by Erin and Xani
This year our family decided to host Thanksgiving at BCD Headquarters. This is not our usual tradition (though this year was quite a success so it may become one!) since, for most of our lives, we have traveled to Connecticut to celebrate the holiday with our extended family. Every year growing up, our paternal Grandmother hosted Thanksgiving for large groups of people, doing most of the cooking and prep herself (I think she started making her Thanksgiving pies in June!), and always with a smile! Since our Grandmother's death in 2003 (may she rest in peace! [spit spit]), however, the tradition is "in flux" at the moment and we have been rather nomadic for the past few Thanksgivings. This year we wanted to take control, we wanted to COOK, and that we did!
The planning began a few weeks before the holiday, with both of us trolling the Internet looking for delicious recipes. We used a Google document to exchange ideas. We were looking to have a pretty traditional meal, but we wanted recipes with interesting and varied flavors that all went well together. Once we had selected recipes, we presented them for approval from BCD Mom and Dad, who gave their approval (of course - we have great taste!). We put all the ingredients, amounts, and stores from which they should be purchased into a Google spreadsheet, which we passed on to Mom and Dad since they offered to do the grocery shopping (as you may remember, they are MUCH more adept at grocery shopping than we are!).
Here was the final menu:
- Cocktail: Thanksgiving Cran-Bellini
- Ricotta-Stuffed Bacon-Wrapped Dates
- Blanched Crudites with Herb Dip
- Nuts and olives
- Grandma's Mashed White Potatoes
- Roasted Autumn Veggies
- Cider-Braised Brussels Sprouts with Bacon
- Giblet Gravy
- Cornbread, Wild Mushroom, and Pecan Stuffing
- Cranberry-Ginger Relish
- Pumpkin Pie
- Apple Pie
We created a game-plan that broke up the tasks in to Pre-Wednesday, Wednesday, and Thursday.
We hung the "task list" on the fridge-- normal!
But instead of doing a chronological description of the cooking festivities, we'll discuss in terms of dish.
Cocktails and Appetizers
For our cocktail, we created a drink called the Cran-Bellini, which consisted of champagne, cranberry juice, triple sec, and a squeeze of lime juice. We also included a lime twist and a few cranberries for garnish.
For our first appetizer, we made Blanched Crudites with Herb Dip from the Barefoot Contessa. The dip was really easy to make and was delicious and very flavorful. It just consisted of cream cheese, sour cream, mayonnaise, scallions, dill, parsley and salt and pepper all mixed together in the mixer. We served it with some blanched asparagus, and left the baby carrots, grape tomatoes, and radicchio wedges raw.
Next, we made Dave Lieberman's Ricotta-Stuffed Bacon-Wrapped Dates, which were such a HIT! They were gobbled up so quickly, we should have made more! The recipe is very simple, though the technique suggested in the recipe needed some tweaking. Essentially, these are pitted dates filled with ricotta cheese, and then wrapped in a half-strip of bacon and baked in the oven. However, the recipe suggests that you pipe the cheese into the date (through the tiny hole left by the pit) - we found, instead, it was easier just to slice them halfway open (like a hot dog roll) and pipe in the cheese, since the whole thing is going to be secured by a piece of bacon and a toothpick anyway! We also had to do some trimming of our thick-cut, extra-fatty bacon, to make it fit properly around the date. Luckily BCD Headquarters has two ovens, so while the turkey roasted away in one, we cooked up the dates (until the bacon was crisp) in the other, at about 425 degrees, for 15 minutes or so. As we said before, these were a total and complete hit and we well DEFINITELY be making these again in the future! The sweetness of the date against the salty bacon was, as Erin said, "like syrup and bacon," the classic breakfast flavor combination. The creaminess from the ricotta didn't hurt either.
In keeping with Podolny tradition, we also served nuts (in the shells, to deter people from eating too many before dinner!) and a variety of olives.
Of course, the star of any Thanksgiving feast is always Tom Turkey. We had great success with our turkey this year. We brined it using a recipe from the San Francisco Chronicle, which called for sugar, salt, bay leaves, thyme, a whole head of garlic, juniper berries, allspice berries, and a couple gallons of water. We were unsuccessful at getting the juniper berries, and seriously considered throwing some gin in the mix instead, but decided to pass on them altogether. The turkey brined for about 24 hours in a garbage bag within an ice-packed cooler.
After the turkey had brined, we rinsed it, dried it off, and gave it a little massage with some Citrus-Thyme Butter from an Epicurious recipe. We then stuffed the turkey (see detailed stuffing description below), and Dad gave us a lesson on how to string up a turkey.
He's wearing a corset-- how chic!
We roasted the turkey for a little over four hours, which was a lot longer than we expected. But, we were going off of the instant-read thermometer (placed in the thigh) which was set for 165 degrees. We attribute the longer cooking time to the fact that the bird was stuffed (the recipe we were using did not specify a longer cooking time for a stuffed bird).
The turkey came out AWESOME! It was perfectly cooked and so moist and tender (thanks brine!) and had really great flavor due to the brine and the rub. We both thought it was one of the best turkeys we had ever had.
We also used the same Epicurious recipe that had the Citrus-Thyme Butter to make Giblet Gravy, which was a lot of work and was, sadly, not that great in the end. The day before Thanksgiving we made giblet stock from the giblets, some veggies, herbs, and white wine. Then, you are supposed to combine the drippings from the turkey with the stock to add to the roux to make gravy. Unfortunately, most of the juices from the turkey stayed IN the bird (we hypothesize this is due to the brining process) and all that was left was fat. So, we pressed on and continued with the gravy recipe sans drippings. Xani made a roux and cooked it until it was golden brown, then slowly added the giblet stock. Now, we should have stopped here, as this was pretty good gravy (although it had a mild flavor, probably because there weren't any drippings). But, the recipe said to add finely chopped cooked giblets, chopped hard-boiled egg, and brandy, which we did. This had a not-so-great effect on the flavor. As Xani said, "I finally achieved lump-free gravy and then I put a bunch of lumps in it!" Let's just say it was not a successful dish. But, we did get to practice our stock-making, roux-making, and gravy-making skills!
Grandma's Mashed White Potatoes
The mashed potatoes were the only traditional family recipe we used this year in honor of Grandma. Her recipe is very simple and includes a secret ingredient (which will no longer be secret since it's on the Internet). We just boiled up some white potatoes and riced them (she would have used a masher but we love our ricer), and then added salt, pepper, and...chicken fat. Lots of it. Yes, folks, schmaltz (chicken fat) is the secret ingredient and it makes these potatoes addictive (like crack). Another secret to her method is that she always made the potatoes the day before and reheated them on Thanksgiving Day - not sure why but it always made them taste better!
Roasted Autumn Vegetables
Instead of making traditional candied sweet potatoes this year, we picked another recipe from Epicurious called Roasted Autumn Vegetables. Xani wanted to incorporate her new favorite ingredient, the butternut squash, into the meal and this recipe was the perfect vehicle. The recipe was very easy and had a lot of great, contrasting flavors that made this dish a favorite of the night. Just take butternut squash, red-skinned sweet potatoes (yams), and rutabaga (as Mom says, "it's like a big turnip"), cut it up into cubes, and toss with olive oil and cayenne pepper. Then roast the crap out of them, turning occasionally. When they come out of the oven, toss with finely chopped red onion, chopped chives, and some apple cider vinegar. DELICIOUS.
Dad makes a fashion statement: butternut squash as earrings
Cider-Braised Brussels Sprouts with Bacon
Our green veggie this year was Brussels sprouts, a family favorite. The recipe was also from the San Francisco Chronicle and it turned out very good. First you blanch (or as EP says, "Blanche," like from The Golden Girls) the sprouts, and meanwhile cook up some bacon. When the sprouts are done blanching and have been chilled in an ice bath, you saute them in some butter and oil and add shallot and garlic. Then add hard cider and salt and pepper, and let the sprouts cook through. At the end, hit the sprouts with some nutmeg, some butter (of course), and add the reserved bacon.
Cornbread, Wild Mushroom, and Pecan Stuffing
When selecting a stuffing recipe, we went with a cornbread stuffing since we have never really had that in past Thanksgivings. We decided on a Martha Stewart recipe for Cornbread, Wild Mushroom, and Pecan Stuffing, which turned out great. The recipe was a little complicated but nothing we couldn't handle. Instead of making our own cornbread, we bought corn-muffins at the store (gasp!) - we figured it was easier and wouldn't make a difference in the final outcome. Hey, sometimes you gotta know when it's better to just buy it! Anyway, the recipe said to toast up the cornbread in the oven (after drizzling butter all over it, natch), as well as toast up pecans until fragrant. In a separate pan, we cooked up some shallots, celery, assorted wild mushrooms, thyme, rosemary, salt, pepper, white wine, and a little heavy cream. Then we tossed the cornbread, mushroom mixture, and pecans together and let it sit until it was time for it to be stuffed into the bird (also, several bites were stuffed into our mouths-- it was great even before it was baked!). We had extra, which we cooked in a pan separately while the bird roasted.
The stuffing was really flavorful and had a nice diversity of textures between the soft and crunchy cornbread, the pecans, and bits of mushroom running through it. Our biggest criticism, however, was that it was pretty sweet, which we attribute to the sweetness of the cornbread. We should have made it ourselves - we admit it! Overall though, a delicious stuffing with lots of potential.
We used another Martha recipe, Cranberry-Ginger Relish, for our cranberry sauce (and what's Thanksgiving without cranberries??). The ingredients were just cranberries, sugar, water, grated ginger, and red wine (or sherry) vinegar. It was sweet and tart, with an extra little something from the ginger and the vinegar.
Our wonderful guests made the desserts for the evening, lovely pumpkin and apple pies. They were delicious and we served them with ice cream or whip cream. Erin created her famous "Pie Chart" where she took coffee/tea orders and pie orders.Crafts/Decorations
No holiday would be complete without some sort of crafty project for us to do in addition to all the cooking. First, we took our pumpkins that were intended to be jack-o-lanterns (but never were due to a time crunch making Dad's birthday dinner and Spooky Caramel Lady Apples all in one day!) and made vases out of them. We carved a hole in the top and scraped out the guts and placed in the beautiful fall flowers that Dad had bought.
We also collected some leaves from the backyard a couple days beforehand, pressed them in a book, and then made them SPARKLY! We spray-painted some gold, and used two different colors of glitter (Martha Stewart brand, of course!) to decorate the others. Then we took some clear jewelry-making thread and hung them from the chandelier over the dining table. Not only was this a sparkly, fall-themed craft, but it was a centerpiece that did not take up room on the table, where we needed room for ALL that food! Hooray!
Xani felt still photography didn't adequately capture the MAGIC of the sparkly leaf centerpiece...
It was a wonderful holiday and we had a great time planning, cooking and crafting for it. We were glad to be with family and friends, and of course were thinking of those who could not be with us to celebrate. We hope everyone had a delicious, fun-filled holiday!!
E & X
P.S. If you want MORE Thanksgiving craziness check out our extensive slideshow: