Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday; it has been for as far back as I can remember. We had a great tradition in my family (doesn’t everyone?). We would pack up the car and head north, switching every year between my cousin’s house in New York and her brother’s place in Massachusetts. In my opinion, all Thanksgivings should be celebrated in New England. The turning leaves, the dusting of sparkly frost, the movie-set fog, the quaint, colonial-era farms: this is the perfect setting in which to celebrate autumn. We would always visit the turkey farm to handpick our guest of honor. I can remember the sawdust smell of the chick hutch, the warm, moist air in my eyes as a carpet of yellow poults rippled in unison away from my intrusion. We would score chestnuts for later roasting, and when we got thirsty, we’d slide open the back door to extract a jug of apple cider that’d been cooling in the snow.
Our traditions have changed a bit over the years. When my parents got divorced, my mom would go to a friend’s or her parents’ house for the meal. My dad and brother and I would still continue with the northern expedition. Then my parents both remarried, my dad’s new wife joined the mix, one of my cousins had a baby, and the dynamic altered. This year marks the second time in my life that I have missed this annual custom. But being abroad in no way dampened my desire to celebrate Thanksgiving. In fact, I was more eager to make a proper go of it, in order to both hold on to my memories and begin new ones with my new husband and our foreign friends.
Below I have included my menu and recipes and tips and some fun stories that stemmed from introducing non-Americans to this very American holiday:
Roasting Perfect Chestnuts, or How to Avoid Slicing Your Hand Open
Preheat the oven to 450˚F. Wash chestnuts in warm water. Place them in a bowl and cover them by about one inch with very hot tap water. Let them soak for about 25-30 minutes. Drain them.
Lay the chestnuts flat side down, so it looks like their pregnant bellies are in the air. Using a small, sharp knife, make a slit across the top of their belly, from one side to the other. Don’t cut the flat side, and try to avoid piercing into the flesh of the nut (sometimes this is unavoidable). The hot water should have really softened the shells, making this whole process much easier.
Once they are all slit, lay them on a baking sheet cut-side up. Bake them for about 15-20 minutes (depending on how big they are) until just tender when pierced with a fork. Stir them once halfway through. Keep an eye out so the flesh doesn’t start to brown.
As soon as they’re out of the oven, place them in a clean dish towel, and wrap it up like a bindle. Place the sack in a bowl and stick it in the microwave. The purpose of this step is to let the chestnuts steam a bit in their own heat. Let them rest for about 20 minutes, then peel them in wonder, as they slip easily out of their shells into your awaiting mouth.
Just the Right Stuffing
It took me ages to decide what stuffing to make. Well, let me back up. I don’t make stuffing; I make dressing. That is, I don’t stuff the turkey with my bread casserole; I bake it separately, as a side dish. So yeah, what’s that called? I still call it stuffing.
Last year I made a pear, sage, and sausage stuffing. It had roasted chestnuts, carrots, celery, and onions in it, too. The only issue is that I don’t eat pig/cow/lamb/etc., so I had to find chicken sausage. Let me tell you this: the Europeans think you’re crazy if you tell them you’re looking for alternative sausage. Turkey bacon? Forget it. Artisanal chicken sausage? Not a chance. The only alternative I’ve found has been a poultry sausage that looks and – to my memory – tastes like a hot dog. Gross. I used it in my stuffing last year, and vowed not to repeat that mistake.
Then I thought I might make my panzanella as a new-fangled take on stuffing in general. But my husband reminded me that we were hosting this meal for a group of people who had never experienced a real American Thanksgiving, and that I should indulge them with some more traditional fare. Okay, good point. Still needed a plan. Whatever, I know fall produce inside and out, I’ll just make something up using some of my favorite fall ingredients. Alors, voilà!
“Harvest This” Stuffing
Yield: 12 servings
1 loaf bakery bread, cubed
1 2-lb. butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cubed
1 Tbsp fresh thyme, chopped
⅓ cup olive oil
1 golden apple, peeled and cubed
1 Tbsp butter
3 stalks celery, diced
1 large onion, diced
2 Tbsp fresh sage, chopped
Sea salt and white pepper
1 cup dried cranberries
1 cup chopped roasted chestnuts
2+ cups chicken broth
Toast bread cubes, dry, at 325°F for 15-20 minutes, stirring once, until crisp but not browned. Set aside.
Increase oven to 425°F. Toss butternut squash with thyme, sea salt, and olive oil and roast for 15-20 minutes, until tender but not mushy. Set aside. Decrease oven to 350°F.
In pan, melt butter over medium heat. Cook celery and onions, stirring regularly, until tender. Add sage, salt, and pepper, and cook for one minute more.
Combine everything except broth in large mixing bowls. Transfer to large baking dish and pour in the broth. Cover with tinfoil. Bake for 20 minutes, then uncover and bake for 30 more minutes, or until set and slightly crispy on top.
* The chestnuts can be roasted 2-3 days in advance. The bread can be toasted the day before and left uncovered at room temperature. The squash can be roasted earlier on the day of, and kept in the fridge.
A Tiny Gobbler
American meat is freakishly large. (hehe) No, but seriously, have you seen how big the breasts are? Okay, okay, I’ll stop. Although I knew about hormone-injected meats, and that producers even inject water or broth into chicken breasts to make them look plumper, I had never had the opportunity to compare different meats. I had never grocery shopped in another country before. I can tell you now, from experience, our meat is bigger than it should be. And because of all that tampering, a lot of times it’s less flavorful.
One week before Thanksgiving, the grocery stores here begin stocking what to them must be a monstrous, Godzilla-sized fowl beast. They call it “dinde Americain,” which means American turkey. Now, we never got a turkey that was less than 20 pounds for our family’s Thanksgiving. However, the biggest bird I could find here was a frozen 12-pounder, which would have set us back about 75 dollars. You read that right. A frozen, 12-pound turkey for $75!!!
Of course, I didn’t want a frozen one, so I went to the fresh section, where the biggest whopper weighed in at a staggering nine pounds. That guy cost us almost $60. No doubt they’re just laughing at us now. Well, there was nothing to be done. I scooped him up and brought him home. Once cleaned, I rubbed him with butter, sea salt, and black pepper, stuffed him with rosemary, thyme, sage, apples, onions, and garlic, and dropped him in a chicken broth/apple cider-filled roasting pan for four hours.
*For the gravy, I combined all the pan drippings into a roux with some fresh thyme sprigs and apple cider, whisked until it was thick, and strained the lovely concoction into a smooth, rich, tart accoutrement.
The Best of the Rest
As every American knows, you don’t just have turkey, stuffing, and gravy for Thanksgiving (although I totally could, couldn’t you?). The meaning, the origin, is to give thanks for the bounty of the harvest. I told the story as best I could remember. My European audience was rapt with attention. They only knew what they had seen in movies. I got several exclamations of, “Wow, so Americans really do that in real life?!”
We did the whole “go-around-the-table-and-say-what-you’re-thankful-for” thing, which, if it made them uncomfortable, they were good sports about. I told them about the pilgrims, and Plymouth Rock, and the harsh New England winters, and Squanto, and how the “First Thanksgiving” was not religious in nature, but truly an expression of thanks to the people who helped them survive and the crops that grew in so beautifully. My table had a Dutchman, a Frenchman, two Swiss, a Brit, and of course my Quebecer husband, who celebrates a different type of Thanksgiving in a different month.
Along with the aforementioned staples of the feast, I made my famous mashed potatoes using a secret spice blend known only to my family. I shredded Brussels sprouts and pan sautéed them with lardons (large chunks of bacon used in a lot of French cooking) and shallots. I also created a “jewel roast” using batons of red beets, carrots, and parsnips, dressed with an apple cider vinegar-brown sugar marinade.
Dessert was my favorite non-traditional form of a traditional Thanksgiving pie. Instead of the customary pumpkin pie, I make a pumpkin cheesecake. I mixed puréed pumpkin with spices, cream cheese, eggs, and sweetened condensed milk, and poured it over a pumpkin-spiced crust. It baked and then chilled overnight, just like a normal cheesecake. It takes the idea of a simple pumpkin dessert and propels it into the stratosphere of awesomeness. Serve it drowning in whipped cream for best results.