Oh my God, I love Thanksgiving! For the menu, I think what most people really want is the traditional fare; Turkey, Stuffing, Mashed Potatoes, Gravy and Pumpkin Pie. I imagine the favorite sides are whatever sides your family traditionally serves, i.e., green been casserole, creamed onions, cranberry sauce, etc. So, I decided to stick with the traditional dishes this year.
WHAT?? Are you kidding me?? Well, sort of. I decided to kick everything up with superb ingredients, painstaking techniques and artful presentation. My menu:
- Roast Turkey, brined and stuffed with aromatics
- Sage Stuffing with Homemade Pumpernickel and Sour-Dough Croutons
- Mashed Potatoes
- Gravy made from 48 hour turkey neck stock
- Mixed Roast Squashes on a bed of greens
- Sweet Potato Gnocchi sauteed in Brown Butter and Sage
- Crisp Browned Brussels Sprouts with Bacon
- Cranberry Relish with a splash of Chambord
- Pumpkin Pie with Bourbon Whipped Cream and Cinnamon Sugared Pecan Crumble
- Mince Apple Pie with the same topping as above
I wasn’t having a big crowd, so I had to take care not to prepare too much food. I tend to err on the side of cooking for at least a full regiment, so this was no easy task for me. For the turkey, I bought a small (ten pound) fresh, free range turkey from a great Italian specialty grocer, Doris’. They always have the best meats, seafood and produce.
I used the classic brining recipe from the new cookbook, “The Essential New York Times Cook Book”, by Amanda Hesser. (This is a must-have book.) It was brined in water, sugar, salt, carrot, onion, celery, bay leaves, peppercorns, coriander seeds, chili flakes, fennel seeds, star anise and fresh thyme. It was brined for 48 hours and then, to make sure the skin was nice and crispy, I tried a new technique I heard about. I pulled the bird from the brine and rinsed it thoroughly. I patted it dry as much as I could. It sat UNCOVERED on a platter in the fridge for another 24 hours. This helps the skin to completely dry out and cook up nice and crispy. It worked great! I will use this little trick from now on.
I stuffed the bird with apples, onion, celery, fresh sage and fresh thyme. This stuffing is for an aromatic and flavor boost, you don’t actually eat any of the stuffing. I rubbed the whole thing with olive oil and dried sage and baked it at 325 for about 2 1/2 hours. All the meat, even the white meat, was tender and juicy. The brining sees to that. The skin was golden brown and crispy.
The stuffing was the best I’ve ever had. I made my own croutons from a loaf of pumpernickel and another loaf of sour-dough white bread. I made the croutons big, about one inch squares. I wanted to cook the stuffing outside the bird and sometimes stuffing can get a little dry when you cook it this way. I heard another amazing little trick to ensure moist and tasty stuffing. The trick is to place two turkey wings on top of the stuffing and then bake it. While it baked, the juices from the wings dripped down into the stuffing. It came out moist, aromatic and delicious. Even better than the kind you make inside the bird. An extra bonus – the wings were also delicious!
My best side dish was the platter of mixed squash, roasted and decorated with dried cranberries. Look at them!! You have to make them just to look at them. I bought one acorn squash and one small sugar pumpkin. I cut them in half and seeded them. I put them in a 350 degree oven for about 15 minutes, just long enough to soften them slightly. Then I took them out, sliced them thin, drizzled butter and salt on them and returned them to a high heat oven, 425 degrees for another 30 minutes or until just turning brown on the edges. I arranged the slices on a bed of greens that I had lightly dressed with a shallot vinaigrette and I scattered a few dried cranberries around just for good looks! This recipe is from the 2010 issue of Food And Wine magazine. My version looks way better than theirs. Ha!
My second favorite side dish was the Sweet Potato Gnocchi sauteed in brown butter and sage. Can you stand it? I’m not really a big fan of sweet potatoes and I’m certainly not a fan of sweet, sweet potatoes. I wanted to make a savory sweet potato dish. I saw Giada, the Italian chef on the Food Network make a sweetened sweet potato gnocchi, so I stole her idea and cut out everything sweet. I added some savory spices like; cumin, Chinese Five Spice powder, onion powder and black pepper. They were pretty straightforward to make, gorgeous to look at and really tasty. A definite keeper.
For my green veggie, I decided on Brussels sprouts. I used the fresh ones. I washed trimmed and cut each one in half. I put them in a saute pan with a tablespoon of bacon fat and a cup of my turkey neck stock. I simmered them, covered for about ten minutes. Then I uncovered them and let the liquid cook off completely (about 15 minutes more). After the liquid cooks off, they get browned on the edges from the bacon fat. I promise you, even Brussels sprout haters will love this recipe.
I also made cranberry relish with orange, granny smith apple, walnuts and chambord, a raspberry liqueur. The chambord dressed up the standard relish and everyone loved it. With all the rich foods on a Thanksgiving Day menu, a sweet tart cranberry relish cuts through the richness and balances everything perfectly.