Friday, November 20, 2009

More Than Just Turkey

Although the turkey is often the centerpiece around which Thanksgiving dinner is made, there is more to Thanksgiving than the turkey. At many tables it is the side dishes that star. What side dishes make their way to the table is often a combination of tradition, ethnicity and innovation--but not too much innovation.

One of my earliest memories of Thanksgiving is being part of a group of female cousins whose job it was to place handwritten slips of paper naming each side dish in the serving dishes on the dining room table. Of course, that was a ploy to keep us from being underfoot; but we took our job seriously while jostling for prime position for our personal favorites.

When I was growing up there were basically two ethnic groups that mattered. You were either Italian or you were not. My mother was the only one of her siblings to marry an Italian, so Thanksgiving was somewhat of a mixture of Italian and American dishes. My mother always made her stuffing with sausage, garlic, parsley, raisins and pine nuts. But her sister made an American version. No matter. We loved just about everything--except the turnips.

Later on when my mother relinquished her cooking duties to me, we shared Thanksgiving dinner with my father's brother and his family. My Aunt Helen and I divided the cooking each year. There was always a large platter of antipasto, a large tray of lasagna, a succulent turkey with all of the trimmings and the desserts.

Now a days the group is smaller and blood relatives few. The antipasto and the lasagna have been eliminated, but we still celebrate with family every year--our best friends. L and I have been sharing Thanksgiving dinner for the past six years. It's a routine that is anticipated, comfortable and fun. We share the cooking and each prepares family favorites. I make L's cream of mushroom soup, roast the turkey, make the cranberry sauce, make my family's stuffing and the corn muffins. L makes the mashed potatoes rich with cream cheese and heavy cream, candied yams, her mother-in-law's carrot souffle, her family's stuffing--and the only wiggle room here--some type of green vegetable.For dessert I always bake an apple crostata, a pumpkin pie and something extra. Sometimes pumpkin cheese cake bars; sometimes cranberry upside down cake; and this year pecan bars.

This year there will be ten of us. Besides L & J and one of their daughters, each of their mothers will be here along with my mother and our son and his girlfriend. We will toast to our good fortune to have one another and enjoy our feast. Cennt'anni!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Kitchen Gods

I don't know what I did to anger the kitchen gods, but it must have been impressive since it has adversely affected my kitchen karma since last Friday.

It began when I decided to make some pumpkin gnocchi for dinner. I had all of the ingredients in the house; and, after all, I had made many batches of fluffy and delicious potato gnocchi in the past. Easy? Not so fast. I ended up with a lump of leaden orange-hued dough. There was no saving it.

I decided to think about dinner later and went on to candying a batch of nuts for a treat with drinks or dessert. Easy? Not so fast. Crystallized, stringy and rock hard--there was no saving them.

The next day T & G were expected for dinner. After burning a batch of crostini, I decided to make of batch of savory biscotti to have with drinks. Need I say more? The dough was tough and far from malleable. There was no saving them.

Thankfully, the rest of the dinner went off without a hitch. We had crostini (a new batch) topped with goat cheese and fig preserves. A lovely chicken roasted with carrots, lemons and olives followed. This was accompanied by a winter salad of escarole, red onion, walnuts and shards of Parmesan tossed with a mustard vinaigrette. There was apple cake topped with whipped cream for dessert. Redeemed! Or so I thought.

This is the chicken ready for the oven.

Dinners on Sunday and Monday were simple and uneventful. But yesterday when I tried to get a jump on my Thanksgiving baking--well. I had some time before dinner, so I decided to make the pastry dough and park it in the freezer until next week. The buttery dough for the apple crostata came together perfectly. On to the pastry for the pumpkin pie. A pastry dough, I might add, I have made hundreds of times. Not so fast. Right before my eyes it dissolved into a sticky mess. There was no saving it.

All I know is that I need to get my head into the game before Thanksgiving is upon us. L and I have been jointly hosting Thanksgiving for at least the last six years. I make a few appetizers, roast the turkey, and bake the desserts. She brings all of the side dishes. The number of people around the table varies from year to year, and we all look forward to it.

So I vow to banish distractions, and hopefully with the help of the kitchen gods, get on with the show.