Monday, November 24, 2014

Trusty Sidekicks

Happy Thanksgiving Week!  I write from a meditation retreat in Santa Barbara.  As I explore inner space and the heartmind, I can't help but ponder giving thanks.  What a joy to celebrate the harvest, farmers, family, friends, food, and being at home together.  This year I will enjoy a silent and solitary celebration.  However, the culinary wheels of my monkey mind are turning and from there I offer you this simple and delicious menu.

Everyone needs a trusty sidekick, even Tom Turkey.  This menu focuses on the accompaniments rather than the main star.  Do the turkey however you like, roasted, brined, dry rubbed, grilled, fried, stuffed, and for some of you perhaps turducken.  We all know the turkey is really for sandwiches anyway.

If you are one of those people who doesn't normally cook very much and then drives yourself cuckoo on Thanksgiving making up for lost time, then this is the menu for you.  Or if you would rather enjoy a small handful of dishes with superior flavor rather than a gut-bomb buffet, then this is the menu for you.  Or if you want to get started prepping today and enjoy the big day with family and friends and not feel stuck in the kitchen, then this is also the menu for you.

The point is less is more.

I have included some recipes, however, other dishes merely provide an outline that you can tweak depending on number of guests, what's in season near you, and what you like.  Have fun and enjoy your yummy day!

Smoked or cured salmon with creme fraiche on cucumber rounds ~ garnished with dill and lemon zest
1. Wild Rice Stuffing-style ~ cook one cup of wild rice for every three guests, you can do that any day now, store in fridge; when the turkey is almost done, saute celery, carrot, onion in plenty of butter; add chopped thyme and parsley and a teeny bit of sage; toss in the wild rice until warm; transfer to a casserole serving dish; cover with foil and place in oven to keep warm while turkey is being carved; you can vary the flavor by adding chorizo or duck prosciutto or whatever yummy things you like.
2. Cranberry Sauce ~ please don't eat canned cranberry sauce.  Homemade is really easy and good.  Take a bag of fresh or frozen (thawed) cranberries, dump into small soup pot, add sweetener of choice, add some apple cider, let boil hard until berries burst and sauce thickens.  Taste and adjust seasoning. Variations: add chopped ginger, orange zest, dried cherries.  Make extra so you can mix with mayo for your sammies the next day.
3. Celery Root Puree ~ this is a wonderful take on the usual mashed potatoes, which some of us don't eat because they are a nightshade.  You can make this while sauteeing the veggies for the wild rice. Peel and chop a few celery root bulbs (about 3 pounds), simmer in a bit of water until tender (about 30 minutes), drain, put into food processor with butter, warm cream, salt, and pepper.  Yum!
4. Green Beans ~ everybody loves a vegetable that you can eat with your hands.  Keep these simple and tasty to brighten up the plate.  When you pull the turkey out of the oven, lightly steam green beans until crisp tender, toss with olive oil, lemon zest, salt and pepper.  For a variation you can add crushed red pepper flakes or sauteed shiitakes or caramelized shallots.
5. Escarole Salad ~ the salad is best served as a separate course after you have enjoyed all of the above.  It is meant to aid digestion and cleanse the palate in preparation for dessert!  I am having an autumn love affair with escarole.  It is toothsome and hearty and good for your liver.  Chop, wash, and dry the leaves today, roll in a kitchen towel, put in a bag, and store in fridge.  You'll be happy you did.  Toss the chopped leaves with julienned granny smith apple, pomegranate seeds, toasted pecans, shaved parmesan and thinly sliced fennel.  Dress simply with a vinegar/oil/dijon/honey/salt and pepper vinaigrette.
6. Punkin Custard ~ you basically have to serve a gluten-free dessert these days.  This is like pumpkin pie without the crust.  It is best made at least the day before.  Serve some speculoos or ginger bread cookies on the side.  And for those of us who have to have chocolate in order for it to be called dessert, buy several unique and expensive organic chocolate bars and scatter on table.  They also make for good conversation.

So that's pretty much the whole meal.  You might say "We have to have mashed potatoes or we have to have sweet potatoes or we have to have brussels sprouts or this or that."  Which are all really good ideas and delicious additions.  And perhaps we can all start to cook a little more at home and commune more often with our loved ones.  Save those favorite dishes for the next week and the week after that.  Let us live sanely and simply and savor the moment.

Okay, that said, I'm going back to retreatland.  Where I can contemplate some of life's bigger questions, like "Why does pecorino taste so darned good with black pepper?"  Cheers and love to you.

serves 8 ~ make at least a day ahead

1 quart half-n-half (you could probably sub coconut milk for dairy free folks)
1 vanilla bean, split open lengthwise
2 cinnamon sticks
3 whole cloves
1 inch piece of ginger roughly chopped
generous pinch of salt
8 yolks (save the whites for macaroons or meringues)
2 eggs
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup pumpkin puree
1 pint whipped cream, for garnish
freshly grated nutmeg, for garnish

1. Preheat oven to 275 (300 at altitude).  Place 8 six-ounce ramekins in large roasting pan.
2. Meanwhile, put half-n-half, vanilla bean, cinnamon, cloves, ginger and salt into a heavy bottomed pot; bring to a boil over medium heat.  Keep an eye on it do it doesn't boil over. Turn off heat and let steep for 20 minutes. Strain and set aside.
3. Put on a tea kettle to boil water for the water bath.  In a large mixing bowl, combine yolks, eggs, sugar and pumpkin.  Whisk to combine but don't incorporate too much air.  Slowly add the dairy mixture while stirring constantly.
4. Pour mixture into ramekins.  Place roasting pan in oven, slowly and carefully add the hot water until it reaches halfway up the sides of ramekins.  Bake 20 minutes or until just set but jiggly in middle.  Chill in fridge over night.
5. Whip the cream with a touch of sugar and vanilla until medium peaks form.  Dollop the top of each custard with some cream and grate a small bit of the nutmeg over each.  Enjoy!