This year, we decided to spend Thanksgiving at home, alone. Just the two of us. We don’t hate our families, we’re not anti-social. We’ve just had months and months of travels hither and yon, with multiple visits to relatives east and west, and more planned for Christmas. We were tired. Still are. But we had one laid-back feast at our own kitchen table, at our own pace—which included an afternoon hike in a new-to-us open space. We’d passed the parking lot on our way to Oakland last month. Thanksgiving was the perfect day to check it out—one of those crisp, clear New Mexico afternoons with brilliant blue sky and not a cloud.
Then we raced back home before dark, just in time to put the turkey on the grill. Honestly, I figured we’d be eating around midnight (and we’d chalk it up to our obsession with all things Spanish, including dinner times). But it turns out, that was a fast bird. Jerry spatchcocked it, and it cooked in 45 minutes. And that leads me to my list of lessons learned in our holiday kitchen (for next year, or the next feast, whichever comes first…):
1. I grew up with the whole turkey intact on the Thanksgiving table. It’s tradition. But now having eaten two spatchcocked turkeys, two Thanksgivings in a row: there’s no contest. The spatchcocked bird is juicer on the inside, crispier in the skin, and I feel no real need to go back. Plus…
2. Grilling is a fabulously tasty way to cook a holiday bird. Especially when garlic-sage-butter is rubbed beneath the skin.
3. I also grew up with my Mom’s cranberry sauce—tradition, too. It’s a simple sauce, just 12 oz of berries boiled in 1 1/2 cups of water and a pinch of salt, then mashed through a sieve and mixed with 1/2 a cup of sugar. But I had my suspicions. It seemed to me rosemary would add a nice touch. So this year, I “adulterated” the recipe (in my mother’s words). I minced rosemary and added it to the berries along with the sugar, and it was YUM.
4. And then we had this:
I do believe this is the best fennel recipe I’ve ever tasted. Thank you, Simon Bryant. You have taught me the wondrous flavors of crispy coriander & fennel seeds mixed together. And we have discovered there is perhaps no better pairing for the holiday mouth than a bite of turkey with a bite of this fennel. Transcendental. These flavors combined create more than the sum of their parts.
Here’s what you do: you take the fennel bulbs, slice in half and place in a cast-iron baking dish with cut sides up. Then you douse the dish in olive oil, lots of olive oil, so the fennel is partly submerged. Top the bulbs with roughly ground coriander and fennel seeds along with some salt. Cook for 20 minutes or more at about 400 degrees F. Then add a whole bunch of green olives and return to the oven. Cook until the bulbs are tender. Then, for the last couple of minutes, broil. You want a nice, crispy top. You want the seeds to crunch but the fennel to melt. Serve hot. (Recipe adapted from Simon Bryant’s Vegies.)
And then, you do this:
5. You make homemade butterscotch pudding with pecan-piñon-chile brittle, and you wonder why on earth you’ve waited your entire life to do this. Because it is the best. These stem from the Blake Spalding & Jennifer Castle cookbook, With a Measure of Grace. They’re both really simple recipes with really simple ingredients. Be not afraid of sugar and fat. Every now and then, you gotta do what you gotta do.
Start with the brittle. Line a baking sheet with wax paper. In a cast-iron skillet, toast 3/4 cup of piñons until golden, but not burnt. (We added pecans, too, crushed into small pieces.) Then, mix 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves, chile powders of your choice (we had a mix – including chipotle for a nice smoky flavor), 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1 1/2 cups sugar in a skillet on medium heat. Stir constantly as the sugar melts. It should turn rich and brown, making a smooth caramel. Don’t burn. When it’s fully melted, quickly stir in the nuts and immediately pour the mixture onto the baking sheet. Let it cool; it will harden into a breakable brick.
Now, for the pudding: Measure 1/2 cup heavy cream and set aside. Melt 1/4 cup butter on low heat. Stir in 3/4 cup dark brown sugar and a good, big pinch of salt. (The recipe calls for 1/2 teaspoon, but we found more is better. You know those sea salt-caramel chocolate bars? You want salt like that. Salty and sweet.) Cook until the butter bubbles and acquires a slightly burned aroma. Gradually stir in cream. Keep stirring. Add 1 1/2 cups whole milk and at least one capful of bourbon – real bourbon. We added quite a bit more. Stir until blended, then remove from heat. Measure 3 tablespoons each of cornstarch and water; mix into a paste. Stir into milk mixture, then cook, stirring constantly, over medium-high heat until it starts to thicken. Simmer and stir vigorously until the mixture coats the back of a spoon. You want a very faint almost-scorched scent—but not burnt. Pour the whole shebang into a bowl and press plastic wrap onto the surface (this will prevent it from forming a skin). Serve with brittle shards and real whipped cream, and you just might cry—it’s that good. Again, that recipe book: With a Measure of Grace. We will make this again before the holidays end.
6. And that leads me to the final kitchen lesson of the season: In the end, despite all this lusciousness, it’s not the food that matters. It’s the people at the table—whether there are 20 or 2.