Friday, November 21, 2008

Thanksgiving Aftermath

(or, Holy Crap, He Updated the Damn Blog)

First off, your calendar is correct, Thanksgiving is this coming thursday, the 27th. Since I work in the hospitality industry, it's a lot easier for me to move a holiday to a more convenient date than to try and actually get the holiday off. By some miracle I actually have the big day off this year, so I get to do Thanksgiving twice! I'm rather glad I'm not doing the whole shebang twice in a row... For me, Thanksgiving is a three-day cooking marathon. I don't care if there's only six people over, I'm going to make dinner for sixteen. The bird should be big enough to make people worry that it's going to eat them this year. There should be enough sides that you aren't sure where the turkey is supposed to fit on the plate. There should be enough desserts that a diabetic goes into anaphylactic shock five paces from the dessert table. Hey, you have your special holiday traditions, I have mine!

The main event is, of course, the turkey. For the last several years, I did the Morton Thompson Black Turkey, which is quite the exercise in old-fashioned cooking methods. It also requires more attention than my roommate's cat, who only requires about as much attention as a six month old baby. You really need an assistant to pull it off, and I was flying solo. I went back to my old standby of turkey recipes, the one from the November 1995 issue of Martha Stewart Living. I did make one change, and that change is the one that's going to be on everyone's lips next year... dry brine. Brining is a good thing to do to your bird, making a normally dry, tasteless piece of protein come out flavorful and juicy. It's also a major league pain in the ass, requiring either a cooler chest or half the space in your fridge, along with half a box of kosher salt. The dry brine is what Judy Rodgers does to her incredible roast chickens at Zuni Cafe in San Francisco. A couple of days before the chickens get cooked, fresh herbs are slid under the skin, and are rubbed down with salt (about 3/4 teaspoon of salt per pound of bird) and pepper. The birds then rest in the fridge for a couple of days while the salt makes its way into the meat. The drying effect of leaving the bird uncovered also gives you incredibly crisp skin. Martha and Judy worked together brilliantly. The bird was deliciously juicy, and you could almost cut it with the back side of the knife.

Of course, there were tons of sides. Mashed potatoes are de rigueur, and after going with a trusted recipe, I've now broken it down in my mind into a simple formula that can be multiplied to however many people are coming to dinner.

The Jester's Perfect Mashed Potatoes (Per Person)
1/2 pound Yukon Gold potatoes
1-1/2 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons heavy cream
1/4 teaspoon salt

Peel the potatoes, and cut them into 3/4" dice. Rinse them under cool running water for about 30 seconds to get rid of excess starch, then put into a pot and add enough water to cover the potatoes by 1 inch. Bring the water to a boil, then reduce heat to medium and simmer until the potatoes are tender (about half an hour). While the potatoes are cooking, mix the butter and cream together, heat until the butter melts, and keep the mixture warm. When the potatoes are done, drain them well and let them sit for a couple of minutes to let excess moisture evaporate. Run the potatoes through a food mill (or a ricer, or just mash them with a hand masher). Add the dairy mixture and salt, stir well to combine, and serve.

Something new for me this year was the stuffing recipe, from The Nantucket Open House Cookbook by Sarah Leah Chase. If you don't have a copy of this book, run out and get it RIGHT NOW. It's helping me fall in love with cooking all over again after getting out of the Cook's Illustrated mindset of "It Must Be PERFECT". Speaking of Cook's Illustrated, I find lately that their recipes aren't nearly as good as they used to be. Five or six years ago, the reaction I got when making one of their recipes was "Oh my God, this is the best [insert food here] that I've ever had!", and anymore I just don't hear that when I make their recipes. I think it's sort of like New Math, where exotic, complex techniques were much more important than actually getting the right answer. I tried the pumpkin pie recipe from the latest issue and for all of the tweaking (maple syrup I could deal with, but CANNED YAMS?!), it was just a meh pumpkin pie. But more about dessert later.

Now where the hell was I... ah yes, the stuffing! It was the one from the Thanksgiving part of the book, with some minor changes to fit the local palate. It was a sausage stuffing with pecans and brandied apricots, and it was some of the best stuffing I'd ever had. The only things I changed from Chase's original recipe were pecans instead of chestnuts (I don't think AJ's even carries 'em around here, and pecans are very much an Arizona thing), and the use of sage and thyme instead of rosemary (the rosemary in the test batch was like eating pine needles). It's so good that I may very well forget that there's a big turkey to be eaten and just happily nosh on the stuffing for breakfast, lunch and dinner... I may have to stock up on some bubbly, Champagne goes with it extraordinarily well.

Creamed spinach from Cook's Illustrated was an utter dud last year, so this year I went with the home version of the recipe from Lawry's The Prime Rib restaurant up in Vegas. The secret of better creamed spinach was simple: Bacon. This was utterly divine creamed spinach. I'll have to make a special trip to Lawry's the next time I'm up that way so I can have someone else make it for me. Another recipe from Sarah Leah Chase was a sweet potato-pear casserole. It was very delicious, but I think next time I may try cutting the sweet potatoes and pears into smaller pieces, and I'm also tempted to leave the lid off the casserole dish to see if that helps the sauce reduce some. Cranberry sauce was pretty close to the back of the bag, with two twists: Champagne instead of water (I used Freixenet cava, don't tell anyone), and some currants thrown in. I hereby christen it Cranberry Sauce à la Kir Royale, and I think I shall make it a regular part of the Thanksgiving table. Speaking of a regular part of the table, I'm adding pumpkin biscuits (from Sarah Leah Chase again) to the regular repertoire. These were simple to make (and freeze well), and absolutely bursting with pumpkin flavor. I'm strongly tempted next year to do the entire Nantucket Open House Cookbook menu; everything from the book was nothing less than terrific.

There were three desserts to be had. The smash hit winner was pecan pie, made from a Cook's Illustrated recipe from their earlier days. It was easily the best pecan pie I've ever had; rich, caramelized, buttery, nutty... I may have to go sneak a slice here in a moment. Or maybe I'll wait until I can snag some vanilla ice cream to put on the side. The pumpkin pie... was enh. Cook's Illustrated made a whole lot of "improvements" to the recipe, and I think that if I was to taste the new recipe side-by-side with the one on the back of the can, I'd pick the can. There just wasn't much oomph to it. The CI pumpkin cheesecake, however, was very nice, truly one of my standby recipes for something delicious to bring to a dinner party. Now all I need is one of those new auto-scrape beaters for my Kitchenaid so I don't have to scrape the bowl down eight times while mixing the batter.

The one dud this year was Pommes Anna. Don't get me wrong, it was delicious. It just doesn't hold for squat, and making it in advance is really the only way you're going to pull that one off. So next year, I think I'll be going for a casserole type thing. Maybe tater-tot hotdish to please the Midwesterners. I know you're supposed to use the canned cream of chicken soup, but... do I have to?