To the table, and be slow about it

Special to The Times

LIKE any child of the '50s, I have warm and fuzzy memories of Thanksgiving being more of a marathon than a meal. We would eat until we almost hurt, then start all over again. A feast like that was just too rare to rush through.

Those long, lazy, dedicated-eating holidays were the antithesis of Thanksgiving today, when the cover line over the turkeys on all the food magazines really should read: "Gone in 60 seconds." Most Americans can now demolish a groaning board in less time than it takes to set it. Somehow, the emphasis of the great unifying feast has shifted to the harried shopping and the frenzied cooking and the high anxiety in the kitchen. The actual eating gets the shortest of shrifts, so that the time spent together at the table -- the point of it all -- is almost an afterthought.

Probably any of the usual suspects can take the blame: a drive-through food culture; the siren call of 24-hour, 1,500-channel TV; a misplaced faith in multi-tasking; squirming discomfort with sit-down family meals. But whatever is at fault, it's kicked the stuffing out of Thanksgiving.

I never thought about it until recently, but I've been subliminally fighting back for years. I want a meal that inspires lingering. One that requires ingredients any good supermarket carries and recipes that need no high-wire techniques to perfect. And I want the guests to stop and smell the gravy. That's the tricky part.

Restaurants that serve Thanksgiving dinner have it easy -- they can serve courses to draw out the feast. But at home, seeing all 19 dishes laid out at once is half the pleasure of the day's sensory overload.

Planting bumps in the road

With 22 Novembers of practice under my apron, I plan the meal backward, looking for ways to slow it down rather than rush to get it on the plate. The goal is a 33-rpm experience in a DSL world. Everyone at our table knows you come for dinner and stay for the day. And we don't even have to lock them in.

One way to keep the chairs warm longer is to hold off on a couple of really great side dishes. After everyone has filled a plate with turkey and a surfeit of trimmings, I bring out the dinner rolls that were baking after the oven was emptied of sweet potatoes and stuffing. It's like a butter-up call to pace yourself in case there's more to come.

And I've learned to transform the inevitable leftover stuffing into a simple bread pudding, adding eggs and milk for a custardy effect. After everyone has experienced the meaty-fluffy stuffing that soaked up all the juices inside the turkey, they get a second taste and, inevitably, a second wind.

Varying the menu just slightly from year to year also has a slowing effect. No one rushes through it unthinkingly. We have to have certain dishes, like mashed potatoes and gravy, but we brine our turkey a different way every time, partly for the sane scientist in me and partly because people can taste the difference. This year it struck me that soy sauce along with the usual brine would add a little interest, and the skin would be dark perfection. It worked: It was the most beautifully browned bird I ever cooked, and the flavors were somehow more complex and unified.

I never make the same stuffing, either. I especially love a cornbread base, and spicy sausage like andouille or chorizo goes so well with it. A combination of raw onions and peppers with sauteed garlic and shiitakes creates contrasts in texture and flavor that make people stop and think.

I always cook sweet potatoes without sugar as a side dish to twist perceptions (I'm proud to say I have never made candied yams). And I almost always substitute them for pumpkin in a pie -- the one devised by the late Southern chef Bill Neal is worlds away from the recipe on the Libby's label, and not just because it's topped with pecan streusel. The filling is airy but intense.

I still serve pumpkin, but in an offbeat way, maybe in a gratin. Diced, seasoned with garlic and thyme and creamy with Gruyere, it's as much a conversation piece as a side dish. But more than that: It tastes incredible. And if any vegetarians happen to be in the vicinity, it also makes a satisfying main course.

Kitchen camaraderie

The delaying tactics start well before the napkins unfold, though. For us, the feasting actually begins in the kitchen. While my consort and I are cooking at one end, our friends are at the other, clinking Champagne glasses and nibbling among themselves.

Bob and I make everything but the brine on the day itself, and not coincidentally it's the one day we're a relatively happy couple in the kitchen -- my inner control freak takes a holiday. We wrestle the turkey and stuffing together, trade off on basting and agonizing, wordlessly divide up the side dishes. (He risks nicked-up thumbs cutting crosses into chestnuts to roast; I slice sweet potatoes.)

The payoff comes at the table. No one bolts down Bob's Brussels sprouts without stopping to ask how he came to make them seductive yet again. Pistachio oil from France was one year's secret ingredient, amplified by lots of chopped pistachios; I later modified the recipe by separating the leaves so the dish looked prettier and tasted less like little cabbages. If we were serving the same old menu year after year, everyone would make faster work of it than they do with a Swanson's Hungry-Man.

Giving guests aprons is another great delaying tactic. Over the years, our friends have delegated certain dishes to themselves. I would never let my friend Wally near my stove at a dinner party, but I am beyond happy to stand back and let her commandeer two burners on Thanksgiving to whisk up the foolproof gravy her mother taught her (a couple of heaping tablespoons of flour in a cup of cold water makes a slurry that thickens the rich and intensely flavorful pan drippings). Two other friends from different cities always collaborate on the mashed potatoes, one doing the muscle work and the other pouring butter and cream in quantities even I might quail at.

And once again, when all their contributions are dispersed on all those plates, no one eats and runs. The tale of the technique and collaboration has to be discussed at leisurely length.

But probably the best deceleration trick I've learned was the very first, in the year another friend came to Thanksgiving with his French wife and a bottle of Calvados. As she explained, we should have a glass midmeal, so that we could "burn a hole" in our stomachs with the apple brandy to fit in more food. The trou Normand, as she called it, was an ancient custom meant to stimulate the appetite and ease digestion.

That year, eons ago in a minuscule kitchen, we stowed the Calvados in our liquor cabinet over the stove. It got hot and we got full, but when we drank it, it of course was even more potent. That Thanksgiving went very long and late.

Nowadays the trou Normand is an indispensable part of the holiday at our house. It prolongs the meal like nothing else -- before dessert, we take a break in the living room with our Calvados snifters, loll around listening to old LPs, watch the sky go deep blue to starry black, and realize there is no reason to rush back and end a once-a-year meal until we're good and ready.

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Soy-brined turkey

Time: 6 hours, plus 24 hours brining

Servings: 12 (with leftovers)

Note: To make gravy, remove the turkey and set the roasting pan over two burners on medium heat. Stir 2 tablespoons of flour into 2 cups of cold water; whisk into pan drippings until thick. Add water if too thick, more slurry if too watery.

1 cup kosher salt

3/4cup tamari or soy sauce

1/2cup sugar

1 tablespoon dried thyme

1 tablespoon whole allspice

2 teaspoons hot red pepper flakes

1 teaspoon fennel seeds

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns

8 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed

1 (2-inch) piece fresh ginger, peeled and sliced thin

1 (16- to 18-pound) fresh turkey, neck and giblets removed

Stuffing (recipe follows)

1 stick unsalted butter, softened

Salt, pepper

1. Combine the kosher salt, tamari, sugar, thyme, allspice, pepper flakes, fennel seeds, cumin seeds and peppercorns in a stockpot large enough to hold the turkey. Add 2 gallons cold water. Bring to a boil, then remove from the heat and cool completely. Add the garlic and ginger.

2. Rinse the turkey inside and out. Lay it breast-side down into the cold brine. Refrigerate 12 hours, then turn the turkey so that the legs are immersed in the brine. Refrigerate 12 more hours.

3. Heat the oven to 500 degrees. Remove the turkey from the brine and drain well, then wipe clean; pat dry. Discard the brine.

4. Loosely fill with stuffing. Lay on a rack in a roasting pan. Rub with soft butter. Season with salt and pepper. Roast 30 minutes.

5. Reduce the heat to 350 degrees. Roast, basting every 30 minutes with pan drippings, until a meat thermometer inserted in thickest part of the breast registers 180 degrees, about 3 to 3 1/2 hours.

6. Remove the turkey from the oven and spoon the stuffing into a heatproof dish. Cover the turkey with a tent of foil and let it sit 30 minutes before carving.

Each serving: 529 calories; 78 grams protein; 1 gram carbohydrates; 0 fiber; 22 grams fat; 8 grams saturated fat; 304 mg. cholesterol; 983 mg. sodium.

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Pumpkin-Gruyere gratin

Time: 1 hour, 10 minutes

Servings: 8 to 10 servings

Note: Any dark, flavorful winter squash, such as buttercup, kabocha or even butternut, can be substituted for the pumpkin. Panko (Japanese bread crumbs) is available in Japanese markets.

1 medium (3 1/2 to 4 pounds) sugar pumpkin

2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme, plus 1 sprig for garnish

2 large cloves garlic, minced

3/4teaspoon Aleppo or other pungent ground chile pepper

1/2teaspoon coarse sea salt, or to taste

1/2teaspoon freshly ground white pepper, or to taste

1/4cup panko or other dry bread crumbs

1 1/2cups grated Gruyere, divided

1 cup heavy cream

Butter for baking dish

1. Heat the oven to 400 degrees.

2. Cut the pumpkin in half and remove the seeds, then peel it with a potato peeler or paring knife. Lay the cut side down and cut it into half-inch wide slices. Lay the slices flat and cut them into 1-inch pieces.

3. Place the pumpkin in a very large mixing bowl and add the thyme, garlic, Aleppo pepper, sea salt and pepper. Toss to mix.

4. Add the panko and one-half cup of the Gruyere and toss again, mixing well. Pour the cream over and toss until all the ingredients are evenly coated.

5. Butter a large gratin dish or a 13-by-9-inch baking dish. Spread the pumpkin mixture evenly in pan. Sprinkle the remaining Gruyere over the top.

6. Bake until the pumpkin is caramelized and tender, but not mushy, and the cheese is browned, 35 to 40 minutes. Serve hot or warm, garnished with sprig of thyme.

Each of 10 servings: 195 calories; 7 grams protein; 11 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 14 grams fat; 9 grams saturated fat; 50 mg. cholesterol; 184 mg. sodium.

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Pistachio Brussels sprouts

Time: 30 minutes

Servings: 8

Note: Find pistachio oil at La Sanctuaire in Santa Monica, Surfas in Culver City, La Brea Bakery in Los Angeles and Nichole's Gourmet Foods in South Pasadena.

2 pints (4 cups) very fresh Brussels sprouts

1 teaspoon coarse sea salt

1 tablespoon fresh lime juice

6-8tablespoons pistachio oil

Freshly ground black pepper

3/4cup hulled salted pistachios, chopped

1. Rinse the Brussels sprouts well to remove any grit. Trim the bottoms and peel off as many leaves from each sprout as you can, trimming a little more to release more leaves. Slice the inner cores into fine shreds.

2. Add the salt and sprouts to a pot of boiling water; cook until tender, 3 to 5 minutes.

3. Drain the sprouts well; transfer to a serving bowl lined with paper towels and pat dry. Remove and discard the towels.

4. Toss with the lime juice; add the pistachio oil and pepper to taste. Sprinkle with the pistachios; serve warm or at room temperature.

Each serving: 210 calories; 4 grams protein; 7 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams fiber; 19 grams fat; 3 grams saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 299 mg. sodium.

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Sausage-cornbread stuffing

Time: About 1 hour, 10 minutes, plus 20 minutes cooling time and 30 minutes to bake extra stuffing as pudding.

Note: The cornbread is best made a day in advance. This recipe makes more stuffing than the average turkey can take, but the extra can be made into a cornbread pudding as indicated below, or just drizzled with a cup of chicken stock and baked.

1 cup coarse yellow cornmeal

1/2cup flour

3 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2teaspoon salt

3/4cup buttermilk

1/4cup vegetable oil, plus extra for pan

4 large eggs, divided

1 large onion, finely diced

3 stalks celery with green leaves, finely diced (about 1 1/2 cups)

1 medium red pepper, cored, seeded and diced (about 1 cup)

1/3cup chopped fresh sage

1/2cup chopped fresh parsley

8 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided

3 tablespoons minced garlic (about 3 cloves)

3 1/2 cups stemmed, diced shiitake mushrooms ( 1/2 pound)

3 1/2 cups diced andouille sausage or fresh chorizo (1 pound)

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 cup whole milk

1. Heat the oven to 375 degrees.

2. Combine the cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a mixing bowl and toss with a fork to blend. Combine the buttermilk, oil and 2 of the eggs. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and stir until thoroughly mixed but still lumpy. Oil a 9-inch-square baking dish and heat it in the oven for 2 to 3 minutes. Pour the batter into the pan and bake 20 to 25 minutes, until browned and firm. Cool completely before proceeding.

3. Cut the cornbread into 1-inch cubes and place in a large mixing bowl. Add the onion, celery, red pepper, sage and parsley.

4. Melt 6 tablespoons butter in a large saute pan over medium heat. Add the garlic and saute until softened, about 2 to 3 minutes, then add the shiitakes. Cook until soft but not browned, about 10 minutes. Transfer the garlic-mushroom mixture to the bowl with the cornbread.

5. Melt the remaining butter in the saute pan and brown the sausage. Add it to the cornbread mixture. Toss until the ingredients are well blended, then season lavishly with salt and pepper to taste. Cool completely.

6. Fill the neck and body cavities of the turkey with the stuffing.

7. Beat the remaining eggs with the milk and mix with the remaining stuffing. Transfer the pudding mixture to a shallow nonstick baking dish and bake at 350 degrees until set, about 30 minutes.

Each serving: 310 calories; 11 grams protein; 16 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 22 grams fat; 9 grams saturated fat; 96 mg. cholesterol; 577 mg. sodium.

*

Sweet potato pie with pecan streusel

Time: About 1 hour with pie crust pre-made and sweet potatoes cooked

Servings: 8

Note: This is adapted from "Bill Neal's Southern Cooking" (University of North Carolina Press, 1985).

1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) butter, room temperature, divided

1 cup light brown sugar, divided

1 cup cooked, riced sweet potatoes (1 to 2 potatoes; baked are best)

3 eggs, separated

3/4cup heavy cream

1/4teaspoon kosher salt

1/2teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2teaspoon ground ginger

1/4teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1/4teaspoon ground cloves

1/4cup bourbon

1 (9-inch) pie crust, partially baked

1/4cup flour

1/4cup chopped pecans

1. Heat the oven to 375 degrees.

2. Cream 1 cup (2 sticks) of the butter with three-fourths cup brown sugar until light. Beat in the sweet potatoes, then the egg yolks and cream. Add the salt, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and cloves and mix well. Beat in the bourbon.

3. In a separate clean bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff. Add one-quarter of the whites to the sweet potato mixture and stir in well. Gently fold in the remaining whites. Pour into the pie crust.

4. Combine the remaining butter, the remaining one-fourth cup brown sugar, flour and pecans and beat until well mixed. Crumble the mixture evenly over the top of the filled pie.

5. Bake in the center of the oven until the top is golden brown and the filling is set, about 40 minutes. Cool completely before cutting.

Each serving: 526 calories; 5 grams protein; 45 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 35 grams fat; 18 grams saturated fat; 157 mg. cholesterol; 208 mg. sodium.

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