Each Thanksgiving, regardless of any dinner plans later in the day, begins for me with NPR's "Morning Edition" and the Fantasy Chefs' Thanksgiving Dinner. In turn, culinary luminaries like Wolfgang Puck, Alice Waters and Paul Prudhomme ring host Bob Edwards' door and display their side-dish offerings. Though I've never been tempted to try the chicken stuffed in a duck stuffed in a turkey, most of the other items have always sounded pretty tasty and got me wondering: What side dishes would some of our local wizard chefs bring to my fantasy Thanksgiving?
Robert Wooldridge, owner and chef of Gertrude's Restaurant, arrives first, nods hello to the guests and cats, and proceeds to the back yard. The cats follow for he is carrying a slab of salmon they figure is theirs. He also carries everything he needs to whip up the smoked salmon appetizer that will begin our feast: a small portable smoker, hickory chips and the salmon that has been marinating in garlic, soy, lemon and oil. The smell as it smokes has the cats dazed and the guests salivating. Soon, the finished fish is arranged on a platter with its accompaniments: chopped red onion, capers, cream cheese, fresh tomatoes, and the crackers we'll pile it all on.
No Pilgrim started his Thanksgiving so well. With each ring of the doorbell, other chefs arrive with dazzling dishes, innovative variations of traditional Thanksgiving fare, some to be prepared on site, some ready to eat.
Brian Sacks, head chef at Marigold's, provides the next course, an oyster and lentil stew flavored with ham hocks and andouille sausage. There's no on-site preparation for this dish -- it's best if prepared a day in advance to allow the flavors of the various ingredients to blend. He also brings a Two-potato Tart served with red onion marmalade. Since the tart uses sweet potatoes and baby red onions, we've almost covered the obligatory root vegetables.
To dispel bad memories of boring butternuts, Chris Vinley, chef at the Food Designers Fine Catering, brings a modern spin on squash. I manage to cajole the recipe, because I will want to make this again:
Roasted Butternut Squash with Dates and Caramelized Pecan Topping
1 butternut squash salt, pepper, butter 1/2 cup pitted dates, coarsely chopped 1/2 cup slightly chopped pecans 2 tablespoons honey 2 tablespoons brown sugar pinch nutmeg pinch cinnamon crme fraiche (optional)
Halve the squash; season with salt, pepper and dabs of butter. Place cut side down in baking pan. Put dates in the hollow of the squash (so the dates steam in the squash juices as they cook). Bake at 350 degrees for 40 to 50 minutes until soft.
Mix pecans with honey, brown sugar, and 2 tablespoons water in a heavy saucepan. Simmer till water evaporates. Spread nut mixture on baking sheet and bake at 350 degrees for 5 to 7 minutes.
Scoop squash and lightly mash. Season with nutmeg and cinnamon. Toss with half the pecans, and place in baking dish. Top with remaining pecans. Heat thoroughly at 350 degrees.
Optional (though not in my opinion): Top each serving with a dollop of crme fraiche.
With no real idea of what our guests will bring, I'm starting to worry about the balance of color on our buffet. Just in time, Jeff Mervais arrives from La Petite Maison with something green. My francophile hero has brought an old family recipe (from his former wife's grandmother) for rutabaga and peas. It's a simple dish, rutabagas boiled, then mashed with butter, placed in a serving dish and topped with steamed fresh green peas. We discover at dinner how good this is with turkey gravy.
Next to arrive is Ketel Larsen, chef at Phantom Canyon, bearing a salad course. More green; I am relieved. And blown away by this salad of baby spinach topped with grilled figs, gorgonzola cheese, pine nuts and a balsamic vinegar and fig dressing.
Ketel also brought dessert: a flaky-crusted (the secret is a drop of vinegar in the pie dough) apple-blackberry pie which will go nicely with the pumpkin ice cream Robert brought from Gertrude's. I haven't made ice cream since a day of endless cranking at Girl Scout camp (this was before electricity), but Robert assures me it's a snap:
Pumpkin Ice Cream
2-1/2 cups brown sugar
1 tablespoon cinnamon 1 teaspoon nutmeg dash salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 cups mashed cooked pumpkin
4 cups milk
4 cups heavy cream
In large bowl or food processor, beat eggs till foamy. Slowly add brown sugar. Add spices, salt, vanilla, and pumpkin, and blend.
In ice cream freezer, add mixture plus milk and heavy cream. Follow directions of ice-cream freezing process. Voila!
Throughout the meal, we talked of holiday meal traditions, those memories we perpetuate through food so we can, Proust-like, hold to our past, reach to our future. For me, the smell of sage, onions and stuffing cooling in the draft of an open window will always return me to childhood. For John Broening, head chef at Primitivo, the fragrance of memory is a blend of chestnuts, caraway and vinegar, infusing the red cabbage dish his German grandmother made at Thanksgiving. He shares that dish and its fraternal twin: a more savory green cabbage seasoned with apples, bacon and onion. Lori and Rick Dominguez, owners of the Peppertree, have their own tradition of an "orphan Thanksgiving," spending the day with restaurant staff, a day in which food is pleasure, not pressure.
And so ends our feast.
Let this day of excess and blessing also be a day of reflection. I am grateful to my fantasy chefs and their contributions, not only to my penultimate Thanksgiving, but to the ever-improving restaurant scene in our little town. I am thankful for their talent, and for the friends with whom I enjoyed the fruits of our chefs' labors.
Now, about those leftovers
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