On Food: Thanksgiving simple but elegant

“Profusion is not elegance.”

 

Mary Randolph wrote those words back in 1824. The author of “The Virginia House-Wife,” one of the most brilliant and definitive American cookbooks ever written, lived during a time when hostesses of her class, who rarely if ever did the cooking themselves, made an art of showing off with dinner.

She would’ve seen plenty of that showing off in her time: Born to one of the oldest and most socially prominent families in Virginia, she was founding father Thomas Jefferson’s cousin and his daughter Martha’s sister-in-law.

Not only was she often at the table of the Jeffersons and many other elite families, she was also a celebrated hostess in her own right. She was that rarest of things in her day — a society woman who actually knew how to cook — and did.

But what, you may well be asking, does that little piece of history have to do with your Thanksgiving dinner?

Though penned nearly 200 years ago, Mrs. Randolph’s words have never been more true, particularly when we’re getting ready for that meal. For some reason, even people who aren’t inclined to culinary bragging take the Thanksgiving meal as a challenge to show off as they’ve never shown off before.

Never mind that this holiday is supposed to be all about gratitude: unless you routinely do a lot of elaborate cooking, the only thing an over-reaching profusion is going to show off is your deeply imperfect grasp on reality.

True elegance is a matter of being conscious of your limitations. It’s about not getting carried away by trying to do four or five separate courses without serving help, by adding unnecessarily to your work load with multiple side dishes and desserts that you’ve slavishly made all by yourself, and, especially by having too many things that, while simple, all require last-minute attention.

To that end, here’s a basic menu with some very basic recipes, many of which can be made partly or completely ahead. They can be presented simply as they are or dressed up as suggested with very little added effort.

If you’re an experienced cook and entertain often, you might do all the extra touches. If you aren’t, then choose one or two extras you’re confident you can handle.

This year, we’re celebrating my father’s 90th birthday on Thanksgiving Day. My mother, though she’s having a hard time facing the fact, has slowed down a lot. I will be cooking Thanksgiving dinner her way. My mother does not believe in showing off. Needless to say, our dinner will be simple, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be memorable.

Here are some tips

• Precooking vegetables: In classic French and Italian cooking, vegetables are often blanched before they’re sautéed, roasted, gratinéed or even deep-fried. It sets color in green vegetables, stabilizes flavor and is a great do-ahead technique. It can be done up to three days ahead and having the vegetables prepped and partly cooked will help streamline all the last-minute cooking.

• To blanch Brussels sprouts or green beans:

Bring 4 quarts water to rolling boil in wide 6-quart heavy-bottomed, lidded pot. Cover and bring to boil over high heat. Meanwhile, trim the vegetables as needed (see below), rinse well under cold running water and drain.

When the water boils, uncover and add a small handful of salt, then carefully add the vegetables. Cover and bring back to boil. Uncover and cook, stirring occasionally, until crisp-tender but still bright green, about 2-6 minutes, depending on vegetable. Drain into colander and rinse well under cold running water. Set aside until needed.

Can be done up to 3 days ahead; completely cool, transfer to covered container and refrigerate until needed.

• Trimming haricots verts/green beans: break off the stem end and pull off any strings with it.

• Trimming Brussels sprouts: trim the cut end and peel away any loose leaves. For these recipes, cut them in half.

Simple: Basic Sautéed Brussels Sprouts or Green Beans with Butter and Parsley

Serves 8

Ingredients:

3-4 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 pounds blanched brussels sprouts, haricots verts or other small, slender green beans (see to blanch vegetables)

Salt and whole black pepper in a mill

2 tablespoons minced flat leaf parsley

Directions:

1. Put 2 tablespoons butter in wide, deep skillet or sauté pan over medium heat. When melted and beginning to bubble, add blanched vegetables and season well with salt and pepper. Cook, tossing often, until done to taste, about 2 minutes. Turn off heat.

2. Add 1-2 tablespoons butter and 1 tablespoon parsley. Season with salt and pepper. Toss well, taste, and adjust salt and pepper. Transfer to a serving dish, sprinkle with remaining parsley, and serve hot.

Up a notch: Sautéed Brussels Sprouts or Haricots Verts with Bacon and Caramelized Onions

Serves 8

Ingredients:

4 slices extra-thick-cut applewood smoked bacon, cut crosswise into ¼-inch-wide strips

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 medium yellow onions, trimmed, split lengthwise, peeled, and thinly sliced

2 pounds blanched haricots verts or other small, slender green beans (see to blanch vegetables)

Salt and whole black pepper in a mill

1 tablespoon minced flat leaf parsley (optional)

Directions:

1. Put bacon in large, wide skillet or sauté pan. Return it to medium heat and sauté until browned and fat is rendered. Remove with slotted spoon, then pour off fat into heatproof bowl. Let cool and discard fat or refrigerate for another use. Can be done several hours ahead.

2. Add butter and onions to pan and sauté over medium heat until golden brown. Add blanched vegetables and season with salt and pepper. Continue sautéing, tossing often, until done to your taste, about 2 minutes longer. Add cooked bacon, toss well, and turn off heat. Taste and adjust salt and pepper and transfer to serving dish. Sprinkle with parsley if liked. Serve hot.

Simple: Mary James’ Scalloped Oysters

From my lovely friend Mary James Lawrence, a fine cook who for many years owned a wonderful kitchenware and gourmet food store and cooking school in Greensboro, N.C. Says she: “You can layer the oysters and crackers early in the day. Add the half and half just before baking. Everyone should be at the table and ready to be served when you bring the oysters out of the oven. They are like a soufflé and begin to fall almost immediately, but still delicious.”

Serves 8

Ingredients:

1 pint (16 ounces) fresh oysters with liquor

About 8-10 ounces (2 sleeves) saltine crackers, very coarsely broken by hand

Whole black pepper in a mill

4 ounces (1 stick or ½ cup) butter

About 2-3 cups half and half

Directions:

1. Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 400 F. Heavily butter a 2-quart gratin or flat casserole ovenproof dish. Scatter coarsely broken crackers over bottom of dish. Top with a few oysters. Add more broken crackers and a few pieces of butter. Season well with pepper.

2. Repeat 2 more times, ending with broken crackers. You may not need all of 2 sleeves of crackers.

3. Pour oyster liquor around. Dot with butter. Add half and half just to top of crackers. Season again with pepper. Bake 35-40 minutes or until puffed and golden. Serve at once.

Up a Notch: Scalloped Oysters with Scallions

Sauté 4-6 trimmed and thinly sliced scallions in 2 tablespoons of butter until just softened but not colored. Scatter a few of them and a little minced parsley among layers of oysters and crackers. If liked, add a few dashes of hot sauce to half-and-half before pouring it over oysters.

Simple: Old-Fashioned Sage and Onion Dressing

If you want to stuff your turkey, knock yourself out, but this is a lot less troublesome, especially for novices. If you really want to make it from scratch, allow 1 10-inch cake of skillet cornbread and a dozen medium-sized biscuits. Make sure they’re cold and crumble them roughly onto a rimmed half-sheet pan. Let them sit uncovered overnight or dry them for 1-2 hours in a 200-degree oven. If you’re a novice, however, save yourself the pain and stick with bagged cornbread stuffing mix. It’ll be just fine.

Serves 12

Ingredients:

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 large yellow onions, trimmed, split lengthwise, peeled and diced small

2-4 large ribs celery, washed, trimmed, strung and diced small

6 cups plain cornbread stuffing mix

1 tablespoon crumbled, dried sage

Salt and whole black pepper in a peppermill

2 large eggs, well beaten, optional (see step 2)

About 1 ½-2 cups turkey broth, made from the neck and giblets of the fowl

Directions:

1. Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 350 F. Put butter and onion in skillet over medium heat. Sauté until transparent, about 2 minutes, then add celery. Sauté until softened but not browned, about 2-4 minutes more. Turn off heat.

2. Put crumbs in large mixing bowl. Add onions and celery, sage, and season well with salt and pepper. Toss until well mixed. Add eggs and toss again until crumbs are evenly coated. Moisten with broth — not so it’s soggy — but wet and yet still a little loose.

3. Lightly butter a 9-by-13-inch baking pan or dish. Pour in dressing and pat flat. Bake until center is set and top golden brown, about 45 minutes.

Up a Notch (or Two):

Bacon Dressing: Cut butter to 2 tablespoons. Dice 1 pound of extra-thick-cut applewood bacon into a skillet and sauté, stirring often, until it is browned and its fat is rendered. Drain on paper towels and pour off all but 1-2 tablespoons of fat, add butter and onions, and proceed from step 1, adding browned bacon to dressing with onions and celery in step 2.

Sausage Dressing: Cut butter to 2 tablespoons; substitute marjoram for sage (especially if sausage contains sage). Crumble 1 pound of bulk sausage into large skillet and sauté until browned, crumbling with fork. Drain off all but 1-2 tablespoons fat, add butter and onions, and proceed from step 1, adding browned sausage with onions and celery in step 2.

Oyster Dressing: Omit sage and add 1 pint shucked, drained oysters (picked over for shell) and ½ cup finely chopped parsley in step 2. Substitute 1 cup strained oyster liquor for part of broth.

Seafood Dressing: Omit sage and add 1 cup shucked, drained oysters (picked over for shell), 1 cup raw peeled and cut up medium shrimp, 1 cup lump crabmeat (picked through for shell) and ½ cup finely chopped parsley in step 2. Substitute strained oyster liquor for part or all of broth.

Simple: Pumpkin Custards

First: There’s absolutely nothing wrong with canned pumpkin puree. Few people can tell the difference and, after all, they’re getting homemade pie.

Serves 6

Ingredients:

2 large eggs, lightly beaten

1 15-ounce can pure pumpkin puree (not “pie filling”)

1 ½ teaspoons ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon ground ginger

½ teaspoon salt

1 cup evaporated milk or cream, or ½ cup each

¾ cup granulated sugar

Bourbon Whipped Cream (recipe follows)

Directions:

1. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 325 F. Whisk eggs lightly and whisk in pumpkin, milk or milk and/or cream, spices, and sugar. Pour into six 6-ounce ramekins. Put ramekins in a roasting pan or sheet cake pan, not touching.

2. Bring a teakettle of water to a boil. Pour water carefully around ramekins to halfway up sides. Lay a sheet of foil over ramekins and bake until set, about 30 minutes. Uncover and cool, then cover each with plastic wrap and refrigerate until chilled.

Up a Notch: My Grandmother’s Pumpkin Pie

My grandmother got her always-perfect pie recipe off the back of a can of pumpkin puree, by the way. You’ll need pastry for one pie shell.

Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 425 F. Roll out pastry and line 9-9 ½-inch pie dish. Prick bottom with fork. Line pastry with parchment and cover parchment with pie weights and bake 20 minutes. Carefully remove parchment and weights from pastry, and let cool on wire rack.

Meanwhile make custard mixture as directed in step 1. Pour into prepared pastry and bake 15 minutes at 425 F. Reduce temperature to 350 F and bake 40 to 50 minutes or until knife inserted near center comes out clean. Cool completely on wire rack before serving. Some make it a day ahead and chill it. Serve with bourbon whipped cream.

Up a Notch (or Two) Without Pastry: Pumpkin Crème Brûlée

Make the pumpkin custards and thoroughly chill them (at least 4 hours). Sprinkle a heaped tablespoon or more of light brown or regular sugar over each custard and caramelize it with a kitchen blowtorch. Chill until caramelized sugar is hard, about half an hour.

Bourbon Whipped Cream (Simple)

The secret of Savannah hostesses for generations, this will perk up even the most indifferent dessert, even a pie that was … gasp … store-bought. So if making even a custard without a crust is beyond you, buy the pie and serve it topped with plenty of this.

Makes about 2 ½ cups

Ingredients:

1 pint cold heavy cream

¼ cup sugar or more, to taste

1 tablespoon bourbon

Directions:

1. Beat cream in chilled glass or stainless bowl with wire whisk or electric mixer until beginning to thicken.

2. Sprinkle in sugar (exact amount will depend on your taste and what cream accompanies) and whip until cream holds soft peaks, tasting and adjusting sugar once cream begins to get firm. Fold in bourbon and whip until cream holds stiff peaks. Can be made up to 2 hours ahead. Keep covered and chilled.

MORE ONLINE

Find this article and recipes online with Damon’s column at savannahnow.com:

• Damon talks turkey guidelines

• Damon’s Favorite Roast Turkey recipe

• Pan Gravy Plain and Fancy

More

Sat, 11/18/2017 - 11:21pm

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