Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Thanksgiving Dinner

Let's be honest. Thanksgiving is about the warmth of being around family, taking time out for one another, and showing gratitude for our bounteous blessings, but - most of all - Thanksgiving is about a nice big dinner. We all love to eat, and for those of us who love to cook, Thanksgiving is paradise. That's me. I love to cook. This week is so exciting for me, with lots of family coming and tons of food to organize and prepare, that I can barely sleep. The last few mornings I've been waking up too early with that feeling inside like I got when I was little and it was Christmas day.

But enough about my giddiness, we have more important things to discuss, like what we're actually eating. As you can see, the refrigerator is stuffed and ready for the week. (Good thing I cleaned it last Wednesday!) So here's the menu:

Warm Pear and Pecan Salad
This may be my favorite part of the meal. I got this recipe, which I've since altered as usual, from a weekly email from The Splendid Table, which I highly recommend. In the original email, Lynne Rossetto Kasper mentioned the salad was good enough to have as a main course. I have to agree. The pears are warm, the pecans are slightly sweet and toasty, the bleu cheese (I only use Maytag) balances the flavors so well, and the cranberry vinaigrette adds just the right amount of tartness to bring it all together. It's a splendid salad, and here's the recipe:

2 1/2 T. raspberry vinegar or red wine vinegar
1 t. - 1 T. sugar, depending on the sweetness of the vinegar
1/2 t. orange zest (microplane works best)
salt, freshly ground pepper
1/4 c. olive oil
3 T. dried, sweetened cranberries, coarsely chopped

1 large pear, cored, sliced into 8-12 wedges
1 1/2 t. olive oil
1 1/2 t. butter
salt, freshly ground pepper
1/3 c. pecan halves, slightly chopped
green leaf lettuce
1/4 c. crumbled bleu cheese

For the vinaigrette, mix the vinegar, sugar, zest, salt, and pepper in a small bowl. Whisk in the olive oil, then stir in the cranberries. Set aside; refrigerate after a couple of hours if not using the same day. (Note: I like to make this a couple of days ahead of time to let the cranberries release their flavor and soak up some of the dressing.)

For the salad, heat the oil and butter in a skillet over medium heat. Cook the pear wedges until golden brown and just tender, about 4 minutes per side. Add salt and pepper to the second side only during cooking. Remove pears to a dish. Reduce heat to medium low and add the pecans. Cook, stirring, until lightly toasted and warm. Remove from heat.

To plate, divide the lettuce among 4-6 plates. Arrange the pears over each plate, then sprinkle with nuts and bleu cheese. Just before serving, drizzle the vinaigrette over each salad.

Roast Turkey
Well, here's a shocker. We're having turkey. I bought a "fresh" turkey this year from the grocery store, which means the turkey arrives at the store at 33°, ever so slightly frozen, as opposed to the 10° turkey from the freezer. I had purchased a fresh turkey a month ago to use for stock after roasting, and the meat was very tender, moreso than I remember from previous frozen turkeys. Additionally, I like to brine my bird, so Wednesday afternoon, I put it in a solution I got from Emeril Lagasse, as follow: 1 1/2 c. Kosher salt, 1 1/2 c. brown sugar (organic is nice here), 3 quartered oranges, 3 quartered lemons or limes, lots of fresh thyme, and lots of fresh rosemary. I microwave all of that in a large bowl with some water until the sugar and salt dissolve completely, then I toss it into a 5-gallon bucket with plenty of ice and water to make 3 gallons. (If the salt isn't completely dissolved, you end up with a salty spot on your turkey, which is very unappetizing.) Then I add my 20-lb. turkey and leave it alone, except to turn it once during the next 18-ish hours and check it periodically to see if it needs more ice, since it's not cold enough in my garage to be a refrigerator.

Thursday, I take it out, rinse it, and stuff the inside with the oranges, limes (squeeze the fruits out before tossing them in), and herbs while roasting. Actually, I don't think I'm going to put the citrus fruits in this time, since it can make the drippings sweeter and fruitier than I'm looking for. I love the flavor this brine adds to the turkey. It may sound bright, but it ends up being more like citrus and herb overtones than a distinct flavor, and the meat stays juicier longer, even after a couple of days in the fridge.

Oh, and one last thing. Don't use the pop-up timer!!! Your turkey will be overbaked everytime. The dark meat needs to reach 185° and the breast needs to get to 165°, a few degrees of which will be obtained during the 30-minute resting period after removing the turkey from the oven, before carving. I'm not sure what temperature pop-up timers are looking for, but enough not to get sued. Use a nice meat thermometer inserted into both places; digital probes work well. And you can cover your breast meat with aluminum foil partway through roasting to keep it from drying out if it has to stay in longer to allow the dark meat to cook thoroughly.

Since I put the aromatics in the bird, you probably realize I'm not adding the stuffing. We are still having it, though, but baked in a dish. This is for one big reason: it changes how long the turkey has to bake, and sometimes means you have to overbake the turkey to bring the stuffing to 185
°, which is the temperature I'm aiming for, since I add egg to keep it somewhat cohesive.

That aside, I'm using good white bread (not the sandwich kind, the "French bread" type, but not the local grocery store's $1 kind), apples, bacon, and the usual stuffing ingredients. One of my friends, Elizabeth said she really likes leeks in stuffing, which sounds delicious, but I don't think I'm going to the grocery store again before Thanksgiving. If plans change, I may grab some. Anyhow, we tested the stuffing for flavor a couple of weeks ago to see if we liked both the apples and bacon, and we're keeping with it. I can't wait to have it again!

Mashed Potatoes
We're not having these.

Mark is part Armenian, and we always have pilaf at Thanksgiving. This may seem like heresy to some of you mashed potatoes and gravy fans, but then you probably haven't had good pilaf. It's the perfect use for turkey drippings, and I have some frozen turkey and chicken stock on hand to fill the gap. Pilaf is really pretty easy: brown 1 c. orzo pasta in 2-3 T. butter until a deep, dark brown, then stir in 2 c. long grain rice, then 6 c. broth. Taste for salt and pepper, bring to a boil, stirring, then cover and simmer 20 minutes. Remove from the heat and leave it alone, covered, 5 minutes. Turn it out to fluff and serve. We'll be making 2 1/2 times this amount, so I've done a lot of stock-making over the last month or so. It's important with pilaf to have a full-flavored stock, so I always roast my chicken or turkey before making it and make sure it doesn't have a diluted flavor before storing it.

Whipped Sweet Potatoes
These are pretty simple: bake the sweet potatoes, mix with butter, salt, fresh nutmeg, and just a touch of cinnamon.

I know I just made cranberries with apples a few weeks ago, but I've decided to go my traditional orange zest, orange juice, and cinnamon stick method this time. The other cranberries are very good, but I like the bright flavors of this other recipe to counter all the starch at Thanksgiving.

Creamed Onion
I love my mom's creamed onions, even if they too indulgent to have any other time of year. If you've never had them, this is definitely one to try. When they come out of the oven, though, they are steamy hot, so don't burn your mouth. And if you can't find boiler onions (they're hard to find), you can buy small white onions and quarter them.

2 dozen small white onions (boiler onions)
1/4 c. butter
1/4 c. flour
1 1/2 c. cream
salt and pepper
dash of cayenne
1/2 c. torn buttered bread

Boil onions five minutes. Drain, reserving 1/2 c. liquid. Melt butter and blend in flour. Gradually add reserved liquid or other water and cream, stirring constantly. Cook, stirring, until smooth and thickened. Add salt, pepper, and cayenne to taste. Add onions and mix lightly. Pour into 8" square dish and cover with foil. Bake at 350° for 45 minutes; uncover, add bread, and bake about 15 more minutes.

Green Bean Casserole
I'm using Martha Stewart's recipe for the green beans this year, almost. I can never just follow a recipe, since I'm so curious about everything. I didn't add the red bell pepper, I used crimini mushrooms (or a mix of crimini and white), I double-dipped my shallots before deep frying (it makes a significantly better coating), and I omitted the bread crumbs. I did like the parmesan cheese. I also just mixed the mushroom sauce and the prepared green beans (haricot verts) all together and tossed them into the dish before topping them with the cheese and shallots. The trial run a couple of weeks ago was very good, and I recommend this variation if you like the traditional flavors of green bean casserole. I plan on making the mushroom sauce tomorrow to help reduce my Thursday chaos.

Corn Pudding
My grandma used to make scalloped corn frequently for Thanksgiving, or just Sunday dinner, when I was little, and I always loved it. Maybe because I'm from the Midwest and thus a big corn fan. In any case, I really wanted to carry on the tradition this year, so I'm attempting to make something I've never tested out before, but I'm hoping it will be good. I'll keep you updated.

Ah, pie, the love of my kitchen life. I'm making 2 pecans, 1 pumpkin, 1 apple, 1 peach, and 1 cherry. And, of course, lots of lightly sweetened whipped cream. I could go on about pie for a while, so I'll have to save that for another blog, hopefully soon. We should have enough for our 12 adults, 5 kids, and baby, and enough for leftovers. Leftover pie is important, too.

So there you have it, and I'm exhausted just writing it all down, so I know it will wear me out to make it, but I wouldn't have it any other way. I can't wait to get started. Hopefully the men will clean up when we're done, and then we can just relax. And turn on the NFL network. And have another piece of pie.


Anonymous said...

Wow Rachel, what a dinner!! Did you take pictures of the table with all the food ?? Now all I need is a collection of your recipes and I'm all set :)
how about we start with those pie recipes.......lol


Anonymous said...

How did the corn pudding turn out? I'll forgive you for not having mashed potatoes and gravy too.

Rachel said...

The corn pudding was so good. I was amazed, and everyone loved it. I'll definitely make it again, and not just at Thanksgiving. It was pretty basic. I looked at Emeril's recipe to get a general idea of quantities, and then I cut out everything spicy so it would be really kid-friendly. It was basically sauteed onion plus home-frozen corn kernels, then a custard base of eggs, cream, milk, and salt added to it. You should definitely try it. :) Oh, and it was really easy to make.