Consider the Turkey (Part Two: The Improvisation)
With a last minute change of menu and my Part One desire for danger, meal prep for this year’s Thanksgiving with its little riffs and trills felt like what an orchestra warm up sounds like. Undaunted, I muscled through the prep list on Wednesday: tossing out, incorporating, and improvising what turned out to be, in the end, a very satisfying practice.
It all began with Mozart’s Requiem on Pandora as I chopped The Thanksgiving Trinity (onion, celery, carrot) and browned sausage with a bit of bacon for a recipe I poached from Thomas Keller’s Bouchon. Little more than veg, ciabatta (it’s most exotic ingredient), herbs and meat, the ingredient appeared modest to a fault; but I’d been tasked with “keeping it simple” by the artist-boyfriend and thought Keller would do it up right.
Alas, the fixings failed to hit a single memorable note. Even Greg sniffed at the insipid-tasting combination of pork and bread.
A pound of sauteed-until-crisp-and-brown Creminis un-did the persnickety neatness of the dish, lending a much-needed earthy bass note to pull things together.
To be a Tart
With Greg’s tradition pumpkin pie on the menu, I thought better of my spice apple number and picked up Baking with Julia instead. Why I’ve waited more than half my life to make a classic French Apple Tart is a mystery, but I’m happy as a 5 year-old on Christmas morning that I can still be surprised by something as humble as apple pie. To make the tart, I peeled and sliced half a dozen granny smith apples–sending Greg to the store for more to complete the tart, working now to Hadyn’s Il retorno di Tobia and Bach’s Mass in B Minor, feeling as if the angels (and Julia) were singing to me. After tossing thin slices of apple with cinnamon, sugar, lemon, and a shaved dinner roll, I baked them and then, most satisfyingly, mashed them into a kind of chunky paste. Into a chilled cheddar tart dough went the paste which I painstakingly topped with more sliced apples in a rosette pattern before buttering and dusting with sugar. The result of crust and filling was Miles Davis meets Debussy or Ravel, in a kind of wacky Baz Luhrmann directorial move that ended up making perfect, lovely sense.
Flinging my tried and true roasting method, not to mention all caution, to the wind, I opted for roasting our unstuffed 13 pound bird on top of a mirpoixe for an hour in a 425 degree oven, followed by two hours at 350. The trick to this one is to salt the bird and let it rest uncovered in the fridge for a day or two before hand to allow the skin to tighten and seal in all that lovely turkey essence. Before roasting, rub the turkey with olive oil and more salt and pepper. Place on about 2 cups of mirpoixe and add a cup and a half of turkey broth. That’s it. Tent after an hour when you turn down the oven and baste every 20 minutes until thigh meat juices run clear.
We had a luscious brown bird at the table, bursting with clean juicy poultry flavor. The dripping gravy, made from more turkey stock added to the pan, along with a bit of white wine, cream and cognac silkily dressed my famous garlic mashed potatoes. Together with my homemade cranberry sauce scented with clove and Jonathan Waxman’s escarole and Brussels sprout salad with pickled onion and buttermilk vinaigrette, the meal coupled and uncoupled flavors and textures: there was crunch with bitter, salt with silk, umami mixed with the slightly chewy and the slightly unctuous, and sweet mixed with crisp and a hint of sour.
Food has the ability to do so many things: Comfort, mark, enrich, bind together, and express. And while simple is beautiful, a sense of routine elevated to drudgery can deaden even the loveliest ingredients. I’m with Chef Carla Hall who says that she wants people to taste the love in her food. For me, that means being inspired by new methods or the challenge of creating something lovely and elegant from something that is so simple.
In the end, Greg and his son and I laughed a lot, and shared great food, played board games and watched movies. It’s been decades since I had Thanksgiving like that.