November 30, 2011

The Greatest Holiday of the Year: Thanksgiving Eats

Thanksgiving...the meal where all health concerns are given a blind eye and an unofficial competition to use the most butter and heavy cream breaks out between dishes.  For the past 3 years I've been handling the biggest family meal of the year in my parents' house.  Besides being an excuse to continue my buzz from the night before, I enjoy being able to leave my fingerprints over this highly anticipated feast.  Now there's only 5 of us total, so it's not the biggest meal you've ever seen, but no dinner has more pressure than the one on the fourth Thursday of each November.  This year was no different, but I did feel more at ease when cooking this year...maybe that was just the hangover.  Either way, this was the smoothest Thanksgiving yet.  This year's menu consisted of a few variations on typical Thanksgiving fare, but I stayed pretty true to the classic Thanksgiving flavors.  Find the rest of the pictures and dishes after the jump.

Now there's no way that I could hold your attention long enough to give you the details on the recipe for every dish, so I'm just going to stick with the basics.  

Obviously the star of the show is the turkey.  We were able to get a fresh one (a.k.a not frozen) this year and it was a doozie weighing in at a Butterbean-like 23 lbs.  It was the perfect weight for a few front squats to loosen up the legs and burn a few of the thousands of calories I would be consuming from that moment forward.

Word to the wise - a "fresh one" means that the body of the bird is not frozen, however, it is apparently customary (which I did not realize until Thursday morning around 10am) to freeze the giblets inside of the bird.  This set me back a few minutes, but it was nothing that a little lukewarm water from the sink sprayer couldn't handle - I figured a little water couldn't hurt since the bird had already been washed at some point anyways.
The secret that I've used to give my turkey a nice rich flavor and help keep it moist is to rub it down with an herb-mayonaise.  I just add some typical fresh Thanksgiving herbs (sage, rosemary, thyme), garlic powder, and S&P to some mayonnaise and mix it all together.  Then, in an almost sacred ritual, I rub the mayo all over the outside and inside of the bird, reaching every possible crevice I can find.  During cooking, the mayonnaise will all melt away and leave you with a rich brown color on the outside of the bird.

Filling the cavity of the turkey was a challah bread stuffing that was a pretty simple combination of homemade challah croutons, some sauteed onions, mushrooms, celery, and garlic, and some roasted carrots and onions (I would have stopped with just the sauteed veggies, but I didn't have a good enough veggie-to-crouton ratio so I had to ad-lib).  I then took the stuffing that couldn't fit in the bird and threw it in a baking dish with some chicken stock and some bacon for a dressing (I'm still not sure why they call stuffing, cooked outside of the bird, dressing??).

Giant plate of turkey...nom nom nom
Challah bread stuffing - the family favorite
 For the mashed potatoes, I kept it classic and went with a simple butter, garlic, and chive combo.  However, I did decide to whip the potatoes this year as opposed to just mashing them. 

Classic mash
 Now, my mashed potatoes have a wildly drunk cousin -- Hammered Maple Sweet Potato Casserole.  This dish was mashed sweet potatoes combined with some maple syrup, bourbon, heavy cream (of course), and topped with chopped pecans.  Beware, in a recipe like this, the bourbon doesn't really cook out of the all.  The smokey bourbon flavor is pronounced but acts as a nice counterbalance to the inherent sweetness in the sweet potatoes.

Everyone needs a drunk cousin

So we have the protein and starches covered, so how about some actual fruits and vegetables?  I did make, but forgot to photograph, a lighter version of broccoli and cheese.  I figured everything else was so heavy, that keeping heavy cream and butter out of this dish may allow us to actually remove our engorged bodies from the table...eventually.  But the broccoli was roasted, simply seasoned, sprinkled with lemon juice, and then topped with shaved grano padano that melted effortlessly over the florets. 

Another staple at my Thanksgiving table is green bean casserole and since I felt guilty for leaving heavy cream out of the broccoli, I made sure to add plenty to this dish.  It's essentially sauteed mushrooms and onions, combined with heavy cream (basically a simple homemade version of cream of mushroom soup) and then dumped over the blanched green beans.  I topped it all off with some cornbread croutons that my dad had made for me the day before, and painted the croutons with clarified butter before tossing the whole thing in the oven.  My green beans ended up under-seasoned, so make sure you season the dish thoroughly throughout the cooking process...and TASTE EVERYTHING while you're making it!

Cornbread Crusted Green Bean Casserole
Of course, no Thanksgiving is complete without some form of cranberry sauce.  Whether it's the stuff from the can that makes that funny/gross slurping sound when it falls out, or homemade, it's just something that has a permanent place at the table.  My version this year was very simple combination of fresh cranberries, apple cider, a pinch of salt, and plenty of blue agave nectar.  The nectar, extracted from the blue agave plant of the cactus family, is super sweet and is also the base ingredient of tequila.  The sugar from the agave is necessary to sweeten the bitterness of cranberries.  I tossed all of it in a pot, let it reduce, and voila!

Not From A Can Cran Sauce
Then there was the gravy...ohhh the gravy.  Because I'm such a big pumpkin fan, it made sense to make a pumpkin gravy.  This was really just a mixture of the turkey drippings and roasted pumpkin puree from a can.  Bring it all together in a sauce pot, and you actually don't even need heavy cream or a roux to thicken up the gravy!

Pumpkin Gravy...yes please.

There were also some Pillsbury rolls -- I know, I know, an absolute cop out, but I tried making them from scratch last year and it nearly turned into a fiery disaster.  I'll leave the baking to the professionals for now.  To supplant our weekend weight gain,  we went to a family friend's house for an array of delicious pies for dessert, but at least I was off the hook for that. 

Overall, the meal was a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, with a few colors outside of the lines to give it just enough of a personal touch.  It was mix of old traditions and a few new flavors.  In the end, everyone seemed to enjoy eating as much as I enjoyed cooking, so that goes down as a success in my book.


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