Gratitude Is The Attitude

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, centering as it does around food. I usually take a day or three off leading up to it and cook my ass off, often making ten or so courses for whoever comes to visit. It’s my chance to stretch out and try some ideas that require special ingredients or techniques, and to make the best food I possibly can, in sequential courses, using my own ceramics, and try to nail all the details and timing for each dish. It’s also a holiday that’s relatively free of crass commercialism–although that appears to be crumbling in the face of earlier and earlier riot-inducing sales–but these things are easily avoided by not having TV and choosing not to shop in the days that follow the big meal. I think it should be about the food and the company, period. The timing also neatly coincided with the last Charcutepalooza challenge, which was more of a dare: show off, using any and everything we’ve done so far.

So I did. Eight courses, each of which contained some quantity of homemade charcuterie.

This meal came into focus in my mind very late; normally I have it all worked out several weeks ahead of time. I chalk this up to my general state of preoccupation on many creative fronts, and the mini vacation from the blog that I’ve been enjoying. But by Tuesday I had it clear enough to do a comprehensive shop and bring home everything I needed for the next two days of serious cooking. I crossed a couple of prep steps off the list Tuesday evening, and Wednesday was an eight hour marathon. Thursday got it all together, finishing prep, hitting the garden for all the greens and garnishes, and then cooking the various components as the menu required. Dinner was about three and a half hours, and I did a decent job of cleaning as I cooked so the aftermath was not onerous for my wife and brother to deal with.

OK, the meal. First up, a chicken liver and foie gras crème brulée. I’ve been into chicken liver lately, and am always into foie gras, so I thought to combine them into something that had livery heft and foie-foie elegance. I puréed livers and foie with egg yolks, reduced liquors (slivovitz, whiskey, port), cream, thyme, and a little garlic, then pushed the mixture through a strainer to ensure a silky texture. Then I poured it into small dishes and froze them solid so I could vacuum-bag them (unless you have a chamber sealer liquids need to be frozen or they go straight up into the pump).

I cooked them for a couple of hours at 65˚C, then chilled them and opened the bags and gave the edges of the plates a wipe to remove the fat that had leaked out during cooking. It’s much easier than cooking them in a bain-marie, but there is some wiping off required. I sprinkled the surfaces with unrefined sugar and popped them under the broiler for a brief time, watching them like a hawk lest they burn or spatter. To serve them, I cut rounds out of a freshly-baked loaf of my usual wheat-rye sourdough and grilled them in the dry iron skillet on both sides, then served them alongside a marmalade I invented a couple of years ago: sliced kumquats simmered with local absinthe and this store-bought mango chutney we like a lot. It’s a freakishly good combination, and it was exquisite with the liver.

Next up, salad, made special by two attributes. First, I cut all the greens mere minutes before we ate them, so they were as good as greens get, and second, I made a gentle bacon fat vinaigrette (with some of the rendered fat from the bacon you’ll read about later on) that was about three quarters olive oil and one quarter fat for a subtly rich smokiness that really enhanced the bold winter greens: arugula, wrinkled cress, red mustard, frisée, mâche, and several lettuces. The vinegar was homemade red wine. Mustard, a bit of grated garlic, and salt and pepper made up the rest. This is some serious dressing.

A few months ago, I made a trio of pâtés that included one made from rabbit and spruce. While the duck and pork terrines were more popular, something about the rabbit compelled me to do it again. There’s a sweetness inherent to the meat that responds very well to the citrus/resinous qualities of spruce, making for something delicate but richly flavored; the spruce brings out the umami in the rabbit and gives it an intensely savory depth. I added a splash of spruce vinegar for good measure along with a little bit of limoncello that a friend gave me some time ago. Per usual, an egg yolk and panko made the panade. I don’t use egg whites in my pâtés, and in fact I didn’t use any for any part of this meal; there’s a pint container full of whites that need making into meringues soon since I used over a dozen yolks in various forms throughout. Yolks are much softer binders than whites, and taste far lass eggy, which matters a lot in ice cream especially. Along with the rabbit, a suitably rabbit-friendly combination of shredded red cabbage and carrots from the garden that I lacto-fermented a month ago. It’s a lovely combination in both taste and color.

Next up was an idea I had after seeing something they make at Coi in San Francisco: popcorn grits. You can see their video on YouTube, but it’s very simple: make popcorn, then cook it in water (or stock) and butter until soft, then mash it through a sieve, then season and add more butter.

The result tastes like buttered popcorn and is creamy and buttery like the velvetiest grits you’ve ever eaten. Twenty percent of good restaurant cooking is passing everything through strainers to make it smooth and sexy. The other eighty percent is butter. I wanted to riff on shrimp and grits and popcorn shrimp, and I found some gorgeous prawns on my shopping safari, so things were looking good.

I marinated them in sherry vinegar, pimentón, saffron, and garlic overnight, then shelled them and skewered them so they would stay relatively straight during cooking. I took the shells and the marinade and added homemade chorizo from the first attempt (which is kind of dried out and great for stocks now), chicken stock, water, a bit of celery, and a hunk of onion and simmered it to make a very aromatic broth, then strained it and reduced it with gochujang, maple syrup, and shredded coconut. This was another example of celebrating the many interesting ways in which Spanish and Korean flavors get along marvelously, and allowed me to add coconut shrimp to the list of dishes that this one played around with. Once it was thick and sticky I brushed it onto the prawns and broiled them quickly on both sides.

Then I stuck them into little puddles of popcorn polenta and added some claytonia leaves for garnish and a bright lemony tang. This was a good dish.

To follow, two different ravioli. The first one was a variation of something I came up with a few years ago during the first epic Thanksgiving where I glued slices of ham together around butternut squash and served them in gelatin-clarified squash soup. This time around, I refined it in several important ways. First, instead of store-bought ham, I used homemade bresaola that was perfectly ready in time. Second, the filling was homemade ricotta mixed with freshly-dug horseradish from the patch under the currant bushes by the garage. I love this plant; you can go out and maul it with a shovel and all the bits of root you don’t dig up grow into big fat roots the following year. Just don’t plant it in your vegetable garden.

I washed, peeled, and grated it up on my wasabi grater to get a nice fine paste, then folded it into the ricotta along with a pinch of salt and (surprise!) an egg yolk.

I trimmed the beef slices into circles and brushed them with a slurry of Activa GS, which is formulated specifically for slurry application, then added a dollop of filling and pressed another round on top.

Then I vacuum-bagged them and put them in the fridge overnight to fully bond.

The third refinement was that instead of gelatin-clarifying the soup, I used agar and the method developed by Dave that’s ten times easier and quicker than using gelatin. Dissolve .2% agar by weight in your liquid by boiling it for a few minutes, then chill, then break up the loose gel with a whisk, then ladle the “curds” into a jelly bag and let syneresis do your work for you by dripping clear liquid into the bowl below. Compare the opacity of the gel in the upper picture with the clarity of the liquid in the lower one:

In this case, the liquid was beef dashi, made with a semi-fossilized hunk of bresaola that overdried. I talked about this discovery back at the beginning of the year; it involves using shaved beef like bonito. This time around I added phở flavors: charred onion, ginger, clove, cinnamon, star anise, and black pepper. It smelled and tasted superbly beefy.

So the ravioli went in the hot soup with a few paper-thin radish slices to allude insouciantly to the filling and a couple of baby tatsoi leaves for color and vitamins and shit. The result was an ode to beef, but in a nearly weightless form; big steaky flavor with the powerful embellishments of cheese and horseradish but very little heft. It made for some seductive slurps and a couple of vivid chews, and then it was a long, lingering steak sandwich of the mind.

The second ravioli dish was inspired by a post of Linda’s about miso-curing egg yolks. I cooked some eggs at 65˚ C for an hour, then peeled away the whites to reveal squishy little pillows of intense yellow.

I wrapped them in cheesecloth and packed them in white miso for five days to cure.

Once they came out, they had darkened and firmed up some.

I had made some pasta dough (using, of course, nothing but yolks) and rolled a bunch of parsley leaves through it at various stages. To get the gorgeous green zebra stripes, you do it just once at the end, but in this case I really wanted the pasta to have some noticeable parsley flavor so I added them in waves and folded and rerolled the dough many times.

I gave these a bare blanching in just-simmering water to avoid cooking the yolks any more, then served them with homemade guanciale (cured and hung along with the bresaola so it was perfectly ready) and a dribble of truffle oil to make a sort of carbonara. Guanciale and bresaola are as easy to make as duck prosciutto, and even more useful; where the duck is best sliced thinly and enjoyed as is, bresaola makes a mean carpaccio when not fully dried and can obviously be used to make dashi if overdried. Guanciale is a desert island meat for me; a diced tablespoon or so adds fabulous porky richness and depth to anything you might want to make. In both cases, all you have to do is slather the meat with salt, garlic, and herbs, let it sit 3 days for beef and a week for a jowl (skin the jowl first) and then rinse and hang them somewhere cool. When they’re firmish, they’re ready. I use a little guanciale in almost everything saucy, soupy, or stewy, and try hard to never run out of it.

This one really worked: classic carbonara taste, but with surprising textures and elegant presentation.

A keeper for sure.

Next up, Thanksgiving. Every year I do a multi-course thing like this I have to include a traditional plate to keep the wife happy. Usually it involves confit, usually of duck, but since I just did a bunch of that I thought I’d try something different. I took a duck breast, trimmed most of the fat off it, and ground it up with sage, roasted chestnuts, and blackcurrant vinegar.

I added the obligatory egg yolk and panko, and seasoned it, doing a quenelle test to make sure it was spot on, then scooped it into the pastry bag and piped it into quail. These I bagged with rosemary, thyme, and a knob of butter, and then cooked at 65˚ C for three hours. If that temp seems rather like the sous vide temps of many other dishes, that’s because it is. I cooked all the meat on Wednesday, then cooled it in an ice bath and reheated or cooked it before serving during the meal. This made for a much easier day on Thursday.

To go with the little birds, I made a root vegetable gratin using the best of what the garden has to offer these days from at or below the soil’s surface: potatoes, turnips, parsnips, and celery root. I mandolined them all into thin sheets and layered them, adding glugs of cream and sprinkles of salt, pepper, thyme, rosemary, and chives from time to time.

At the halfway point, lacking truffles, I made a layer of foraged and dried black trumpet mushrooms that I had soaked in water to soften. I baked it until the cream all evaporated, then weighed it down in the fridge overnight to compress.

Once out, I trimmed the edges and cut it into rectangular bricks.

These got floured, egged, and pankoed in the classic fashion and then deep fried to a golden hue.

Once all the pieces were done, I floured the quail and deep fried them as well. Everybody thus got their own individual plump, crisp little Thanksgiving bird with a golden brick of gratin and three sauces. I made Cranberry-blackcurrant pudding by cooking cranberries with blackcurrant vinegar, maple syrup, ginger and some agar until soft and then stick-blending it all smooth and passing it through a strainer. Once gelled, I stick-blended it to an unctuous pudding. I cooked burdock and some of the chestnuts together with a few dried porcini until they were all soft, then blended them smooth and strained the purée, adding it to a nice nutty roux made with more of that bacon fat and using chicken stock to dilute it just to the point of a thick gravy. I didn’t want it to run all over the place, but instead stay put as an assertive dollop that would work visually with the other two sauces. The third sauce was a green mash made from frisée, pan di zucchero, and sorrel, with mustard, cider vinegar, garlic, and olive oil plus enough Ultratex 8 to keep it from weeping.

The flavors were good, the textures varied, and tradition was maintained. Victory. Plus, there were no leftovers. The duck stuffing was a good contrast to the crispy quail, and all the meat was still rosy pink from its water bath cooking. The agar and Ultratex (like the flour in the gravy, another hydrocolloid) did exactly what they were supposed to do: keep the liquids where they belonged.

Lastly, dessert. I posted back near the beginning of this crazy contest about some miso-cured bacon tartes tatin that I had made, and they seemed like a fitting dessert for a charcuterie-centric feast such as this. So I cooked a slab of the bacon in the water bath for six hours, then cut it into biggish cubes that would just fit into my muffin tins and browned them hard on all sides to get crisp and flavorful and render off a bunch of fat (which I then used in the vinaigrette and the gravy). I made a very thick and dark caramel with light brown sugar and maple syrup and poured it into the bays of the tin, followed by the chunks of bacon, and capped each one with a round of tart crust (my Grandmother’s recipe, of course).

To accompany, something else I came up with last winter when we were playing around with the birch syrup we made from the trees next to the garden: parsnip ice cream. This time around I used some sugar and maple syrup since the birch trees sadly won’t be making sap again until March. I also added about a quarter of a vanilla bean for complexity; vanilla and parsnips love each other. I shaped the ice cream into quenelles and put one next to each tart.

And that was it, though the adults did have some homemade camembert a bit later because we are sophisticated like Europeans.

There was going to be another dessert, but we were full and so I decided to make it later and give it its own post. It didn’t have any meat in it, so that’s probably just as well.

The eight courses made use of just about all the techniques we’ve covered over the course of the year. The trick was to keep it from getting too heavy, which I pulled off pretty successfully until the bacon tarts. But then a bacon tart is not likely to be a light thing. These were small, though, like all the courses except the main one, and made an appropriate conclusion to the meal.

In the spirit of the day, I’m grateful to my family for getting the hell out of the kitchen for two days so I could concentrate, and to all my departed ancestors who taught me so much about how food (and its corollary, yelling) can be a powerful example of love made manifest. and I’m also grateful to Cathy and Kim for putting this thing together and pushing me to try several things I hadn’t mustered the nerve for previously. As a result of this year, I can bang out a pâté on short notice with no recipe, and I have twenty pounds of salami hanging in the wine fridge for the last post (this should have been the last one, but I wanted to give the salami the maximum drying time). I’m also grateful that my lovely wife has made dinner for two evenings in a row. Man, is it nice to be cooked for sometimes.

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I'm a painter who happens to also spend a lot of time growing, making, and writing about food. I'm particularly interested in the intersection of frugal peasant cooking techniques and haute improvisation. And I have a really great personality.

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