Articles in Thanksgiving
Heritage has many meanings, encompassing not only our cultural and ancestral connections, but also the breeds of livestock our forefathers raised. Carole Soule is that rare individual whose life intersects both. Carole is a 13th-generation Mayflower descendent whose family heritage is deeply tied to its origins and she is a farmer who raises heritage breed cattle as well.
Carole’s lineage began with George Soule, an indentured servant who survived the journey to Plymouth and became one of the signers of the Mayflower Compact. Carole notes the Soule genetics must be strong because there are about 30,000 Soules who trace their roots back to George. That is one prolific progeny.
Carole’s grandparents’ dining room table was the center of all the family holidays, especially Thanksgiving. The table took up the entire room, and one needed to skirt around the edge to get to the other side. To have a personal connection to the very first Thanksgiving was not lost on Carole or the Soule family. It was worn like a badge of honor. They are proud to share that they are connected to the origins of our country.
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As a child, Carole recalls piling into her family’s tiny Renault , all three siblings squished in the back seat for the three-hour drive from Bedford, Mass., to Hillsdale, N.Y., where her grandparents, Ida and Charles Soule, lived. At Thanksgiving, the table was always piled high with food, but the dishes Carole remembers most are her grandmother’s homemade cranberry sauce and creamed onions. The cranberry sauce is simply equal amounts of cranberries and sugar with a little cornstarch. It is cooked until the cranberries are soft, then the dish is cooled.
The creamed onions, though, are Carole’s favorite. They are rich and thick, and all kinds of yummy.
Prep time: 15 to 20 minutes
Cook time: About 1 hour, 10 minutes
Total time: About 1 hour, 30 minutes
Yield: 8 to 10 servings
3 pounds fresh pearl onions
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup beef broth
2 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup all purpose flour
3 cups milk
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon thyme
1/4 teaspoon pepper
2 teaspoons apple cider
1. Preheat oven to 375 F.
2. Peel onions and trim both ends.
3. Add 1 tablespoon of the olive oil and 1/4 teaspoon of the salt to the onions.
4. Layer onions in pan large enough to fit in one layer.
5. Place in oven; roast for about an hour, stirring occasionally, until onions are soft and brown in spots.
6. Remove the pan from the oven, add broth.
7. Roast for 10 minutes more.
For the cream sauce:
1. Melt butter and 2 tablespoons olive oil in large saucepan.
2. Add flour and whisk until the mixture bubbles and is free of lumps.
3. Add milk, bay leaf, thyme, pepper and salt.
4. Boil, whisking often. Thicken to consistency of thick gravy. Remove from heat. Discard the bay leaf.
5. Add the roasted onions and any broth from the pan to the cream sauce. Stir in apple cider.
6. Serve warm
Old-fashioned farm, cattle
It was those same car trips across the state of Massachusetts that began Carole’s love affair with cows. Across from her grandparents’ house was a pasture full of beautiful doe-eyed cows. Carole would visit with the “girls” whenever she could.
Fast-forward a few decades and Carole and her husband bought an 1850s farm called the Miles Smith Farm in New Hampshire. Her dream and vision was to go back to the old-fashioned way of raising animals She knew it would begin with an easy-to-raise heritage breed — the Scottish Highland. There would be no antibiotics, no corn. Just grass.
The Scottish Highland breed is hearty. The breed’s shaggy coat helps protect them from the elements, which means they don’t need a layer of fat to keep warm and, instead, produce lean beef that is low in cholesterol.
Carole’s herd is grass-fed, even in winter. She leaves many of her grass fields uncut for winter grazing. The cows paw through the snow to find their food. The breed is adaptable to a wide range of conditions and are equipped to forage and to live without shelter. Feeding on grass rather than hay also saves money, from the cost of fossil fuels to plant and harvest the hay to the cost of the seed. It is a perfect “circle of life,” too — while the cows are grazing, they are also fertilizing the field. Most hayfields are generally commercially fertilized, which costs more money.
Carole has found a win-win solution in this method. Plus, this heritage breed is well-suited to her state. The mountainous parts of New England are perfect places for these cattle because they can easily maneuver around the rocky outcroppings and graze on the hillsides, which are difficult to mow and cultivate.
Each year, the Miles Smith Farm slaughters 120 cows. They sell the meat through several channels: meat community supported agriculture (CSA) programs; wholesale customers including schools, regional hospitals and restaurants; and direct to consumers through their on-site, solar-powered store.
Carole has just received a USDA grant to work with a heritage pork farmer to create and sell a beef-pork mix. Carole shares that her new venture’s tagline is: “A burger that squeals with flavor.” She is again tapping into an old-fashioned tradition: Many people used to blend pork into their lean beef to create juiciness and flavor.
The Soule heritage is alive and well in Carole, in both namesake and familial traditions. Just as George Soule was drawn to a life in the New World, Carole has been drawn to a life on the land, an old-fashioned breed and traditional farming methods. Perhaps there is more to the Soule heritage than we will ever know. One thing is for sure, Carole is grateful for her heritage and her heritage cattle.
Main photo: Miles Smith Farm owners Carole Soule and Bruce Dawson, with Missy, a Scottish Highland breed cow. Credit: Miles Smith Farm
This year, you can transform your ordinary Thanksgiving dinner into an extraordinary one — not with food, but with drink. Shake up cocktail hour with shochu, a delicious distilled alcoholic beverage from Japan that’s caught the fancy of American bartenders.
Shochu is often wrongly described by Americans as a kind of vodka. Although it comes in a variety of flavors, it is lower in alcohol and calories than vodka or other distilled alcoholic beverages.
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Shochu production in Japan began around the 16th century in certain regions. The famous production areas include the large southern island of Kyushu and the neighboring small islands of Amami, Okinawa and Iki. The warm winter climate in these areas is not well-suited for producing good quality sake, as this rice wine requires very cold winter months for proper fermentation.
Shochu production involves two steps. The first step is to produce alcohol in a way that is very similar to that of sake. Koji, the magic mold that creates flavorful enzymes and sugars from starch, is inoculated into steamed rice to produce a fermentation starter. The starter is mixed with yeast, spring water and the selected and cooked main ingredient: usually rice, barley, sweet potato, potato, buckwheat or sugar cane. It is left to ferment for about 14 days. This is half the fermentation period for sake, and so this brewed batch is very rough and wild in taste, texture and aroma. The second step, distillation, removes all sugars and roughness from the brew, and transforms it into a clean, clear and elegant alcoholic beverage.
Top-quality shochu is distilled only once. This is called Honkaku shochu. Single distillation leaves each shochu with a delightful hint of the distinctive taste and fragrance of its base ingredient. After distillation, the alcohol content approaches 80 proof (40% alcohol). Then, it is diluted to about 50 proof (25% alcohol). Honkaku shochu can be served straight-up or on the rocks in order to enjoy the full flavor of each variety.
Another less expensive type of shochu is usually made from lesser quality ingredients and goes through multiple distillations. The resulting shochu is deprived of the unique and sometimes funky taste and fragrance of the real thing. After multiple distillations, the alcohol content approaches 160 to 180 proof (80% to 90% alcohol). This is then watered down to around 72 proof (36% alcohol). In Japan, it is this less expensive shochu that is used to make cocktails at bars and restaurants.
But craft-conscious bartenders in the United States are taking a different approach. Jesse Falowitz, founder of Nehan Spirits LLC in New York, manages the production of his own award-winning brand of barley-based shochu, Mizunomai, in Japan and imports and markets it in the U.S. For this breed of bartenders, Falowitz says, “it is important to preserve the unique flavor of each spirit. whether it be shochu, whisky, brandy or gin, in the cocktails that they craft.”
For your Thanksgiving gatherings, reach for Honkaku shochu to enjoy the wonderful flavors of high quality shochu alone or in delightful cocktails. Here are the flavor profiles for some types of high quality shochu.
Imo-shochu, made from sweet potato, comes from Kagoshima Prefecture on Kyushu Island, a major sweet potato producing area. When you sip Imo-shochu, you can’t miss the hint of slight funky, sweet potato flavor and fragrance. Once you are hooked, you will love it.
Kokuto-shochu, made from sugar cane, comes from the small Amami Islands south of Kyushu Prefecture toward Okinawa. Kokuto-shochu will remind you of good-quality rum, but on average it is 12 percentage points lower in alcohol. Kokuto-shochu has a round mouth-feel and a subtle sweetness. It also is unique in being slightly alkaline, while all other distilled alcohol has a neutral pH. The sugar cane grown in the Amami Islands’ coral-rich fresh water is responsible for this unusual characteristic.
Kome-shochu, made from rice, comes from Kumamoto Prefecture. Kome-shochu presents a flowery and rich flavor similar to what you find in some sake.
Omugi-shochu, made from barley, may surprise you with a hint of banana, cantaloupe and caramel flavor.
Finally, if you are not a cocktail person, this is how we enjoy Honkaku shochu in Japan.
1. Mix 6 parts shochu with 4 parts cold water. This is called mizu-wari.
2. Mix 6 parts shochu with 4 parts warm water at about 98º degrees F. This is called oyu-wari. Warming shochu in this way allows the fragrant aroma to burst forth.
3. Or, try it simply on the rocks or straight up.
However, I encourage you to get creative with shochu cocktails, such as the following recipes provided by Jesse Falowitz.
Ringo, I Love You
This will be a smash hit for your Thanksgiving party, and for any gathering in deep autumn. This cocktail is characterized by a crisp and refreshing character with a delicate sweetness and hint of spice. Ringo in this case is “apple” in Japanese, not a member of the Beatles.
Prep time: 5 minutes
Yield: 1 serving
1/2 red apple, plus a few thin slices for garnish
2 1/2 ounces Mizunomai shochu or other Honkaku shochu
1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice
1/4 ounce maple syrup
1 dash of cinnamon powder
1. Core and cut the apple with skin into coarse pieces.
2. Add the apple half, shochu, lemon juice and maple syrup into a cocktail shaker or tall glass. Press the apple with a muddler, like the one used for making a mojito, to extract the most juice.
3. When the juice has been pressed out from the apple, close the shaker with the shaker top and shake vigorously.
4. Remove the shaker top and strain the cocktail through a cocktail strainer into a rocks glass in which you have placed a large piece of ice or two.
5. Garnish the cocktail with thin slices of apple. Lightly dust the apple with cinnamon powder and serve.
Neguloni, a Shochu Negroni
This is a Japanese twist on the Italian classic. This satisfying cocktail has smooth texture, a tinge of bitterness, sexy deep-dark red color, and pleasant buttery texture. You can make this cocktail without the grapefruit bitters, but it enhances the flavor of the cocktail, and the inclusion is highly recommended.
Prep time: 5 minutes
Yield: 1 serving
1 1/2 ounces Mizunomai shochu or other Honkaku shochu
3/4 ounces sweet vermouth
1/4 ounce Campari
3 drops grapefruit bitters
1 peel of grapefruit skin
1. Pour the shochu, sweet vermouth, Campari and grapefruit bitters into a rocks glass in which you have placed a one large ice cube.
2. Stir the glass with a cocktail spoon for 10 seconds to chill and slightly dilute the alcohol.
3. Remove a long grapefruit zest from the grapefruit with a peeler and lightly squeeze the oils over the cocktail.
4. Garnish the drink with the grapefruit zest twist and enjoy.
Main photo: The Ringo, left, and Neguloni cocktails. Credit: Jesse Falowitz
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.
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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.”)
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 45 minutes (mostly unattended)
Yield: Serves 6
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
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
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
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
Hello, my name is Louisa, and I am a procrastinator. Especially about big, fancy things like making a Thanksgiving feast for 20 of my nearest and dearest.
Like everyone else, I collect all the cooking magazines with trendy new recipes for holiday classics; I listen to endless radio pieces about Thanksgivings of yore. In my heart, I am revved up to do it ahead, make and freeze, be organized. And yet, once again it is Tuesday night, 36 hours and counting, and all I’ve done so far is order a turkey.
For self-made crises like this, you need a game plan to get a whole made-from-scratch turkey feast ready in less than a day. It can be done. That’s not theory; it’s experience. I do it every year. You can turn a grocery bag of ingredients into a first-class meal. The key is prep — good, smart, last-minute prep.
Pick up a fresh, not-frozen turkey. If you get a frozen turkey, you are screwed. You’ll either have to pray it defrosts in the refrigerator or wake up every three hours to change its water bath. Go with fresh.
Order or purchase three pies (recommendations: pumpkin, pecan and apple). This is not the year to experiment with rolling the perfect crust. No one will mind if they are not homemade as long as you have good vanilla ice cream to go with the pies.
Pull out any basic cookbook. Use it for timing, quantities and whatever cooking tips your mental state can accommodate. Do not attempt a complicated, fussy recipe!
Make the stuffing. Use any old bread you have on hand and/or buy a loaf of good sandwich bread. Collect any unsweetened leftover breakfast cereal in your pantry (cornflakes, Raisin Bran, etc., but not Froot Loops or Cocoa Puffs). Tear up the bread so no piece is bigger than a domino. Combine the bread and the cereal with a little chicken broth or some water and mix well; you want it to be moist, like a sponge you’ve just wrung out. Add salt (sparingly) and fresh ground pepper. Toss in a tablespoon or so of any fresh or dried seasonings you like — I’m a fan of fresh sage, rosemary and thyme. Meanwhile, sauté two or three good-sized onions with a little olive oil until the onions are soft. Combine all in a bowl.
Put the turkey in the fridge and put tinfoil over the bowl of dressing.
Call the guests and assign them the appetizers to bring, and have someone else bring a green salad.
Turn out kitchen lights and go to bed.
If you can, get to the grocery store before 10 a.m. If you can’t take the morning off, take the afternoon off. Do not get anxious. You won’t miss anything at work. Everyone else tunes out by lunch the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.
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Check your pantry: Look for brown sugar, granulated sugar, salt, pepper, olive oil, rosemary, thyme, butter, vanilla, cream or milk and other obvious staples.
Make a shopping list. The quantities you will need depend on the size of the party, but I usually figure on a cooked cup or more of each vegetable per person, and one sweet potato per person.
Sweet potatoes or yams
Brussels sprouts (unless you hate them)
Potatoes (Russets for mashed potatoes, fingerlings for roasted)
Mushrooms (several fun varieties for gravy and vegetables)
2 bags of fresh cranberries
Butternut squash (cheat here and buy the bags of fresh, pre-peeled squash)
This is prep time; you will need two to three solid hours in an unobstructed kitchen. (Order Chinese or sushi for dinner.)
Green beans: Blanch the green beans in salted water until they are bright green. Have a bowl of ice and water ready. Drain, cool and put beans in a zip-close bag in the refrigerator.
Brussels sprouts: Trim and blanch the Brussels sprouts using the same method. (They take a few more minutes than the green beans.) Drain, cool, cut in half through the stem and put in a bag in the fridge.
Cranberry relish: Follow the directions on the cranberry bag for water and sugar ratios for cooked cranberries. Let them come to a boil and start bursting, then remove from the heat. Tip: I use orange juice (frozen or fresh) instead of water to cook the cranberries and grate orange peel with a zester and add it to the relish. I also add a spoonful of red horseradish to the relish because my family likes heat with our sweet. Refrigerate relish.
Butternut squash: Steam the squash until it is tender to a fork. Drain, cool, mash or puree — but not to the consistency of baby food. Add salt and pepper to taste, then add butter to taste. For a savory flavor, add some thyme. For sweet, use a few grinds of fresh nutmeg and a little cinnamon. Don’t over spice! You can always add more tomorrow.
While all this is happening on the stove top, bake the unpeeled, washed sweet potatoes at 350 F until they are soft. Let them cool overnight on the countertop.
Mashed potatoes: Peel, scrub and throw them into a large pot of salted water while all else is baking and boiling. Let them cool in the liquid overnight. Roasted potatoes can wait till the morning.
Turn out the kitchen lights and go to bed.
Wake up. Turn on the parade. Make coffee.
Roast the turkey: Heat the oven to 300 F or 350 F, salt the inside of the bird then stuff it. Dress the turkey skin with olive oil, pepper, salt and herbs.
Tie the legs together with twine (or whatever) and close the opening as much as possible. Put some celery and cut onions in the bottom of the pan with a cup or so of water.
Place turkey on a rack in the roasting pan, then put it in the oven.
Do the math according to the size of the bird and use a meat thermometer. Very few turkeys take more than three hours to cook. Figure your start time based on the turkey being done an hour or so before you want to serve.
Exit the kitchen. Move the furniture. Set the table. Find candles, napkins and a tablecloth. Iron only if absolutely necessary. Decide which serving utensils and dishes you’ll need for the beans, squash and gravy.
Put wine and water in the fridge to cool. Take the pies out of the fridge.
Back to the kitchen: Check on the turkey. If it is browning too fast, put a sheet of foil over the breast.
Mushrooms: In a large pan over medium heat, sauté the mushrooms in olive oil with a splash of lemon. Let them get soft.
Candied sweet potatoes/yams: If you want the sweet potatoes candied and in chunks, gently peel away the skin as if you were unwrapping a precious gift, cut into chunks, and place them in an attractive pattern in an oven-to-table baking dish or pan. Add a little water or juice to the pan. Mix maple syrup and butter, or honey and vanilla, dust with cinnamon, dot liberally with butter and crumble brown sugar over the top. Put sweet potatoes in the oven for a half hour or more before serving and after your turkey has come out. They should be crusty and caramelized.
Mashed sweet potatoes: Peel off the skin. Mash sweet potatoes with a ricer or fork to a smooth consistency. Thin with a little liquid if needed. (Apple cider is terrific!) Add butter, cream, cinnamon, salt and pepper. Put in a greased oven-to-table baking dish and top with butter, sprinkle with cinnamon and nutmeg, and if you like, dot with mini marshmallows.
Two hours before you want to serve dinner
Roasted potatoes: One hour before you estimate the turkey will be done, toss whole small fingerlings or another type in a bowl with salt, oil and rosemary. Arrange around the turkey in the pan, then the pan goes back in the oven.
Put cranberry relish in a pretty bowl.
Make mashed potatoes. Peel if you want. Do not puree! Add milk, butter, salt, etc. Put in a microwaveable serving dish.
Take a shower and make the bed. Get sort of dressed. Save the mascara application, if wearing, until everything is out of the oven.
One hour or less before dinner
Sweet potatoes: Put the sweet potatoes in the oven. After a half hour, put the squash and the mashed potatoes in the oven to warm.
Brussels sprouts: Heat a big sauté pan over a high flame and sauté the Brussels sprouts with a little lemon and/or balsamic glaze. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Let them get a little charred and move them to a microwaveable serving dish.
Gravy: Using the pan drippings, make the gravy. Add wine or water and reduce the liquid on the stove top. In our house, we add a jar of currant jelly to the pan to give the gravy body and bulk.
Green beans: Just before serving, reduce the heat in the pan to medium, add a little more olive oil and a tad of butter, then sauté the green beans. Add a few handfuls of the cooked mushrooms and a splash of lemon juice.
Just before dinner
Uncork the wine. Put the turkey on the platter. Some idiot decides to carve. Side dishes go briefly back in the oven, stove top or microwave to get piping hot.
Turn off the oven. Put pies in cooling oven to warm for dessert.
Put on mascara if desired.
Take a bow. Operation complete.
Main photo: Fall squash. Credit: Louisa Kasdon
If you ask me, perfection is overrated. I give it an 8.2. You can obsess and compulse until you’re just the right shade of blue in the face, but to create an artful eyeful that requires little primping, preening or pruning? That’s a 10.
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Store-bought flowers in a vase are fine — I love the blooming things as much as the next hibiscus hugger. But when you make the meal with your own two hands, shouldn’t your centerpiece complement your handiwork? You don’t have to Martha-size it and grow your own tulips, turnips and twine. But why not throw together something quick and fresh that says “I am an eco-chic entertainer.”
Farm-to-table centerpieces that you can eat the next day are creatively fulfilling and less landfilling. Seasonal root vegetables, fruits, herbs, pumpkins and squashes will do all the heavy lifting for you. Well, most of it, anyway. You need at least one good eye. But don’t let it stray into OCD territory. Think fashionista farmer, not perfectionista mogul. Remember, Martha’s not invited.
Believe it or not, Martha’s not the originator of ornamental fuss. Holiday centerpieces go way back before the decline of carbon civilization.
Centerpieces through the ages
The Romans used decorative leaves, branches and foliage in elaborately designed containers often made of ceramics and rock crystal.
Aristocratic tables in the Middle Ages were said to be so crammed with food, there wasn’t room for centerpieces, although at Christmas, centerpieces may have included pastry and marzipan shaped like people, animals, scenes or decorative objects.
Tables from the 17th-century featured silver or gold platters that showed off the host’s wealth and status with whole animal heads or a cooked peacock with its colorful feathers adorning the platter.
Whereas the 18th century introduced silk and porcelain flowers, the 19th century donned fresh flowers, foliage, fruit, candelabras and molded puddings and jellies. Throughout both centuries, centerpieces were often vertically constructed using pyramids of food on tiered dishes called epergnes.
By World War I, decorative objects began to replace flowers and foliage, but during the 1960s and ’70s, flowers and grasses made a comeback.
10 tips for creating a farm-to-table centerpiece
1. Don’t buy food for a centerpiece that you won’t eat afterward. Wasting food is not eco chic! (Note: make sure to add water to a vase if you’re using leafy greens.)
2. Celebrate the season with local, seasonal produce. Don’t even think about buying fruit from Chile!
3. Don’t make the arrangements so tall that you can’t see your guests (except for the uninvited ones, so keep some long fennel or chard in the fridge, just in case).
4. You can line up multiple small (and short) arrangements along the center of the table. Who says a large, dominant one is always the best choice? I think Maria Shriver would agree.
5. Use glasses, jars, vases and vessels you have around. They don’t have to match.
6. Don’t spend money on crap you don’t need (or won’t eat)! Remember those landfills!
7. If you’re going to add store-bought flowers, buy them at the farmers market and make sure they were grown without pesticides. Cut flowers full of pesticides at the table may spur someone’s allergy. Just sayin’.
8. Don’t do doilies. You might as well wear an Elizabethan collar. Trust me. Neither are the eco-chic look you’re going for.
9. No stacked cookies with twine around them. Can you lay off the Pinterest for one lousy day?
10. If someone admires an arrangement, be generous and gift it. Less pressure to use up all those rutabagas (see tip No. 1).
When you create your own farm-to-table centerpiece, you’ll be an eco-chic badass. And that’s a good thing.
Main photo: Triad of farm-to-table centerpieces. Credit: Adair Seldon
For the past couple of years now, sherry has begun making a slow but steady comeback among wine drinkers in the know — as well as it should. Its long-suffering reputation as the cheap, cloying tipple of grandmothers notwithstanding, good sherry, made in a range of styles from dry to sweet, couldn’t be more elegantly versatile, especially when paired with food.
Just ask McLain Hedges and Mary-Allison Wright. As owners of The Proper Pour and RiNo Yacht Club, a high-end liquor shop and adjacent craft bar at celebrated Denver artisan marketplace The Source, they sing the praises of the Spanish fortified wine to anyone who will listen. And they practice what they preach; in fact, their own plans for showcasing it at Thanksgiving dinner are ones you’d do well to follow step by step if you’re looking to shake up the old Champagne-and-a-bottle-of-red routine.
Fino with appetizers
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“When your family’s arriving and you’ve got your snacks set out,” dry, chilled Fino Sherry — including the Manzanilla of Sanlucár de Barrameda — is the way to go, marked as it is by “bright acidity but also briny minerality and almond notes,” Hedges said.
In his view, Fino proper is a natural with salumi, salted nuts, crudités, even pickled vegetables, while Manzanilla “has a little more relationship with the sea” — think shrimp cocktail, oysters, smoked salmon and the like.
Two pet picks: Bodegas Grant Fino La Garrocha from the “really cool microclimate” of Spain’s El Puerto de Santa Maria Fino and La Cigarrera Manzanilla, which is “a little smokier, with a brinier effect, made so close to the ocean. And it’s fantastically approachable — about 16 bucks on the shelf.”
Amontillado and Oloroso with the main meal
“Look at Amontillado as the next step. You’re going from the flor stage, which protects oxidization, to the point where that starts to die. So you still get amazing notes of salted almond, but you’re also starting to see walnuts and hazelnuts — richer, earthier development,” Hedges explained. “It’s perfect with chestnuts, perfect with game birds — anything that flies, really: quail, duck, turkey. And mushroom soup is a super-classic pairing.”
He calls El Maestro Sierra’s 12-year bottling “phenomenal — it’s got depth, complexity and richness, but it’s also really elegant.”
Whereas Amontillado complements “anything that flies,” Oloroso is your best bet for “anything that’s walking on land.” Fully oxidized, “it’s gorgeous and luscious and almost comes off as sweet, but it’s bone dry, with enough acidity to cut through the fat of the meat and those rich sauces,” Hedges noted.
So if you’re eschewing the turkey in favor of “pork loin or rib roast or lamb or whatever it may be,” consider something like Hedges’ pet pick, Gutiérrez Colosia Sangre y Trabijadero.
Pedro Ximénez and Moscatel with sweets
“Moving into dessert, your choices are pretty obvious,” Hedges said. “First, you’ve got your PX (Pedro Ximénez). Sticky-sweet, with notes of dates and figs, it is dessert in a glass — though you could have sticky toffee pudding.” But for his money, Moscatel is a fascinating alternative. “The grapes are sun-dried for a few weeks, so it’s condensed and extracted, yet still vibrant, with honeyed and floral notes, as well as plums, pepper and a bit of citrus.”
He recommends serving it alongside poached fruit with a soft and creamy or blue cheese, again naming La Cigarrera as a producer of note.
To throw you one final curveball: How about kicking off your holiday celebration with a sherry cocktail or two? Both Hedges and Alexandra Flower — a bartender at Acorn, a nationally acclaimed contemporary restaurant in The Source — have whipped up just the things.
Acorn’s Smoked Sherry
Prep time: 5 minutes
Total time: 5 minutes
Yield: 1 cocktail
3/4 ounce Laphroaig 10-year Scotch
1 ounce Lustau Pedro Ximénez San Emilio Solera Reserva
3/4 ounce grapefruit juice
1/4 ounce lime juice
2 dashes Angostura bitters
1 disk cut from the peel of a grapefruit for garnish
1. Place all ingredients but the grapefruit peel in a cocktail shaker and shake hard and long. Strain into a coupe glass. Hold the grapefruit disk skin side down over the glass and squeeze it to express the oils.
RiNo Yacht Club’s Fino & Dandy
Prep time: 4 minutes
Total time: 4 minutes
Yield: 1 cocktail
1 ounce Barsol Pisco
1/2 ounce Calvados
1/2 ounce Fino sherry
1/2 ounce lemon juice
1/4 ounce simple syrup
2 tablespoons spiced pear butter (available at gourmet shops, or make your own)
1 lemon wheel for garnish
1. Add all ingredients but the lemon wheel to a shaker tin; add ice. Shake and strain into an ice-filled double old-fashioned glass. Garnish with the lemon wheel.
Main photo: Sherry will complement every course at your Thanksgiving meal. Credit: Courtesy of RiNo Yacht Club/The Proper Pour
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.
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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
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
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
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.
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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.
“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
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
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