By inviting a cosy group of friends over for lunch last Thursday, we unwittingly started our very own set of Thanksgiving ‘traditions’, a label that I’m loathe to use because of how it implies rigidity and repetition, leaving no room for change. But because the spirit of our meal was so uplifting, despite the piles of dishes left over, it ignited a desire to replicate it, on the last Thursday of every November moving forward. We shall see if it happens, but it doesn’t hurt to publish that commitment on the interwebs for posterity.
We – or more appropriately, I – can never pass up on a chance to host friends for quiet dinner parties or summer fiestas around the grill. Not. At. All.
Perhaps it’s because we’re a small household, which makes most weeknight meals a simple, two-dish affair, that I crave a bigger crowd to cook for, to try dishes that we otherwise wouldn’t have the capacity to digest (like paella) or for the challenge of planning a big feast, rotating dishes between burners and ovens, working backwards from the time of the party to ensure that everything proceeds with clockwork precision. The last time I did something like that was planning the schedule for our wedding day, which, believe it or not, I thoroughly enjoyed. I suppose you could say that I have an eccentric fascination with planning and timetables.
Given that we’re staying put for both Thanksgiving and Christmas this year, I knew, by late October, that I wanted it to be a home-made holiday season, gathering with friends around the table. The question was what exactly, we were going to eat as, in the case of Thanksgiving, there was no way that I was going to attempt cooking a 20-pound turkey.
Firstly, I have no love for this bird with its alien-like tassles around the neck, so huge that it cooks out to be as dry as sandpaper. Secondly, I didn’t want to have a meal for which we would be stuffed till we couldn’t speak, and stuck with leftovers for months. So when Pim announced not too long ago the renaissance of Chez Pim, and along with it, her Work For It book giveaway, everything fell into place. The three-course menu she put together for Dorie’s French Supper was perfect for what I had in mind: a simple menu requiring fuss-free prep, all designed to be completed in three hours. And that was how Pim and Dorie, in their own special ways, shaped our first Thanksgiving tradition:
(1) Prepare a menu that doesn’t take days to reach the table
No overnight brining, no salt cod-rehydrating and no playing around with xantham gum to create food of novel consistencies. Everything on this menu was sourced in the few days leading up to Thanksgiving and prepped that same morning for our lunch at 1pm.
Following Pim’s step-by-step instructions, I began with dessert – Marie-Hélène’s apple cake – which has got to be one of the best dinner party desserts around in terms of efficacy and flavor. Four to five juicy apples at the peak of the season, peeled, cored and mandolined are compressed and woven together by a simple batter of eggs, flour, sugar and armagnac (which I substituted for dark rum) and their caramelized juices. Apart from the time spent peeling and slicing the apples, the cake was assembled in a cinch and sent off to the oven for an hour. Because of my mild electric oven, I added another 20 minutes to the baking time which produced a cake so gorgeously-bronzed, it could have been spending two weeks working on its tan on a beach in St Barths instead of my oven and I wouldn’t have known the difference.
While the cake was being baked, I set to work on my version of Béatrice’s Red Kuri soup, using butternut squash instead of potimarron as none were to be found where I was. A mix of squash, leeks, milk and water, the recipe sounded easy enough, but chopping up the squash proved to be my biggest nightmare that morning. Giving rise to another tradition, maybe not Thanksgiving-specific, but no less relevant:
(2) Roast the squash/pumpkin before peeling them to prevent prep agony, minimize swearing and preserve an all-round happy atmosphere in the kitchen.
Piercing through its armour and then skinning every. single. cube. was a surefire test in patience and strength while trying to avoid any bloodshed (mine, of course). Once the dreadful deed was completed, in it went into the pot with the leeks for their water-milk bubbly bath. The cubes were tender after 20 minutes, leaving the immersion blender to do its work, efficiently and cleanly, following which I added about 2 tablespoons of brown sugar and what seemed like enough salt for a mini-heart attack. Scary, but necessary. The soup was no more tastier than a plain, watery porridge, so the copious amounts of kosher salt were needed to add flavor and body.
Next up was prep work for the main course: a Chard-stuffed Pork Roast. A genius choice in my opinion, as, with the cake, it’s a matter of assembly before letting the dry heat of the oven do the cooking while you
enjoy your glass of wine channel your inner Dorie Greenspan for the other items on the menu. And so, our next tradition:
(3) Braise, stew or roast the main course in a multi-course meal, for peace of mind.
Instead of Swiss Chard, I had Collard Greens to be used, and in place of raisins, I plucked out my neglected stash of dried cranberries and put them to work. I also took the liberty of stirring in three, thinly-cut dried red chilies, for a very light heat on the palate and also as part of my efforts to make a dent in my stash of what still looks like a few thousand dried chilies after buying them a year ago. Cooking up the stuffing went swimmingly well, and the process of stuffing the loin was, interesting, to say the least.
By the end of it, the roast’s side profile resembled a compressed, eyeless, Pac-Man getting its daily dose of greens. But M, the wonderful husband that he is, couldn’t stop himself from blurting out how good it looked all stuffed and tied up, which was enough affirmation for me. Into the oven it went.
With the dessert and soup ready, and the main on its way, it was time to work on the sides. In addition to the Endives-Grapes-Apple side suggested in the menu, we added a leek gratin for variety, which M prepared. It was my job to bring the vegetables and fruits to doneness, a task so incredibly easy, I found myself itching to complicate it. Essentially, all you do is melt butter, arrange the endives, fruits and rosemary in the pan, and let it cook, uncovered and untouched for 20 minutes before flipping them over. A real breeze. Especially compared with M’s leek gratin which involved boiling the leeks, chopping them up, then cooking them in cream on the stove before finishing them in the oven. Hence, another tradition (or, a ‘note to self’):
(4) When cooking with the spouse, take the easier dish.
Not long after, the cake was cooling, the roast was in the final stages of browning (I added another 10 minutes at 400F to brown the coriander-black pepper crust) and the soup was being reheated for the first course. The guests assigned with wine duty turned up with a Magnum bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, which complemented the menu nicely even though it wasn’t part of the suggested pairings.
It didn’t matter, because we had a neverending supply of delicious drink for the duration of our meal, leading me to our next, arguably the most essential, ‘tradition':
(5) Invite guests whose taste in wine you trust.
I stopped watching the clock once the roast was in the oven, but I believe we settled down to lunch at 1:30pm, after the wine had some time to breathe and introductions were made. The soup, served with créme fraiche, crushed hazelnuts and sliced baguettes, was well-received, judging by the empty bowls cleared.
While measuring the internal temperature of the roast, I was happy to see its juices gushing out, a harbinger of deliciousness to come. Meltingly tender, the meat was juicy, infused with the richness of slightly caramelized fat on its outer layer.
The stuffing balanced out the satisfying richness of the meat perfectly – slightly bitter collard greens dotted with nuggets of sweet-tart cranberries, plumped and refreshed by a mixture of juices from the stuffing and pork fat. Each bite was a play of flavors that ended with a light, residual heat from the chilies. Needless to say, there were no pork leftovers that day.
There were, however, leftovers of the side dishes, which I attribute to the main course that was so satisfying that everyone neglected to complement its flavors with the sides. As much as I was curious about the Endives-Grapes-Apple dish from the menu, I have to admit that it was my least favorite dish that day. It turns out that cooking endives augments its bitterness, and, when paired with the texture of cooked apples and grapes, it made for a dish that I was only so-so about.
Two hours into the meal, it was time for dessert. The cake deflated a little as it cooled, making for moist, dense slices of apple. Following my mother-in-law’s simple garnish for her cakes – a thin layer of powdered sugar – this cake didn’t last very long on its stand. One of our guests, B, thanked me for not adding cinnamon to the batter – alluding to the excessive use of the spice in holiday desserts. I had to admit that I contemplated dusting cinnamon sugar over the top, but filed away the idea due to a lack of time. After tasting the delicate flavors of this dessert, I realized that there was no need to – the armagnac in the batter accentuated the flavor of apple perfectly. Furthermore, cinnamon wouldn’t have paired very well with the servings of Mirabelle we had to round out the meal.
It was dark by the time our guests left, a full four and a half hours after they arrived, connected and ate together. As M and I started to restore order to the kitchen, I relished the thought of the evening ahead, settling down with our favorite movie and, perhaps, another glass of wine to start off the long weekend. The early hour, mixed with an intoxicating afternoon of good food and conversation, affirmed my belief about such parties which I am now, officially, turning into a ‘tradition':
(6) Host lunch, rather than dinner, for a leisurely, sociable way to start off a long weekend.