I gave a talk to a thousand people at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition on Saturday November 8, but was almost too weak to stand when I came home to our two boys. (Rob and Rose were in Florida.) All I could do was lie on the couch, so I let the (amazed) boys watch a movie.
Still, in the kitchen were three pounds of organic garnet sweet potatoes, a pound of cranberries, and a fresh 11-pound free-range turkey. We will be guests this year, so I’d planned to make one small Thanksgiving meal early. Despite my lurgy, I could not let the fresh food get any older.
In a few short steps (our kitchen is quite near our couch) I was able to put together three elemental Thanksgiving dishes for an early feast. I melted 1/2 lb of salted butter with thyme in a pan. I put the patted-dry turkey on a rack in the oven at 425° for 15 minutes, then dipped muslin in the butter and draped the turkey with the cloth. I put a little water in the pan under the rack. I baked the turkey at 325 for another 45 minutes or so, and then removed the buttery cloth for the final fifteen minutes. The result was tasty breast meat, not too dry, although the dark meat in the legs was undercooked and had to go back in the oven later. I don’t mind having to revisit the meat, because meanwhile I boiled the neck for stock, and when the turkey was done, tore off and tossed in the large wings. I put some carrots, celery, and peppercorns in too, and simmered the bones for about three hours. It became thick and brown and gelatinous—gravy without flour.
The sweet potatoes I baked in a cast-iron skillet: no work. Later Julian sliced them in rounds and sautéed them with a little butter. The cranberries I cooked in 1 cup of water with 3/4 cup sugar and a few hunks of ginger. Jacob tossed some cranberry syrup into Julian’s sweet potato pan: nice glaze!
The boys and I had a simple Thanksgiving meal and all went to bed early. Here is our true, messy kitchen on this real Saturday night. You too, can have a sane Thanksgiving dinner—any night of the week.
From The Real Food Cookbook
Thanksgiving is bombastic. There is too much food. There is no thoughtful succession of courses to ease you through the feast—just one bulging buffet. There are too many unique must-have items on the table. Cousin Lucy loves parsnips, and Uncle Bill always wants green beans. There is repetition in flavor, texture, and plant part. (Sweet potatoes, white potatoes, parsnips—three roots. Then, soft stuffing.) There are too many desserts, and they are too like the side dishes. (Velvety, spicy.) There are too many people at the table—and at the folding tables, and on the couches. And everyone is so sentimental about this or that bit.
I sound like one of those people who doesn’t like the beach. (They’re always whining about the salt, sand, and sun.) I love my family and I love Thanksgiving. But the way it’s often done doesn’t match the way I like to shop, cook, host, or eat.
It’s not difficult to identify each problem and its cause. The turkey, a perfectly nice meat, is dry because it’s too big. The vegetables are cold or overdone because no cook can produce six perfectly-turned-out vegetable dishes at once with one fridge and four burners. The desserts—each a tasty autumn classic—don’t complement the meal. Instead, they overload it.
As a single girl, my dash past the bombast was to give a smallish dinner party. I’d edit the meal sharply and finish with one lovely dessert, like a pecan tart. Those minimalist, though not effortless, dinners in Brussels, London, and New York were a pleasure, but once I grew up, I could not avoid hosting “real” family Thanksgivings, with children of all ages, and they are somewhat messier. The most tactile memory of hosting my first Thanksgiving at Small Farm is the heavy breathing. I was only days pregnant with Rose and Jacob and already panting like a dog on an August sidewalk in Texas.
It’s a seasonal festival, and the season is your ally. Start by ditching the green beans if they’re not fresh in your region. Or serve September beans you cleverly pickled with dill. Make bitter rapini with garlic or red cabbage braised with apples. If a green salad can’t be had at your local market or doesn’t match your aesthetic, make a crunchy celeriac remoulade.
Let the vegetables represent all parts of the plant: root, stem, leaf. Let each one bring a new color and texture to the table. Plan to make two sides ahead (like the mash or creamed pearl onions) and two closer to the last minute. (Stop at four.) Dress each vegetable with one fat and one unique flavor. Puréed sweet potatoes get ginger and butter; roasted parsnips, rosemary and olive oil; creamed spinach, a dusting of nutmeg.
Let it be fun before dinner. Serve a hard cider with a little sparkle from Eve’s Cidery or invent a dry seasonal cocktail and make a pitcher—maybe a rosemary-infused gin and tonic, a vodka gimlet with cranberries, or a sparkler of pear brandy and ginger ale.
More in The Real Food Cookbook about buying a real food turkey.