaf, or new squash, if you must. I knew that this pan was the one to make my pumpkin pie in this year. It’s a baby step toward embracing the holidays and learning to be a good hostess, but it is still a step. I may even find that acorn door hanger and proudly display it on my front door. Maybe.
Spiced Pumpkin Pie With Coconut Milk
1¼ cups flour
½ teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon cold butter
2 tablespoons cold shortening
4 to 5 tablespoons ice water
½ cup turbinado or raw sugar
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon pumpkin pie spice
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon ground allspice
1 can (15 ounce) pumpkin
1 cup light coconut milk
1. Heat oven to 375 F.
2. Mix the flour and salt in medium bowl.
3. Using a pastry cutter or fork, cut butter and shortening into flour mixture, until mixture forms small crumbs.
4. Slowly add water 1 tablespoon at a time until dough forms.
5. Wrap dough in plastic wrap; refrigerate for 1 hour.
6. Roll chilled dough out large enough to fit a 9-inch pie pan. Line pan with dough, fold excess under and crimp edges.
7. Line crust with foil, then add enough dried beans or rice to act as a weight.
8. Bake for 10 minutes, remove from the oven and remove pie weights. Let the crust cool.
9. Turn oven temperature down to 350 F.
10. In a large bowl, combine the sugar, eggs, pumpkin pie spice, vanilla, ginger and allspice. Whisk together the mixture, until well incorporated.
11. Add the pumpkin, whisk until incorporated then stir in the coconut milk.
12. Pour the pumpkin mixture into the cooled pie shell, then bake for 40 to 45 minutes until the filling is set and a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.
13. Cool the pie on a rack.
Top photo: Pumpkin pie in a family heirloom holiday dish. Credit: Cheryl Lee
At 8 p.m. on the Saturday before the first snowfall, organic grower Patrick Thiel harvested the last of his 50,000 pounds of potatoes in eastern Oregon. His crew — an itinerant chef, some furloughed firefighters and day laborers — unearthed the haul by hand. Alby’s Gold, Corolle and La Ratte Fingerlings were among the heirloom varieties Portland’s top chefs demanded of Thiel’s tiny Prairie Creek Farm.
When Gabriel Rucker, Naomi Pomeroy, Vitaly Paley and Portland’s other culinary all-stars create a potato side dish or make French fries, they don’t accept any old spud. That got me thinking about Thanksgiving.
Next to turkey, mashed potatoes play the best supporting role. They are essential. You may mess around with a vegetable side dish, invent a salad or even mix in a new pie, but mashers are on the menu each and every year.
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How, I wondered, could this year’s mashed potatoes be their very best?
Storage and starch
Snow flurries scattered on the silver roof of a makeshift potato shed in Prairie Creek Farm’s fields. My feet were cold within moments, but I’d come to learn what I could from the most renowned potato grower in Oregon. Gene Thiel, the farm’s founder known as “Potato Man,” died in July at 77 and left the legacy to his son, Patrick. They’d worked side by side on their leased patch of glaciated soils making their root crops — beets, carrots and potatoes — memorable highlights of many menus.
Looking like a miner with a helmet and headlamp, Thiel led me inside his potato shed. The earthy air was noticeably warmer and dark as night. Hills of soil-caked potatoes reached head height — 50,000 pounds, Thiel estimated with undisguised disappointment.
“It should be 100,000,” he said. But he couldn’t get enough organic seed potato for a full crop. Shaking his head, he noted that meant rationing the smaller yield to his 50 chefs to fulfill deliveries from now to spring.
Bent over a bulwark of 50-pound bagged potatoes, Thiel commented offhandedly, “Cooking potatoes is a question of sugar content and temperature.”
I realized my lesson had begun. He explained that in cool storage (within 40 to 45 F), the potatoes retain their sugars. So, you want to store your potatoes, whether from the store, farmers market or your own garden, as cool as you can for long keeping.
When they’re warmed up, the potato’s sugars convert to starches. Because the best mashed potatoes require a starchy potato, Thiel’s key advice was simple: Warm your potatoes before boiling.
“If your sugars are high, you’ll get glue,” Thiel said. Then, he added, “My dad could tell the good chefs who set their bag of potatoes by the stove.” Their French fries had the best color and their mashed potatoes the best texture. Flavor is another story.
Not your ordinary Russets
Thiel is a soft-spoken father of four with a brown cap of hair who harbors fervent opinions on potatoes. I asked him outright, What is the best potato for mashing?
“If you like light and fluffy, use Russets,” he replied. “If you like flavor, use better varieties.”
He was speaking, of course, of heirloom potato varieties. Not the Idaho potato, the Burbank Russet, grown for uniformity in size, starch, color and flavor. Commercial potato growers are paid to produce to specifications and penalized if their tubers don’t make the cut. Thiel and his dad left behind commercial-scale potato growing many years ago and became committed to producing diverse breeds, including Alby’s Gold, a yellow variety that is the farm’s mainstay.
On this topic, Thiel is passionate. “No potato has better color, flavor and texture than Alby’s,” he said. “They come alive like no other potato.”
More brightly colored than Yukon Gold, Alby’s is the only potato that can hold an astonishing amount of butter when mashed, according to longtime Chef Pascal Sauton. Just 1 pound of Alby’s potatoes can absorb 1½ sticks of butter.
“Put that much butter in anything, it’s incredible,” Thiel conceded. He also recommended blending them with good quality olive oil, duck fat, bacon fat or truffle oil.
Prairie Creek Farm grows roughly eight potato varieties, including Ranger Russet, best adapted to the growing conditions in Oregon’s alpine region. Throughout the country, small farms offer their own favorite heirloom breeds. (Find the one closest to you at LocalHarvest.com.)
“When you’re using different potatoes,” Thiel advised, “you need to know your potato.” On his weekly delivery runs, he informs chefs about the storage conditions, but stops short of the direct instructions his father shot off for cooking them. “I don’t have the courage to argue with them like my dad,” he said with a shy smile. He does confide in me that when he wants an extra fluffy mash, he’ll mix a few of his Russets in with his favored Alby’s.
As I stepped gingerly between piles of potatoes to exit the shed, Thiel shined his headlamp to the roof to show me droplets suspended there. Entombed, the potatoes make their own moisture, respiring and living in a state of waiting until we claim them for our own Thanksgiving Day feast.
Top photo: Patrick Thiel. Credit: Lynne Curry
That Thanksgiving belongs to New England goes without saying. Although there had been feasts giving thanks for the bounty of the land in the Virginia colony, in Spanish Florida and in British Canada, the federal holiday of Thanksgiving declared by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 traces its lineage to the 1621 harvest celebration of Wampanoag Indians and English settlers in Plymouth, Mass.
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Edward Winslow, one of the governing leaders on the Mayflower, left an account of that thanksgiving feast that lasted three days with 90 Wampanoag and 53 settlers. The Wampanoag brought five deer for the feast. Although there is no surviving menu from this thanksgiving we know that most of the food was brought by the Wampanoag including various waterfowl, the deer, and corn.
It’s likely that the feast was held outdoors as there was no house large enough to hold all these people. Although migrating waterfowl and turkey were plentiful at this time of year, there’s no record that turkey was on the table. There probably were no cranberries, no sweet potatoes, and no pumpkin pie, although there was squash of some kind. One of the dishes they may have eaten was sobaheg, a Wampanoag stew of corn, roots, beans, squash and various meats, perhaps a precursor to succotash.
A New England Thanksgiving of today is somewhat codified, at least in folklore. One must have a perfectly cooked turkey, or at least an understanding of how to cook the turkey if you are a first-timer. Of course you need an excellent turkey gravy. Root vegetables are typical, as is succotash, boiled creamed onions, buttered squash, cider and cranberry juice to drink. You will have at least three pies because in colonial times hosts thought it appeared stingy to offer company fewer than three pies. Probably you would serve a pumpkin pie, a mincemeat pie and a Marlborough pie, which is a glorified apple pie.
Colonial evolution of a Native American tradition
Succotash became a traditional Thanksgiving dish thanks to the Old Colony Club, created in Plymouth, Mass., in 1769. The group favored this dish as part of their annual Forefather’s Day dinner, which was celebrated in early winter.
The original succotash is a descendant of a local Native American meal based on a corn soup made with beans, unripe corn, and various meats, especially bear or fish. Over time it has evolved into a kind of boiled dinner with corned beef, chicken, salt pork, white Cape Cod turnips, potato, hulled corn and boiled beans with some salt pork. Originally, the beans used were actually dried peas, but over time lima beans have become popular.
The word succotash derives from Narragansett, a branch of the Algonquin language, the word being msiquatash. Hominy are kernels of corn that have been treated in a special way, usually soaked in a caustic solution and then washed to remove the hulls. There are different kinds of hominy with different tastes.
½ cup dried split peas
2 cups whole grain hominy
1 Cornish game hen (about 1½ pounds), cut in half or 2 chicken thighs and leg
1 pound beef brisket in one piece
2 ounces salt pork in one piece
1 cup water
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 boiling potato (about ½ pound), such as Yukon gold, red or white potatoes, boiled and diced
1 small turnip, boiled and diced
1. Place the peas in a pot with cold water to cover by several inches. Bring to a boil and cook until very tender, about 3 hours. Drain, and pass through a food mill or mash until it looks like mashed potatoes. Set aside until needed.
2. Meanwhile, bring a saucepan filled with water to a boil and add the hominy. Cook until it is half cooked, about 3 hours. Drain and set aside, saving 2¼ cups of the liquid.
3. Place the game hen or chicken, beef, salt pork and hominy in a large flameproof casserole or Dutch oven and cover with the reserved broth and the water. Season with salt and pepper and bring to just below a boil and let simmer, uncovered, until very tender, about 4 hours, adding small amounts of water if it looks like it’s drying out. The water should never reach a boil, though.
4. Add the pea purée to the meats and stir so all the fat is absorbed. Add the potato and turnip, stir and cook until the potato is soft and the hominy fully cooked, about 1 hour. Serve hot. Do not boil at any time.
Note: A modern vegetable succotash can be made by combining 2 cups of reheated frozen lima beans, 2 cups of freshly cooked corn scraped from the cob, ½ teaspoon salt, 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, a dash of paprika, freshly ground black pepper and ½ cup of cream in a saucepan. Cook until bubbling hot, about 5 minutes, and serve.
Top photo: Hominy is one of the ingredients in the original succotash recipe. Credit: Glane23 / Wikimedia Commons
Thanksgiving is the perfect time to revisit the year past, particularly for a wild foods enthusiast. This last foraging season was a doozie in my little corner of the Rocky Mountain region. It was a hard year for the plants, even harder for the people who endured the natural disasters, which only increases my gratitude for the wild foods I was able to pick, including porcini mushrooms for Thanksgiving dinner.
Rough year for wild food
Despite what was, in nearly every way, an unusually hard year for foraging, I was still able to harvest foods throughout the growing season.
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This year there were regular snows and hard freezes right up into May, which meant that nearly all of the tree fruit crops were lost, including wild plums and apples. Summer looked to be a repeat of the previous years’ droughts, complete with destructive forest fires. Then, just as summer was about to end, a flooding rainstorm hit the area, shredding the landscape and forcing people from their homes.
I won’t forget my joy in finding the first green tops of wild onions in the spring, and preserving them in butter kept safe in the freezer. High summer scented my fingers with Monarda fistulosa, also known as beebalm or wild oregano. As summer started to drag its heels, I made my annual trek into the forest to chase down Boletus edulis, porcini mushrooms.
Even now, in what I’ve taken to calling “the year without fruit,” months past the first freeze, and having endured many snow storms, the land still provides. Some hardy greens still cling tightly to the ground, and I’m looking forward to a quiet snowy day in the coming months when I can pick black walnuts out of their shells. My pantry is wonderfully well stocked.
Foraged Thanksgiving classics
I will revisit my year of foraging at Thanksgiving with dishes tickled with wild ingredients. They will taste distinctly of this place I love and cement my foraging memories. It is possible to make a nearly all-wild Thanksgiving meal, and I’ve done so in the past. But because the holiday is a time to be surrounded by friends and extended family, many of whom are unfamiliar with wild cuisine, I usually restrain myself from making an all-wild meal. Instead, I prefer to make a wild twist on traditional dishes — cranberry sauce mixed with highbush cranberries, turkey basted with wild allium butter, or pumpkin pie made with a black walnut crust.
Among my most successful wild-infused Thanksgiving dishes is a stuffing loaded with foraged porcini mushrooms, which can also be purchased from a store if you aren’t lucky enough to find your own. Stuffing made with porcini mushrooms tastes at once wild and luxurious, but also comfortingly familiar. Using the porcini soaking water in place of the traditional broth adds an extra dimension of mushroom flavor to the dish. The eggs in this recipe add extra binding power to the bread cubes, but they may easily be omitted if you are serving vegans or those with egg allergies. This Thanksgiving stuffing may also be made gluten-free by using gluten-free bread.
Wild Porcini Mushroom Stuffing
Serves 8 to 10
1 pound sourdough bread, cut into ½-inch cubes
3½ cups boiling water
2 ounces dried porcini mushrooms
8 tablespoons butter
1 medium onion, chopped
2 stalks celery with leaves, sliced
8 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves stripped off the stems
½ teaspoon salt, plus more if needed
10 fresh sage leaves, chopped
Freshly cracked pepper
2 eggs, beaten (optional)
3 tablespoons Italian parsley leaves, chopped
1. Evenly spread the bread cubes on two baking sheets, and toast them in a 350 F oven until they dry out and the edges begin to brown, 15 to 20 minutes.
2. In a medium bowl, pour the boiling water over the dried porcini mushrooms. Set it aside.
3. In a heavy-bottomed skillet over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the onion, celery, thyme. Salt to the skillet and cook them until they turn soft and translucent, about 10 minutes.
4. Use a strainer to fish the mushroom slices out of the soaking water. Let the water drip out of them for a few seconds before adding them to the skillet with the onion and celery. Continue to cook the vegetables and mushrooms for another 5 minutes. Stir in the sage, and add cracked pepper, plus more salt if necessary, to taste. Remove the skillet from the heat.
5. Gently pour the mushroom soaking water into the skillet full of vegetables and mushrooms, taking care to leave behind any dirt that has settled in the bottom. If you are using eggs, whisk them into the liquid.
6. Transfer the bread cubes to a large bowl. Pour the contents of the skillet over the bread cubes and toss until the bread cubes have absorbed all of the liquid. Stir in the parsley.
7. Transfer the mixture into a greased two-quart baking dish, and bake at 350 F for 40 to 45 minutes, or until the bread is heated through and the top looks crunchy and brown.
Top photo: Wild porcini mushroom stuffing for Thanksgiving. Credit: Wendy Petty