This Thanksgiving I allowed myself to experiment and mess around with several recipes I’d been thinking about for a while. It is tough to put aside the reluctance that comes with the possibility that the dishes might not work , or, flop spectacularly. Added to the mixing bowl of ideas, flavors, recipes, was the perceived expectations of a houseful of guests, hungry for a grand slam Thanksgiving Feast who would be disappointed if the fare was… mehhh.
I love Thanksgiving, and undertake its preparation with the sincerity and ardor of a pilgrim. Having spent my early life Down Under, I came to the holiday a little later, but have taken to it like a pumpkin to pie, turkey to stuffing, cranberry to sauce….OK I’ll stop now. Thanksgiving is largely about tradition and family. I wanted the menu I put together to celebrate the flavors and dishes that my family enjoy and are growing up on. I also wanted the menu to tell a tasty story about us, our background, traditions, and the places we’ve travelled to together. Kind of like a yummy scrapbook, or a delicious slide show.
Hub and I went out for dinner a few weeks ago, when he adroitly ordered a dish that was love at first bite for my taste buds: Butternut Squash and Sage Ravioli in a Brown Butter sauce. Five words: Nutty, sweet, herbal, creamy, delicious. The smooth mellow butternut squash filling combined with shreds of woodsy sage clearly suggested “Thanksgiving” to me- to the point that I could not hear anything but the words “…must make for Thanksgiving” . Of course, alterations and modifications had to be considered, the browned butter sauce, which was heavenly, would have to go, seeing that due to the turkey the meal would be inescapably Meat, or fleishig. Which got me thinking about how kreplach are the Ashkenazic Jewish version of ravioli, and maybe flash-frying these butternut squash kreplach in olive oil for a crispy texture that would be great as an hors d’oeuvre. I added a few tablespoons of toasted ground hazelnuts to the butternut squash and finely chopped the sage leaves, mixed it all together and placed spoonfuls of it in the middle of a wonton wrapper, sealed it up into a tight triangle and then flash-fried them on each side for about 30 seconds, along with a few sage leaves, to a golden crisp-ness. They were gone before the Cajun-spice rubbed turkey made its appearance on the table.
I served mini chicken pot pies in the hopes of summoning the eating enthusiasm that my brothers display whenever I cook for them. If they couldn’t be with us in person at least they were with us in flavor. It is just the sort of thing they’d gather around as they watched football or their various sports competitions on the tube, the discarded tin trays littering the coffee table along with their soda cans and greasy bowls of chips . This homemade version of pot pie is made with coconut milk for a thick and creamy filling in which the blackened spiced chicken pieces and finely chopped veggies are piquantly suspended. They would have not left even one for the guests, which I would’ve yelled at them for …then they would’ve made fun of the way my nose flares when I yell, and I would end up in my room behind a slammed door, and the guests would be embarrassed (and hungry). So maybe it’s better that they weren’t there.
For the kiddles? It had to be hot dogs and meatballs. I couldn’t bring myself to buy the frozen pig ‘n blankets that they adore , mainly because they would take up valuable oven space. Instead, I picked up a couple packets of mini dogs dumped them in a crock pot and mixed together a tangy sauce made from honey, mustard, and Worcestershire sauce and let it simmer. It had a good taste, and the pot was cleaned out by the end of the evening, but the texture of the sauce needs more work. The honey separated from the mustard and it wasn’t pretty. Maybe next time I’ll substitute brown sugar for the honey? The meatballs went down pretty well too. I made a thick barbecue sauce that I submerged the browned meatballs in. They were just the thing, saucily sandwiched in a dinner roll, as I ran around making sure that everything was on track, and that the kids weren’t watching Showtime .
And then there was dessert…If there’s something to be culinarily thankful for, it has to be dessert, right? There was the expected pumpkin pie, and a bar version of my mother-in-law’s pecan pie. Both are pleasing, none-too-thrilling, reliable standards. For a fine ending, I wanted to flood my guests palates with lush sweetness and then knock ’em out with a spirited punch of flavor. Enter Chocolate Bourbon Bundt with a caramel glaze- wham, bam, thank you ma’am! But the path to dessert nirvana is not so simple. I had to overcome the butter issue, as well as the cream for the caramel conundrum. I’m skeptical about dairy-free baking, and usually err on the side of “forget it” if a recipe requires large amounts of butter or cream, rather than convert it with margarine and ersatz milk. God invented dairy for a reason- i.e. to make heavenly sweets with, but this Thanksgiving the two ingredients I am most thankful for are coconut oil spread and coconut milk. The cake was soft and tender with a lovely crumb, that was not compromised at all by the coconut oil spread, and flavor-wise gave the cake just the right hint of coconuttiness, which played nicely with the chocolate and bourbon. I used coconut milk for the cake’s caramel glaze, full disclosure: it was a bit thin and runny but the flavor was on target, and it soaked the cake with another layer of sweet and smoky flavor.
This summer my sweet tooth developed a sweet tooth after our trip to the South. Down there there is no such thing as “too sweet” as a sip of sweet tea will prove . The desserts and candy I sampled in the South gave my Grandmother’s honey-rosewater soaked baklava a sweet run for its money, which got me thinking…Baklava featuring the classic American flavors of maple syrup, cinnamon and pecans cut through with some bourbon for a nice bite. I’m not brazen enough to make this root-canal-on-a-dessert-dish any old day, but for Thanksgiving it just felt right. It’s a great counterpoint to a shot of espresso or a cup of black coffee. It was sweet but not cloying. Which describes our Thanksgiving pretty well too.