Making Memorable Holiday Meals
The Keys To A Memorable Thanksgiving
This past week I had lunch with three girlfriends and during our wide-ranging conversation over Croque Monsieur sandwiches and a shared cookie plate, one of them mentioned that she had just had dinner at Per Se.
If you're not familiar with haute New York City restaurants, Per Se is the top of the heap, as Frank Sinatra would say. Created and overseen by chef Thomas Keller, also of The French Laundry near Napa, California, Per Se is elegant, prestigious, and a meal for four can equate to what many of us call a mortgage payment. But it is also gastronomic theater and culinary art and for some, it is a coveted experience.
My friend who had just dined there was the only one of the four of us who had. And so we had questions about the room, the service, the wine, and of course, the food. Although she acknowledged the restaurant's beauty, its hushed rooms, and its smart service, my Per Se veteran, citing the tiny portions, limited menu choices, and strained formality, said it was missing something that for her was the mark of truly great dining: generosity.
The word stayed with me as I thought about what have been my best eating experiences. Whether it's a gracious three star Michelin while on a special vacation, or a bucket of steamed crawfish and corn dumped on sheets of newspaper on an outdoor table, or eating from a communal pan of paella, or a big plate of tender peanut butter cookies served with cold lemonade poured in big glasses from which you can drink deeply, our best food memories are marked above all else by generosity.
I think this is what we love about Thanksgiving. It's a day when we gather up orphans who may have no other plans and say, "come join us." Maybe it's also a day when we spend the morning at a soup kitchen to serve a meal to someone who normally eats sparingly and alone. Thanksgiving is when we set our tables so that they are crowded with dinner plates and folding chairs. We spend time planning and shopping and cooking as we do for no other meal of the year, making everyone's sentimental favorites, even if it's a dish we wouldn't otherwise eat (I mean you, green bean casserole).
Still, if this year it's your turn to cook, keep in mind that it can be stressful to try to meet everyone's expectation for generosity. Holiday meals for friends and family can take on, well, the stuff of movies and they're not all comedies. In the midst of it all, there's you trying to enjoy the cooking while making a multi-course meal without compromising results for each of those courses.
Here are a few more suggestions:
- Go light on the hors d'oeuvres. This is a mantra of mine but the point holds: if your guests fill up on nibbles before dinner, it can wreck appetites for the meal to come. But since people may arrive hungry, plan a short cocktail period, serving one drink, a little bowl of nuts and one hors d'oeuvre and then lead people to the dinner table.
- Make a plan. See below for a link to an article about what The New York Times' Melissa Clark recommends.
- It helps if we cook things we've made before. At the very least, try to limit new recipes to just one or two. And resist making too many side dishes. I appreciate that many may have a sentimental favorite but it's the sides that can make a cook crazy. You run out of burners. Two dishes will be rivals for the oven at the same time, but set at different temperatures. So try to limit sides to only two or three: something mashed, the stuffing, and a crisp green vegetable. If it seems chintzy, remember that we can really only enjoy so many flavors in one meal and it's better to have three well-made dishes than six that may end up being compromised.
- You don't have to make a turkey. I think it's a big holiday secret that most of us don't really like it. A large capon or two big chickens is the same work, less worry, more flavor, and chances are you'll get a much better result. Roasting a turkey is an intimidating task even for the experienced cook because let's face it -- nearly every recipe for roasting turkey has as its goal to not make it too dry or tasteless. Name one other recipe that has such low expectations.
- Stuffing is personal so enjoy making one that can become a holiday signature dish. Remember that stuffing can be cooked without a turkey, either stuffed in a capon or else just baked in the oven. I grew up eating one my mother made with rice, pork sausage and sage that is still my favorite:
- Cook 2 cups of long grain white rice (either Uncle Ben's or Lundberg Farms are good choices) until tender.
- Also cook 1/2-cup wild rice, which is actually a type of grass and not rice; it takes about 45 minutes to cook so plan accordingly.
- While the rices cooks, sauté 1-pound pork sausage; use the kind sold in bulk at a butcher shop or else remove the sausage from its casings. Break the sausage into small, one-inch or so pieces as it cooks. Drain and discard any rendered fat.
- In a dry skillet, separately toast about 3 tablespoons pine nuts.
- In a large mixing bowl combine the cooked rice and wild rice, the drained sausage, toasted pine nuts, and about 1 1/2 tablespoons fresh sage that's been cut into small pieces, plus salt and pepper, but remember that the sausage is probably highly seasoned so taste before adding any seasonings.
- If you like something sweet in your stuffing you can also add a handful of dried cranberries.
- Mix gently to combine. Transfer to an ovenproof baking dish and bake at 350° F until warmed through and the top begins to get crusty. If you like to stuff the cavity of your turkey, that's fine to do with the fully mixed stuffing before it's been baked.
You can also be generous in ways beyond the cooking. Use large cloth napkins, refill glasses often, think about how people are seated around the table so that they're near someone they want to talk with, light candles, linger long after the meal, and send guests home with leftovers.
It is rare that when we recall our favorite meals that we think about what we ate. Instead we remember a feeling that stays with us about being comfortable and well attended to. And since it is Thanksgiving, it matters even more.
This year my husband and I are having our dinner with good friends with whom we've shared a few Thanksgivings in the past. Their apartment is within walking distance and I'll be carefully carrying an apple pie I'll bake Thanksgiving morning as I watch Al Roker be once again splendidly enthusiastic about 60-foot Macy's balloons going down Broadway for yet another year. I'll buy my apples the morning before as my neighborhood Greenmarket, normally held on Friday mornings, does us all a favor by switching for just this week to Wednesday. I'll buy a mix of apples as I love how some get soft as they cook, while others will stay firm, keeping the pie from becoming applesauce wrapped in crust. Lots of cinnamon. No nutmeg (I think any pie seasoned with nutmeg ends up tasting more of it than apples). And a flaky butter and shortening pie crust with a fluted edge. Knowing how often I can screw up in the kitchen, I remain a humble cook. Except when it comes to my apple pie. Of that I am proud.
Our hosts aren't very interested in cooking and they'll probably make some of the meal while also buying some of it already prepared. But it won't matter. Because to eat at their dinner table is to experience extraordinary generosity. The company will be exceptional, the conversation will be non-stop, the wine will be excellent and poured with a heavy hand, we will laugh often and time will fly. And of course, we'll have apple pie.