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The season’s new glow

Times Staff Writer

ON my Thanksgiving table we usually have dishes that come from all over the United States, from Wapakoneta, Ohio, to Montgomery, Ala. Add it all up and you’ve probably got something like the definitive California spread.

After all, almost half of all of us come from someplace else (according to the 2000 census, 22.5% were born in other states and 26.2% in other countries). Those food traditions are important. They are the things we’ve carried with us. They are how we tell ourselves one from another and how we proclaim whom we’ve been and, to a surprising extent, whom we hope to be.

But what seems to get overlooked in the whole mix is anything from California itself. Isn’t it ironic that in this golden state that feeds the rest of the country, on our one national food holiday, we Californians serve dishes mainly from other places?

All of this started me wondering about what an all-California Thanksgiving menu might look like.

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There are some things that are certain. It would have to be seasonal and it would have to be based on ingredients that come from here.

After all, we do live in a place where food actually grows at this time of year, unlike the barren hinterlands of, say, North Dakota or New York.

That could mean persimmons, either the small, crisp, slightly tart Fuyus or the larger, acorn-shaped Hachiyas, among the most decadent of fruits when they’ve softened. Or it could mean Bartlett pears from the hills in Lake County, greens from Salinas or all of those nuts from the Central Valley. Can anything be sweeter than a date from Coachella? (Try slicing them, digging out the pits and stuffing them with orange-flavored almond paste.)

You want local? We’ve even got food from our own backyards: guavas, avocados and right about now the first navel oranges and Meyer lemons. There’s more to the state than a shopping list; the menu would have to reflect a certain approach to cooking as well. Food here seems to be freer and simpler, more in balance. As we’ve said before: Get good ingredients and get out of the way. Adornment and complication can be fun in their proper places, but they are not necessary to good cooking.

And there is freedom. Let’s face it: If we were all back where we came from, our menus couldn’t be the artful blending that they are. Back home, if we chose not to serve grandma’s pumpkin cheesecake, we’d have to answer to her.

There are demands that are made of us as well. The first one that comes to mind right now is the need for a certain amount of flexibility. Two weeks ago when I began planning this menu, the weather was cold and rainy. Last week when I was doing the final testing, it was sunny and in the mid-80s. Who can guess what the weather will be like a week from Thursday?

With all of those things in mind and after walking through a couple of farmers markets, I began to cook in serious.

No shortage of inspiration

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The first course is a riff on something I first had several years ago at the home of cookbook author and filmmaker Anna Thomas. We tend to think of persimmons as a sweet fruit, but those little Fuyus are no more sugary than a good tomato. They’ve also got a wonderful crispness about them that is accentuated by the lime juice.

Similarly, the winter squash recipe is based on an old favorite from Helen Evans Brown, perhaps the finest cookbook writer the state has known. She probably wouldn’t recognize this variation -- with all the nuts ground into the batter, the filling bakes into something like a light, savory cookie, the butter melting down into the squash. This would make a nice vegetarian entree if you served a half squash rather than a quarter.

The bird was pretty much a no-brainer. I’m one of those people who like the flavor of turkey. I don’t think it’s bland at all, just that it could use a little help sometimes. I was planning on simply brushing it with rosemary-lemon butter (the fruit on my Meyer lemon tree is just getting ripe, which means the next three or four months I’ll be looking for any excuse I can find to use it).

But Donna Deane, our Test Kitchen director, also suggested stuffing whole rosemary sprigs under the skin, so, when it tightens and crisps, you can see the outlines of the herbs -- a lovely adornment. Be sure to pick the tenderest branches (no twigs between your teeth) and to blanch them first; rosemary is notoriously aggressive.

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The bittersweet flavor of braised escarole is a counterweight to the turkey. This dish also has the virtue of being easy to fit into the crowded cooking schedule. Blanch and chop the escarole the day before (be sure to pull out any of the pale yellow leaves; they’ll turn brown when cooked).

While the turkey is resting before carving, stir the chopped greens in all of the browned bits left in the bottom of the roasting pan. The moisture in the leaves will act as a deglazing liquid -- punching up the flavor of the escarole and cleaning the pan at the same time.

Any big deal meal has to have cheese. So many good ones are made in California that it’s hard to choose.

For me, it comes down to sentiment, cheeses that have a personal connection. I always try to have Humboldt Fog on the tray not just because it is a great cheese, but also because Humboldt County is where my daughter lives.

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For a hard cheese, I’ll probably go with Vella Dry Jack, the Special Select, since to me it represents the height of traditional cheese making in the state. Then to round out the selection, I’ll try to find a well-aged piece of Peluso Teleme. Tasting a glorious one several years ago in New York proved to me how great California cheese can be (and how far we have to go in marketing it -- aged Teleme seems to be all over Manhattan, but just try to find a chunk in Los Angeles).

For a big finish, try this pear tart filled out with a gorgeous puffy orange-and-almond paste. Frangipane is one of those food words that can mean many different things, from a kind of almond pastry cream to this, which is more like a slightly dense, fragrant cake that crisps a little on top.

Which wines? How about a nice rose sparkler with the persimmons -- my favorite (and one of the best food wines around) is from Roederer Estate. If you prefer a still wine, try the Foley Sauvignon Blanc from Santa Barbara County. That will also work with the turkey, but if you’d like to switch to a red, try one of the lighter and more elegant ones, say Sinskey Vineyards’ Carneros Merlot, or Babcock Winery’s Santa Barbara Pinot Noir.

Bring a favorite dish

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Pick and choose among these recommendations as you wish, but even if you cook every recipe, be sure to bring to the table something of your own, a pumpkin pie or a favorite appetizer, tamales or chow fun -- even cranberry jelly straight from the can, so you can laugh about cousin Jennifer who always tries to slice it perfectly along the lines. At my house, there’ll be jellied cranberries from my mom’s Midwestern family and creamed onions from my wife’s on the East Coast. There’ll probably be the pecan pie I love from growing up in the South and a smoky sausage and greens dressing from when we lived in Texas.

Being Californian isn’t about abandoning traditional dishes, it just means being free to choose among them and adapt them to fit our new menus.

Russ Parsons can be reached at russ.parsons@latimes.com.

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A California Thanksgiving menu

Fuyu persimmon salad with cumin-lime vinaigrette

Roederer Estate’s sparkling Brut Rose (Anderson Valley) or 2001 Foley Estates Sauvignon Blanc (Santa Barbara County)

Rosemary-Meyer lemon

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turkey with wilted escarole

Acorn squash with

hazelnut butter

1999 Robert Sinskey Vineyards’ Merlot “Los Carneros,” or 2001 Babcock Winery & Vineyards’ Pinot Noir “Santa Barbara County”

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Selection of California cheeses

Pear frangipane tart

Recipes are

on Page 5

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Fuyu persimmon salad with cumin-lime vinaigrette

Total time: 40 minutes

Servings: 8 servings

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Note: Fuyus are the small, crisp persimmons. They’re only slightly sweet, so when paired with an assertive vinaigrette, they make a refreshing salad.

2 pounds Fuyu persimmons

Juice of 1 lime

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

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1/2 serrano chile, seeded and minced

Salt

1 tablespoon walnut oil

1/4 cup pomegranate seeds (about 1/4 pomegranate)

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3 tablespoons chopped walnuts, toasted

2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

1. Cut off the tough green calyxes and slice each persimmon in 10 to 12 wedges.

2. In a small lidded jar, combine the lime juice, cumin, about half of the chile, a dash of salt and the walnut oil. Tightly cover and shake hard to mix well. Taste the dressing on a small piece of persimmon. There should be just enough chile to add a suggestion of heat. If you’d like it hotter, add more and shake again.

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3. Combine the persimmons and the dressing in a work bowl and toss to coat well. Turn the salad out into a decorative bowl and sprinkle with the pomegranate seeds, walnuts and cilantro. Taste and add more salt or lime juice if necessary.

Each of 8 servings: 185 calories; 39 mg. sodium; 0 cholesterol; 4 grams fat; 0 saturated fat; 40 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams protein; 0.30 gram fiber.

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Pear frangipane tart

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Total time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Servings: 8

Pastry for 9-inch tart pan

1/2 pound blanched almonds

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2/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar, divided

3 eggs

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

2 teaspoons grated orange zest

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1 tablespoon Oloroso or other sweet Sherry

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons butter, cut into 8 pieces

3 ( 1/2-pound) Bartlett pears, firm but ripe

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Apple cider vinegar

1 tablespoon butter, melted

1. Prepare the pastry and fit it into a 9-inch tart pan with a removable bottom. Refrigerate until well chilled, about 20 minutes. Prick the shell with a fork and bake until lightly golden, about 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and let come to room temperature.

2. Heat the oven to 375 degrees and place a baking sheet on a low rack.

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3. In a food processor, grind the almonds. Add 2/3 cup sugar, the eggs, vanilla, orange zest, Sherry and salt, and process to make a smooth, sticky paste. With the motor running, drop in the butter through the feed hole, piece by piece, and process until smooth.

4. Peel the pears, cut them in half lengthwise and with a spoon remove the vein for the stem and the seed pit. As you finish each pear half, slip it into a work bowl filled with a mixture of 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar and enough water to cover all of the pears.

5. Spread the almond mixture in the base of the tart, using the back of a spoon to spread it as evenly as possible.

6. Pat each pear half dry and carefully cut it into thin crosswise slices, about 1/8 inch, keeping the pear in its original form. As you finish each pear half, lift it, using the flat of the knife as a spatula, and carefully place it in the tart pan, with the narrow stem end toward the center. Gently press down into the frangipane. Place each subsequent pear half next to the previous one in a spoke pattern until the tart is filled. Brush the pears with the melted butter and sprinkle with about 1 tablespoon sugar.

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7. Place the tart pan on the baking sheet and bake until the almond mixture is puffed and golden and the pears are tender, 40 to 45 minutes. Serve at room temperature.

Each serving: 355 calories; 149 mg. sodium; 89 mg. cholesterol; 21 grams fat; 4 grams saturated fat; 37 grams carbohydrates; 9 grams protein; 5.04 grams fiber.

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Rosemary-Meyer lemon turkey with wilted escarole

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Total time: About 4 hours, depending on the size of the bird

Servings: 8

Note: Brining results in an incomparably moist, flavorful turkey. Combine 2/3 cup salt with 1 gallon of water in a large stockpot or clean pail. Add the turkey and let it soak overnight in the refrigerator. Remove the turkey early the day of roasting, pat it dry and set it in the refrigerator uncovered to air-dry for at least an hour.

6 sprigs fresh rosemary (choose the most tender young sprigs from the outside of the plant)

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1 (10- to 12-pound) turkey

Salt

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter

3 cloves garlic, smashed but not pureed

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Juice and zest of 1 Meyer lemon (or combination of half lemon and half orange), plus more if necessary

3 heads escarole

Freshly ground pepper

1. Blanch the rosemary in rapidly boiling water for 10 to 15 seconds. This will further tenderize the sprigs and will also make your kitchen smell great. Pat dry and set aside.

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2. Remove the giblets and rinse the turkey thoroughly under cold, running water. If you want to brine it, do so the day before serving. Thoroughly pat the turkey dry with a tea towel. Pull up the skin covering the breast on both sides of the central “keel” bone. Do not remove the skin, just separate it from the meat enough so that you can stick your fingers in between. Do the same with the skin on the inside of the thighs.

3. Insert 2 sprigs of rosemary under the skin of each breast, being careful not to bend or break the stems. In the same manner, insert 1 sprig of rosemary under the skin of each thigh. If the turkey has not been brined, salt it well inside and out.

4. Heat the oven to 350 degrees.

5. Heat the butter, garlic and the juice and zest of the Meyer lemon in a small saucepan over medium-low heat until the garlic begins to soften and become fragrant, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat, but keep warm while the turkey is roasting.

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6. Place the turkey breast-side down on a rack in a shallow-sided roasting pan. Brush with the butter and begin roasting the turkey in the oven. After 30 minutes, baste the turkey once more with the butter mixture, then turn the turkey so the breast side is up. Brush the breast side with the butter and continue roasting, basting every 30 minutes, until a thermometer inserted in the deep part of the thigh registers 165 degrees.

7. While the turkey is roasting, blanch the whole heads of escarole in plenty of rapidly boiling water just long enough for them to soften slightly, 1 to 2 minutes. Drain and press them dry, and cut out the tough bottoms and chop coarsely. Set aside.

8. Remove the turkey from the oven, brush with butter once more, cover loosely with foil and set aside for 15 minutes to rest before carving. While the turkey is resting, pour off all but 2 tablespoons of the grease from the roasting pan and add the blanched, chopped escarole to the pan. Return the pan to the oven and roast, stirring occasionally, about 15 minutes.

9. Carve the turkey, reserving some of the juices. (Be sure to remove the rosemary sprigs after carving, unless you have guests who are very fond of the flavor.) Taste the escarole in the roasting pan and add salt and a generous grinding of pepper, some of the carving juices and more lemon juice as necessary. Neither the flavors of the turkey nor the lemon should be pronounced. Rather, they should be accents to the bittersweet flavor of the escarole.

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10. Place the escarole in the center of the turkey platter, arrange the carved bird over it and serve.

Each serving: 646 calories; 400 mg. sodium; 248 mg. cholesterol; 33 grams fat; 12 grams saturated fat; 1 gram carbohydrate; 80 grams protein; 0.32 gram fiber.

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Acorn squash with hazelnut butter

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Total time: 1 hour, 45 minutes

Servings: 8

Note: Acorn squash is very hard, so take care when cutting it in half. We set each squash on a cutting board, wedged a knife in slightly, then carefully pressed down on both ends of the knife.

2 acorn squash

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1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter

1/2 cup chopped hazelnuts

2 tablespoons orange liqueur or rum

Salt

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1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees.

2. Cut the squash in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds. Cut each half in half again so you have 8 pieces. Arrange the squash in a 9-by-12 baking dish skin-side up and add 1/2 cup of water. Cover tightly with foil and bake until the squash can be easily pierced with a knife or carving fork, 45 to 50 minutes.

3. While the squash is roasting, pulse together the butter and the hazelnuts in a food processor to make a rough paste, almost like a soft cookie dough. Add the liqueur and pulse again to mix it in.

4. When the squash is soft, remove it from the oven and increase the temperature to 450 degrees.

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5. Drain the water from the baking dish and invert the squash so that it is skin-side down. Salt it lightly, then divide the hazelnut butter evenly among the squash pieces, spooning it into the cavity. It will take a bit more than a tablespoon per piece.

6. Return the squash to the oven and bake until the tops are lightly browned, about 15 minutes.

Each serving: 138 calories; 98 mg. sodium; 16 mg. cholesterol; 10 grams fat; 4 grams saturated fat; 10 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams protein; 2.88 grams fiber.


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