Monday, November 30, 2009

A Slightly Less Traditional Thanksgiving Dinner

I usually go home for Thanksgiving, but this year has been a little bit of a challenge, what with the economy and all, so I stayed home. I could have found somewhere to go, but I found myself looking forward to a nice long four-day weekend all to myself. When I first moved to Chicago, after the first year I stopped going home. Every other year, my brother would come up with his family and we would make a mass migration down to the Melrose for their turkey dinner, but as the kids got older and space became more of a challenge that stopped. And then about six years or so ago I started going down there for Thanksgiving and Christmas. But this year it just didn't work out. I'm sure you understand.

I'm not a huge fan of turkey, although I do like the sides. But I am definitely not one of those for whom it's just not Thanksgiving if there isn't a turkey. I thought I would take advantage of having the day to myself by coming up with a Thanksgiving-themed meal that wasn't the traditional fare.

I also wanted to utilize as many ingredients as I already had at hand, so I wouldn't have to make a big trip to the store during what is arguably the busiest week of the year at the grocery store. I did end up at the giant Whole Foods in Lincoln Park the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, and it was a zoo. It's the third largest Whole Foods in the world, but it seemed much bigger to me than the larger one in Austin. (Oddly, though, the largest one is in London. Go figure.)

I was actually there meeting some knitting friends in the cafe, but I was getting a ride home so I took advantage of the opportunity to do a little shopping. It was crazy, and obscenely excessive, and somehow seems totally incongruous with the Whole Foods I remember from the early '80s, and with their local, sustainable message, but I have to admit if you can blind yourself to all the hoopla, their organic produce was quite good, and not too expensive. I got some lovely carrots, some beautiful red and green Swiss Chard, and a flat parsley a vibrant, healthy green the likes of which I had not yet seen this season. I am already looking forward to picking up some more items when we meet again next Tuesday.

My friend and knitting student just got accepted into Tulane University in New Orleans, so we won't be seeing her for a little while, which makes me sad even though I am quite happy for her and a little envious of her morning coffee and beignets at the Cafe du Monde, and those lazy strolls through the French Quarter.

Because she was leaving Thanksgiving Day, she gave me a lovely bag of gifts a little early this year. She told me not to open until it was a little closer to Christmas, except that I should poke around for a little box because that could actually be used for Thanksgiving (I haven't opened anything else yet, I promise!). So I poked around, found the little box, and unwrapped it.

Imagine my pleasant surprise when I saw that it was a package of Bell's All-Natural Seasoning. Apparently, Martha Stewart has been using it for years,and it is the secret ingredient in her stuffing. Not being a huge fan of Ms. Stewart, I was unaware of this product until, coincidentally enough, it was mentioned in a thread on the cooking newsgroup in which I have lurked for years just a few weeks earlier.

I am not much of a spice blend cook; I usually like to mix my own masalas and combine my own herbs and spices from what I have on hand. I think that is as much because I did not grow up with them, and I like the idea of the variety that combining spices as I use them gives me. But the minute I opened up the box and took a whiff I fell in love with it. It's got the usual suspects of a poultry seasoning - sage, thyme, oregano and marjoram, but it also has rosemary and ginger, which gives it an extra fresh sharpness of flavor. I had a vague idea of what I wanted to cook on Thursday, and I knew I would find a way to incorporate the seasoning into my meal.

I had planned to make some kind of stuffing with greens and sausage for my main course, but I also wanted to make empanadas. That started to seem like too much starch, so I decided to stick with the empanadas and just make greens as a side dish. I knew I wanted sweet potatoes (sweet potatoes are what defines Thanksgiving to me - it just isn't Thanksgiving without them), which is how I came up with my Cranberry Chipotle Sweet Potato Soup. After I made the cranberry sauce for the garnish for that soup I realized that, after years of doctoring it up with orange juice, walnuts, apples and ginger, I really like it best when it is made without all of the bells and whistles, so I decided to use the rest of the bag of cranberries to make more sauce. I thought it would go well with the empanadas.

I thought about making a pie for dessert, but I already had piecrust with the empanadas, so I thought maybe a Jack Robinson cake would fit the theme. It's a yellow cake (that's actually more white than yellow, even though there are two whole eggs in it) with a brown sugar meringue baked on top of it. It's a recipe that has been around in our family since before I can remember, but I have only made it once or twice. I don't know how I thought of it, but once I did I know it was the perfect dessert. An extra bonus is that it is easier to take cake to friends than pieces of pie, and I knew I was going into the knit shop on Friday so I would not have to eat the whole thing by myself.

The only wrinkle I ran into with my meal was that I thought I had some ground turkey in the freezer from my last batch of empanadas, but I was mistaken. The last time I made empanadas, I used ground pork and that is what I had. But I decided not to let it get me down. I used the same seasoning I would have used for turkey, and while it definitely was not turkey, it was close enough.

This is what I ended up with for my Thanksgiving day feast:
Cranberry Chipotle Sweet Potato Soup
Pork, leek and potato empanadas
Home-made cranberry sauce
Red and Green Swiss Chard with bacon and whole-grain mustard
Jack Robinson Cake

It was pretty near perfect. I thought the gremolata would complement the empanadas, but it actually overpowered them. I decided to put them to a different use and ate the empanadas with the cranberry sauce instead. It was much better.

This was a very satisfying meal, without being excessive, which is not really fun when you are eating by yourself. I made the soup and the cake on Wednesday, and everything else was pretty straightforward on Thursday, and sat down to my feast at around three o'clock in the afternoon, after spending a couple of hours on the phone with my brother, sister-in-law, niece and nephews.

The empanadas and the cake are for future posts, but I was so pleased with how the chard turned out that I thought I would share that recipe here. It's fast and simple, and goes well with anything. You can't go wrong with greens and bacon.

1/4 lb. (3-4 slices, depending on thickness) of good quality smoked bacon (applewood or maple are both good), diced
1 tsp whole-grain dijon mustard
2 bunches (1 red, 1 green) Swiss Chard, leaves removed from the stems and torn into large pieces, rinsed and drained.

Put bacon in cold skillet and render out the fat over medium heat. Once the bacon is browned and crisp, remove it from the skillet and put it on a paper-towel covered plate to soak up the grease.

Pour out all but a tablespoon of the bacon grease and put the skillet back over medium heat. When it is hot, add the whole grain mustard, and break it down. As soon as the seeds start to pop, add the swiss chard. Season with pepper (and more salt if necessary but be careful - there's a lot of salt in the bacon) to taste. Cook, stirring frequently with tongs to make sure the greens are evenly exposed to the hot skillet, until the greens have wilted to the desired consistency and are still a vibrant green. Do not overcook the greens, for this dish they should still have some bite to them. If necessary, add a little water to keep them from getting too dry.

Add the bacon back to the skillet and leave over the heat just long enough to mix it in. Serve immediately.

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