Articles in Thanksgiving
Thanksgiving seems a consummately American holiday, embodied by nothing more succinctly than the roast turkey, a creature native to North America. However, in France, a feast not dissimilar to Thanksgiving took place each Nov. 11 to honor Saint Martin of Tours. Perhaps even more surprisingly, this too featured an enormous roast turkey as its central dish.
Alexandre-Laurent-Balthazar Grimod de la Reynière, the author of the world’s first serially published food magazine, the Almanach des Gourmands, in 1803 explained that no other day on the calendar held such joy for gourmands, be they Protestant, Greek Orthodox or even atheists. He described Saint Martin as the “patron of parties and the Saint the most generally invoked by men of good appetite.”
As Grimod himself put it, there’s no special evidence that this fourth-century bishop of Tours, long associated with the French royal family and nation, had epicurean leanings (although he has been credited as developing viticulture in the Touraine and for introducing the Chenin Blanc grape there). He was, in fact, a Roman soldier, before his conversion, and has long been venerated by the military. However, from an early date a great feast was held to venerate Saint Martin, which preceded the 40-day fast of advent.
Although this had been dropped by Grimod’s day, the copious harvest-festival banquet remained and stood as a highlight in any French gourmand’s calendar.
The French take to turkey
In no uncertain terms, this consummate epicure explained that the turkey was “the bird of Saint Martin.” He correctly elaborated that although the bird was not native to France, the French had taken to it immediately. Although he credited the turkey’s debut in France to the 1570 wedding banquet of Charles IX, 66 of them had already featured at the coronation feast given by the city of Paris to the king’s mother, Catherine de’ Medici, in 1549. Regal French households had, in fact, been breeding them from as early as the 1530s.
Unlike other New World foods such as potatoes and tomatoes that took centuries to assimilate in Europe, turkeys met with instant popularity. Because the prevailing dietary theory accorded a high status to game birds, which, after all, were the exclusive perquisite of an aristocracy that enjoyed the right to hunt, these exotic birds felt appropriate for princely tables. In such a way the turkeyquickly replaced the goose, which had previously featured at the feast of Saint Martin, purportedly because he had hidden amongst a flock of geese when resisting his election as bishop.
In spite of the turkey’s renown in France, its origin proved a point of confusion. Grimod conjectured that the bird was either Namibian or Indian in origin. The latter theory gave rise to the early French term ‘coq d’inde’ (Indian cock), which eventually contracted into ‘dinde,’ for turkey (of course, the English got it equally wrong, attributing the bird to Turkey, hence the name).
He wasn’t that fussed about where the turkey originated so long as that on his table was young, plump, and juicy. His fellow Frenchmen apparently felt the same. By the time of the French Revolution of 1789, fashionable Parisians bankrupted themselves to serve turkeys à la Périgord, i.e. stuffed entirely full of the region’s magnificent black truffles.
Grimod confessed that this extravagance could rarely be prepared on Saint Martin’s feast day, even by the wealthiest of hosts, because the holiday falls before truffle season typically gets underway (although he noted that there were exceptions). As an alternative, he suggested stuffing the bird with chestnuts from Lyon or little sausages from Nancy. One way or another, however, roast turkey had to appear at the Saint-Martin’s-Day feast.
Bringing Saint Martin’s feast back
The holiday has fallen out of favor in today’s secular society. Moreover, since World War I ended on November 11, 1918, the day has been remembered in France as Armistice Day, further obscuring its more ancient association with Saint Martin. Nevertheless, traces of it remain intact to this day.
The town of Varaignes in the Haut Périgord, for example, this Nov. 11, celebrated its 47th annual ‘foire aux dindons’ (turkey fair), which reprised an earlier, forgotten tradition. The festival begins each Saint Martin’s Day with a parade of turkeys through the town square and culminates in a grand banquet, featuring, bien sûr, a stew made from the turkeys bred in the region. Turkeys may be North American in origin, but for the locals who’ve been rearing them for centuries they now symbolize a proud part of the local terroir.
Plump Roast Turkey Stuffed with Foie Gras and Truffles
From the “Dictionnaire portatif de Cuisine, d’Office, et de distillation. » (Paris : Vincent, 1767 ; translated by the author).
Choose a young, small and plump turkey. Pluck it, gut it & flame it. Take three blanched foies gras; cut the truffles, which have been partially cooked in a bouillon, into them and cut them in the same way. Put the truffles with the foies and some juice, and finish cooking them until the sauce dries out. Let it cool; stuff your turkey & stitch it up. Put it on the spit, wrapped in lard and paper; serve it with a good essence.
Top image: Turkey illustration from Pierre Bollons, “L’Histoire de la nature des oyseaux, Paris: 1555.” Credit: Bibliothèque nationale de France
When Seattle chef Maxime Bilet says he was presented with the “most amazing challenge,” you want to know more. After all, what could be more difficult than creating barbecue with a smoker, a sous-vide bath, a centrifuge or liquid nitrogen?
Think simple, really simple.
“You pretty much have nothing other than what’s in the food bank. You have to make a delicious dish from these ingredients in under 20 minutes. And you have nothing but the basic tools,” says Bilet, the 30-year-old co-creator of “Modernist Cuisine” and its sister cookbook “Modernist Cuisine at Home,” a groundbreaking exploration of cooking, art and science.
Food bank? Basic tools? Under 20 minutes? Dorothy, we are clearly not in Nathan Myhrvold’s kitchen anymore. (Myhrvold, a former Microsoft executive and master French chef, was the force behind “Modernist Cuisine.”)
University of Southern California professors Peter Clarke and Susan Evans enlisted Bilet in their ambitious project to transform the diet of Americans dependent on the free food distributed by food banks. They began in 1991 with a program to pair up the nation’s 200-plus food banks — whose inventory consisted largely of cereals, canned goods and convenience foods — with produce distributors who had surplus fruits and vegetables.
Clarke and Evans quickly discovered that getting fresh beans or squash into the food bank community pantries wasn’t enough. They needed to help people figure out what to do with the vegetables or risk having the produce dumped in the garbage.
Food bank visitors don’t have easy path to healthy eating
Time and resources are big barriers to healthy eating. Many of the people dependent on pantries are seniors or the working poor, who are juggling a couple of part-time jobs while raising children. They often suffer from diabetes or other chronic diseases. A growing number are Latino and Asian immigrants who aren’t familiar with the vegetables eaten in the United States. And their kitchens aren’t likely to be stocked with sharp knives, food processors or expensive spices.
They need food that is simple to make, fast and filling, which is why their default meals often come in a can, a microwaveable carton or a fast-food bag.
So Clarke and Evans created QUICK! Help for Meals, a computer program that provides pantry clients with recipes that incorporate the produce of the day and are available in English or Spanish. They found that by customizing the recipes to the individual’s needs — family size, health issues, flavor preferences — they could double the amount of vegetables people took home.
Clarke and Evans scoured cookbooks and the Internet to build a recipe list based around the vegetables most commonly found in food banks: zucchini, broccoli, green beans, carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, root vegetables and cabbage. They also sought the help of top food professionals.
Brian Wansink, Cornell University food psychologist and author of “Mindless Eating, Why We Eat More Than We Think,” taught them about the hidden things that influence people’s food choices. His research shows that restaurants can increase sales by 20% with menu descriptions that evoke positive feelings, such as “Grandma’s oatmeal cookies.” With his assistance, Clarke and Evans revised their recipes and are currently testing the dressed-up versions at several Southern California pantries.
Lachlan Sands, the executive chef at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts Los Angeles, and his students reviewed several hundred recipes for ease of preparation, flavor and nutritional value. “The number one thing is that the food is properly cooked,” Sands says. “People don’t like Brussels sprouts because they have such a strong flavor. But if you cook them right, they are nutty and sweet.”
Bilet was asked to use his culinary wizardry to develop recipes with kid appeal, an important priority for pantry clients. His biggest challenge was “making a head of cabbage awesome to a kid who’s accustomed to eating Big Macs.” The solution? Cut the cabbage into thick wedges, baste them with a little oil and salt to release the water and then roast them with a few sprinkles of feta cheese or brown sugar and honey. “When in doubt, roast,” he says. “Kids prefer the softer textures with vegetables and they love that roasted flavor.”
Bilet also created a whole-grain stew featuring sautéed zucchini, brown rice and creamed corn, all popular pantry items. “It had all the flavor notes,” says Bilet. “It had the vegetableness, the nuttiness and substance of rice and the creaminess and sweetness of creamed corn. The kids loved it.”
Bilet, who recently left Myhrvold’s cooking lab to pursue new adventures, believes food empowerment can become a powerful tool for improving public health in America. And he credits Clarke and Evans with helping lead the charge. They are now working with researchers to transfer QUICK! Help for Meals to a smartphone app to make it easier for pantries to administer. “It’s just so brilliant,” Bilet says.
Photo: Fresh produce is handed out at a community pantry. Credit: Peter Clarke
Apple butter might not seem like a traditional holiday food, but it holds a place of honor at my family’s Thanksgiving and Christmas table in Virginia. Stored in mason jars in the cellar or pantry until opened, then kept in the fridge, the apple butter gets its own special serving dish at my family’s holiday meals. Every few years we forget to put out the apple butter, but as soon as we start passing the homemade rolls, someone (usually my father) inevitably asks for it.
Because apple butter is traditionally made in the fall after apples are harvested, it also makes a great holiday gift.
In the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, where I grew up, gallons and gallons of apple butter are made by groups of people who gather for an “apple butter boiling.” The results are then canned and sold as fundraisers for local churches, fire halls and civic organizations.
Not a hurried process
Making apple butter this way is a two-day process. It takes 15 to 18 bushels of apples to make a large kettle of apple butter, so preparing the apples is an event in itself. On the evening before the apple butter boiling, people gather to peel and core the apples and cut them into slices called “snits.”
The next day is devoted to cooking down the apples in a large copper kettle over an open fire. It takes hours to boil down the apples in a bath of apple cider and the pot must be stirred the entire time. It’s traditional to add 10 to 12 pennies to the bottom of the kettle as you start to boil the apples in the kettle. Nobody really knows why, but some people think it keeps the apples from sticking to the bottom and burning. There’s even a special way to stir the kettle and a rhyme to help remember how to do it.
Once around the side and twice through the middle,
Don’t you burn that apple butter ‘kittle.’
People in the community buy apple-butter from the communal “boiling” for themselves and to give as holiday gifts. I grew up in Winchester, the apple capitol of Virginia, so my perspective on apple butter may be slightly skewed, but it’s been my experience that you can find apple butter anywhere people grow apples, at least in this country.
However, if you don’t have a local civic group that takes two days to make apple butter for you, you’ll probably have to do it yourself. I don’t mean to imply that you can’t buy apple butter at the grocery store. You can. But it’s not the same. So this year I embarked on a quest to create the kind of apple butter I grew up with.
A new generation
My husband and I took our daughters to pick apples in our local apple country at a place called Oak Glen, Calif., about an hour and a half east of Los Angeles. When I told my dad what we were planning, he said, “I always wondered who went to those places. Seems smarter to have someone else do the hard work and pick out the good apples for you.”
Clearly, he is a man who grew up picking his own apples from his family’s small orchard. I was embarrassed at first, but also defensive when I said, “So you WANT your granddaughters to grow up not knowing how to pick apples? The phone line was silent for a minute before he replied, “Yeah, I guess you’re right.” Point made.
My family happily harvested apples at Riley’s Farm (and enjoyed the hay ride and other “old-timey” events). A few days later we began to make our own apple butter. My father happened to be visiting when we made the second batch. I’m pleased to report that he sat at my stove dutifully stirring the pot of apple butter for an hour and a half one evening. Such is my father’s love of apple butter and family.
The apple butter we made is so thick that it will pile up on a spoon and melt in your mouth. It is dark brown in color, generously spiced with cinnamon and cloves and never gritty. My recipe makes about nine half-pint jars so if you go to the trouble of making it, you’ll have plenty to share. That is, unless you’re a part of my family, in which case you’ll have to make at least two batches of the stuff for your own family’s use. That’s what I did this year and I think I might make another batch or two before the holidays roll around so I have some to give away as presents.
Country-Style Apple Butter
Yield: 9 to 10 half-pints
I am grateful to Phyllis Shenk and Betty Sheetz for sharing their apple butter recipe with me and allowing me to attend their family’s joint apple butter boiling about 10 years ago.
Both of these amazing women have since passed away, and I often think of them as I stir my apple butter “kettle.” Although they’d probably get a good chuckle at the “tiny” quantity of apple butter this recipe makes, I think they’d like it. I’m sure it would please them both to know that I’m teaching my daughters to love apple butter and to learn their traditional apple butter stirring-rhyme.
Note: This is not the fastest or easiest way to make apple butter. It’s still a two-day process, even without the open fire and copper kettle.
My recipe calls for using a combination of a slow-cooker and stirring a pot on the stove for several hours. Using the slow-cooker allows me to cut down on stirring time by about 1½ hours, while still getting the rich, dark color I like.
8 pounds of apples (Phyllis and Betty recommend using Ben Davis or Rome apples. They say never use Staymen because they cook up “stringy.” I’ve used a combination of Jonathans and Senshus with great success. Avoid overripe, mealy apples of all varieties.)
2 cups apple cider vinegar (5% acidity)
1½ tablespoons whole cloves
1 cinnamon stick
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon (optional)
1 spice bag (or a piece of cheese cloth with a string to tie it shut)
4½ to 5 cups white sugar (The total amount of sugar used depends on sweetness of the apples. You can also substitute light brown sugar for white sugar.)
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon (optional)
2 cups apple cider or water (Sometimes I need to add a little extra water to the pot during the second cooking phase on the stove-top if I turn the heat up too high during the cooking process.)
1. Wash, peel, core, and slice apples into at least 8 pieces about ¼ to ½ inch thick. You should end up with approximately 6 to 6½ pounds of sliced apples from 8 pounds of whole apples.
2. Warm the apple cider vinegar and 1 cup of water or apple cider in a medium sauce pan.
3. Place apples, spice bag containing the cloves and cinnamon stick, and warmed liquid mixture in a slow cooker. Cook on high, with covered lid, for 8 hours. Don’t do this overnight because you want to watch the cooking process to make sure the apples don’t scorch. The cooking time will depend on the heat of your slow cooker. If you have a high-powered slow cooker, cook on low heat.
If all the apples won’t fit into your slow cooker, you can place the extra apples in a medium sauce pan with at least 1 cup of the original liquid mixture. Heat the pot of apples and liquid mixture slowly on the stove and keep the pot covered. When apples in the slow cooker have cooked down a bit, add the softened apples from the pot into the slow cooker.
4. After 5 hours, open the lid and taste the liquid. Remove the spice bag if you like the flavor. For a stronger flavor, leave the spice bag in the mixture until you achieve the desired spiciness. Continue cooking for a total of at least 8 hours.
5. After 8 hours, the apples should be very soft. They will also have produced a large quantity of liquid. Cool the apple mixture and put it into the refrigerator overnight.
6. The next day, put the apple and liquid mixture into a large non-reactive pot and heat slowly, stirring constantly. If you don’t like slightly lumpy apple butter (as I do), you can run the apple mixture through a food mill or use an immersion blender to get rid of some of the lumps before you begin heating it.
7. Cook on medium-low heat, stirring constantly, for approximately 1½ to 2 hours until the apples are dark brown in color and have the consistency of slightly lumpy applesauce. Add 1 cup of additional water (or apple cider) if the pot starts to get dry before the apples have thoroughly cooked. Be careful to keep heat low enough that the mixture does not bubble up and burn you while you’re stirring the pot.
8. When the apple butter has thickened, add 4 ½ cups sugar, continuing to stir the pot.
Taste for flavor. Add up to ½ cup of additional sugar and ½ teaspoon of ground cinnamon if needed.
9. Continue to cook, stirring constantly, until mixture reaches desired consistency. To test for doneness, remove a spoonful and see if it mounds on the spoon. You can also put a small spoonful of apple butter onto a plate and watch to see if a rim of liquid forms around the mound. If it does, continue cooking until a spoonful of apple butter mounds on the plate without creating a puddle of liquid around it.
10. While apple butter is cooking, sterilize half-pint jars.
When apple butter is done, pour it into hot half-pint jars, leaving ¼-inch headspace. Wipe the rims of the jars and put on lids and screw rings. Process for 5 minutes in a boiling water bath following USDA recommendations.
Photo: Apple butter. Credit: Susan Lutz
What looks like a cross between a giant thistle and supersized celery, but tastes like artichoke with a trace of truffle? Don’t worry if you don’t have a clue. Cardoons are still a rare find in U.S. stores, although more and more farmers are growing them. If you’ve spent time in Italy or Spain, though, you probably know them as cardi or cardone — a classic winter vegetable that is perfect in a bagna cauda.
Cardoons are among the vegetables that home gardeners have enjoyed and that great painters have lovingly rendered for centuries.
The cardoon in Juan Sánchez Cotán’s bodegón (a still life, usually in a pantry or cellar), is domestic and poetic, mundane and mysterious, secular and sacred. Somehow Sánchez Cotán painted the lowly yet lovely cardoon’s sharp edges in soft colors, making it pulse with hidden life. It’s a humble, ordinary scene, yet the gathering up of the fruits of the earth before they die and return to whence they came hints of the rituals of the altar.
The artichoke’s cousin
Like artichokes, cardoons are in the thistle family. Their wild ancestor grew all over the Mediterranean and was gradually domesticated. Some, bred for their big buds, became the artichokes we know today, while others, bred for a large and meaty petiole (leaf stalk), became the cardoon.
The cardoon plant resembles its forebears, with long stalks and velvety, deeply lobed, heavily spined, gray-green leaves with a felt-like surface. The pale green stalks are about an inch wide, and 18 to 22 inches long. Some cardoon stems are straight, but in Italy the most sought after are curved, a feature that results in their being nicknamed gobbi, or hunchbacks.
My brother, Henry, plants the Gobbo di Nizza (Hunchback of Nice) cardoons, as well as the Porto Spineless variety on his farm in Illinois. Both have the look and the crunch of celery, but the flavor is absolutely nothing like celery.
Cardoons are not normally eaten raw, but when my brother had me go chop one down (slicing through the 6-inch base is more akin to chopping a tree than cutting a vegetable), we inhaled the earthy truffle aroma, and decided to sample it on the spot. Raw, it has an immediate bitter bite on your tongue, but as you chew it, it develops complex and pleasant flavors. By the time you swallow it, you can’t help but take another bite, and soon the bitter flavor becomes addictive.
Worth the trouble
When cardoons are cooked, their membership in the artichoke family becomes apparent. But they are better than the best artichoke hearts, in that they seem to have been dusted with rich white truffle. A quick look through my Italian cookbooks suggests a variety of cooking methods, from braising to frying to making them into a risotto or gratin.
The cookbooks also make it clear that cardoons need some prep time. Chef Jason Hammel of Chicago’s Lula Café and Nightwood Restaurant, once said, “Good food is trouble.” And I say cardoons are a case in point. But anything worthwhile requires a bit of work, right?
In the case of cardoons, you trim the spines, peel the fibers and boil them for in water with the juice of a lemon before doing anything else with them. And honestly, that’s not so much trouble. Rest assured — what comes later makes it all worthwhile.
Try substituting this cardoon gratin for that tired old potato or squash gratin at your Thanksgiving dinner. Give an extra helping to whoever can identify the vegetable.
1 large cardoon (3 to 4 pounds)
¼ cup flour
2 tablespoons olive oil
½ cup coarsely grated provolone
½ cup finely grated pecorino
Freshly ground black pepper
1. Preheat the oven to 400 F. Bring a large kettle of salted water to a boil. While the oven and the water are heating, prep the cardoons.
2. Use a paring knife or your fingers (I prefer fingers) to zip off the strings on the ribs of the cardoon stalks. (Some recipes say to peel the stalks with a vegetable peeler, but that just got my peeler all gummed up. Besides, you don’t have to get all the strings out for the cardoons to come out soft and luscious.)
3. Squeeze the lemon’s juice into a large bowl of cold water. Cut the cardoon stalks into 2- to 3-inch lengths, and put them into the lemon water to keep them from discoloring.
4. Put the squeezed-out lemon pieces into the boiling water and then whisk in the flour. According to some, this lemon-flour combination removes some of the bitterness from the cardoons, and keeps their pretty green color. Let the flour and lemon boil together for few minutes, and then toss in all the cardoon sticks, and boil about 30 minutes, or until the flesh is soft and silky. Drain.
5. Liberally smear olive oil (or bacon fat) all over the inside of a casserole dish that is large enough to hold all the cardoons. Arrange the cardoons in one layer, and then sprinkle with the provolone, and then with the pecorino. Bake for about 30 minutes, or until the cheese begins to brown. Serve immediately or at room temperature. This dish is even better as leftovers, reheated in the microwave or toaster oven.
Photo: Cardoons at farmers market. Credit: blowbackphoto / iStockphoto.com
Thanksgiving was not my favorite holiday when I was a child. First of all, no presents: Who needs a holiday with no presents? And then, the food: so boring, so mind-numbingly uniform in texture — dry turkey, mashed boiled squash, mashed boiled turnips, mashed boiled potatoes, boiled white onions in cream sauce, cranberry sauce from a can, Jell-O salad. This was not my idea of feasting. My mother was an excellent cook but somehow Thanksgiving seemed to try her skills — possibly she didn’t like that food any more than I did, but felt she had to prepare it, for tradition’s sake.
Turkey and Chex Mix
Every now and then, something delightfully different would happen, like the year she decided on a succulent pork roast instead of turkey, or the time we all voted for lobster and no cranberry sauce for the feast. But when I think back, the best part was in the cut-glass relish dish handed down from Grandmother Hathorne. One side held celery sticks filled with a mix of blue cheese and cream cheese and the other had pimento-stuffed olives.
Later another innovation, served in an equally time-honored heirloom, was a curious salty – savory mix of mini pretzels, peanuts and cereal bits that I thought for a long time my clever mother had invented. But no, just now, while surfing the blessed Internet, I discovered it has a name, this mix, moreover a “registered” name: it’s called Chex Party Mix (check it out at Chex.com). The original was developed by the mythical Betty Crocker, doyenne of General Mills, back in 1955. That original has since mutated and you can now find recipes for Gluten-Free Tropical Island Chex Mix and Kentucky Bourbon Bacon Chex Mix along with a host of others. But I like to think the original, with its elusive flavors of Worcestershire, seasoned salt, and garlic and onion powder, is the true classic of American Thanksgivings.
Squash was the most problematic part of the meal, the unpleasant pablum texture of that boiled mash so integral to the Thanksgiving table. And don’t try to tempt me with pumpkin pie, similarly mashed to a sticky texture and ineptly disguised with an overlay of sugar and spice. To misquote that old New Yorker cartoon about spinach, I say it’s squash and I say the hell with it!
Squash, it turns out, is just another name, a Narragansett name in fact, for Olde English pumpkin, and it has an ancient, even venerable, history on these shores. For John Jocelyn, writing “New-England’s Rareties” back in 1671, squash or pumpkin was already “The Ancient New England standing dish.” Sliced diced squash or Pompion, he said was put in a pot on a gentle fire all day until it had sunk into a pottage, after which New England housewives “put to it Butter and a little Vinegar (with some Spice as Ginger . . . ) . . . and serve it up. . . with Fish or Flesh.” “It provokes Urin extremely and is very windy,” Jocelyn said. I rest my case.
Squash (aka pumpkin) redeems itself
It has taken me the best part of my life to learn to appreciate this vegetable of the unfortunate name. I’ve discovered only recently that great things could indeed be done with squash. Cut into French-fry sized fingers, rolled in a little seasoned flour, and deep-fried in olive oil, it reveals a whole new dimension of flavor. Sliced a little thicker and layered with onions in a baking dish, sprinkled with garlic, salt and pepper, plenty of olive oil and a thick dusting of grated parmigiano and bread crumbs, it bakes into a gorgeous gratin. Made into a pumpkin risotto (recipe below) or pumpkin-filled ravioli served with melted butter and sage, it brings glamour to the table.
Which squash is which? This is a question for your local Ag Extension Service. Because we’re talking about November, we’re talking specifically about winter squashes, which includes an enormous variety from small thin-skinned Delicata to pale blue and warty Hubbards to so-called Cheese Pumpkins, a paler version of the Halloween treat. Acorns, Butternuts and Buttercups are probably the most familiar varieties in supermarket produce sections, but farmers’ markets will provide a much greater spread, including some Asian varieties, such as Kabocha (Japanese for pumpkin), that are delicious. Just steer clear of “pie pumpkins” or “sugar pumpkins” which have sweet flesh and are intended strictly for dessert.
My Thanksgiving table this year will be graced with this beautiful pumpkin (or squash, if you insist) risotto as a starter (after, of course, the platter of cheese-filled celery sticks and pimento-stuffed olives, plus the obligatory Chex Party Mix). My favorite cucurbit for this is a pumpkin called rouge vif d’Etampes, a French variety that is widely available in farmers markets. But butternut, acorn, Hubbard or other types of dark-yellow winter squashes will be fine too.
Makes 6 to 8 servings
6 cups of chicken stock
¼ to ⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil
2 medium yellow onions, halved and very thinly sliced
1 small pumpkin or squash, peeled and coarsely chopped to make 2 to 3 cups chopped squash
2 or 3 sprigs fresh sage, slivered (optional)
2 cups arborio or similar rice for risotto
¾ cup freshly grated parmigiano reggiano cheese
1 or 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, or more if you wish
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1. Heat the stock to a bare simmer and keep simmering very gently while you prepare the risotto.
2. In a heavy kettle or saucepan large enough to hold all the rice when cooked, gently sauté the onions in oil over medium-low heat until they are thoroughly softened but not browned. Add the pumpkin and stir well to coat the pieces with the oil. Cover and cook gently for about 5 to 10 minutes, until the pumpkin is soft enough to break it up with a spoon. If it starts to scorch, add a little water or stock. The pumpkin should be very soft, almost a purée.
3. Add the sage and stir into the squash.
4. Add the rice and stir to mix well while the rice starts to change color and become almost translucent. Now add a ladle or two of simmering stock and stir. As soon as the rice has absorbed the liquid, add more, and continue adding simmering liquid, ladle by ladle, stirring as you add. There should always be liquid visible in the pan. Do not add all the liquid at once; this will produce boiled rice instead of risotto. The rice is done when it is al dente, with a bit of a bite in the center. Each grain should be well coated with brilliant yellow sauce, which should be dense and rather syrupy looking. When it is done, the risotto should be thick enough to eat with a fork and not at all soupy. (You may not need to use all the stock.) Total cooking time varies from 20 to 30 minutes, depending on the degree of doneness that you’re looking for.
5. When the rice is cooked, remove the pan from the heat and immediately stir in about ¼ cup grated cheese and the butter. Add salt and pepper, cover the pan, and let it sit for 5 minutes to settle the flavors. Serve immediately, passing the rest of the cheese at the table.
For a holiday garnish take some fresh sage leaves and fry them in extra virgin olive oil, making sure the leaves are thoroughly dry before slipping them into the 360 F oil. Fry till crisp and drain on paper towels. Add a couple of fried sage leaves to each serving of risotto.
Photo: Halved Tuscan pumpkin. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins
Among the many things I’m thankful for at Thanksgiving are the winter vegetables that fall into my “under-appreciated” category, roots like turnips, and rutabaga, kohlrabi and celeriac. They’re in abundance in November, and they often appear on my Thanksgiving buffet. Turnips are especially welcome. I pair them with potatoes in a gratin that’s plenty rich and comforting, but half as starchy as a traditional potato gratin. If I can get the turnips with the greens attached, which isn’t a challenge if I buy them at the farmers market, then I blanch the greens and add them to the mix.
Turnips also find their way into a classic puréed winter vegetable soup, the kind of soup French women can make with their eyes closed. Even big turnips that are on the mealy side are great in this soup. In fact, once turnips reach this state, soup is the only place for them. And what a good home it is. The vegetable soup makes a simple start to a Thanksgiving dinner.
‘Neeps and Tatties’: Potato and Turnip Gratin
1 pound turnips
1 pound potatoes, such as Yukon Gold (or you can use ¾ pound turnips and 1¼ pounds potatoes)
Freshly ground pepper
1¾ cups milk (whole, 2% or 1%)
½ cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, plus more for the gratin dish
1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil while you prepare the turnips and potatoes. If the turnips are small baby turnips, trim, peel and leave whole. If they are large, peel and slice about ¼-inch thick. Scrub potatoes — only peel them if you want to — and slice about ¼-inch thick, or a little thinner if desired.
2. When the water comes to a boil, drop in the turnips; if they are whole, boil for 5 minutes; if sliced, boil for 2 minutes. Transfer to a bowl of cold water and drain. Slice whole turnips about ¼-inch thick. Drop the sliced potatoes into the boiling water and boil 5 minutes. Drain and toss with the turnips in a bowl.
3. Heat the oven to 375 F. Butter a 2½- or 3-quart gratin dish. Layer the potatoes and turnips, generously salting and peppering each layer before covering it with the next. When all of the potatoes and turnips are used up, mix together the milk and cream, and pour over. Dot the top with butter.
4. Bake the gratin for an hour to an hour and a half, breaking up the top layer with a large spoon every 10 to 15 minutes and stirring it under along with the browned top surface. The gratin is done when most of the liquid has been absorbed and the top and edges are golden brown. Serve hot or warm.
Variation: Neeps, tatties and greens
If the turnips are attached to their greens, strip the greens off the stems, wash in two changes of water and blanch for 2 minutes in salted boiling water. Transfer to a bowl of cold water, drain and squeeze out excess water. Chop medium-fine and toss with the turnips and potatoes at the end of Step 2.
Purée of Winter Vegetable Soup
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
½ pound leeks (1 large or 2 small), white and light green part only, cleaned well and sliced
½ pound carrots (2 large), peeled and sliced
1 pound turnips, peeled and diced
½ pound potatoes (such as 2 medium Yukon Golds), peeled and diced
1½ quarts water, chicken stock or vegetable stock (more as needed)
A bouquet garni made with 1 bay leaf and a couple of sprigs each of thyme and parsley
½ cup crème fraîche (optional)
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1. Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a large, heavy soup pot or Dutch oven and add the onion. Cook, stirring, until it begins to soften, about 3 minutes, and add the leeks and a generous pinch of salt. Cook, stirring often, until tender but not colored, about 5 more minutes. Add the carrots, turnips, potatoes, and water or stock and bring to a boil. Add salt to taste (about 2 teaspoons if using water) and the bouquet garni. Reduce the heat, cover and simmer 1 hour. Remove the bouquet garni and discard.
2. Using an immersion blender, or in batches in a regular blender, blend the soup until smooth. If you use a blender, only fill halfway and cover the top with a towel rather than a tight-fitting lid, or take the center piece out of the lid and cover with a towel so the soup won’t splash or force the top off. Place a coarse or medium-mesh strainer over a bowl and put the soup through a strainer, pressing the soup through with the back of your ladle or with a pestle. Return to the pot. Thin out to taste with more stock. If desired, whisk in ½ cup crème fraîche, and heat through. Add lots of freshly ground pepper, taste and adjust salt.
Note: To make a quick vegetable stock, cut away the dark green outer leaves of the leeks, wash thoroughly and simmer in a pot of water with the peelings from the carrots while you prepare your other vegetables. Strain and use for the soup.
Advance preparation: The finished soup will keep for 3 or 4 days in the refrigerator. Whisk before reheating.
Photo: Turnips at the farmers market. Credit: Martha Rose Shulman
Like most Americans, I grew up equating Thanksgiving with turkey and pumpkin pie. To cap off the meal with any other dessert would have seemed un-American. Yet, after more than 30 years of eating pumpkin at the holidays, I started craving a new fruit. Enter the persimmon.
The Algonquin Indians called this squat, smooth-skinned, red-orange fruit putchamin. Found throughout eastern North America, the sweet persimmon was a favorite of Native Americans as well as European colonists who had learned from local tribes how to pick and consume it. In the 17th century, Virginia’s Capt. John Smith even boasted that, when ripe, this unique produce was as sweet and delicious as apricots.
By 1709, settlers had phonetically altered the fruit’s spelling to persimmon. They did not, though, radically change how they used it.
From the Native Americans the settlers learned to wait until a persimmon had ripened and fallen from the tree to eat it. Along with consuming it straight from the ground, they featured it in puddings, breads, preserves, cakes and pies. They turned it into “simmon” beer and wine, beverages that were particularly popular during Colonial times. They likewise dried it for later usage.
Ripe persimmons have sweet flavor
What the settlers had understood is that, when green, a persimmon is more or less inedible. Its custardy flesh contains tannins that, unless the fruit has fully matured, make it pungently bitter. When ripe, though, it’s a creamy, honeyed treat.
My husband learned the ripeness rule firsthand when he plucked a hard, cherry-sized, yellowish-orange persimmon from a friend’s backyard tree. He bit into and immediately spat out the acrid flesh. It was, in a word, “horrible.” Only time and some culinary trickery could convince him to give persimmons another chance.
Although some gardeners insist it’s a myth, most believe that the fruit hits its prime after a good frost. Wives’ tale or not, I have popped immature, whole persimmons into the freezer overnight and then thawed them at room temperature. Defrosted, they became soft and delicious.
Persimmon season runs from September through December. Look for soft, deep reddish-orange fruit with all four papery leaves intact. Store at room temperature and consume within two days.
Before eating a persimmon, remove the leaves and seeds; I usually cut them out with a paring knife. You can then either scoop out the jellied flesh or slice the fruit and dig in.
While our ancestors enjoyed the petite American persimmon, today we mostly consume one of two larger, Japanese varieties, Hachiya or Fuyu. Similar to the American persimmon, the oblong Hachiya tastes best when fully ripened. The plump, tomato-shaped Fuyu can be eaten straight from the tree. No collecting of fallen fruit is necessary.
Fuyu and Hachiya possess a sweet, mildly pumpkin-like flavor. That’s why I consider persimmons a good substitute for the usual pumpkin pie. Similar to pumpkin, they go well with cinnamon, cream, ice cream and nutmeg. They also pair nicely with such common holiday ingredients as apples, cloves, ginger, pears, pecans, raisins, vanilla, walnuts, brandy and wine.
The beauty of persimmons is that they don’t require much effort to shine. After scooping out or slicing up the flesh, you can pulse it in a food processor or blender with a little vanilla, cinnamon and/or rum. Spoon the purée into dainty bowls and refrigerate until ready to serve.
In parts of the Southeast and Midwest, baked persimmon pudding remains a Thanksgiving favorite. Featuring puréed persimmons, buttermilk and spices, it’s a warm, tasty treat.
Puddings and purées may be nice, but I tend to prefer a more substantial dessert, such as a pie or tart. Easy to make, persimmon tart requires only four ingredients: puff pastry, sliced persimmons, butter and sugar. It’s a simple, sweet and delightful alternative to the old standby, pumpkin pie.
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
⅔ cup sugar
½ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
⅛ teaspoon ground ginger
3 to 4 ripe persimmons, trimmed, seeded and sliced (Use four if you are using smaller American persimmons or three if you use the larger Fuyu or Hachiya persimmons.)
1 sheet frozen puff pastry, defrosted
1. Preheat the oven to 400 F.
2. In a 9-inch, oven-safe pan melt the butter, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger over medium heat, stirring to combine.
3. Once the sauce has thickened slightly and turned a light caramel color, place the persimmon slices in the pan. Overlap them slightly and neatly. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for 3 to 5 minutes, until the persimmons begin to meld with the sauce.
4. Place the puff pastry over the persimmons and tuck in the edges of the dough. Poke a few holes in the top of the pastry and then bake until the tart is golden and puffed up, about 20 minutes.
5. Remove the tart from the oven and cool slightly. Invert the tart onto a serving platter.
6. Serve warm with an optional side of vanilla or cinnamon ice cream.
Photo: American persimmons. Credit: Kathy Hunt
The first time I spotted a highbush cranberry bush (Viburnum opulus), I was riding my bike along a ditch in early December. Nestled up against the Rocky Mountains, it had been freezing hard for months by that time, and it was rare to see anything left to forage, let alone finding bright red berries. I had to stop my bike and investigate the fruit that had caught my eye.
There’s an old wives’ tale that if a bird won’t eat a fruit, it’s poisonous. It turns out that isn’t true for many fruits, including highbush cranberries. But nature has its own wisdom. While these cranberries are indeed edible, most creatures avoid them because they possess sourness and a scent verging on funk. As a forager desperate for material with which to play, I picked those highbush cranberries and have every year since.
Due to their musky scent, in my house, highbush cranberries have earned the nickname, “stinky sock berries.” The smell of them is so strong that I even go to the trouble to cook them outside, so that I don’t need to air out my home after making highbush cranberry sauce.
In North America, V. trilobum and V. edulis, are the preferred species because they are less bitter. The ones I have access to are the ones forager Sam Thayer has dubbed “bad” highbush cranberries, V. opulus. They are native to Europe, but here they are merely escaped ornamental plants.
Look for berries during frost season
True cranberries are a member of the Heath family. Highbush cranberries are in the Honeysuckle family, and are related to elderberries, which can also have a characteristic musk. Highbush cranberry fruit, or drupes, grow on a deciduous shrub that grows to about 12 feet to 15 feet hight. Its opposite, serrated, tri-lobed leaves resemble those of a maple tree.
Historically, the bark of the highbush cranberry has been used for menstrual cramps, accounting for one of its common names, crampbark. In the spring, the shrub blossoms with fireworks-like bursts of white flowers, somewhat resembling hydrangeas with smaller flowers in the center, and larger sterile flowers bordering them in a ring. Highbush cranberry shrubs fruit in late summer, at first green then turning red. Each individual red berry contains a single flat disk-shaped seed.
There is some conflict as to whether to harvest highbush cranberries before or after the frost. To my palate, the V. opulus taste about the same before and after a frost, although they are softer and easier to run through a food mill after a freeze. The good news is that highbush cranberries are relatively easy to pick. The drupes can quite easily be pulled from the shrubs without a mess.
Some good food comes with a little funk
Despite their detractors, stinky-sour “bad” highbush cranberries have their uses. Some of the world’s most sought-after foods have a distinctive funk. Can you imagine haute cuisine without pungent foods like cheese and truffles?
Long cold winters with few plants to forage force quite a bit of creativity. Highbush cranberries possess a strong flavor, to be sure. But used with a deft hand, they are a great pair with game meats, offal and other strong flavors. One of my favorite ways to serve highbush cranberry sauce is with liver.
Needless to say, highbush cranberries are a food for adventurous palates. However, for those who dare to walk on the wild side, they can bring an unusual new flavor to the Thanksgiving table. Highbush cranberries marry particularly well with the darker, gamier meat of heritage breed and wild turkeys.
Highbush Cranberry Sauce
3 cups highbush cranberries, stripped from stems
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons orange zest
Juice of 1 orange
Pinch of salt
1. Pass the raw highbush cranberries through a food mill. Their disk-shaped seeds and skins should easily be left behind. You will be left with a pulpy red juice.
2. Pour the raw highbush cranberry juice into a heavy-bottomed pan and add the remaining ingredients.
3. Over medium heat, bring the ingredients to a low boil, so that large bubbles rise around the edge of the pot. Turn the heat down to medium-low so that the mixture remains at a low boil.
4. Continue to cook, skimming off and discarding any scum that rises to the top of the pan, for 20 to 30 minutes, or until the highbush cranberry sauce resembles the texture of jam. Test this by dropping 4 to 5 drops onto a metal spoon and placing the spoon in the freeze for a minute. If the sauce is ready, it will resemble the texture of jam after being in the freezer. If not, it will still be runny, and will need to be cooked down further and retested until it has become jam-like in consistency.
5. Pour the hot highbush cranberry sauce into a sterilized jar. Let cool to room temperature.
6. Refrigerate the highbush cranberry sauce until you are ready to use it. It may be eaten cold, or warmed.
Photo: Highbush cranberry sauce. Credit: Wendy Petty