Americans have been conditioned to treat the weekend after Thanksgiving as the kickoff of the race to the mall for an orgy of shopping, but it is actually something far more meaningful: the official opening of party season. For the next six weeks, any excuse will do.
And it’s not too early to start planning the first fete. Call it the after-party.
Once the turkey frenzy has subsided, there is much to be said for getting together to eat and drink and relax with friends who couldn’t be with you on the big day, or favorite relatives who were otherwise engaged. You might even have a houseful of people hanging around who need to be fed and entertained, without going out to some head-bangingly loud restaurant where it’s impossible to talk. Entertaining at home is much more relaxed and relaxing. Thanksgiving is a day of obligation. The after-party is pure indulgence.
The food is the best part. Tradition is a tough boss on the feast day; you have to have the dishes you always have, the ones everyone expects and loves. But for the after-party, you can cook and serve whatever you want. You can take the opportunity to use up leftovers or start from scratch or, ideally, do a little of both. And while American has to be the theme on the actual holiday, you can wander all over the food map in the days after.
What the menu primarily has to be is easy, after the run-up to Thanksgiving, that marathon of planning and shopping, chopping and cleaning. Make a simple appetizer, a simpler main course and a side dish, let a guest bring the dessert and salad or anything else they might want and you’re there.
Mexican flavors are close enough to American to go with whatever anyone else shows up with but exotic enough to be interesting, which is why they are the natural theme for the menu. And relying on them makes it easier to ramp up the seasoning for the whole meal. A normal Thanksgiving puts most of its spices into the pumpkin pie, but here you can use chiles and herbs with a free hand.
If you’re cooking tomorrow, you will almost certainly have enough turkey left to dice two cups’ worth for quesadillas with cheddar cheese for eight. You will probably also have cranberry sauce sitting around looking for a second chance at life. Add cilantro, scallions and jalapenos to it and it becomes a sort of salsa, the ideal accent for the sharp cheese and mellow turkey.
Ordinarily, having no leftover cranberry sauce would be good luck, but here it is bit of a misfortune. Luckily, cooking a fresh batch takes five minutes and three ingredients. I had forgotten how good the basic recipe on the bag is -- it’s just pure fruit flavor -- and it works superbly. Or you can be brave and use raw cranberries for the salsa; coarsely chop them and combine them with the other ingredients. The tartness and the crunch are positively bracing.
Fish is now a welcome dish
As for the main course, fish is what many people wake up craving after Thanksgiving, once the tryptophan wears off. A side of salmon is perfect. It has the same communal appeal of a whole turkey and can be cooked just as easily: season it and then roast it. A coating of chipotle chiles, sesame seeds, scallions and cilantro can be spiked with tequila and lubricated with sesame and olive oils to seal the juicy fish under a savory crust. It cooks in about a tenth of the time of a turkey and can be served either hot or at room temperature.
The vegetable to go with it would work just as well on the Thanksgiving table. Swiss chard braised with shiitakes and poblano peppers is lively and dramatic. Spinach could be substituted for the chard, but you will need probably twice as much. And green chard is crucial unless you want Christmas colors on the plate; red chard will “dye” the mushrooms.
Aside from the fish, the shiitakes, the poblanos and the chard, most ingredients for this menu are either likely to be on hand or easily picked up at even a convenience shop. You can even serve the beer or wine bought for the turkey. And if no one is quite in the mood to sit down around the table for one more big meal, it is very doable as a buffet.
One last bonus: An after-party will give you the strength to get through the mall.