Eat with Pleasure

Stories and Recipes by Jenny Holm

Thanksgiving 2012I hosted my first Thanksgiving dinner this year, a small gathering with a few close friends. Plans were up in the air until a few days before, so I hadn’t thought much about what to make until it was time to go shopping.

Thanksgiving dinner with my family in Minnesota has always been strictly regulated by Midwestern, midcentury tradition: there must be turkey, sausage and sage stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, sweet potatoes with marshmallows, green bean casserole with cream of mushroom soup and French fried onions, Jell-o fruit salad, cranberry sauce from the can, and Grandma’s homemade lefse and rolls. For dessert there is pie: pumpkin, apple, and Mom’s banana cream (three of those). Every dish has a champion, and without any of them, something just seems off.

Don’t get me wrong, I love watching the cranberry sauce jiggle as much as anyone else, and missing out on lefse and banana cream pie (with homemade custard, always) made me especially nostalgic. But as I began thinking about my own menu, it dawned on me that I was no longer bound by these rules. For the first time, I was free to bring my own Thanksgiving fantasy to the table.

The trouble is, it worked. Thanksgiving may never be the same again.

Photo: SimplyRecipes.com

Photo: SimplyRecipes.com

The first and easiest decision was nixing the turkey. It is an unwieldy bird that’s hard to prepare well and is almost no one’s favorite part of the meal. I opted for duck instead: over the phone, a chef friend guided me through the process of cutting up the bird, brining the breast and curing the legs in salt overnight in the fridge, then slow-roasting the legs in duck fat and searing the breast in a dry pan just before dinner.

Next, the stuffing. I’d always wanted to try a cornbread stuffing, and Martha’s with bacon and pecans hit the spot. Next time, I’d substitute lard for some of the butter and add a little additional stock or cream to moisten it, but I’ve been happily eating the leftovers for the past week. (The recipe makes enough for 8 people.) It was especially good with Joy the Baker’s cranberry sauce: I cut down the sugar a bit, skipped the orange zest, substituted vanilla extract for the vanilla bean, added a hint of powdered ginger, and simmered it with two cinnamon sticks.

Last year I remembered wishing for something green and crunchy on the Thanksgiving table, so I tossed together a bunch of raw kale and some briefly blanched, crisp-tender green beans, drizzled them with sesame seed oil, and mixed in a clove or two of minced garlic, kosher salt, and black pepper.

Photo: Smitten Kitchen

Photo: Smitten Kitchen

Instead of marshmallows, we topped our sweet potatoes with a “salad” of finely chopped celery, flat-leaf parsley, and goat cheese (among a few other things), based on a recipe from smitten Kitchen. The crunch of the vegetables and creaminess of the cheese set off the richness of the sweet potatoes elegantly. Next time I might add in hint of crushed red pepper flakes. These would make a unique passable appetizer, if you do that kind of thing on Thanksgiving.

A friend brought over a warm quinoa salad with butternut squash, dried cranberries, and pecans, based on a recipe from the New York Times. It calls for both regular and black\ quinoa, which she couldn’t find, so she substituted a box of “rainbow” quinoa instead. Most mentions of quinoa make me roll my eyes, not because I don’t like it but because the idea of a “hip” grain seems inherently absurd to me. (And here I don’t intend to imply that said friend chose to make it for its trend value.) In spite of myself, I will absolutely make this dish again. Out of everything on the table, this is what had me coming back for seconds.

Photo: Food and Wine

Photo: Food and Wine

She also made this recipe for roasted Brussels sprouts with pistachios and cipollini onions, which we gobbled up on the spot. It’s from a book entitled Crazy Sexy Kitchen, by a woman who adopted a plant-based diet after learning she had Stage 4 epithelioid hemangioendothelioma (yikes!) and has been fighting it publicly with exuberant, mouth-watering veganism.

For dessert, we settled on a pear and almond cream tart from Chef Elizabeth Prueitt of Tartine Bakery and Café in San Francisco. I wouldn’t change a thing here: it was exquisite.

I’m not sure where I’ll be for Thanksgiving next year, but watch out, traditionalists: I’m already planning the menu.

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2 Responses to “Thanksgiving, Unbound: A Midwesterner Bucks Tradition”

  1. Gina

    I love my Thanksgiving tradition, but you have me wanting to join you for a menu like that. Hope all is going well!

    Reply

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