Tuesday, November 23, 2010

How I Learned To Cook: Thanksgiving 1989

My mother was not much of a cook when I was growing up—we mostly ate out or ate frozen dinners--but once a year she went into Mrs. Cleaver mode and put a tasty, home-cooked meal on the table.


Maybe that’s why it was and still is, my favorite holiday.

Instead of KFC takeout, cafeteria food, or aluminum trays with greasy, soggy fried chicken with coating like cardboard (ugh) or roast beef that had no more resemblance to beef than my mother had to Julia Child, on Thanksgiving Day and for a few days afterward, we had real food.

The meal began with a relish tray consisting of celery sticks (with the leaves on), triple-stuffed olives (exotic for Memphis in the ‘60s), sweet bread-and-butter pickles (only Mrs. Fanning’s would do) and round, savory pickled peaches from a jar. It was a cool, crisp, green and orange contrast to the brown and tan food that was to come.

Then there was the turkey, roasted in her too-small roaster that dated back to her wedding in 1949; canned LeSeur peas (I still love them, for sentimental reasons), and soft, gooey baked sweet potatoes (fewer calories than candied).

Seessel’s grocery supplied the light, melt-in-your mouth buttercrust rolls, and also the tangy cranberry-orange relish with real pieces of orange peel.

It was all delicious to me, but the real star was the traditional Southern cornbread dressing and giblet gravy, both made entirely from scratch.

My mother got the recipe for the dressing and gravy from a co-worker. The dressing took an entire muffin tin of homemade cornbread and nearly a whole loaf of white bread, toasted, plus some home-stewed chicken and broth with poultry seasoning, onion, and celery bits, and it was savory, dense, juicy, fatty—my first comfort food. And oh my gosh…maybe I can actually use the word unctuous in a sentence after hearing it a dozen times on Top Chef. Ok, when I was growing up my mother’s dressing was unctuous.

The gravy was thick and rich, and made with the turkey’s giblets, heart, and neck, and pan drippings, and contained yellow and white chunks of hard-boiled egg.

The best part was, since there were only two of us, we had several days of leftovers.

My mother continued to make this same meal at Thanksgiving for years, only varying by sometimes buying canned cranberry sauce instead of the orange relish.

I never wanted to change a thing; I relished its sameness, that it was one thing I could always count on, until Thanksgiving 1989.

I wasn’t much of an adventurous cook then; in fact, like my mother, I rarely cooked at all although I did enjoy baking.

But a week before Thanksgiving, a recipe in the newspaper caught my eye.

It was for pearl onions, pears, Brussels sprouts, and kumquats roasted with thyme and honey. For me, exotic and adventurous! And technique-wise, definitely a few steps beyond popping a frozen dinner in the microwave.

So, off to the grocery I went, and somehow managed to find fresh kumquats. They were pint-sized, and came in a blue cardboard carton. The pears were easy, of course, and then I found the pearl onions and Brussels sprouts. I had to use dried thyme as fresh was unavailable in Memphis, TN groceries 21 years ago.

I made the dish at home and took it to my mother’s Thanksgiving morning. It turned out perfectly, and it was a turning point for me.

Given its success, I began spreading my culinary wings and awoke a real passion for fresh food seasoned with herbs. And the memory of that Thanksgiving, and the wonderful feeling I got from creating an "exotic" (remember--this was Memphis) dish is one of my most favorite memories ever.

As for Thanksgiving, our meal has changed gradually over the years, as have our lives. Last year, in an effort to eat healthier, I asked my mother to not make the dressing. I think she was relieved. It’s a lot of work, and she is 88 now. Chicago Man joined our family a few years ago, and the dressing was not what he was used to, so he does not miss it.

And OK, the heavy, fatty dressing no longer seems unctuous to me since I’ve been eating lighter.

Also, since last Thanksgiving I’ve gone gluten-free so I had to seek out other ways of making dressing.

So this year I am making a package of Bob’s Red Mill (www.bobsredmill.com) gluten free cornbread, combining it with rice bread, and adding celery, apple, fresh thyme, dried cranberries, walnuts, raisins, and apricots, and using vegetable broth instead of the more fatty homemade chicken stock.

And as for that Brussels sprout/kumquat/pearl onion/pear recipe that expanded my culinary horizons…I hadn’t made it in maybe a decade and wanted to try it again. Alas, I lost the original recipe, then found it on www.cooks.com. But I could not find any kumquats this year in Nashville so it will not be making an appearance on our table.

Here is the recipe anyway, and next year I will search high and low for kumquats to make this recipe because now that I’m over 50 it’s all about expanding, letting go, and weaving the old and new into one perfect plate.

(this version I found at www.cooks.com uses preserved kumquats and I could not even find those in Nashville!)

2 pts. Brussels sprouts
24 white pearl onions, about 1 inch in diameter
2 (10 oz.) jars preserved kumquats
2 or 3 lg. semi-ripe pears, peeled, cored & quartered
1/2 c. apple cider
1/2 c. pure maple syrup or honey
2 tbsp. unsalted butter
2 tsp. dried thyme
1/4 tsp. black pepper
1 tbsp. chopped mint (garnish)
Cut a very thin slice off the bottom of each Brussels sprout and remove outer few leaves. Cut an X in bottom of each sprout.
Place sprouts in a pot of boiling water and blanch for 5 minutes. Drain, run under cold water, pat dry and reserve.
Drop onions in another pot of boiling water. Cook for 7 minutes. Drain, run under cold water and pat dry. Slice roots off and remove outer peels, leaving onions whole. Reserve.
Drain kumquats and rinse with water to remove syrup. Reserve.
Cut pear quarters lengthwise in 1/4-inch slices.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Place cider, maple syrup, butter and thyme in a small saucepan; heat until butter melts, stirring occasionally.
In a 9 x 13 x 2-inch ovenproof dish, lay the vegetables in four rows crosswise. Begin with onions, then Brussels sprouts, kumquats and pears, standing pears so that round uncut edges show on top.
Pour cider mixture over top and sprinkle with pepper. Cover dish with aluminum foil and bake for 45 minutes, basting twice. After 45 minutes, remove foil and bake 15 minutes more, until fruits and vegetables are glazed and browned on top. Baste before serving. Sprinkle with chopped mint. Serves 12.

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