Saturday, November 29, 2008

My First Family Thanksgiving

Our family's Thanksgiving has been my mother's holiday since 1966, and was her mother's before that. These many Thanksgivings provided many happy memories. This year, though, due to family travails, my mother relented and allowed me to host the event.

Before this year, I have only made two turkeys, in Paris in 1979 and in Tokyo nearly twenty years later, in 1998. I confess I don't recall anything about the French dinde, except that it was delicious and quite different from the American bird. The Tokyo turkey was a frozen American like most people here eat, made in the most classic way, that I served at a house party for my office staff, mostly Japanese people who had never experienced a whole roasted Turkey, let alone a traditional American Thanksgiving.

Anticipating that I might someday be called upon to take over the family duties, I have been assiduously saving interesting recipes for turkey, stuffing and Thanksgiving sides for years, so many that it was hard to decide which to choose. Not only are there a million different flavors, there are also a million methods. To brine or not to brine; to rub or not to rub, to slow-cook or to fast-cook, to stuff or not to stuff: these are some of the questions that a first-timer must address.
My first decision was to keep it fairly traditional - no southwestern or Asian spice rub, however appealing they might sound. Second decision: not to stuff the bird, for multiple reasons (primarily, I'd rather use the juice (defatted) for gravy than to eat all the fat in the stuffing) but to make dressing separately. Third decision: not to brine; a friend who is the best cooker of birds that I know said she had tried it and found it of marginal, if any, benefit if the turkey is of good quality. Fourth decision: to use Michael Chiarello's fennel spice rub and his fast-cooking method (available through So, I made his delicious rub - lots of fennel seeds, white peppercorns and coriander seeds, toasted, then ground, with salt - oiled the 15-pound turkey with olive oil on and under the skin, and put in the fridge overnight. Took it out an hour and a half before cooking at 425 degrees for just 3 hours (165 degrees in the deepest part of the thigh), left to stand for 20 minutes and voila!: a delicious turkey, with pretty moist white meat and lots of tasty, crispy skin.

In case anyone cares, the side dishes were a pretty classic herb and onion stuffing made with large cubes of ciabatta bread, Mark Bittman's sweet potato gratin with hazelnuts, ginger and orange zest, green beans with Meyer lemon vinaigrette and parmesan breadcrumbs (from New York Times), a green salad with my Italian dressing (see my posting on Salad Dressing), my mother's delicious cranberry chutney, and boiled white rice (ours is the only non-Asian family that eats white rice for Thanksgiving - not my idea). The sweet potato gratin, from a recent New York Times, is a keeper; try to get it on line. I will certainly improve on the stuffing and replace the green beans with a different side next time.

Of course, Thanksgiving wouldn't be Thanksgiving without hors d'oeuvres and desserts. In keeping with the holiday's traditions, my sister-in-law brought a truckload of delicious appetizers and desserts, and my mother-in-law furnished her delicious home-made cranberry and pear tortes. Needless to say, everyone was sated and happy.

My strategy to prepare for next year (if the feast does not revert to Mom) is to have an experimental Thanksgiving dinner in the spring, say April, for a group of adventurous and honest friends, and to try one or more of those exotic Asian or Southwestern recipes. It'll probably be a good meal and in any event won't "count" as a real Thanksgiving; still, I hope to get some ideas that can be applied to the real thing.

Please share your suggestions and experiences.

Bobby Jay

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

your Thanksgiving sounds just wonderful! Mom, move over. You have some real competition.
What a great idea to have a Thanksgiving trial run--I may copy you.