Articles in Thanksgiving

The first bite of a homemade pot pie is always the most satisfying. Credit: Susan Lutz

As far as I’m concerned, the best part of holiday meals is the leftovers and the ultimate repurposing of a holiday bird is to make it the star ingredient in a homemade turkey pot pie.

Thanksgiving and Christmas bring a frenzy of foods, all consumed in too large a quantity to be able to savor individually. Of course, there’s something wonderful about this particular form of gluttony. But in the days following a holiday meal I revel in the leftovers, when each dish can be enjoyed on its own, and on its own terms.

In the days after Thanksgiving, I eat cornbread-sausage stuffing for breakfast. I eat pecan-topped sweet potatoes for lunch. But the greatest form of leftover is turkey. While it’s on the holiday table fresh from the oven, turkey actually doesn’t do much for me. I find turkey covered in gravy somewhat dull. Cranberry sauce doesn’t help all that much. Yet I hatch plans to horde leftover turkey, often eating very little turkey during the meal, and noticing with careful detail how much is left on the bird’s carcass. Because after the holiday is over, I intend to transform my least favorite holiday dish into my all-time favorite post holiday meal: pot pies.

My love of pot pie goes back to my childhood. I loved watching my Grandma Willie roll the pie dough for the pot pies she made each winter. In my grandmother’s day, pot pies were what she called “work-a-day food” — a one-dish meal made for men working in the fields. This simple farm food, passed down from my grandmother to my mother and now to me, has become a staple in our house; one that comforts city folk just as well as it did my farmer ancestors.

 

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Cutting pie dough to form the crust of the pot pie. Credit: Susan Lutz

The beauty of pot pies is that once you’ve assembled them, they make the best convenience food you’ll ever eat. This was the reason they were created for hungry farmers, and the reason they became an early staple of industrial frozen dinners. But those glutinous grey masses in a doughy shell, with only occasional glimpses of a pea or a perfect cube of turkey flesh, are a far cry from the creamy, rich, vegetable-packed delicacies that came from Grandma Willie’s kitchen. Pot pies can be made in any size, but in our house, we make single-serving pot pies in individual tart pans and store them in the freezer.

I didn’t make pot pies much during the 20 years I lived in Los Angeles. The warm climate doesn’t call out for hearty rib-sticking food. But now that I live in a place with cold winters and the first snowflakes have already fallen, the season for pot pies has arrived. On days when the weather is too wet and cold, when my daughters are spent and cranky, and I’m too exhausted to try to fling some sort of meal together, I can take these leftover remnants of holiday turkey out of the freezer and quickly serve a post-holiday meal, compliments of Grandma Willie.

Grandma Willie’s Pot Pies (with Turkey or Chicken)

Adapted by Linda Lutz, daughter of Willie Phillips and heir to the pot pie legacy.

This recipe makes two 9-inch pot pies or 9 individual pot pies using 4- or 5-inch pie or tart pans. Pot pies can be frozen unbaked. They are best defrosted overnight in the refrigerator before baking.

Ingredients

2½ cups chicken stock, divided (1 cup for cooking vegetables, 1½ cups for gravy)

½ cup chopped onion

½ chopped carrots

2 cups cubed potatoes

1 cup frozen peas

6 tablespoons butter or margarine

6 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 cup milk (Milk with 2% fat will work. Whole milk is even better.)

Salt and pepper to taste

2 cups cooked turkey or chicken in small dice

Your favorite pie dough recipe (enough for two 9-inch crusts)

Directions

1. Place 1 cup of the chicken stock in a saucepan and heat until simmering.

2. Add the chopped onion and chopped carrots and cook for five minutes.

3. Add the cubed potatoes and continue cooking for 10 minutes.

4. Add the frozen peas and cook until all vegetables are tender.

5. While vegetables finish cooking, begin gravy by melting 6 tablespoons of butter or margarine in a medium skillet.

6. Add 6 tablespoons flour and cook over medium heat for one minute, stirring constantly.

7. Add the remaining 1½ cups of the chicken stock and 1 cup milk and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer for 2 to 3 minutes.

8. Add salt and pepper to taste.

9. Pour gravy in a large bowl and add the diced turkey or chicken. Stir to combine.

10. Drain vegetables and add to gravy and meat mixture. Stir gently.

11. Spoon mixture into pie tins and top with a round of pie dough cut ½ inch larger than the diameter of the top of the pie tin, pressing gently to remove any air pockets between the filling and the pie dough.

12. Press dough into the crevice between the outer edge of the filling and the side of the pie tin. The excess dough should stick straight up into the air. Once you’ve removed any air pockets between the filling and pie dough, fold the excess dough flat onto the flat lip of the pie plate to get a good seal.

13. Place pot pies on a baking sheet lined with aluminum foil.

14. Bake at 400 F for 20 to 25 minutes, until the crust is golden brown. If after 25 minutes the crust isn’t brown enough, turn up heat to 425 F and watch carefully until crust reached desired color.

15. Let cool for a few minutes before eating. In our house, we often dump them upside down on a plate to cool. It’s not the most elegant way to serve a pot pie, but it is the most efficient cooling method.

Top photo: The first bite of a homemade pot pie is always the most satisfying. Credit: Susan Lutz

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Dramatically pouring Asturian sidra natural into a glass, the traditional way. Credit: Greg Nesbit / Asturias Cider Commission

Nobody understood the melancholy-tinged beauty of those transitional months between summer and winter quite like the great Romantic poet John Keats, whose “Ode to Autumn” famously celebrates that “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.” Keats also enjoyed a good drink. So it seems fitting that “the last oozings” of the cider press make an appearance in his love song to the fall.

On a recent evening, I found his lines running through my mind while I tasted a range of utterly distinct apple ciders from Asturias – a remote rural region on Spain’s North Atlantic coast where one can still observe, as in Keats’ more pastoral time, how the season conspires to “bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees/ And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core.” For in Asturias, the apple is not just an article of produce; it’s a way of life.

There’s something about the traditional style of Asturian cider — or sidra natural, as locals call it — that would have appealed to someone like Keats. Fermented with indigenous yeasts and bottled without any filtration, it’s the sort of frothy, pungent and unapologetically rustic concoction that has remained unchanged for centuries. Sidra natural represents the art of fermentation at its most elemental: The effect is not sparkling so much as gently effervescent, with low alcohol and a slight prick of fizz. Dry and earthy, with a pleasantly tart tang, this stuff is delicious. It also happens to be remarkably versatile at the table: think sheep or goat’s milk cheeses, shellfish or, at this time of year, even the traditional Thanksgiving dinner.

Asturias is home to more than 200 types of apples, which (because of the high moisture in this maritime region) tend to be less tannic than those grown in other cider-producing parts of the world. But in order to bear the proud label of Sidra de Asturias – the area’s officially protected Denomination of Origin (DOP) — the final blend must consist of a combination of as many as 22 preapproved varietals, of which the Regona and Raxao apples are the most common.

Asturian sidra natural being poured into a glass. Credit: Greg Nesbit / Asturias Cider Commission

Asturian sidra natural being poured into a glass. Credit: Greg Nesbit / Asturias Cider Commission

Almost as fun as drinking sidra natural is watching it be poured — in Asturias, this is a crucial part of the experience. The customary method, known as escanciar, involves pouring the cider from high above one’s head and allowing the free-flowing stream to plunge into the glass. According to John Belliveau-Flores, who imports a wide variety of Asturian cider through his company, Rowan Imports, this age-old technique accounts for more than just flashy showmanship.

“Pouring this way physically changes the character of the cider,” he says. “It breaks up the bonds which release the naturally occurring esters and unleash the aromas. Also, when you try to pour the cider normally, it ends up flat, but it effervesces when you pour from a height.” During my own attempt at mastering the art of escanciar, more cider wound up on my shoes than in my glass, but to watch an experienced professional undertake the act is mesmerizing.

‘New Expression’ Asturian cider cuts the funk

Despite the fact that sidra natural has remained a touchstone of Asturian culture over generations, in recent years producers have experimented with a more modern approach. Designed as a cleaner, more commercially viable interpretation for the export market, cider in this “New Expression” category undergoes filtration and stabilization to remove the sediment. Clear, crisp and lemony in both flavor and appearance, it shares more traits with white wine than beer. To be honest, the results often strike me as a bit too sanitized or refined, stripped of Asturias’ signature funky essence. But Belliveau-Flores is quick to point out the virtues of this style.

“In some cases, the New Expression ciders gain something,” he explains. “Although you’re taking away that funk, which removes a powerful layer, you can end up revealing more of the fruit expression, which would otherwise be covered up.”

I suppose it’s a matter of personal taste, but I’d still start by introducing yourself to the classic sidra natural first. One lovely rendition is the Val d’Ornon bottling from the family-run house of Sidra Menéndez. A refreshingly tart and milky blend of apples including Raxao, Regona, Perico and Carrio, it’s the perfect accompaniment to those bittersweet, “soft-dying” autumn evenings that Keats knew all too well. You might even be inspired to write an ode of your own.

Top photo: Escanciar, the art of pouring cider into a glass from above one’s head, releases the aromas. Credit: Greg Nesbit / Asturias Cider Commission

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Spaghetti alla Carbonara. Credit: Hirsheimer & Hamilton from

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.

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 first Thanksgiving feast. Credit: Laura Cornell

The first Thanksgiving feast. Credit: Laura Cornell

“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

Serves 4

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.

Ingredients

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

Directions

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

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Roasted kabocha squash soup with kale. Credit: Cheryl Lee

Kabocha squash, also known as Japanese pumpkin, has quickly become my favorite winter squash. The texture is somewhat like a chestnut or potato, unlike most squash and pumpkins, which, when cooked are very soft.

Kabocha can be cooked in a multitude of ways, including roasting, mashing, baking and even in soup. They can be used to make pies and other desserts. When eating in a Japanese restaurant, if there is kabocha in the vegetable tempura, I will always get an order.

I often substitute kabocha squash in recipes that call for other winter squash, such as butternut or acorn squash. The difference in flavor profiles can completely change an old standard into a brand-new classic.

One Thanksgiving, about five or six years ago, I decided to add a kabocha squash recipe to my dinner. Every year I used to cook Thanksgiving dinner for my family and extended family. This is usually very traditional fare, featuring turkey, dressing, macaroni and cheese, collard greens, green salad, maybe a Jell-O mold fixed by my mother, and rolls. My sister would always make the candied yams and sweet potato pie, and bring them over.

Interested in bringing slightly healthier fare to my Thanksgiving table, I wanted another option to balance the buttery sugary overload of the candied yams. I brushed the kabocha squash with a very small amount of melted butter and spiced it with warm spices, including cinnamon. When the squash was done, I drizzled pomegranate molasses over the top. The tart and sweet molasses blended beautifully with the spiced sweetness of the squash.

Of course, once the family saw the kabocha squash, everyone asked what in the world it was.

One cousin even remarked, “Black folks don’t eat that!” I replied, “You do today” and explained what the dish was.

Gamely, everyone took a small piece to try. And wouldn’t you know, they loved it. They all came back for more. So I guess black folks do eat kabocha squash.

This soup has an additional layer of flavor added by roasting the squash before use in the soup. You can roast the squash a day before, or if you have leftover roasted kabocha squash it can be repurposed in this recipe.

Roasted Kabocha Squash Soup With Kale

Serves 4

Ingredients

3 pounds kabocha squash, seeds removed, cut into 4 pieces

3 (15 ounce) cans low sodium chicken broth

1 teaspoon sea salt

½ teaspoon ground allspice

½ teaspoon ground ginger powder

½ teaspoon ground smoked paprika

2 cups torn kale

Directions

1. Heat oven to 400 F.

2. Place squash onto a baking sheet skin side down. Roast squash for 30 to 40 minutes, until tender.

3. Remove the squash from the oven, set aside to cool slightly. (This step can be done a day ahead.)

4. Scoop the flesh from the squash.

5. In a large saucepan, combine the cooked squash, chicken broth, salt, allspice, ginger and smoked paprika.

6. Using the back of a spoon or a potato masher, break the squash up.

7. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Cook the soup for about 30 minutes, until the flavors have melded.

8. Carefully purée the soup using a blender or food processor.

9. Return the puréed soup to the pot, and bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer.

10. Add the kale, and cook for about 10 minutes, or until the kale is tender.

11. If needed, add a small amount of water to thin the soup if it becomes too thick.

Top photo: Roasted kabocha squash soup with kale. Credit: Cheryl Lee

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Mandan Bride corn. Credit: Terra Brockman

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.

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.

Polenta revelation

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

Serves 6

Ingredients

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

Olive oil

Directions

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

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Paeo de Queijo Brazilian cheese bread. Credit: Carole Murko

Have you ever reflected on who you really are? Not from a psychological perspective, but from an ethnic and ancestral one. I believe that food is among the first elements that connects us to our past and defines us.

Thanksgiving is a perfect time to truly ponder our connection to our ancestral foods. We are a nation of immigrants. While we embrace and give thanks as a nation, many of us also give a nod to our roots with our family Thanksgiving recipes.

I can relate to this firsthand. I grew up in a three-generation household with my Italian grandparents and my parents. Food was the centerpiece of our existence. My Nana and Baba were always referring to their parents and grandparents.

The discussion often centered on food and recipes. Or, what it was like back “then,” when the family had come over “on the boat” and settled in the Bronx. They described the hardships they faced. But somehow I know they also romanticized it a bit. It seemed that “back then” always was  better  than “here, now.” What they were really saying was they cherished those memories. Their stories of food and meals were how they defined themselves.

Italian specialties to appreciate a new life in America

As a child, I heard stories of how the relatives all pitched in to make the Thanksgiving feast, which was really an Italian-American feast. I’ll never forget my grandmother’s mantra, “Many hands make for light work.” Turkey, by the way, was an optional. All the foods came from recipes and techniques handed down through generations.

A typical menu consisted of an antipasto, a soup course, some pasta with meatballs and gravy or my favorite, manicotti, a roast of some sort with vegetables, nuts and fruit for dessert along with Italian pastries from a nearby bakery.

My mom, to this day eschews the turkey. It just isn’t her idea of Thanksgiving. For my ancestors, Thanksgiving was a time to reflect on how grateful they were to be here in the United States. However, they clung to their ancestral roots like a worn, cozy baby blanket by serving their time-tested heritage foods.

Family Thanksgiving recipes that connect to our roots

My story is not unique. I’ve interviewed scores of people who bring their ethnic foods to their Thanksgiving table to honor their ancestral traditions. A family recipe brings a wonderful sense of nostalgia, love, belonging, connection and roots that cannot be denied.

Take Brazilian-born Ellie Markovitch, for instance who now lives in Troy, N.Y. She makes her Brazilian cheese bread, pão de queijo, on Thanksgiving to keep her food roots alive.

“We celebrate the Thanksgiving meal with recipes and stories from around the world,” she said. “That is because all the members in our family were born in a different country. I was born in Brazil; Dmitri in Estonia; Lina, who is 5, was born in France; and Lara, 2, was born in the U.S.”

There’s also Loring Barnes, a 10th direct descendent of William Bradford, the Plymouth Colony governor at the first Thanksgiving, makes her family’s acorn squash recipe and the Barnes family’s baked chocolate pudding — both recipes can be linked to her pilgrim ancestors.

So, in preparation for Thanksgiving, I beckon you to walk down food memory lane with your relatives and discover, if you haven’t already, those foods that connect you to your past. Perhaps adding an ethnic dish to the menu and the story behind it will become the bridge to your past and future. These foods will help define who you are.

Barnes family baked chocolate pudding and "ice cream" sauce topping. Credit: Carole Murko

Barnes family baked chocolate pudding and “ice cream” sauce topping. Credit: Carole Murko

Barnes Family Baked Chocolate Pudding and ‘Ice Cream’ Sauce Topping

This cake was elicited from Loring Barnes, “I am having a food memory.” This is the essence of Heirloom Meals — making and eating food that transports us to a great memory! I confess, this may be my favorite recipe and it’s a keeper. This dessert will please chocolate lovers and then some. It is the perfect combination of textures and is worth the indulgence.

Ingredients

For the chocolate pudding:

3 squares melted baking chocolate

½ cup sugar

1½ cups milk, divided

½ cup unsalted butter, room temperature/softened

2 eggs, beaten

2 cups flour

1 teaspoon baking soda dissolved in 1 tablespoon water

½ teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon vanilla

For the ‘‘Ice Cream” sauce:

1½ cups sugar

⅔ cup melted unsalted butter (warm not blazing hot so it won’t “cook” the egg)

2 eggs, beaten

¼ teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon vanilla

2 cups fresh cream, whipped

Optional: ½ shot of Gran Marnier

Directions

For the chocolate pudding:

1. Heat oven to 325 F.

2. Grease and flour a Bundt or tube pan. (A Bundt with flutes is the prettiest and defines your slices).

3. In top of double boiler combine chocolate, sugar and ½ cup of the milk. Mix and stir until it thickens, remove top from heat, allow to cool.

4. In large mixing bowl or stand mixer combine butter, eggs, flour, baking soda and water mixture, salt, the remaining 1 cup of the milk, and vanilla.

5. Add the chocolate mixture to above, combine until completely mixed but don’t over beat.

6. Pour batter into prepared Bundt pan, bake 1 hour on the middle rack. Cool and remove from pan.

7. The pudding should be kept moist, so keep the pudding covered with foil or plastic wrap so it doesn’t dry out. Be careful not wrap so tight so that you the baked pudding sticks to your wrap. A Tupperware cake container is fine, but I still wrap it a bit within that storage.

Tip: I like wraparound soaked baking strips for even baking. This is also a way to create moisture without a water bath.

For the “Ice Cream” sauce:

In large mixing bowl or standing mixer blend ingredients together, pouring in sugar and butter so that the warm (not hot) butter will somewhat dissolve the sugar during the blending. Refrigerate until serving. Add the Gran Marnier, if you’re using it.

For assembly:

Serve baked pudding gently warmed in low-temperature oven. I dust with confectioners’ sugar on the plate, but this is optional. Slice, generously dollop with the hard sauce.

“Pão de Queijo” (Cheese Bread), courtesy of Ellie Markovitch

Known as the national treasure of Brazil, this cheese bread recipe is amazingly simple. Ellie adapted it from her mother’s recipe because in the U.S. we don’t have the same ingredients that are available in Brazil. It has just three ingredients. Made with yucca flour, aka tapioca flour, they are gluten-free. Ellie shared three tips with me: Once they are in the oven, you cannot peek for 30 minutes, or the rolls will collapse, so no peeking. Also, they are best eaten hot out of the oven. And last, double or triple the recipe because one batch will get eaten before it reaches the table.

Ingredients

1 cup of sour cream

1 cup of finely grated Parmesan cheese

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons of yucca flour

Directions

1. Heat the oven to 350 F.

2. Combine the sour cream, cheese and 1 cup of yucca flour.

3. Roll the dough into small balls in the palm of your hand, using about 1 heaping tablespoon of dough for each. Use the extra 2 tablespoons of yucca flour to prevent the dough from sticking to your hands.

4. Place the dough balls on a parchment-lined cookie sheet and bake in the middle of the oven for 25 to 30 minutes Remove from oven and serve immediately piping hot.

Top photo: Pão de Queijo Brazilian cheese bread. Credit: Carole Murko

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Pumpkin pie in a family heirloom holiday dish. Credit: Cheryl Lee

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.

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?

Mother's pumpkin pie dish. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee

Mother’s pumpkin pie dish. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee

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

Ingredients                                      

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

Directions

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

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Turkey Joints from Nora's Candy Shop in Rome, N.Y. Credit: Tina Caputo

When November rolls around and the scent of cinnamon is in the air, you may look forward to traditional holiday treats like pumpkin pie or your mom’s gingerbread. But for people in Rome, N.Y., in the foothills of the Adirondacks, the holidays wouldn’t taste the same without Turkey Joints.

They’re not made from turkey; they’re not even shaped like turkeys. Turkey Joints look like bones. Imagine a knobby 5-inch-long candy, similar in girth to a pretzel rod, covered in a crunchy, pearly-white sugar coating. Inside each “bone” is a creamy chocolate and Brazil nut “marrow.” Bizarre, yes, but also delicious.

Rome residents don’t make Turkey Joints at home; they buy them at Nora’s Candy Shop. Nora’s is owned by the Haritatos family, which began making the chocolate treats in 1919, and they’re still made by the same (secret) handmade process. No one knows for sure where the idea for the bone-shaped candies came from, but they’ve been a local Thanksgiving and Christmas tradition for decades.

“I don’t know how many jars we sell during the holidays,” said Sharon, a Nora’s employee who handles in-store and online sales. “But I will say it’s a lot. All I know is, at the end of the holiday season I am extremely tired!”

As New York Romans have moved away to other parts of the world, the Turkey Joints tradition has spread. Each year, Nora’s ships the candies to homesick people all over the United States, and beyond.

Turkey Joint candy. Credit: Tina Caputo

Turkey Joint candy. Credit: Tina Caputo

I was introduced to Turkey Joints several years ago by my friend Doug Gallaher, who grew up in Rome and moved to San Francisco in the early ’90s. At 45 years old, Gallaher has never known a Christmas without Turkey Joints.

“I don’t know anyone who is from Rome, or who had a relative from Rome, who does not think of them as a holiday food,” he told me. “What I like about them is that they are tied so closely to Christmas memories, but they are a tangible, unchanged thing. My mom still sends me a jar every year in my Christmas care package.”

Like many former Rome residents, Gallaher also gives Turkey Joints to friends each year during the holidays.

“I typically buy between six and eight jars and bring them to holiday parties instead of wine,” he said. “I try not to have any myself until after Thanksgiving and really try to hold out until Christmas Eve. I typically fail at this.”

Turkey Joints sell for $19.99 a jar, and are available only between October and May. (They don’t fare well in warm weather.) Due to the weight of the glass jars and the delicacy of the candies, shipping costs $15 for a single jar — nearly as much as the Turkey Joints themselves. But when you think about it, that’s a small price to pay for a sweet, unchanged taste of childhood, even if it’s someone else’s childhood.

To order Turkey Joints online, visit www.turkeyjoints.com or www.tasteofcny.com. Along with Original Turkey Joints, Nora’s also offers newfangled flavors such as Chocolate Covered Turkey Joints, Coco-Monds (a coconut/almond version) and Peanut Butter Sticks.

Top photo: Turkey Joints from Nora’s Candy Shop in Rome, N.Y. Credit: Tina Caputo

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