Shortcut to fabulous

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Start with sweet Dungeness crab folded into a salad with crisp apples and bitter greens and all of it bound with a lovely lightly curry-flavored mayonnaise. Then serve little game hens brushed with orange butter and stuffed with kale and walnuts before roasting. Round out the plate with a side of deep scarlet wine-glazed cipollini onions. Finish with a showstopper of pumpkin pie ice cream, spicy with ginger and cloves and studded with crunchy pralined pecans.

That sure isn't your typical Thanksgiving Day menu, but this holiday dinner has a lot going for it, beginning with sheer deliciousness. It's scaled for an intimate party of very special friends or family. And it's wine-friendly, so you can share a couple of great bottles, Champagne for the crab, a fragrant red for the game hens.

What's even better is how easily the whole thing comes together, particularly if you take a couple of well-chosen shortcuts. Because get this: Not one of those dishes takes longer than an hour to prepare. And two of them clock in at just more than 30 minutes.

Make the ice cream and the onions tonight. Tomorrow morning, get the stuffed game hens ready for roasting. An hour or so before folks begin arriving, make the Dungeness crab salad. The only thing that's left for the last minute is roasting the birds and reheating the onions.

Although I'd certainly cook the crab from scratch if I were serving it by itself, when it's combined in a salad, the already-picked crabmeat at the seafood counter works just as well. Get the vacuum-packed stuff that's kept refrigerated, not the canned. It is a bit pricey (around $30 for a pound of meat), but that's really not much more than you'd pay for the two good-sized live crabs it would take to give you the same amount.

Crabs are in slightly shorter supply this Thanksgiving because of the oil spill in San Francisco Bay. But there are still plenty of them coming from Washington state and Oregon. Prices are running about $1 a pound higher than last year (they should go down after the first of December when the north coast of California opens up for crabbing). If you prefer, you can substitute cooked shelled shrimp for the crab. The result will be different but still delicious.

The idea for the salad came while I was thumbing through an old cookbook. Far from disguising the flavor of the crab, the curry powder actually points up the minerality and balances the sweetness. Folding unsweetened whipped cream into the mayonnaise is an old trick for lightening the texture and keeping the dressing from becoming gloppy.

The same kind of shortcut works for the ice cream. When mixed with all of those spices, canned pumpkin will work just as well as if you had roasted and pureed your own (just make sure you buy the plain, unflavored kind -- the ingredient list should be nothing but pumpkin).

Pumpkin pie, but better

This substitution works so well because, it turns out, pumpkin plays a relatively small part in the flavor of pumpkin pie. The defining characteristics -- at least to my palate and pie preferences -- are the sharp note of powdered ginger supported by warm cinnamon, clove and nutmeg, and the bittersweet molasses flavor of dark brown sugar.

The praline with pecans adds crunch and a subtle nuttiness to the flavor. Making it isn't a big deal either. Cook the sugar syrup until it's mahogany-colored, and stir in the nuts. Just be careful not to scorch the sugar. Once it starts turning brown, it darkens very, very quickly, so pay attention. Then, while the mixture is still molten, pour it out onto a buttered sheet of parchment paper.

Rinse the pot out right away while it is still really hot, and any sugar syrup that remains will wash right out. If you wait a little too long, it'll crystallize and stick like the devil. Not to worry. Fill the pot with water and bring it to a boil. When the sugar gets hot, it'll dissolve again and rinse away.

Once you have the praline, there's nothing more to making the ice cream than whisking the puree and spices together and freezing it in your machine. When the mixture is almost frozen, fold in the broken up bits of praline.

Ice cream, of course, is a guaranteed killer of any wine, but it does make a splendid introduction to a selection of after-dinner drinks or even a good pot of coffee.

The only tricky bit is that when this ice cream is frozen solid, it gets really hard because of the high amount of starch in the squash. Either serve it within an hour or two of making it, or if you prepare it a day ahead, let it soften in the refrigerator for two to 2 1/2 hours.

No shortcuts are needed for the game hens. These little darlings are so small they'll roast in less than 45 minutes. Really, I prefer 30 to 35. I've found that they stay much juicier if you cook them to an internal temperature of 150 degrees rather than the 160 that is usual for poultry. There is still a tinge of pink at the thigh bone, though, so if that bothers you, cook it all the way.

Simply spectacular

The stuffing is equally simple -- braise kale just until it starts to get tender, then stir in toasted walnuts and some dried cranberries that you've refreshed in a little orange liqueur.

Each bird only holds about a quarter-cup of stuffing, so you'll need to include another side dish on the plate. Wine-braised cipollini are perfect. You can use pearl onions -- either red or white -- but I find that the flat little cipollini taste sweeter and earthier.

Preparing them isn't a big deal. Put the raw onions in a big bowl and cover them with boiling water. When the water is cool enough for you to touch, they will peel easily. Just trim the top and the rest will follow. Though you should trim the dark part of the root end too, be sure to leave enough that the bulb holds together during cooking. This can be done the night before without the dish suffering a bit.

Those probably don't sound like your traditional Thanksgiving dinner preparations. But sometimes a delicious alternative is just what you need.


Game hens stuffed with kale, walnuts and cranberries

Total time: 1 hour

Servings: 4 to 6

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) butter, divided

1 bunch kale (about 10 ounces), stems trimmed

1 1/2 teaspoons salt, divided

2 tablespoons dried cranberries

1 tablespoon orange liqueur

2 teaspoons grated orange zest

4 (1 1/2 -pound) Cornish game hens

Freshly ground pepper

1/2 cup very coarsely chopped toasted walnuts

1. Heat the oven to 400 degrees. In a large skillet over medium-high heat, melt 2 tablespoons butter. Coarsely chop the kale and add it to the skillet. Cook, stirring constantly, until it softens and reduces, about 2 to 3 minutes. Season generously with one-half teaspoon salt, reduce the heat to low and cook, covered, another 2 to 3 minutes until it is quite tender. Reserve.

2. Place the cranberries in a small bowl, add the orange liqueur and set aside to soften, at least 10 minutes. Melt the remaining one-half cup butter in a small skillet with the orange zest. Set aside.

3. Rinse the game hens and pat them dry. Season each generously inside and out with one-fourth teaspoon salt and a grind of pepper. Brush them lightly with some of the orange butter.

4. In a large bowl, combine the kale, the cranberries with their liqueur, the remaining orange butter, the walnuts and a generous grinding of pepper and stir to combine. Stuff the cavities of the game hens with the kale mixture.

5. Tie the birds' leg ends together with kitchen twine to hold the shape and keep the stuffing from spilling out. Arrange the birds on a rack in a roasting pan and cook until a thermometer inserted in the deepest part of the thigh reaches 150 degrees, 30 to 35 minutes, for medium-well; or 160 degrees, 40 to 45 minutes, for well-done. Remove from the oven and let rest 5 minutes before serving.

Each of 6 servings: 784 calories; 62 grams protein; 8 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 55 grams fat; 21 grams saturated fat; 288 mg. cholesterol; 772 mg. sodium.


Braised cipollini with red wine glaze

Total time: 45 minutes

Servings: 4 to 6

Note: From Noelle Carter. Use a Pinot Noir or a light red wine such as a Cotes du Rhone, Beaujolais or Chianti.

1 1/2 pounds small to medium cipollini

1 tablespoon butter

1 tablespoon oil


Freshly ground black pepper

1 1/2 to 2 cups red wine

1. Bring a 4-quart saucepan of water to boil. Blanch the cipollini for about 30 seconds in the boiling water, just enough to loosen the skins. Drain and shock in an ice bath, then drain again and dry. Trim the tops and remove the outer layer of skin. Set aside.

2. Heat a large saute pan over medium-high heat. Add the butter and oil and allow the butter to melt, swirling the fats so they coat the bottom of the pan. Add the cipollini in a single layer. Season with 1 teaspoon salt and a couple grinds of pepper, or to taste. Saute the cipollini just until the tops and bottoms are caramelized, about 2 minutes on each side.

3. Remove the pan from the heat and add just enough wine to cover the cipollini by about two-thirds. Return the pan to medium-high heat and bring the wine to a simmer. Reduce the heat to maintain a gentle but steady simmer and braise the cipollini until the wine is reduced to a glaze that will coat the back of a spoon, 25 to 35 minutes depending on the heat and pan. Take care during the last few minutes not to scorch. Remove from the heat, and serve immediately.

Each serving: 129 calories; 1 gram protein; 12 grams carbohydrates; 1 grams fiber; 4 grams fat; 1 grams saturated fat; 5 mg. cholesterol; 394 mg. sodium.


Pumpkin pie ice cream with pecan praline

Total time: 25 minutes, plus freezing time

Servings: 6 to 8

1/2 cup sugar

1 cup toasted pecan pieces

1 (15-ounce) can pumpkin puree

2 cups heavy cream

5 tablespoons dark brown sugar

2 tablespoons sugar

1/8 teaspoon grated nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

3/4 teaspoon powdered ginger

1/8 teaspoon ground cloves

Pinch of salt

1. Line a (16- by 12-inch) jellyroll pan with buttered parchment paper. In a small saucepan, stir together the sugar and 2 tablespoons water and bring to a boil. Cook over medium-high heat, without stirring (but if the liquid colors unevenly, swirl the pan gently from time to time to distribute the color), until the mixture turns a dark mahogany, about 7 to 8 minutes. The process will go very quickly in the last minute. Watch carefully and when done, immediately remove the pan from the heat.

2. Quickly add the nuts to the hot caramel, swirl to coat and pour the mixture onto the buttered parchment paper, using a rubber or silicon spatula to scrape the mixture from the pan and spread the nuts in as close to a single layer as you can. Set aside to cool. Immediately run the saucepan under hot water to clean. If the caramel has set, fill the pan with water and bring it to a boil to dissolve the caramel, and clean.

3. When the poured-out praline is hard -- it should look and feel like brown glass -- pull it off of the parchment and flip it over. Using a big spoon, a hammer, a wooden mallet, or some other pounding tool, smash it into half-inch chunks. Don't crush it any finer; the smaller pieces will dissolve into the ice cream.

4. Whisk together the pumpkin, heavy cream, brown sugar, sugar, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, cloves and salt in a medium bowl until smooth.

5. Freeze the mixture in an ice cream maker, according to manufacturer's instructions. When it's almost frozen, add the praline pieces and continue freezing. Spoon the mixture into a container, seal tightly and freeze for at least 1 hour to allow the flavors to ripen. Let soften 5 to 10 minutes at room temperature before serving.

Each of 8 servings: 409 calories; 3 grams protein; 29 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams fiber; 33 grams fat; 15 grams saturated fat; 82 mg. cholesterol; 45 mg. sodium.

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