There are probably a few things that appear at over 70% of all American Thanksgiving meals, but they are very few. One, of course, is the centerpiece, the product of inbreeding and factory farming and timed procreation, the turkey. The other two are some form of potatoes and some form of pie. Everything else (even cranberry sauce) is up for debate. I’m not even sure the turkey is very real. Surely deer would have been plentiful and much larger and more worthwhile way back when in the cold Massachusetts/New Hampshire woods?
Anyway, I happen to like turkey and am a little sad that it is essentially only ever eaten at Thanksgiving or as sliced breast meat in a sandwich. Ground turkey is a great mixing meat for kebabs, burgers, etc. Smoked turkey is a revelation – one of the best ways to eat poultry that there is.
And then there’s the kerfuffle about the turkey. I never understood that. Turkey is about the most forgiving, hardest to mess up meat you can cook. There is only one trick – that’s all. If you buy a frozen turkey, make sure you defrost it properly and remove the plastic bag of giblets.
But at Thanksgiving I don’t really care about the turkey. For me it is an afterthought and the stars are the side dishes and the desserts.
We had a typical Thanksgiving for us, which is to say that it was completely different from last year and every other year before. No family lives nearby so we have never developed the family Thanksgiving habit. Just as well really – I don’t think my health could take the obligatory turkey that is injected with two pounds of melted butter, then wrapped in bacon and then deep fried. More often than not we host Thanksgiving just because among our disparate circles of friends we are more cooking oriented than the rest. But this time our friends in Marin got in the early invitation and we dragged another friend who didn’t want to spend Thanksgiving at home since his partner had invited her ex-husband so as to make the celebration better for her (now grown) children.
I volunteered to bring a miscellany of side dishes knowing full well that our hosts would do a full set anyway. But given that one daughter and our extra guest are both vegetarian, I decided to make extra-special vegetarian sides so they could have a good meal. I made dressing – for non-Americans this means stuffing cooked separately from the turkey as its own dish. And I made greens. And I made a root vegetable medley. And I made the richest mushroom gravy I could imagine.
In describing them I’ll work backwards since the dressing is complicated enough that I am not certain I can remember everything I put in it.
I am a firm believer in seasonality and that a Thanksgiving meal should also be a celebration of Autumn. So I went to get things that fitted. The mushroom gravy was inspired by thoughts of a previous Thanksgiving feast in the Sea Ranch on California’s North Coast. That one will never ever be repeated. (Abalone diving, mussel gathering, chanterelles fresh from redwood forest hikes, that kind of thing…)
Grocery stores had really lovely looking fresh Royal Trumpet mushrooms. This kind is VERY meaty with a flavor like regular mushrooms cubed. I also had some really nice looking dried porcini mushrooms.
Thanksgiving mushroom gravy
You’ll need a pound of fresh, strong wild mushrooms like Royal Trumpet or Matsutake or Morels. Plus about 3 ounces of good dried mushrooms like Porcini or morels (different than the first kind). A head of garlic and a cup of red wine and some soy sauce. Put the dried mushrooms in a bowl and cover with boiling water and let steep for half an hour. In the meantime, finely dice the fresh mushrooms and the garlic and sweat them together in about two tablespoons of butter over very low heat. When the dried mushrooms have sat long enough, carefully squeeze the liquid out of them into the bowl. Put all the liquid from the bowl in the pot with the sweated mushrooms and garlic and turn the heat up to moderate to start it all simmering. Dice up the squeezed out reconstituted dried mushrooms and add them to the pot. Add a cup of good red wine and about a quarter cup of soy sauce. Simmer on a low heat for ten minutes and then put aside until needed when it can quickly be reheated.
I was amazed how good this mushroom gravy was – it was something special and really blended well with the dressing on which it was intended to be poured.
On to the next item – in this case the root vegetable medley. This was entirely put together from our organic vegetable box and items at hand.
Root Vegetable Medley
One and a half pounds of red beets diced into cubes a little under an inch in size, a large (three pound?) butternut squash, a pound of carrots, four onions, three tablespoons of fresh rosemary (from the garden) chopped finely.
Put a large, heavy pot on the stove with three tablespoons of olive oil. Put on medium high and add the beets and stir every couple of minutes. While the beets cook, take a good big knife and peel off the skin of the butternut squash just like peeling an apple but much larger and harder to cut. I find it easiest to cut the squash in two just at the inflection point where the squash starts to swell out. Once peeled, cut the fatter part in half and remove the seeds and pith. Then cube all the rest up into cubes just like the beets. Add them to the pot and keep stirring. Add some salt to taste at this point. Peel and roughly chop the four onions and add them to the pot, continuing to stir occasionally. Top and trim the carrots and make sure they are scrubbed. Do NOT peel them – only the foolish peel carrots. Cut them into similar sized chunks and add them to the pot. Add all the diced rosemary and readjust salt seasoning. Keep cooking until all the vegetables are soft (about another ten minutes – you will have to keep stirring).
The result is a deep orange red color like a blood orange – very nice to look at on the Thanksgiving table.
I won’t bother with a recipe for the greens – my views on greens are well documented previously and these were an onion, cumin, chilli flake, soy, lemon juice variation.
Finally the main delight – the dressing.
All dressings are based on dried out bread. Originally a way to use up old dried out pieces of bread – just like bread pudding – dressings are now made from nice bread that has been deliberately dried out. Although I generate more than my fair share of leftover dried-out bread ends, I had none to spare since I have taken to converting them pretty rapidly to breadcrumbs. So I got a couple of walnut levain loaves and a sourdough loaf, cubed them – about an inch cubes – a little too large really – and dried them in the oven at 250 degrees.
Dressings then have a wild combination of flavorful, savory, sweet and contrasting items added. A typical dressing would have at least one kind of sausage, maybe bacon, onions, some kind of fruit, perhaps some nuts, and about four different herbs. But I was doing a vegetarian dressing and one that was intended to be the main part of a meal for the vegetarians. So I went a little overboard. I cannot give amounts – this was create as I went. I used a head of celery, six onions, half a pound of Royal Trumpet mushrooms, a pound of crushed walnuts, three pears, a bunch of spring onions, a quarter head of red cabbage, a head of garlic, about a cup and a half of fresh rosemary, about half a cup of fresh sage, fifty grinds of the pepper mill, vegetable stock, olive oil and at least two more things I cannot remember.
The basic idea is that you soften all the vegetable and meat parts together, toss them with the dried bread and herbs. Stir in other spices and fruit and nut elements, pour over vegetable stock until the whole lot is softened and then bake it all in the oven in a tray at 350 degrees for about forty five minutes to an hour.
To complete the picture, besides the above four things I made, the full carnivores Thanksgiving meal with contributions from all participants included a roast turkey, a smoked turkey, sweet potatoes with maple and brown sugar, green beans with pearl onions, meat gravy, mashed potatoes with garlic, homemade challah, boston baked beans (homemade) and cranberry sauce made with cointreau and orange zest. That lot, plus the dressing, greens, root vegetables and mushroom gravy was just the main course!
Dessert was supplied by others and was very disappointingly an assortment of store bought pies.
Most astonishing of all, I was restrained in my choices and did not over eat. But we left to go home carrying a greater volume of food than we arrived with…