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.
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.