I made Thanksgiving dinner last night. Or something like that.
You know how it is: You go to the store for one thing, and come home with something completely different. Yesterday I went to Ballard Market for a rack of lamb, which I’d planned to crust with panko, sage, and chopped pecans, but I took one look at the particularly outrageous price tag and decided I’d hit Better Meat Co., the tiny neighborhood butcher around the corner from me that has somehow avoided my attentions until recently. We’d invited friends over for dinner and pumpkin carving.
I finished my stroll through the market, picking up the figs, the sage, the nuts, and a few other things. As I stood in line to check out, gleaming turkeys danced at me from the covers of all the food magazines. I remembered my recent conversation with my brother, who will be part of the crowd hosting my family’s Thanksgiving this year, and his firm admonishment: You will not be cooking this year.
But how could I not cook Thanksgiving? I mean, not at all? Impossible.
A friend of ours is leaving soon for India for work, for an unspecified amount of time. She’ll surely miss Thanksgiving, I thought. Maybe we’ll do it this weekend.
You see, Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. It’s not the whole Plymouth thing I enjoy, or the parading around to celebrate stealing a land from its rightful owners then crawling back in need of food. I’m not so big on the history. No, it’s the direct national call for a day of feasting together that I like. It’s the day America has reserved for eating dinner with other people, instead of alone in our cars, and though the stars of the table may be misguided (I stand firmly against marshmallows, but that’s just me . . .), I always look forward to it. I love sitting at a groaning table on a random Thursday afternoon, knowing that so many others are doing the same thing.
Except Michelle, I thought. She probably won’t be eating turkey in India.
Okay, I like the cooking part, too. And cooking a turkey is no harder than roasting a chicken, no matter what anyone tells you, and sometimes turkey says “I appreciate your company” more clearly and distinctly than, say, homemade burritos. (Mmm. Turkey burritos.) Even in early November.
I darted to the back of the store and picked up a 12-pound free range turkey. It was fresh, not frozen, but I figured it would last a few days, and knew you’d appreciate a few recipes for leftovers. And at half the price of the lamb, it seemed easier to justify. I thought I’d save the turkey for the weekend.
Later on, I scrounged around for four of the sorriest pumpkins I’ve ever seen, and arrived at Better Meat (how I do love that name!) to find out they didn’t have any lamb on hand.
My brain ticked. It was a little before 5, and Katie and Thad were arriving at 7. Twelve pound turkey . . .Katie’s rarely on time . . .I still had salad dressing leftover from lunch, and potatoes in the fridge from my potato therapy session at the UD farmers’ market a few weeks ago. (I gave up on deciding which variety to choose and just bought – literally – one of each.) I had a big butternut squash . . .
Thanksgiving for four in October? Why not? Call it Friendsgiving. I’ve known Katie for 11 years, and sure, why not thank her? I hoped Michelle would understand.
I thought that skipping the whole pomp and circumstance and OMG I’m preparing Thanksgiving dinner would mean less drama, but alas, a busy kitchen is always an exciting place.
Here’s how I made Thanksgiving in about two hours:
I take the turkey out of the fridge to confirm it’s not frozen anywhere, and leave it on the counter. I check my email.
I heat the oven to 400 degrees, and put the rack in the lower part of the oven. I find a bone for the dog, so I can play with the turkey in peace.
I rinse the turkey inside and out, putting the innards and neck aside for gravy. I trim the bird, rub the outside with olive oil, then sprinkle the inside and outside with salt, pepper, and rubbed sage. I tuck the wings behind the back, but leave the legs loose.
I put the turkey in the oven, and fix the fingernail I sawed halfway off when I was trimming it. (No blood involved.)
I unload the dishwasher, reload it with my lunch dishes, swear at the the hanging utensil basket that prevents the door from shutting all the way if it’s not on just right, and clean up the turkey mess.
I hop in the shower. Oh, how good it is to shower after wrestling a turkey.
I emerge in my bathrobe to find the cat has performed a hail mary turkey neck burglary, dragging it across the counter, onto the trash can, and onto the floor, where he appears to be reciting it a love poem of garbled meows at close range.
I scold him, clean the poultry smear off the counter and the floor, and wash the turkey neck off. (Never too proud.)
I put a container of frozen homemade chicken stock on the back burner to melt, and dump some cranberries, frozen rhubarb from last summer, salt, sugar, and water into a saucepan, and crank the heat.
I dry my hair, get dressed, and email my sister.
The cranberries are boiling too furiously, so I calm them with a spoon and reduce the heat to a bubble.
I put the verjus vinaigrette into the bottom of the salad bowl, and add in sliced figs, bleu cheese, and granola. I pile watercress on top, and set the whole salad aside, to be mixed when we sit down to eat.
I heat a large skillet good and hot, swirl a dab of olive oil into it, and add the salt-and-peppered turkey neck and giblets. The goal is to sear them until well browned, then deglaze the pan with wine (do I have wine?) to create a flavorful liquid to add to the gravy. The dog looks at me expectantly.
I decide to make a multi-colored potato gratin with my potato collection. I grease my gratin pan with butter.
The fire alarm goes off. I have no idea why; nothing is burning. It’s the one just outside the kitchen, the one Tito can reach but I can’t, and I feel annoyance boil up inside me as I fumble with the stepladder. Instead of putting on my glasses and finding where the battery compartment is, I reach blindly toward the noise, and separate the entire unit from its housing on the ceiling. I pry it open at what turns out to be definitely not the battery part, and bang at it until it stops. Add to hardware store list: one smoke alarm. Now both of the animals are sitting in the doorway, watching me with curiosity.
Where is Tito?
Right, the potatoes. I cut half a stick of cold butter into tiny pieces, and gather what I need: flour, Parmesan cheese, salt, pepper, cream, and milk.
I ladle 2 cups of stock into the pan with the now-browned turkey parts, and set it to simmer on low to get all the flavor out of that now-sterilized and beautifully browned neck.
I stir the cranberries, and check on the turkey, which is just beginning to brown at the tips.
I flip the turkey parts in the pan, so the browned fonds from the other side of the neck simmers into the sauce.
Shit, 28 minutes. I decide I’m in too much of a rush to peel the potatoes, so I slice them really thin on a mandoline, and spread them into the pan, smooshing them into one layer rather than taking the time to lay them out perfectly. The first layer is a blue potato with a shocking purple interior. I sprinkle the potatoes with flour, salt, pepper, cheese, and dot the layer with butter. Down goes a sliced Red Lasoda, then a Russet Norkota, then a Purple Something, layers of flour, salt, pepper, butter, and cheese between each. Darn, out of pepper. I refill the mill and finish the gratin off with 3 baby Yukon Golds, and finally an All Red, this one layered in a gorgeous spiral. The potatoes come just to the top of the dish.
Only an All Red potato is just that – all red. So instead of looking at a raw potato gratin, I feel like I’ve just made Spam casserole, because the whole top layer is a hammy shade of pink. I dump the rest of the cheese on top, along with more seasoning (no flour on the top) and the rest of the butter. There. No more Spam.
My sister calls. I feign calm, then basically hang up on her when I find the cranberries are starting to simmer over again and the turkey parts need to be taken off the heat.
Shoot, we do have white wine, but it’s sweet; it won’t do for the gravy. I put it in the freezer.
Tito walks in, still in his biking clothes from his commute home, and wants to chat. What happened to the smoke alarm? I push him into the shower.
I cover the gratin with foil, and open the oven. Arrrgggg, it’s Thanksgiving, of course there’s an oven problem. I move the turkey as low as it goes, which gives me just enough room to squish the gratin onto the highest rack. It’s a good situation: the turkey is gorgeously browned by now, and I want it to keep cooking without browning further, and the gratin will block the heat from the top of the oven, doing what a piece of foil over the turkey would do without sacrificing the skin’s crispiness.
I close the oven, and realize I forgot to add the liquid to the gratin. I unwrap it, add 1/2 cup cream, and add milk just until I can see it come up the edges of the potatoes, about three fourths of the way up the side of the pan.
I take the wine out of the freezer, clean the counters, and squish the cranberries against the side of the pan, satisfied with the popping noises. I taste the cranberry sauce; it needs something. In goes a splash of Grand Marnier.
I set out olives, hummus, and good olive oil. (Katie is bringing bread.)
I guess the pureed butternut squash is not happening.
I chop up a tablespoon of sage for the gravy, and check on the turkey – the legs are at 150 degrees, and the breast is at 160. Not quite. I talk to Tito over a beer and shove a few things in the dishwasher.
Our guests arrive, and we dig into the bread, mopping up olive oil sprinkled with salt and pepper. We talk about nothing and everything.
I take the turkey out, and take the foil off the potatoes. They look a little drippy, so I put the gratin dish on a baking sheet and move them to the center rack.
I tip the bird to let the juice from the center cavity fall into the roasting pan, and transfer the bird to a platter. It’s as gorgeous a turkey as I’ve ever seen, and since I didn’t stuff it, I didn’t have to overcook the outside to get the stuffing hot.
I place the roasting pan over two low burners, and drop in a few slabs of butter. I sprinkle flour over the butter, and let them simmer there together in the mahogany pan drippings until they threaten to thicken all the juice that’s there. I add the liquid from the pan I seared the turkey parts in (and save the parts for the pooch), along with the chopped sage, and whisk everything together. I cook the gravy, now a thick, chunky mass, for a few minutes, then add about 2 cups of the warm chicken stock, and whisk it until it’s deep brown and fragrant. I turn the heat as low as it goes, and check on the potatoes.
The potatoes are not done. In fact, they still look like Spam to me, only Katie points out that because I’ve left the skins on and the potatoes are round it’s really more of a Canadian bacon thing, and I’m sure they’ll be awful. I move the dish to the top rack to brown more.
I take the potatoes out – turns out they didn’t need much more time – and carve the turkey. We eat more bread, and I transfer the cranberry sauce to a bowl.
I toss the salad, and we sit, with turkey, potatoes, salad, cranberry sauce, and killer sage gravy. It’s Thanksgiving dinner, three hours after its mental conception. We eat and drink and laugh and taunt the dog, and forget all about the pumpkins.
The multi-potato gratin is a great textural experience. All the different kinds squish up in my mouth together, but I can feel how some are softer than others, some more creamy. But my Parmesan dump was too much; there’s a pool of cheese liquid (think pizza) in one corner, which Katie daintily dabs away with a paper towel, and the blue from the bottom layer of potatoes has leeched into the cream, giving the whole dish a grayish overtone. No matter; the gratin is delicious.
See, that’s the core of Thanksgiving to me – it’s not about the perfect pie, or having sixteen things on the table. It’s about celebrating a night with people who mean something to you, or even people you’re still getting to know, with whatever your kitchen happens to hold at the moment.
I love tradition as much as the next sappy cook, and sure, there’s fun in the planning. (I’ve done it many times.)
But oh, friends – as you open those magazines, and break out your shopping lists in preparation for filling your freezer, remember that over the tops of all your gorgeous platters, you’ll still need to see each other.
And the friend going to India? Who knows . . . Maybe I’ll do it all over again this weekend. I’d enjoy that.
Cranberry-Rhubarb Sauce (PDF)
Recipe 304 of 365
Spiked with Grand Marnier for a kiss of orange flavor, this is one both your turkey and your sandwiches will love. To make ahead, combine all the ingredients in a large ziptop bag and freeze until a day (or three) before Thanksgiving. You can cook the sauce straight from frozen a few days before turkey time, let it cool to room temperature, and store it in the refrigerator in a sealed container until you need it.
TIME: 10 minutes active time, plus stirring
MAKES: 8 servings
1 (12-ounce) bag fresh cranberries
3 cups chopped fresh or frozen rhubarb
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
2 tablespoons Grand Marnier or similar orange liqueur
1/4 teaspoon salt
Combine all ingredients in a medium saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Cook at a strong simmer, stirring occasionally and mashing the berries against the side of the pan as they swell and burst, until sauce thickens, about 1 hour. Serve warm or cold.