Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Gustatory Gratitude

Robert and I introduce his roast
capon to the hungry crowd
Free-range, organic turkeys across the mid-Atlantic United States need not have feared coming under fork and knife at the home of my dearest Baltimore friends, Jan and Robert, on Thanksgiving this year.  Robert, who does the cooking in their household, chose to roast a capon instead.  But the rooster alone was not enough.  He also roasted a crown rack of lamb to honor his Jewish heritage, since Thanksgiving and Hanukkah fell so close together this year. To go with those two main courses, there were no less than twelve side dishes which, when Robert and I sat down together a few weeks ago to plan our Thanksgiving menu, we agreed we just couldn’t do without.  So, as has been our custom, we divvied up the culinary tasks between us to create a festive evening meal for friends and proceeded to prepare way, way too much food for the nine guests in attendance.  But oh, what a meal it was!

My mother's recipe for homemade
applesauce could not have been
Stewing the apples before pureeing
them made for a velvety texture
and heavenly flavor
Culling from a stack of foodie publications on our menu-planning day in early November, including Bon Appetit, Food Network, Baltimore Style magazine and Cook’s Illustrated, Robert and I considered our choices.  Jan chimed in from another room: “You two always make so much food. Why don’t you cut back a little this year?”  Hmmm.  Okay. So we planned only two appetizers instead of three, only one starch instead of two. But somehow another vegetable appeared on the list and as much as we tried to imagine the holiday without one of them, we couldn’t, so three made the cut: roasted carrots and parsnips with herbs, turnip-almond gratin and green beans with cranberries, walnuts and crumbled bleu cheese.  They all sounded so good!

I cut autumn leaves from a raw yam
to garnish the mashed sweet potatoes
And did the same thing with a raw
turnip to garnish the gratin
Then, in celebration of the first overlap of Hanukkah with Thanksgiving since 1888 and the last time such a confluence will occur until the year 2070 (5831 on the Jewish calendar), Robert also wanted to make latkes, which added another starch.  And we couldn’t serve latkes without homemade applesauce, so that was added, too.  Through the dozen or so years we’ve been cooking Thanksgiving dinner together, Robert has become a stalwart fan of my mother’s recipe for crushed cranberry-orange relish. Indeed, it’s the only dish that seems to make the grade every single year without fail.  And so it went, until fourteen dishes somehow appeared on our list.  Jan just shook her head.

Green beans with dried cranberries,
toasted walnuts and crumbled bleu
cheese was different... and so tasty! 
Roasted carrots and parsnips added
a smoky, winter flavor to the meal
Normally Robert and I divide Thanksgiving dinner preparation fairly evenly, but this year I offered to take on responsibility for the majority of side dishes since Robert and Jan were busy preparing for the opening of a new jewelry store in their high-end chain, Fire & Ice, the week after Thanksgiving in the busy Baltimore-Washington International airport.  So Robert took on preparation of the capon and the lamb, the stuffing and the gravy, the latkes and a sprightly before-dinner berry Sangria, and I took all the rest, save for dessert, which Jan always orders from a wonderful French bakery in Baltimore.

My mother's timeless recipe for raw
crushed cranberries and oranges
was as delicious as it was beautiful
I printed the menu on stiff
parchment for each guest
to take home as a memento
Shortly after our menu-planning session I started looking for my mother’s recipe for homemade applesauce. I never tasted jarred applesauce as a child – didn’t even realize it could be purchased in a store.  My mother used an ancient chinois and wooden pestle to press apples in our kitchen – I still have her chinois set but, alas, have never used it.  I also have her old metal recipe boxes, three of them, stuffed full with neatly typed index cards from the 1950s and 1960s. I went through two of the boxes before finding the recipe.  My mother passed away many years ago, but I still hoped she wouldn’t mind if I used my food processor instead of her chinois.  The result was superb; velvety smooth applesauce with a hint of cinnamon and not too sweet – just the way I remembered it from my youth.  It would be the perfect foil for Robert’s potato pancakes.

Broiled artichoke hearts were tangy
and light
Goat-cheese and pistachio-
wrapped grapes were luscious
and decadent
Next on my to-do list was a trip to the grocery store. Several stores, actually.  I wanted my carrots to look just so, my parsnips to be of a certain size, my turnips and cranberries and yams and arugula to be of the highest quality. I took Thanksgiving week off from work, so intent was I on enjoying the process of all this food preparation instead of trying to cram the preparation in after work each night and then engaging in a cooking marathon Thanksgiving morning that would leave me exhausted and unable to enjoy the day – or the meal.

The table Jan set was gorgeous
A punch bowl filled with fruity sangria
beckoned beneath a portrait of Jan
with their five cats, commissioned
by Robert many years ago
As it was, I was at the stove by 6:30 Thursday morning, busy with the final five of the nine dishes I would prepare. I saved preparation of the two appetizers for last, figuring they would be easiest.  Red grapes encased in a coating of creamy goat cheese and then rolled in crushed pistachios sounded heavenly, and seemed straightforward enough.  The execution, however, was a disaster.  Goat cheese doesn’t stick to grapes!  I tried dusting the grapes with flour first, then wiping each grape dry before starting.  Neither tactic helped. I even went to the Wegman’s website to see if customer comments mentioned a similar problem and a solution.  The minutes were ticking away. Robert was anxious for me to arrive to help him put the finishing touches on his own gustatory contributions.

Robert's grandson, Michael, fries
latkes and stirs the hard cider gravy
Robert, left, sips sangria with me
as Jan stands behind her brother, Rob
Finally, I made it work. The goat cheese stuck better to the grapes once there were a few pistachio crumbles giving the cheese some heft. It was messy but I got all sixty of them done and pierced with toothpicks in record time. 

I ran upstairs for a quick shower, made a stop at my vanity table for makeup and then scrambled into my dressing room, hoping for inspiration to strike after not having the faintest idea all week what I would wear to Thanksgiving dinner.  It would have to be comfortable, forgiving, and have an elastic waistband!

A warm fire awaited guests in Robert
and Jan's artifact-filled living room
A cabinet in the dining room
displays some of  the amazing
pieces they have collected
from all over the world 
A vintage jumpsuit was the answer. I slipped on the classic 1980s style and smiled at the mirror.  With sky-high stilettos from Call it Spring, a jeweled belt I bought a few years ago at The Limited, and a bracelet of smoky quartz that was a gift from Jan’s brother and his wife last Christmas, I loaded the car with food for the quick dash over the hill and through the woods to Robert and Jan’s exquisite abode in Baltimore City, Maryland.

Upon my arrival I found dinner preparations confidently in the hands of Robert’s grandson, Michael, a fourth-year economics major at American University in Washington D.C.  I set about arranging my appetizers on a platter as Robert assembled the fruited Sangria and handed me a glass.

Robert and Jan
present the capon
as their standard
poodle, Chanel,
looks on
The crown rack of lamb was cooked
to perfection
Maple-infused mashed sweet potatoes, the best I’ve ever tasted, the turnip gratin and the green beans went into Robert’s warming drawer, along with the roasted carrots.  Dollops of applesauce and sour cream were scooped into small serving bowls, while Jan put the finishing touches on an impeccably set table.

When our guests arrived, we toasted with Sangria, a jewel-toned concoction of blueberry-pomegranate juice, Rioja, cognac and cassis, sprinkled with fresh raspberries, blueberries and blackberries and several shakes of a special pimento bitters which, until a few days before the feast, we had no idea would be impossible to find at any liquor store in the state of Maryland.  I finally located the rare DeGroff’s ingredient at a liquor store in Buffalo, New York, where the congenial employees were happy to ship it to me in time for the big day.

Jesse carved the capon
One by one we
brought dishes
to the table
Right on time we carved the bird and the lamb and dug into a savory repast that all agreed was superb despite our excesses. One of Robert’s dearest friends, David, brought a magnum of Alsatian Riesling that was beyond delicious, and Robert contributed special bottles of red from his own well-appointed cellar to round out a meal that was joyful and relaxed.  After all, this same group of friends have shared Thanksgiving dinner together for more than a decade now, and will meet again in a few weeks at my home for Christmas dinner.

As the sun set on a glorious day, Robert gathered his grandson, Michael, and his 8-year-old nephew, Jimmy, around a handblown glass Menorah he had purchased for this Festival of Lights, one of only two holidays on the Jewish calendar which celebrate family and food in a secular manner.  Robert and Michael chanted a traditional blessing while Jimmy lit two of the Hanukkah candles.  Jan asked us to go around the table and take turns expressing what in our lives we were each most thankful for, a gesture I hope becomes an annual tradition.

Michael, left, and his grandfather,
Robert, recite a brachah   
Robert's nephew, Jimmy, lights
the Menorah
The desserts Jan chose for the grand conclusion to our banquet were magnificent. I couldn’t get enough of the Chocolate Royale cake from Pâtisserie Poupon with its crunchy hazelnut and chocolate mousse layers.  Jan's brother, Robby, and his wife, Ging, brought a plate of ripe jackfruit from Ging's native Thailand to round out the offerings.  We lingered at the table as Michael and Jimmy set to work in the kitchen rinsing dishes and sorting the remains of the day, an act of munificence that resulted in Jimmy being awarded a token of gelt in honor of the holiday.

Chocolate-hazelnut cake and a pear
tart were perfect endings to the meal
A plate of fresh jackfruit, a cousin
our native mulberry, was a delightful
counterpoint to the chocolate
Armed with containers of leftovers, I rolled myself out to the car for the short ride home to Baltimore County. Another great meal surrounded by dear friends was now an event to be fondly remembered, longtime friendships personified in the flavors I would savor in subsequent meals for many days thereafter.  It was a perfect Thanksgiving.

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