More redolent, more heady, more burnished, a Thanksgiving table laden with lustrous golden turkey, velvety dark-green kale, burnt-sienna sweet potatoes is probably the richest feast of the year. In the gilded candlelight, it’s hard to resist comparing it to a painting; call it Netherlandish Renaissance or Italian Baroque.
But there’s no still life here. Once dinner gets going, passed plates flash with the deep wine-red hue of the cranberries, the gradations of green on the tiny leaves of Brussels sprouts, the dazzling white of little glazed onions. In between is the sparkle of lifted silverware and crystal glasses.
Inevitably, the nuts-and-bolts discussion of the colors of Thanksgiving comes down to this: “Would you like dark meat or white meat?” But why must it be a choice? Why are turkey eaters so often hard-liners?
I cannot and will not choose; I love them both -- a couple of thin slices of the turkey breast edged with fatty-crispy lacquered brown skin, and a piece of dark meat with its deep flavor and melting texture. I love the way the lean white meat plays against a luscious gravy and the way the rich dark meat is punctuated by a tart burst of cranberry sauce.
And when the turkey is roasted perfectly, so that both the breast and thigh are tender and succulent -- why wouldn’t everyone want the dark and the white meat?
Last year, Times columnist Russ Parsons discovered the best way to roast a turkey. It’s rubbed all over with salt and allowed to cure for three days before roasting. The result was illuminating: Who knew turkey could taste so great and have such an amazing texture? The meat was moist -- almost silky -- but also firm, with deep, concentrated flavor. But as we compared techniques during testing, the best-browned bird was the one that had been brined. We loved the salted bird best, but wished it was more bronzed.
This year, we did it: We improved on the dry-salted turkey recipe so that the dark and white meat were perfectly cooked and the skin was wonderfully crisp and deep golden-brown. The fix? Every day during the curing, we redistributed the salt all over the turkey. And during roasting, we raised the cooking temperature at the end, rather than starting high at the beginning.
What to serve with the perfect bird? You’ll find no set menu in these pages. Instead, here’s a collection of new recipes from Food section writers and a couple of guest contributors; choose what you like from the greens, the oranges, the reds and ivories and golden-browns. There are lima beans strewn with fresh mint, and a sumptuous celery root gratin; a savory bread pudding spiced with sage and thyme, studded with chanterelles and set in a custard enriched with Gruyere and Emmentaler cheeses; spiced pumpkin soup; or sweet potato puree with a hazelnut souffle top. Rosemary and black pepper breads braided together and formed into a wreath make a stunning centerpiece. A pumpkin pie with a bruleed top is served with cardamom-scented whipped cream and candied lemon peel. Another has a cashew crust with a little orange zest mixed in. A cranberry and fig tart is spectacular, especially with a dollop of Cognac whipped cream.
It’s difficult not to want to make all of them.
Heat the oven to 425 degrees.
Roast the poblano chiles over high heat on a rack on your stove-top burner. When the skin is charred all over, place the peppers in a paper bag. Leave them for about 10 minutes, then remove and peel the skin -- do not rinse. Discard the stem and seeds, and chop the peppers coarsely. Set aside.
Prepare the pumpkins: In a small saucepan, melt 2 tablespoons butter over low heat. Remove from the heat and set aside. Cut the top quarter off of each of the 12 pumpkins, as if you are making jack-o’-lanterns, but make the hole wide enough for the pumpkin to work as a soup bowl. With a spoon, clean out, then discard the seeds and pulp. Save the stemmed tops; these will work as “lids.” Lightly brush the melted butter onto the inside of each pumpkin and the underside of each top. Lightly season the inside of each pumpkin and the underside of each top with salt and pepper.
Place the pumpkins cut-side up on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Place the pumpkin lids cut-side down on the same sheet, with the lids in the middle of the sheet (they’ll cook quicker). You may need to do this in two batches. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, just until the centers are slightly softened and the skins are golden. Do not overbake the pumpkins or they will not support the soup. Set aside.
Cut the 5 pounds of pumpkin, unpeeled, into about 1-inch pieces, discarding the seeds, pulp and stem. Set aside.
Place the bacon and remaining 2 tablespoons butter in a large, heavy-bottom stockpot over medium heat. Cook the bacon, stirring occasionally until it just begins to crisp, about 6 to 8 minutes. Add the onion, and continue cooking until the onion just begins to caramelize, an additional 12 to 15 minutes. Add the diced chiles, stirring to combine. Add the wine and scrape all the cooked bits from the bottom of the pan and cook until almost all of the wine is absorbed. Stir in the pumpkin, and then add 6 cups of the broth. Add 2 teaspoons salt, one-half teaspoon pepper, the paprika, chile powder and one-fourth cup maple syrup. Adjust the heat so the soup comes to a low but steady simmer. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the pumpkin is very soft and tender, about 45 minutes to an hour.
Remove the soup from the heat and puree in a blender, food processor, or with an immersion blender. Place the soup back in the pot over low heat and stir in the cream. If the soup is too thick, add up to a cup of the reserved broth. Taste and adjust the seasoning with more of less of the remaining maple syrup, if needed, (depending on the sweetness of the pumpkins) and a few dashes of Tabasco. Remove the soup from heat.
Pour the soup into each of the small pumpkins, and garnish each serving with a little of the sliced green onion. Serve immediately.
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