Friday, November 23, 2012

Thanksgiving Now and Then

Malt Barley Beer Brined Turkey
Courtesy Bon Appetit Magazine

Our Thanksgiving tradition has changed in the last two years. Our relatives, a family of five from New Jersey, used to join us, but once our oldest boys went off to college, we realized that the last thing they want to do on their first visit home is spend two or three days on the road away from friends they've missed and the comfort of their own bedrooms. So we have downsized--just five at the table, our family and the boys' Godmother. My mother always taught me that when you are entertaining, it is as easy to have 10 as five. What she was saying is, it is just as much work. And I get that. I have fallen into the must-brine-the turkey trap, and Thanksgiving is still a load of labor. 

But this year was considerably more low key than the dinner I executed three years ago, inspired by the last issue of Gourmet magazine arriving on my doorstep.  Here is what I wrote about Thanksgiving of 2009:

                                                  Gourmet I?                                                                       
            Gourmet magazine announced its demise and shortly thereafter sent me the November issue, fittingly enough with an image of a cooked turkey on the cover.  I wondered what this issue could offer in my annual struggle to prepare Thanksgiving dinner for ten. I was eager for tips on how I might be able to enhance the meal and somehow reduce the last minute stresses, in other words, for some solid tips on how to prolong the agony. The magazine offered solutions for both.  I found deep within the November issue two magnificent battle plans for a Gourmet Thanksgiving. I chose the Rural Pennsylvania route, donned my Army fatigues and prepared for the fight. “Game Plan,” it announced with a heading “Three Days Ahead.”  The idea that I could do anything three days ahead was enough to win me over. I could make the cranberry orange relish, even though I never make relish; and I could make beet pickled deviled eggs, again, a new concept. The photo of the eggs was so winning I could not resist--Pepto Bismol colored eggs with all the resplendent drama of Easter brought into deepest fall. Why not? I bought a beet, much to the astonishment of the checker, who wondered why I had wrestled a single beet out the bunch (“I only need one.” “But you are cheating yourself; they are sold by the bunch.”)  The exasperated cashier took pity on my foolishness, and in a bold move, overrode the scanning machine, put in her own code and decided to charge me a dime.
            Gourmet won’t give you a break, man. You don’t just coarsely chop two oranges and throw them into the relish; you must first “cut and peel white pith and cut segments free from their membranes.”  The magazine text features a parade of daunting imperatives, one could never imagine so much work was involved in making deviled eggs. To wit, one must: boil, simmer, cover, cool, marinate, chill, gently stir, finely grind, pat dry, cut, remove, mash, season, divide and sprinkle. No wonder deviled eggs were the go-to appetizer of the harried housewives of the 50’s.
            “Make turkey stock” was featured in the two-day-ahead plan. Usually my turkey stock is a can of chicken broth; but why not try something much more difficult?  I was instructed to remove the bag of giblets and neck, which involves a full  body cavity search of some intensity. If only I’d had some medical gloves, but none were indicated in the otherwise thorough instructions. (Hint, do not get your hostess manicure before attempting this recipe).  Here’s a good one:  “Cut neck into 1 inch pieces.” Riiight! I tried with all my might and even broke my nail down to the quick in the process.  Instead, I ended up with a neck that was hacked at perfect one inch intervals.  I was sure the scarring would achieve the purpose of releasing the neck’s juicy goodness into the stock. Cutting the giblets, though gross, was a snap. It was like cutting Jell-O. And I am not sure whether my bay leaf was Turkish, as required in the recipe,  because my “spice rack for dummies” just says “Bay Leaves”.  Into the pot went all of the ingredients and at the end I felt, much like the stock itself, reduced by 25%. And behold, two days before Thanksgiving there was stock, and it was good. It stood in reserve until the dreaded gravy-making moment, listed on the itinerary as “while turkey stands” in other words, last minute panic and sheer hell.
            On Thanksgiving morning I rose before the others to continue the militaristic approach and threw myself into the rigors of a boot camp, by entering the Turkey Chase run.  Eight thousand locals, many of them with turkey headgear, joined me. Two thousand of us opted for the two-mile “slackers’ race” but most of the throng was running a full 10K in an attempt, no doubt, to feel better about the coming caloric catastrophe. I finished the two miles in 21:20, exactly what it took my nephew to run three miles. Thus fortified, I headed back to the true battle, day zero.
            Another “long-cut” I employed was creating a turkey glaze. Never in my life have I done anything but slather a little butter or oil on the bird, but I was going the distance this time, so why not add this extra labor intensive step? As I was busy boiling a cup of cider vinegar and sugar, a great stink of fumes went up and people had to flee the kitchen. I had found an effective way to get rid of the onlookers. But oops! A few days later I found out it was supposed to be apple cider NOT cider vinegar. Oh well, these sorts of mistakes are like the flaw built into the quilt that humbles us in the eyes of God’s only true perfection. Or whatever. I figured it would make the turkey look shiny and pretty if nothing else.
            For the stuffing, I decided to go rogue--to go “down on the farm” with a Bob Evans sausage recipe.  What a snap. The number and quality of verbs in this recipe were in inverse proportion to those in Gourmet.  Preparation time was presented in minutes rather than days.  “Stirring occasionally”… how relaxed. “Brown, stir, add, sprinkle, pour, spoon.”  I felt briefly that I was down on the farm and out of the manse.
            Here are the things I did not choose from the Gourmet menu--Golden Onion Pie (as a first course? With five teens at the table? I don’t think so.) Rye Bread Stuffing (Why, when you have Mr. Evans at your side?). Carrots with Shallots, Sage and Thyme (see Golden Onion Pie comments).  Toasted Sweet Corn Pudding (rejected because key ingredient “one 13 ounce package of Cope’s toasted dried sweet corn” is not readily available in a one mile radius or even a one thousand mile radius).  Kale with Pan-fried Walnuts (never been quite sure what kale is and don’t trust it). Sauerkraut with Apples (a little too rural Pennsylvania).  Pear Cranberry Cake (not making a cake, thank you, desserts were delegated). And Buttermilk Shoofly Pie (insect imagery too vivid).
            In addition to the glaze, the stock, the relish, and the eggs, here is what I chose from Gourmet: Bacon Smashed Potatoes, allowing me to use up some of the four pounds of Smithfield bacon we had received for Christmas a year ago. To say a little goes a long way is an understatement. This stuff is like pork concentrate.  And Green Salad with Mustard Vinaigrette (put away the Good Seasons envelope for a change.)  And then, our very own traditional regulars, prepared by my sous chef, my niece--sweet potatoes with marshmallows (what is Thanksgiving in Amerika without them?); Brussel sprouts with corn and pecan; and green beans microwaved in the bag and hastily buttered and peppered (for boys who won’t eat any other greens).
            And voila, at 6:09 p.m. we had our 19.3 pound Sort of Cider-Glazed Turkey and Semi Rural Pennsylvania Thanksgiving on the table.  A grace was reluctantly uttered by our resident Catholic; and the kids hastily mumbled statements of gratitude. The meal offered a welcome break from the bad football games.  And by 6:49 p.m. everyone had left the table. That’s right--40 minutes of enjoyment for a meal that had been 72 hours in the making. It looked and tasted, well, gourmet.  That’s what I call a victory strike.  And the embattled general will retire from the field.  At least until Christmas. Bon Appetit, I hope you have a game plan.