Thanksgiving 2012

Consistent with the tradition in this house, there was no turkey for Thanksgiving. Turkey is boring and hard to cook well unless you take it apart. We did, however, have Milo’s awesome Lego turkey as part of the centerpiece. Also keeping with tradition around here, the meal was a seven-course exploration of whatever perfervid visions had swum into my insomniac mind during the preceding week. It’s funny; I was listening to the radio as I made the dough for the foie gras oreos—one such idea—and the guest was saying something like “The key to a stress-free Thanksgiving is never to cook something new for the first time when people are coming over.” I think that takes all the fun out of it; three out of the seven courses were things I just made up and figured wouldn’t suck.

First up, the oreos. I had this idea a while back, and it seemed like a sure bet. The dough was a standard cookie sort of thing, but with less sugar, dark cocoa powder, garam masala, and cayenne pepper. The filling was foie, sieved to remove veins, mixed with a little butter and then sprinkled with salt, armagnac, and powdered sugar (to sweeten and stiffen it) and cured overnight.

I baked the cookies on a silpat and let them cool, then spread a generous dollop of filling on them and put them in a container in the fridge overnight. (This was one of several make-ahead dishes that helped me be calm and social on Thursday). I also soaked a bunch of raw almonds in water overnight with a few cardamom seeds, a piece of cinnamon stick, a couple of cloves, and about half a star anise pod, then slipped off their skins and blended them into a smooth paste. I scooped the paste into several layers of cloth and squeezed out a lovely thick chai-scented almond milk.

Thus the first course was cookies and milk. Sweet, spicy, savory, and nicely perfumed with the spices in cookie and milk alike. A winner for sure.

Next up, oysters. It’s worth mentioning at this point that my flash died the night before Thanksgiving, so I had to shoot everything with available light. It was extremely annoying to have spent three days cooking and end up with lackluster documentation, but such is life. One of the few pictures that really came out well was one of candlelight from within a cylinder of birch bark, another part of the centerpiece.

This dish was another invention, and I figured all of the parts would work together well without overpowering the flavor of the oysters. Shortly before the meal, I shucked them all into a bowl, added kimchi brine to cover them, and put them in the fridge. Earlier, I had taken spruce vinegar and simmered it quickly with shallots and thyme to infuse, then strained it, added bloomed gelatin sheets, and chilled it in a square glass dish to firm up. I also mixed gin and egg whites in my cream whipper siphon, adding some pine needles and thyme for extra flavor, then charged it with two canisters and put that in the fridge as well. And I mixed matcha, spruce powder, and spirulina to make a vivid green powder.

The final dish was oysters with some of the brine (which was a mixture of their own liquid and the kimchi juice) with cubes of vinegar, a blort of foam, and a sprinkling of powder. I loved the gel. Bright and sharp, it had all the impact of a mignonette but without flavoring everything else; it was discrete and allowed the other, subtler flavors to come through. The gin, spruce, and pine worked well together, and because the kimchi and oyster brines are the same salinity the flavors there were seamless. This could use some minor tweaking, but it was a good dish.

To follow, a simple soup of roasted pumpkin from the garden blended into smoked chicken stock and strained through a tamis (by my cousin’s wife, who was eager to help). I made roughly 1/4″ cubes of the miso-cured bacon and put a few in each bowl as surprise croutons that one discovered at the bottom of the bowl. Smoky stock, rich pumpkin, and plump lardons: the culinary equivalent of sitting in front of a roaring fire.

Next, a salad of just-picked mesclun from the garden and the house vinaigrette. Lettuces cut à la minute are measurably better to eat even than those which sit around for an hour or so, and homemade vinegar makes them sing.

Most of the wines for the evening were from Eminence Road. We began with the 2010 Riesling, then switched to the 2011 Auten Vineyard Pinot Noir, then had the 2010 Elizabeth’s Vineyard Cabernet Franc with the main course. It’s such a treat to be able to open these New York wines—for guests from California, no less—and have them ooh and aah at how well-made and food-friendly they are. We did finish with a 1999 Ciacci Piccolomini Brunello, because they’re killing right now and there’s no better excuse to open a great bottle.

After the salad, possibly my favorite plate of the night: the garden in winter. I picked leeks, daikon, turnip, baby radishes, and herbs and had a little head of romanesco already in the fridge. The key to this dish, apart from the wicked homemade demi-glace and bright pickles, was that each vegetable got cooked separately, right up to the point of perfect al dente doneness. I caramelized rounds of leek in butter, deglazing with a bit of beef stock and red wine vinegar, and let them steam in that until tender. I cooked the daikon in demi-glace and white wine until the liquid was mostly evaporated and the roots were perfectly toothsome, steamed the romanesco, and caramelized little cubes of turnip, then assembled the plates using shredded pink kraut, radishes, and chervil to garnish them. This was sublime. I could eat this every night until spring.

Then, finally, the Thanksgiving meal. This was a variation on the ballotine I made last year: duck confit stuffed into a boned-out duck and cooked sous vide.

I made confit with eight legs a couple of nights before, shredded the meat, chopped the skin, and seasoned the mixture with caramelized shallots that I flamed with cognac.

I lined the inside of the duck with sliced black truffles, a little jar of which had been a gift from my Mother-in-Law, and a generous sprinkling of the homemade herbes de Provence mixture, then I rolled it all up, secured it with silicone bands, and browned it all over in a pan before vacuum-bagging it and dropping it in a 140˚F/60˚C water bath for six hours. I chilled it in a sink full of ice water and put it in the fridge overnight.

The next day, I warmed it through in the oven, then gave it another quick sear to really crisp the outside. With the bands removed, it sliced up into beautiful rounds of pink meat with brown decadence inside. The accompaniments were pretty classic: rounds of sweet potato baked in cream until it evaporated, a cranberry-blackcurrant vinegar-red wine gastrique, and a pesto of frisée and escarole with garlic, mustard oil, and cider vinegar. The combination was something that both ardent traditionalists and restive iconoclasts could easily agree on.

Last, dessert sushi. Another idea I had recently, it came off pretty well. I made a big pot of rice pudding with sushi rice, cardamom, saffron, pie spices, and maple syrup and chilled it overnight. (The screen porch out back served as an excellent walk-in reefer during the days of prep, so the fridge was never overstuffed). Using my handy mold, I made oshizushi with four different toppings. From left to right: caramel apple, caramelized banana with rum, candied pumpkin with pie spices, and kiwi with honey syrup. The dipping sauce was a dark chocolate ganache. This was rather well received, especially by the younger contingent.

This meal may not win me a trip to France like the last one did, but it was marvelous to have family come all the way from England and California to join us, and the simpler menu meant that I got to enjoy myself more than in past years. There’s also a huge amount of value to be gained by just assuming that everything will work out and not worrying over every detail. Our guests were great about clearing and washing between courses, so the kitchen wasn’t even a disaster by the end of the meal, and best of all—and the reason I started making these meals five years ago—is that everyone was perfectly full; there was no groaning, no snoring, none of the bloated surfeit that follows the traditional carbpocalypse. Everyone was chipper, and had plenty of energy for chasing kids around and the like. Traditions are important, but making them your own so that you actually enjoy them is even more so.

6 comments to Thanksgiving 2012

  • Masterful. I especially like the idea of cookies for a starter and sushi to end the meal. The element of surprise.

  • Elizabeth

    Stunning!! As if there was ever a doubt that you are an artist.

  • Oh just a little something I threw together……..you’re killing me.

  • Rachel(S[d]OC)

    I wish I had the balls to do something like this for Thanksgiving. I’m cool with the turkey dinner but it would be fun to shake things up. I don’t have your garden or access to some of your awesome ingredients though, so I can’t really replicate what you do, but it would be really fun to do an anti-thanksgiving Thanksgiving.

    For two years straight I went out to dinner on Thanksgiving and didn’t order turkey either time. I wonder if I would ever come to miss it if I didn’t do a traditional t-day for a few years straight.

  • El

    Only four comments on this meal? Whatever is happening to the blogging world? (Oh but yes I see you get 18 facebook likes.)

    I especially liked your handling of the ducky roulade. And what big truffles you had! It sounds like your audience was both helpful and appreciative: two very worthwhile things for any cook. But I agree with you, your veg-in-winter would have been my most fave too…and luckily unlike the duck it is a little more readily enjoyed. Congrats all around.

  • Leah

    What a wonderful alternative/unique Thanksgiving meal! I wish I had all of your ingredients and kitchen supplies to make such food. I really like your blog. Awesome and please continue! I hope to read more! ^_^

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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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