Thanksgiving in the City, Part II

Planning a Thanksgiving Dinner Menu

Thanksgiving in the City, Part II

Planning a Thanksgiving Dinner Menu

My first Thanksgiving in New York City I spent alone.  I had just moved to the city, knew few people, and could only get the single day off from a new job, making it impossible to travel anywhere where I'd be welcomed to a holiday meal.  Resisting self-pity, I decided to enjoy having a day to myself and made a pot of minestrone soup with a spinach pesto while watching the Macy's parade on television, happy knowing the parade was only a few blocks outside my window in a city with which I had already fallen in love.

That was a long time ago and I've since made my home and family here.  That minestrone soup (see our recipe) is still one of my favorites and every time I make it I remember that solitary day as a lesson in how we are free to disrupt the traditions that may burden any holiday, especially Thanksgiving.  It's easy to believe that if our meal is filled with certain dishes cooked and served in a precise way, then the world and our lives will be peaceful and content.  And perhaps for that hour or so spent at the table, they are.

But for many city cooks, every Thanksgiving is unique as we welcome holiday orphans and friends around a distinctively non-Norman Rockwell setting.  And if we are going to make our own rules about what a holiday can be, we certainly can make our own rules for what to cook.

Balancing Color, Texture and Flavors

I'm not going to pass judgment if it's your preference to buy canned cranberry sauce, make green bean casserole with canned mushroom soup, or put marshmallows on your baked sweet potatoes.  But I wish that in addition to nostalgic dishes that you try something a little different this year because there are so many fantastic flavors that can come from the bounty of fall fruits and vegetables.  All the cooking magazines and web sites -- Gourmet, Bon Appétit, Epicurious.com, Food & Wine, Martha Stewart, Fine Cooking, Cook's Illustrated, FoodTV, and others -- are right now featuring lists of ideas for menus and recipes so take a look.  If you're worried about putting an unfamiliar menu together but want to work within the Thanksgiving canon, here are some things to think about when planning a holiday meal.

•  Texture:  Thanksgiving meals can quickly turn into toothless carb-fests with all those mashed potatoes, puréed squash, and cream soups.  That means we have to make a conscious effort to have a mix of different textures, including some crunch, snap and bite.  This can be done as easily as adding toasted pecans to green beans or chestnuts to a dressing, or by making sure you have at least one non-starchy vegetable for anything mashed or puréed.  Also, don't over-cook your green beans or Brussels sprouts.  They'll taste better and you'll immediately add more texture to the plate.

•  Color:  Without even trying, a Thanksgiving dinner plate can be all beige; think turkey breast, mashed potatoes, white bread stuffing, mushroom soup, and creamed onions.  Plus nutritionists tell us that the more color in our food, the more nutrients.  So this holiday try to have something from nearly every color group. 

There are many choices:  baked halves of orange acorn squash; bright green haricots verts blanched and tossed with little golden chips of thin garlic slices pan fried in olive oil, a zap of lemon juice and a fine mince of shallots; green Brussels sprouts with crisp pancetta; ruby red and spicy cranberry chutney; a zucchini gratin that gets brown and crispy with a finish under the broiler; roasted or puréed beets; stuffing made from yellow corn bread or a confetti of wild rice and diced red peppers; and the best concession to an all-white dish -- whipped Yukon Gold potatoes softened with cream and sweet butter.  But try to make your plate a color riot. 

•  Flavors:  No matter how it's brined, deep fried, roasted, glazed or stuffed, turkey has a bland flavor.  Some call it dull and it's hard to disagree.  Because I don't make a meal for a crowd, I can solve this problem by roasting a smaller but more flavorful capon or goose.  But if it's turkey for your table, you can add flavor and personality with your starters and sides. 

Consider something that has heat, like a chili-sauced shrimp cocktail, glazed carrots spiced with cardamom, or jalapeno corn bread dressing.  Something piquant, as cooked tiny red onions that are then tossed with a vinaigrette, making an almost pickled taste to contrast the turkey.  Something sweet; this is often cranberry but it could also be a quince compote or an apple cider jelly, or a dried fruit and nut stuffing.  Something green and bitter, such as collard greens.  And something musky like pumpkin ravioli with sage, or a wild mushroom risotto.

While it may seem downright unpatriotic, I like to include a green salad on my Thanksgiving menu, adding color, texture and flavor all at once.  I skip one side dish and instead at the end of the meal serve an all-green salad (romaine, arugula, frisee) tossed with a simple, clear vinaigrette, maybe with a small piece of Stilton cheese.  Then a pause before dessert and dessert wine, and coffee with chocolates.

•  Production:  A reminder that the secret to producing a big meal is to plan it well.  In addition to choosing dishes that combine texture, color and taste, also think about timing and when things can be cooked in advance or completed at the last minute.  If you're not careful, you could end up with too many things needing to be in the oven while your turkey is still cooking (reminder: bake desserts before you turn the oven over to the turkey) or overflowing the number of stove burners and clean pots you have.  This is one of the reasons to make soup as a first course because it can be done in advance and quickly re-heated. 

Here's what I do a couple of days before making any big meal:  I list my menu, re-read each recipe, check that all ingredients are bought, and then take a piece of paper and literally write out the sequence for cooking the entire meal from start to finish, including when to set the table.  The plan notes any advance prep (haven't you ever started to cook something only to realize that you were supposed to soak/chill/marinade something in advance?), when the oven is in use, when my guests arrive, and the target time for sitting down at the table.  While this may seem compulsive, it makes for a far less stressful cooking experience and invariably, better food.

How to Buy and Cook a Turkey

Look for our interview with butcher Marc Reyes, head of the very fine meat department at Eli's Manhattan, on Third Avenue on Manhattan's Upper East Side, on the topic of "How to Buy and Cook a Turkey."  Mr. Reyes has tremendous knowledge about meats and poultry and he's shared some of that expertise with us.  His number one turkey tip?  Order early!

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