Recipe-phile: Thanksgiving is the richness of our culture reflected on a plate
In true American spirit, it is our tradition to constantly remake tradition, and to absorb the influence of other cultures - especially when what they have on their plates tastes better than what we have on ours.
My own Thanksgiving traditions, for instance, are still in flux, a fact that I am pretty sure is due to having spent nine Thanksgivings away from my family in New York City. Most of those holidays I was working, cooking for the masses that actually take their Thanksgiving dinner in a restaurant (and you wouldn't believe how many do) plating scrabble-sized chips of butternut squash, swaths of pureed chestnuts and miniature pyramids of cranberry sauce next to turkey roulade . . . . but the rest of the time I cooked for my friends, none of whom cared if I stuffed the turkey or stir-fried it.
One year I was lucky enough to score a wild turkey from another Midwestern expat whose dad had shot it, and that was a meal of almost-too historical accuracy, down to the delicious but undeniably firm breast meat and the inedible legs which stiffened as they cooked and (I swear) pushed open the oven door. And that year, like every year, I summoned up home by making my mother's sinful stuffing (wherein butter is both the first, and last, ingredient) and potato puree, also flush with butter, and plain golden gravy.
Beyond that, I took my influences from the city around me and the restaurants I worked in, and this explains how it has come to be that I cannot conceive of a Thanksgiving without fried curried cauliflower. I can't seem to let go of the catalan spinach, either. One year a friend who lived in Spain brought a ceramic dish of this, still warm, and I am forever attempting to reproduce the glorious way the sweet onions and raisins and soft, buttery greens met with a charred hunk of stuffing.
I also can't forget an Austrian-inspired spaghetti squash gratin with gruyere, a dish that came out of me the year I was working for Austrian chefs, constantly flipping pans of warm pumpkin seeds. I also love green beans stir-fried with pork and a little black vinegar. It's straight out of Chinatown, but I've come to think of it as a funky variation on my mom's green beans with bacon.
But the greater reverence of the day was not lost due to lack of family. In New York City, Thanksgiving might be the only holiday that everyone celebrates equally. The rest of the year, someone's biggest holiday seems always to be around the corner: Ramadan, Chinese New Year, Rosh Hashannah. But Thanksgiving is holy. Stores actually close. The city shrugs off its tension, and street-greetings from strangers increase, in a good way. Everyone wanders somewhere, carrying a dish. Everyone eats well.
They sit down to the richness of our culture, reflected on a plate. I suppose that's why for this holiday I think that more is always better. That a loaded plate can express the abundance, the variety and the extravagance of this country never fails to amaze me. You just can't have too many sides.
Spaghetti Squash Gratin
1 4-pound spaghetti squash, cut in half, seeds and inner fibers scooped out
2 star anise (optional, but good . . . substitute a few whole allspice if necessary.)
2 bay leaves
2 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 cups small diced sweet yellow onion
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons flour
1/3 cup white wine (such as gewurtztraminer or reisling)
3/4 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup water
5 ounces semi-hard tangy cheese, such as gruyere or aged gouda (1 1/4 cups grated)
salt and pepper to taste
1 teaspoon chopped thyme
4 tablespoons chopped pumpkin seeds, divided
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Season the cleaned squash interiors with a decent amount of salt and pepper, and add one star anise, one bay leaf, and 1 tablespoon butter to each of the halves. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Wrap tightly in foil and bake (interior-side-up) for about 1 ½ hours, or until the inside of the squash is tender but not mushy. Scrape out the fibers with a fork and place into a bowl.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Heat the olive oil, add the onion, and cook until translucent but still pale; add the garlic and cook one minute more. Add the flour and stir until smooth. Add the white wine and bring to a boil. When thickened, add the cream and the water and bring it back up to a boil. Season with salt and pepper. Lower the heat and whisk in most of the cheese, saving 1/4 cup for the top.
When the cheese is all melted, pour onto the squash. With a rubber spatula, gently mix to combine. Taste for final seasoning and add more salt if needed. Add the thyme, 3 Tablespoons of the chopped pumpkin seeds, mix well, and pour into a shallow, heavy baking dish. Sprinkle the remaining cheese and pumpkin seeds on top and bake at 375 degrees for 45 minutes, or until dark golden brown on top and bubbling vigorously at the edges.
Adapted from Tapas: A Taste of Spain in America by Jose Andres
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 sweet Vidalia onion, peeled, halved and thinly sliced
1/4 cup pine nuts
1/4 cup seedless dark raisins
1/2 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
10 ounces baby spinach, washed
Heat the olive oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the sliced onion and season with salt. Cook, stirring often, until golden brown and caramelized, about 10 minutes. Turn up the heat. Add the pine nuts and cook, stirring, until light brown. Add the raisins and the spinach. Mix and sauté quickly until it starts to wilt. Remove the pot from the heat; the spinach will continue to wilt off the heat. Add salt and pepper to taste, and serve.
Curried Cauliflower with Peas
From Lord Krishna's Cuisine: Indian Vegetarian Cooking by Yamuna Devi
6 tablespoons butter
2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger
1 large cauliflower, trimmed, cored and cut into very small flowerets
1 teaspoon cumin seed (subtitute 1/4 teaspoon ground)
1 teaspoon curry powder
3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
1/4 teaspoon paprika
pinch of cayenne (optional)
1 cup fresh or frozen baby green peas, defrosted
3 tablespoons water
1 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup plain whole-fat yogurt or sour cream
First make the ghee, or clarified butter. (Ghee takes just a few minutes to make and is simply butter with the milk solids and water removed. It functions like an oil, fries at a higher temperature than whole butter and is pretty essential to this recipe and most authentic Indian dishes. If necessary, though, you can use oil to fry the vegetables and add a little butter at the end for flavor.)
For the ghee, heat the butter in a small pan until it foams and begins to form a crust. (A little browning at the edges is okay.) Let sit for 5 minutes, then skim the crust from the top of the butter and reserve. Carefully pour off the clear butter into a small dish; pour the milky sediment at the bottom into the dish with the crust of the butter. Reserve both separately.
Heat a wide-bottomed heavy saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the ghee. Fry the cumin seeds until they sizzle, then add the bay leaf and in a few seconds stir in the cauliflower. Sprinkle with curry powder, paprika, optional cayenne, salt and half of the cilantro and fry, turning occasionally, until the cauliflower is lightly browned. Add 3 tablespoons water, cover and reduce the heat to low. Stirring occasionally, cook for 15 minutes, or until the cauliflower is tender. During the last 2 to 3 minutes of cooking add the peas. Taste for seasoning and remove from the heat. Add the reserved butter solids (delicious stuff!), remaining cilantro and the yogurt or sour cream and serve immediately.