Thanksgiving is a holiday I can really wrap my mind and heart around. A holiday that is all about recognizing how much we have to be thankful for; wonderful people in our lives, warm homes within which to host them, the financial means to put food on the table, and the ability to sit back and spend an entire day to celebrate all of the above. Truly, a holiday designed to fill our hearts and bellies with gratitude – sign me up. No matter whom you are, this is a day you can identify with. And, perhaps, if your doing it right, you realize that each day should be infused with a bit more gratitude, no?
I cannot really say that I always “got” the holiday message here;when I was very little, my mother helped my brother, sister and I to make aprons with our hands to simulate little turkeys prancing across the chef’s belly. They were awesome. 🙂 Family feasts for Thanksgiving when I was small were the time that I got to see my cousins, to try to enjoy more of the scalloped potatoes than the boys, to probably help the women in the kitchen while the men watched football. Holiday meals were big and so there were chairs out all over the house and you sat where you could. Sometimes, where someone whom was finished had just gotten up to go back into the kitchen or back to the football game. We always gave thanks before eating our feast prepared with love. But in retrospect I can recall there being a good amount of stress around the weather/quanitity/obligatory dishes/grannies/kiddies. It seemed as if everyone had skipped breakfast so they could gorge Thanksgiving dinner and crankiness was ruling the holiday.
This particular year was the first year I had the opportunity to design, from scratch, our Thanksgiving. With our move to California around the corner, annual trip to Montana on the horizon, and basic desires just to “be home,” on the brain, we decided to take full advantage of the fabulous venue that is our little Portland apartment, perched above this cozy city. Last year I cooked for 10 in someone elses’ kitchen. The year prior, we were part of a pot-luck operation and so I happily baked my pie and pushed away the sweet potatoes with marshmellows with a graceful “no.” This year I would have to chance to choose our entire menu, to host a couple of our most amazing friends, and pour my whole being into this delicious display of just how much gratitude exists in this little body, under my little apron.
For me, this meant weeks of brainstorming menus and taste profiles. Visits to the best purveyors in Portland to find what they had on offer that might make our dishes special. There were hours of “research” (ie: tasting and testing) to be done in the kitchen, and of course several days of prep work to be done to pull everything together.
It was SO much fun for me. And, in the end, what we had was simple, elegant meal that felt as luxurious as they come. Together, we enjoyed a distinct five-course meal that played out over hours of good conversation. Emma and Julia brought an armload of some of the most gorgeous flowers that have graced my table. Derek poured Whisky + Ginger and French 75 in between the bottles of wine that the girls brought, and the whole night progressed more as a series of nibbles. It was wonderful. Wanna know what we had?
- Applewood Bacon Wrapped Dates w/ Chevre + Almonds + Himalayan Pink Salt
- Spiced Caramel Corn w/ Cashews + Pistachios
- Canelli and Carrot Bruschetta + Lemon Thyme + Shallots
- Dijon + Ras al Hanout Deviled Quail Eggs
- Arugula Salad + Roasted Beets + Fresh Figs + Green Peppercorn Chevre
- Cornish Game Hen w/ Brioche + Chestnut + Sage Stuffing
- Truffled Mashed Potatoes
- Golden Brussel Sprouts + Brown Butter + Oregon Hazelnuts
- Wild Mushroom Gravy
- A selection of Oregon Cheeses w/ fresh figs + persimmons
- Vanilla Poached Seckel Pears
- Cinnamon Crumble Apple Pie w/ Honeycrisps + Blackberry Honey Ice Cream
I truly feel as if I took the time to think about how to make the meal special, relaxing, and celebratory for all of us and truly feel as if that message was conveyed from the first bite to the last hug of the evening.
I recognize that this is not the menu for every cook. And that the mere thought of hard-boiling, peeling, slicing, and surgically removing the yolks from 2 dozen eggs the size of your fingernail only to mash up and replace said yolks is a nightmare to most. But, honestly, as we bid our guests good night Derek and I turned to each other, smiled, peeked at our kitchen that was completely under control until the next morning (when dishes would need to be put away,) smiled again, sat down to finish a bottle of champagne and shared a toast for a holiday that had rejuvinated us to the upmost degree.
I suppose my point is that I truly believe that no matter how intricate your menu, or the overwhelming nature of your potential guests, it is completely possible to cook/share/host from your holiday kitchen without going bonkers, and without completely losing the meaning of sharing good food with those you love, even if you nearly burn down your dwelling in the process. Here are a few things I have found to be helpful (both specific to cooking, and planning in general:)
Make lists. Lots of them. And start them early. Perhaps start with recipes that look particularly easy/quick/delicious/special. If you are me, you keep them in a little notebook and carry it with you everywhere. I keep notes on each and every ingredient I will need to cook, how it will need to be prepped, and a time line for when everything needs to happen. I also make lists and sticky notes for the serving pieces and table settings that I want to use so I don’t have to think about what to reach for when I am chatting with guests while trying to get dinner out. Pie crust, chopped onions, stuffing preparations and bread doughs can all be made well ahead, leafing you time to enjoy the holiday as it draws near. If you build a “Thanksgiving Week Schedule,” it is completely possible to have everything cooked before the actual day itself so you have time to do something crazy (like, sit down and enjoy coffee and freshly baked Gingerbread for a couple of hours on Thanksgiving morning!)
Buy dry ingredients early. Those particular specialty ingredients are sure to be sold out the day before the big day. Get it done early and don’t worry about it.
Clean up while you work. Period.
Always, always mise en place. Prep all of your ingredients before you ever begin to cook a recipe.
Invest in a couple of spiffy gadgets to simplify your cooking, and also up the ante a little: an immersion blender, microplane grater, scale and a thermometer. If you’re ready to go pro, good quality knives are a must as well.
Tally up your ingredient measurements before you go to the grocery store. This is especially helpful when you need so-many onions, or so-much butter.
When buying serving pieces and dishware, ditch the concept of crystal and silver. Dishwashers are your best friend when guests come to call and fussy is not fun.
Know when to splurge and save. Fine chocolates, spices and salts of exceptional quality, European or Vermont butter, fresh fruits, fine cheeses and chocolates can really take even the most simple recipes to the next level. You’re probably not going to notice the difference between name-brand canned pumpkin or the shi-shi organic brand, but vietnamese cinnamon and Tahitian vanilla will really make that old standard recipe kick butt.
Most of all, enjoy your time in the kitchen. It is an absolute gift to have the opportunity to gift, share and provide those you love with nourishing good food. Take your time. Have a glass of wine, or invite friends over so that not only delicious smells fill the house, but smiles as well.
Happy Holidays everyone! – xo L