Americans love Thanksgiving. Some claim it’s their favorite holiday. It’s become mine since I moved here from Montreal, 30 odd years ago. If memory serves me, Canadians don’t celebrate Thanksgiving as zealously as Americans. (Canadian Thanksgiving falls on Columbus Day weekend).
There’s so much excitement in this country about the food, football games, rituals and setting. People cherish the classic components of the “Thanksgiving Table”, so much so that cooks tend to focus on every detail of preparing the annual feast.
The questions on many cooks’ lips are: “Where do you buy your turkey?” and “Do you bake your stuffing in the bird or outside?” Don’t get cooks started on”best” stuffings, because there are more combinations then there are states in the U.S.A, and each person KNOWS theirs is the best.
The history surrounding Thanksgiving is interesting especially to the younger set. Children in school talk about Pilgrims and the Mayflower; harvest celebrations; and holiday food the Pilgrims ate. I can still picture my children returning home from school with those brilliantly colored turkeys they crafted out of construction paper. I can even recreate the smell of Elmer’s glue they used.
New Englanders take special pride in the holiday because of their proximity to its origins in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Some make it a point of interest on weekend outings (it’s a great place to take grandchildren). Anyone who’s seen a cranberry bog right before harvesting knows its brilliant red canvas. Breathtaking.
Here’s a refresher for grandparents or parents who haven’t prepared a holiday meal in a while or those that aren’t sure where to start.
There’s a rhythm to planning the meal that requires organization, but the food is fairly straight forward. Plan a menu (don’t try an exotic new recipe if Uncle Max or Aunt Sophie are fixed in their ways – save that for friends who are more adventurous). And, make a list in order of when and where to buy ingredients. Organize it under sections of the market – dairy, produce, meats, fish,etc – so you can load up on each aisle without back tracking.
I try as much as possible to buy the nibbles to make life simpler. Here are some of the items that might find their way on my menu:
-Crudites platter with goat cheese spread
-Betsy’s warm salsa dip and homemade pita chips
-Store bought hummus
Butternut squash soup with caramelized onions and apples
-Bread stuffing with tons of mushrooms, celery, and dried cranberries
-Roasted winter vegetables – sweet and white potatoes, carrots, turnips and parsnips
-Corn and green been succotash
-Nanny’s apple pie and vanilla ice cream
-Date nut squares
-Julie’s Dynamite Chocolate Chip Cookies
-Platter of fresh fruit
We can learn a little something from the French who make sure they have their “mis en place” before cooking. It’s French for “things in place”. Look over the menu and figure out components of each dish. Make sure you have them ready and set to go.
For example:Montreal slaw:
-white distilled vinegar
-Kosher salt and pepper
Purchase non-perishable ingredients ahead of time:
-chicken stock (I like the boxed varieties)
-potatoes (sweet and white)
-stuffing ingredients (or bagged stuffing which is fine doctored up), etc.
In other words, get “things in place.”
A couple of days before Thanksgiving purchase perishables:
It’s good to buy the turkey a day or two ahead. Unwrap it and season it well before refrigerating.
Many vegetables can be prepped or prepared a day ahead and reheated. If you’re baking the stuffing outside the bird, make it ahead (this will relieve oven congestion on the day of Thanksgiving) and reheat it. Make sure not to overcook it because it needs to be re-warmed before serving.
It’s a family holiday and easy to get everyone into the act, especially children. I remember that my mother and grandmother each had their own assignments. Nanny Fanny made pies and poppy seed cookies (Montreal had the best poppy seed cookies – paper thin and crispy. I’ve never seen them in Boston).
Her glazed carrots with buckwheat honey were caramelized, almost to the point of being burnt but not – a trick I’ve not accomplished, although I’m good at burning them.
My mother, Ghita, made turkey, stuffing, green beans, apple sauce and Montreal style coleslaw ( no mayo only vinegar, oil, and sugar). Her stuffing was unique. We never had jello molds but I know other families did. My mother was funny about certain things. We ate jello but she wasn’t fond of molds.
Some of the dishes I grew up with I continue to make with slight changes and additions.
Butternut squash and apple soup with a hint of cinnamon and nutmeg is a New England addition. I never had it as a child. It’s a creamy soup without cream, although on holidays I might add a little to gussy it up. Children weaned on Gerber’s pureed squash enjoy the soup, and also like mashed sweet potatoes, especially with marshmallows.
If you want to cook some dishes with your grandchildren look over your menu and figure out which to make together. Kids are likely to eat a dish if they’ve prepared it.
Butternut squash soup is straight forward or try the stuffing – they can tear toasted bread into irregular pieces, mix in diced vegetables and an egg (optional), and mush it all together. Let them help stuff the bird – a friend of mine has made this a ritual with her granddaughter. Make sure clean hands before and after!!!
While cooking get them to tell you about the pilgrims. Find out what excites them about Thanksgiving. I plan to tell Layla and Cooper about my Thansgivings. I want to tell them about who Nanny Fanny, Nana Ghita, and Grandpa David were, what we ate and how my brother stole food off our plates when we weren’t looking.
Who knows – I may get lucky and find out who their latest crush at school is!!! One thing you can be sure of, your grandchildren will be sharing these very same memories with their own someday.
Cook Nonna Cook
It’s fine to make the soup a couple of days ahead and refrigerate it. If you have the time and want to add a little extra flavor, roast the cut up squash first (drizzled with olive oil and seasoned with kosher salt and pepper) in 400 degree oven for 45 – 55 minutes.
If you prefer not to use butter in this recipe use all olive oil. One of the key flavor components in the soup is freshly grated nutmeg. It heightens flavor. All supermarkets have whole nutmeg in the spice section in clear glass bottles. Whole nutmeg needs to be grated on a fine grater.
There are many options to garnish the soup. One is to use crumbled amaretti cookies which are Italian macaroons made with sweet and bitter almonds). You will find them around this time of the year in some markets but specialty stores have them year round.
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 medium sized Spanish onion, coarsely chopped
4 pounds butternut squash (approximately 1 large), peeled, cut into chunks
2 Cortland apples (or any apples of your choice), peeled, cored, and coarsely chopped
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon ginger, or to taste
4 cups chicken stock
2 cups apple cider or water, plus extra to thin the soup if desired
1/4 cup heavy cream (optional)
Freshly grated nutmeg, to taste (not the powdered kind from the store) (optional)
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
Amaretti cookies, crumbled, to garnish (optional)
Finely chopped apple, to garnish (optional)
Finely shaved almonds, toasted in 375 degree oven for 5 to 7 minutes, to garnish (optional)
In a large heavy based pot, heat the oil and melt the butter. When it’s foaming, stir in the onion. Cook over medium heat for about 10 minutes, stirring often, or until the onion starts to turn lightly golden.
Stir in the squash, apple, cinnamon, and ginger, and cook for 5 minutes.
Add the chicken stock (if there’s a vegetarian in the house you can use all water) and cider or water and bring to a boil. Turn the heat to medium-low and cook the soup for 40 to 45 minutes, or until the squash is fork tender, almost falling apart.
Remove from the heat and with a hand held blender (see blog #3) or regular blender, puree the squash until there are no lumps and no chunks of onion or apple.
Return the puree to the pot. Stir in the cream, if using. Season with a good sprinkling of freshly grated nutmeg (if you don’t have the real thing don’t use it), salt and pepper. Taste and adjust seasoning.