Sunday, November 25, 2007

Thanksgiving, from the world's tiniest oven

If Kris, my husband, and I don't go home to Texas for the holidays, we enjoy being at home with our two cats, a break from the advertising world we work in, and lots of food.

This year we were supposed to go to my brother's in Memphis but plans fell through last minute. And, because I usually make enough food to feed a fairly frisky Mormon tabernacle, we had some friends from work over to celebrate with us.

For those who singlehandedly do the cooking during holidays - you know the kind of pressure cooker Thanksgiving Day can be. But I had planned ahead, making the bulk of the meal the night before - the stuffing, cranberry sauce, Pumpkin Pie, a chocolate rum cake, and brining the turkey, and I thought the actual day would be more like a pleasant speed walk versus a wind sprint.

Nope. I'm not sure where it went wrong, but I somehow managed to be cooking up until our guests arrived and even a half hour past that. Luckily, a little voice in my head ingeniously suggested four little life saving words that helped put everything in perspective just in the nick of time: MAKE A HOUSE DRINK.

Having people over for food and drinks is probably my favorite thing to do on earth. And if I've learned anything from these gatherings, it's the difference that starting off with a 'house drink' makes. Of course you'll want wine with the meal and you'll never pry some men (or in my case, women) away from their beer, but nothing secures a jovial mood like a tasty alcoholic concoction. People loosen up, tell funnier jokes, and even stay longer (for better or worse - and I think for the better. After all, why invite people over who you don't enjoy being with?)

By the way, I'm watching Barefoot Contessa as I write this. And as much as I love this show and think Ina and Jeffrey are adorable, I'd love, just once, to turn the TV on and see them trying to strangle one another (just to know that they're actually real people and not 'V' people, perpetually charmed and wowed by one another.) Okay, now Nigella's on, thank God. Viva Nigella!

Anyway, back to my house drink. I'd been tinkering with an idea I'd seen in Bon Appetit earlier in the week for 'Cranberry Amaretto Kiss' martinis. But, just as I do with dinner menus, when the day came, I'd already changed my mind. Cranberry now seemed a little too cranberry for my Thanksgiving meal. And I wanted something more intensely celebratory of the massive drop in temperature - something to mimick the crimson, gold, and yellow colors the leaves were finally turning all around us.

And so it came to me - a little drink by the name of Autumn Leaves. I promise not to dork out too much when it comes to prissy names for food or drinks, but stick with me, just a moment longer. By the way, you'll need a large, huge even, pitcher for this drink.

Autumn Leaves:

3-4 limes, sliced
tablespoon fine sugar
3/4 cup Calvados (apple brandy)
splash Amaretto
1 cup vodka, or to taste
1/2 gallon good quality apple cider

lemon sparkling water or ginger ale, if desired
Mint sprigs for garnish

Add the lime slices and sugar to the pitcher, and muddle until you've left behind a pulpy, juicy massacre. Then pour in the rest of the ingredients (all of which ideally would already be chilled), stir then taste for strength, adding more vodka if you feel the need. (The thing about this drink is, as 'muddy' or thick as you think it would be with the calvados and amaretto and cider, it's actually surprisingly refreshing.)

Serve over ice and garnish with fresh mint. If it's too sweet for some, dilute with a splash of sparkling water or for those who just like fizz, some ginger ale. My group thought it was excellent without, but to each their own.

All I can say is if the Grinch ended up saving Christmas, this drink saved Thanksgiving. Our guests - who are perhaps the most over generous guests we've ever had - brought along fresh bread and enough cheese from Dean and Deluca to make a cheese plate Pastis would be proud of, as well as a nice bottle of Pinot and a dozen roses (I told you - they're incredibly good guests!)

We toasted with our celebratory concoctions, and I got on with the green beans (blanched, then sauteed in olive oil and butter with almond slivers and topped with fried shallots and lemon zest) and the salad (fresh basil with roasted sliced sweet potatoes, goat cheese, pumpkin seeds and a light dash of Balsamic vinegar, olive oil, red pepper flakes and sea salt.)

Finally it was time to cut into my turkey, which was, even to me the critical one, beautiful (a cider basted turkey with apple shallot gravy.) I cut the breast off the bird, nearly tearing up at the tender flesh, when to my horror, an ever so slightly pink trickle of juice ran down my knife. The bastard wasn't done. I have to tell you - though my NY oven is tiny - it's a tiny powerhouse. I've roasted chickens in it in half the time of my old (and much higher quality) oven, brussels sprouts in a third the time, etc. So when I roasted my brined bird for the correctly alotted 3 hour cooking time, I didn't panic when I could find my instant read thermometer. I moved the leg - which moved easily - thinking to myself 'there's NO WAY it's not done.

Of course I could have cut into it then, but I am obsessive about letting meat rest, and in a weird intersection of overconfidance and naivety, I moved on with the rest of my dishes, not worrying about it. After all, I have over cooked many a bird, but never, ever, undercooked one.

So what did we do? We did what any resourceful Americans would do - we microwaved it. Not the whole bird of course, just the breast slices I'd already cut, which were actually cooked to perfection (it was only the dark meat that wasn't done and the innermost part of the breast.) However, just in case, I insisted on nuking them for extra measure, and to erase the terrifying image of my guests, the next day, lying in a hospital room, as white as the bleached laminate floor from puking their guts out.

Unbelievably, the bird, having been brined, was still juicy after getting nuked and we put the actual turkey back in the oven as we sat down to dinner.

It was a great dinner, dispite the minor (as I prefer to call it) hiccup. And although I feel proud to have improvised during a crisis (and relieved for not sending anyone to the ER), I will never, ever stick a turkey in the oven again without having an instant read thermometer at the ready.

Just in case.


mandydale said...

Great stories -- I loved the wine fable -- I agree completely that a guest, invited to eat a meal, could at the very least try to bring in a nice wine as repayment!

As for the turkey -- I spoke about this with Cameron, and he did mention that when you brine a turkey it comes out pinker than normal -- hard to tell when you have no thermometer to truly check if the turkey has been cooked through and through. But the microwave solution works well too!

Write more soon!

Charlotte said...

Great stories; I loved reading them. I must say that I am not at all surprised about the Kobe beef and the veal in Spain. Thanks for doing some research and informing others.

Your Thanksgiving dinner sounds delightful! It gave me great insights into your day and I could almost taste the "house drink and food."

Hope you find time to write often!