The airfares to Europe are really good this November. I thought I’d mention that because I’ve been spending a certain amount of time thinking about Thanksgiving week in Tuscany, where I could be drinking Brunello and eating wild boar chops instead of stuffing sage leaves under the puckery skin of a bird. In Pienza they’ve never heard of Thanksgiving, but they can point you to fresh pecorino showered with truffles. The sweet potato casserole with marshmallows can wait.
2017 has been a tough year for everyone in America. It is useless to deny it.
But I won’t be going to Italy this week, and neither will you. We will bake our pumpkin pies and dry bread for our stuffing and wonder whether to go with something from Sonoma or an Alsatian Pinot Gris. We will resign ourselves to making half the Brussels sprouts vegan because that’s how some of the family rolls. We will put buttermilk in the mashed potatoes and caramelized onions in the green beans. We will contemplate making fresh Parker House rolls but probably end up glazing store-bought ones with extra butter instead.
Because when you are the cook at Thanksgiving, no matter where your sentiments may lie, family and friends are drawn toward the center of your world, a calm, fragrant place where the wine is well-chilled, the Lions game is on in the den, and the mulling spices in the cranberries are the same from year to year to year. You will make turkey, whether Filipino-style adobo, Cuban-style with garlic and lemon, with tomato gravy and relajo the way Salvadoran friends usually do — or the way your grandmother learned to do it from her grandmother. You will let someone else fuss with the green salad, the flowers and the playlist. You will wish you had three ovens and 12 burners. You will somehow make do.
Is there chaos in the kitchen? There’s always chaos in the kitchen! But it all gets resolved somehow, even the year when a 3-year-old cranks the oven temperature up to 550 and it is a full half hour before anybody notices. Does your first-grader think mushrooms are the most disgusting things in the world? Chop them a little and she won’t notice them in the stuffing. Do two guests snipe like Joan Crawford and Bette Davis when they both bring the same pie? Proclaim both of them delicious. If you’re lucky, it will all be forgotten by the second glass of Scotch.
- Jonathan Gold
Sauteed sticky rice cakes
My Thanksgiving dinner table never looks quite like the Norman Rockwell version. There’s always a turkey, some variation of a potato dish, and cranberry sauce. But because my Chinese grandmother is an excellent cook, we usually have a mound of fried rice, char siu spare ribs and a bowl of sticky rice cakes on the table. Those cakes are always the star, the bowl in the center that everyone reaches for, and the one dish you’ll decide to have extra of in place of dessert. They look like mini white disks about the size of a quarter, and when they are cooked, they turn into chewy cakes that crisp up on the bottom of the pan. My grandmother tosses them with sliced celery, chile she grows in her garden, rehydrated shiitake mushrooms, and plenty of lap cheong, the Chinese sausage that tastes better than bacon. They are a staple on our Thanksgiving table, and it’s simply not a proper holiday without them.
Maple-bourbon smoked turkey
Every year at my house, we host what we call the "Long Table Thanksgiving.” It's a simple tradition, and it does a lot to minimize holiday stress. We provide the birds, and everyone else brings a side dish. These Thanksgivings started out small enough, a modest gathering of family and friends. The first year we had just under 20 guests; every Thanksgiving since, our gathering has grown a little more, and we moved the festivities outdoors. This past year we had more than 80 guests and cooked six turkeys. Every year I roast a turducken, which — colossal meat-fest that it is; picture a chicken stuffed inside of a duck stuffed inside of a turkey — takes several hours in our only oven. Eventually, I added deep-fried and barbecued turkeys, all cooked outdoors. The barbecued turkey is simple to prepare — brine in a mixture of cider vinegar, bourbon, maple syrup and herbs, then smoke over apple or hickory chips in the Weber outdoors as volunteers set up tables and chairs. It takes 2 to 3 hours to smoke, gently taking on a rich brown hue as cooks. That aroma — of applewood, maple and bourbon — is the smell of Thanksgiving for me.
I grew up in a Midwestern boarding school next to an apple orchard, so we had what would now be called heirloom apples stowed along the school hallways in crates, like forgotten luggage. As it was a Quaker school, we also had the nostalgia of oatmeal, though that famous guy in the broad-brimmed hat on the oat jar is as much a weird stereotype as the guy on those Washington football jerseys. So when it came time to make dessert for Thanksgiving, my mother — a prairie pragmatist — did what was for her far more logical than baking a pie: She cut up a ton of those apples (unpeeled), topped them with a mixture of oatmeal and flour, butter and cinnamon, and just put the pan in the oven. Years later, my mother is no longer with us, but her crisp is, loaded with more spices, and paired with a bowl of unsweetened whipped cream the size of a soup tureen. My sister and I learned how to make very serviceable pie, but when there is so much else to do for the biggest food holiday of the year, we appreciate the simplicity of our mother’s crisp. (It is also very good for breakfast.)
I was making Paula Wolfert’s straw potato cakes stuffed with braised leeks for a dinner party one night when the giant pancake, which had always been so reliable, shattered into a dozen pieces when I tried to flip it in the pan. The crisp, brown shards would not go back together. In a panic, I served the stuffing by itself as a side course. And the dish of plain, rich creamed leeks zapped with quite a lot of freshly ground pepper turned out to be more popular with my friends than the more complicated version ever had been. I think the slight sweetness and the autumnal flavor fits perfectly in a Thanksgiving dinner, halfway between a vegetable and a condiment, right in the place where some of my fancy acquaintances like to serve elaborately prepared pearl onions. Some Thanksgivings I like the leeks even more than I do the well-garlicked string beans and the caramelized Brussels sprouts with bacon.