Thanks for the Memories

Carolynn Carreno last wrote about lobster rolls for the magazine

I remember the grave disappointment with which my sister and I viewed our mother and stepfather, Hugo, as we exchanged glances over the Thanksgiving dinner table. At the tender, trusting ages of 14 and 12, respectively, we had been duped--denied what we considered a fundamental right.

It was bad enough that they made us visit Hugo's family in San Francisco. As far as we were concerned, our Aunt Jeanette and Uncle Tom's house in Montecito was the only place in the whole wide world where real Thanksgiving took place. And here these people were passing out nutcrackers and serving for dinner, on this third Thursday of November, cracked crab! This was an outrage. "It's a delicacy," coaxed my mother in a sort of verbal elbowing to the no-way-Jose looks on our faces. That night, as she tucked us into strange and, if memory serves me, cold beds, we made her promise to cook us, as soon as we got back home to San Diego, a full turkey dinner, "Aunt Jeanette- style."

Of course, this would, this could, never really happen. An Aunt Jeanette-style Thanksgiving dinner is a spread of ambitious, nearly impossible, proportion. Impossible, that is, unless you're Aunt Jeanette, who somehow managed to make it all, in my mother's words, "look so easy." To this day, my mom can be found each Thanksgiving sitting beside the large stone fireplace at the far end of her sister's loft-like kitchen, buttering a piece of orange bread and shaking her head in awe: "She's really something else."

My mother is the youngest of six, and Jeanette the oldest. And somewhere in all of that, my mother developed a deep respect for her sister's domestic competence without any desire whatsoever of acquiring a bit of it herself. The "it all" that Aunt Jeanette makes look so easy invariably begins with the smell of coffee brewing just as the sky gives its first periwinkle hint of dawn, and her freshly baked orange bread with which, along with a full scrambled-eggs-and-bacon breakfast, she tries, pretty unsuccessfully, to keep everyone out of the kitchen for the day. She bastes the requisite 20-something-pound bird to a crispy golden brown and whisks up a smooth, rich gravy with nothing like a recipe in sight. And she never serves fewer than six of those ubiquitous traditional Thanksgiving side dishes. With those side dishes, she always knows just how far to push it, experimenting just enough to make the cooking interesting and the results delicious, but never so tricky that we're left bewildered.

One year she substituted Italian cipolline onions--we'd never even seen one before--for the standard pearl onions, glazing them with balsamic vinegar, an exotic condiment that was just beginning to make its way into our vocabularies. And she is solely responsible for converting me from a kid who would forgo the ritual Thanksgiving day showing of "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" if it meant having to down a serving of Brussels sprouts to one who astonished the grown-ups with requests for seconds. Because hers were mixed with roasted chestnuts, tossed with butter and, most important, cooked just right, I couldn't get enough of the slightly browned, sweet and nutty greens that were nothing at all like the mushy, bitter little cabbage heads I'd had to force down.

Until I ill-advisedly accepted an invitation to eat this sacred meal at the house of a college boyfriend--not only with another family, but in an entirely different state in an entirely different time zone--I had never in my life taken seriously the options of canned vegetables or bottled gravy. And I'd never had cranberry sauce served straight from the can onto a plate--ridges and all--and then sliced. (Which, admittedly, I have come to like and even rely upon when, say, in August, I am craving leftover turkey.) But for those late-afternoon Montecito dinners, it was always a compote or a chutney or a relish--sweet and tart and full of fruit-and-nut surprises (that tasted nothing short of divine the following day slathered on sourdough toast in turkey sandwiches). And, after dinner, when one retreated to the octagonal living room under the swaying eucalyptus trees to find my Uncle Tom (who died this year) reading by a dim light next to the fireplace or admiring a piece of music playing on the turntable, one would be reassured by the presence of those three perfect, predictable pies--apple, pumpkin and pecan.

Because Uncle Tom thought this was a day when even little girls should be treated like young ladies and encouraged to enjoy the most sophisticated pleasures, one would also be offered at the end of the meal, along with an over-the-head explanation of the music, a perfectly polished glass of Port. The joke was that it took exactly the same amount of time for his wife to make the entire meal as it took Tom to set out the glassware, polishing each one meticulously and then holding it up to the light to admire its shine. But we all secretly loved it, because when you were the reason for his pause, such as when he stopped to give thanks to his wife for her marvelous cooking, and to our family for making the trip up from San Diego, you felt as if you were the one who was being held up to the light and admired.

That my mother would actually attempt to tackle the task of reproducing the gold standard of Thanksgiving feasts is proof of just how far parents will go to try to please their children. But even if she were the type who liked to make the numerous and necessary efforts required to put on such a fete, the Aunt Jeanette-style Thanksgiving I had in mind was beyond duplication.

We taste more with our memories than with our tongues. To sit down at that table is not just about eating and food--it's being able to look around and see nothing missing. Not the candied yams nor the corn bread stuffing, not the faces I look forward to seeing all year. At those Montecito Thanksgivings, I had the rare, rich feeling of wanting nothing, of wanting to be nowhere else.

Menu

Brussels Sprouts and Walnuts With Fennel and Shallots

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Spiced Quince and Cranberry Chutney

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Sourmash Whiskey Sweet Potatoes

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Ruby Port Glazed Cipolline and Pearl Onions With Fresh Thyme

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Upside-Down Apple Pie

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Aunt Jeanette's Orange Bread

The Right Sides

Brussels Sprouts and Walnuts With Fennel and Shallots

Serves 8

6 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 cups shallots, thinly sliced

2 fennel bulbs, julienned

2 tablespoons sugar

2 pounds Brussels sprouts, trimmed and

cut in half lengthwise

11/2 cups chicken stock

2 tablespoons walnut oil

2 tablespoons fennel greens, chopped

Kosher salt, to taste

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1 cup walnut halves, toasted

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Melt butter in large saute pan. Add onions, fennel and sugar and saute until golden. Add Brussels sprouts and chicken stock and bring to boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer until Brussels sprouts are tender, about 30 minutes. Add walnut oil and fennel greens. Cook, uncovered, for 10 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. To serve, toss with walnuts.

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Spiced Quince and Cranberry Chutney

Yield: 3 cups

5 cloves

10 allspice berries

1 stick of cinnamon

2 cups water

2 cups sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 pound quince, peeled, cored and diced

Zest of 1 orange

1/2 cup orange juice

2 tablespoons white wine vinegar

3 cups (12-ounce bag) fresh cranberries

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Wrap cloves, allspice and cinnamon in cheesecloth. In medium-sized heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine water, sugar, salt and spice bag. Bring to boil, stirring to dissolve sugar. Add quince and simmer over low heat until quince are tender and have turned rosy, about 4 to 5 minutes.

Add orange juice and zest, vinegar and cranberries. Bring to boil over high heat. Stir and reduce heat to medium. Cook until cranberries have burst. Continue cooking until mixture has thickened to desired consistency. Remove spice bag. Cool to room temperature before serving.

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Sourmash Whiskey Sweet Potatoes

Serves 8

5 pounds sweet potatoes, peeled and cut

crosswise into 1/2-inch thick slices

1 cup light brown sugar, packed

3/4 cup unsalted butter

1/3 cup orange juice

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup sourmash whiskey

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Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Steam sweet potatoes until just tender, about 10 to 12 minutes. Remove cover and cool. Simmer sugar, butter, juice and salt, stirring occasionally to dissolve sugar. Simmer until mixture has thickened slightly, about 5 minutes. Add whiskey.

Layer sweet potatoes attractively, overlapping slightly, in buttered 9-by- 13-inch baking dish. Drizzle syrup evenly over sweet potatoes. Cover and bake at 375 degrees for 30 minutes. Remove cover and baste sweet potatoes with syrup. Replace cover and continue baking for another 30 minutes. Remove cover and baste again. Cook uncovered until sweet potatoes are completely soft and golden, 15 to 30 more minutes.

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Ruby Port Glazed Cipolline and Pearl Onions With Fresh Thyme

Serves 8

1 pound pearl onions (preferably purple)

2 pounds cipolline onions, peeled

5 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/4 cup light brown sugar, packed

1 cup ruby Port

1/4 cup balsamic vinegar

11/2 teaspoons minced fresh thyme

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper, freshly ground

Fresh thyme sprigs for garnish (optional)

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To peel pearl onions, place in pot of boiling water and cook 2 minutes. Remove onions, reserving water. Set onions aside to cool. Bring water to boil again, add cipolline onions. Cook about 10 minutes, until just tender.

When pearl onions have cooled, peel, cutting off root end. In large, heavy-bottomed saucepan, melt butter and add sugar, Port, 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, thyme, salt, pepper and onions. Bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium and cook, covered, 10 minutes. Uncover and cook, stirring occasionally until onions are tender and glazed, about 10 more minutes. Remove from heat. Mix in remaining vinegar. Garnish with thyme sprigs.

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Upside-Down Apple Pie

Serves 8 to 10

Tart dough

11/4 cups flour, plus flour for dusting

1/2 teaspoon salt

11/2 teaspoons sugar

1/2 cup unsalted butter, well-chilled and cut

into small pieces

1 egg yolk

2 tablespoons ice water

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In food processor fitted with metal blade, combine flour, salt and sugar, and pulse to combine. Add butter and pulse again, briefly, until mixture resembles coarse cornmeal. Do not overmix. Add egg yolk and pulse just to combine. Add water a little at a time, still pulsing. Dough should just come together. Form dough into disc, wrap well in plastic and refrigerate for at least one hour.

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Apple filling

3 1/2 pounds large Golden Delicious apples

(about 6 or 7), peeled, cored, quartered,

each quarter cut into thirds

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

3/4 cup brown sugar

1/4 cup unsalted butter

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Dust apple wedges with cinnamon. In 10-inch cast-iron skillet, combine sugar and butter. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until just golden caramel in color. Remove pan from heat and add apple wedges, stirring gently to coat with sugar mixture. Arrange apple wedges in bottom of pan, fitting them as close together as you can.

Bring tart dough to room temperature. Roll out on floured surface into 12-inch circle. Carefully place dough on top of apples, tucking it between apples and edge of pan. Bake at 400 degrees until pastry is golden brown and juices are bubbling around sides of pan, about 35 minutes.

Remove from oven and cool 5 minutes. Place serving plate over skillet. Using oven mitts, hold platter and skillet together and invert tart onto plate, being careful not to let hot juices splatter you. Rearrange any apples that may have become dislodged. Serve with creme fra'che or vanilla ice cream.

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Aunt Jeanette's Orange Bread

Yield: 1 9-inch-by-3-inch loaf

2 cups flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon ground cloves

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/2 cup boiling water

3 tablespoons orange zest

1/3 cup orange juice

1/3 cup sugar

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 egg

1 cup walnuts, coarsely chopped

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Combine flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt and cloves. In large bowl, melt butter in boiling water. Add orange zest and juice, sugar, vanilla and egg, stirring to combine. Add dry ingredients gradually, mixing with wooden spoon until ingredients are combined, being careful not to overmix. Add walnuts.

Place dough into well-greased 9-by-3-inch loaf pan. Bake at 350 degrees until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, about 50 minutes. If loaf is browning too quickly, cover loosely with foil. Best served warm with softened butter or cream cheese.

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Food stylist: Christine Masterson; wardrobe stylist: Dafne Balatsos/Partos; hair/makeup: Veronica Lane; prop stylist: Robin Turk; models: Angela Adams, Shelly Coon, Pilar Ellis, Michael Englebaugh, Todd Maris

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