I spent Thursday at school. People kept telling me “Happy Thanksgiving” as if it was my own personal holiday. It was nice. But melancholy. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. We cook, we hang out, we watch football. No gifts, no guilt, no drama. Just cooking and relaxing. And the cooking isn’t perfectionist or ambitious. It is nurturing, nostalgic, emotional, symbolic. Everyone seems to need their dish that “makes” it Thanksgiving. This leads to an incoherent menu with too much food and too many dishes. But isn’t it generous? To me the abundant Thanksgiving buffet includes a little bit of all of the guests, an influence from different regions, and it’s sum is greater than its component parts.
But cooking back home after a day in the kitchen at school was thoroughly unappealing. So we delayed Thanksgiving to today (Sunday) and downgraded it significantly. Even with only 4 mouths to feed and a simplified menu, I still spent all day cooking. I knew it was worth it when my husband smiled at the end of the meal and announced that it was a smashing success.
My husband’s requirements for Thanksgiving: mashed potatoes, gravy and pumpkin pie. I require some sort of dressing. (I come from a family that firmly believes in “dressing” rather than “stuffing.” I fail to see the point in putting this in the bird. The crispy crunchy top is my favorite part anyway, which you only get from cooking in a dish. And if it isn’t going IN the bird, it shouldn’t be called stuffing. Just one girl’s opinion, but I am sticking with it. Sometimes we have to defend insignificant beliefs, right?).
In a last minute attack of nostalgia, I had to have oyster dressing. My mother always makes oyster dressing. I try it every year. No matter how much I want to love it, I can’t get there. Once my now-husband/then-boyfriend and I were in Sonoma with friends. At the first winery we tasted a wine we didn’t care for. I don’t remember what was said, but I clearly remember that the guy behind the bar said “here in California, if we don’t like something, we say ‘I don’t understand it.'” So, be it. I do not understand oyster dressing. So I have even less understanding for my need to include it on this year’s menu. I know I felt the need to represent the Thanksgivings of my childhood in one of the dishes. Maybe I liked the challenge. I did use oysters, but in my own dressing recipe and I was very happy with the results. It will stand up well tomorrow in my all-time favorite leftovers: re-fried dressing with a poached or fried egg on top.
Cooking school did affect the menu, or at least the process. We have a very small oven here and a typical American Thanksgiving turkey does not come close to fitting in there. We had a small (by American standards) turkey that might have fit, but would have taken forever, cooked unevenly and left no room for other dishes. Instead of forcing it, I jointed the turkey into 6 parts, browned them in skillets and put the white meat and brown meat into the oven in separate roasting pans. Upsides: I made the stock from the carcass yesterday and the gravy while the bird was in the oven using the pan drippings from the browning; each part came out of the oven when it was ready and nothing was compromised; amazing brown crisp skin. Downsides? Only one: no beautiful golden bird to show off. I am at peace with the trade-off.
(One year ago this week I was dumbfounded when I received a turkey from our local British butcher that still had ankles. This year, I knew why the ankles were there — they keep the legs more tidy while cooking — and I knew how to deal with the entire bird. What a difference a year makes.)
As for the spirit of the holiday, I can not express enthusiastically enough how happy I am to be living in this great city, exploring the world, learning new skills, learning about myself, taking care of my amazing children and growing old(er) with my astonishingly wise and kind husband. I am also grateful to be travelling the world in this technological era that allows me to keep in touch with friends and family around the world through email, FaceTime, Skype, Facebook, Flickr and this blog. I remember very clearly writing long letters to my college boyfriend and budgeting my monthly long distance bill to the dollar. I remember how expensive and time consuming it was to keep in touch with family and friends. I remember how easy it was to just simply lose touch instead. This blog is a challenge to my introverted nature, but I embrace the ability to keep my family and friends (new and old) involved in the things that I love.
Oyster, Bacon and Spinach Dressing
I make some version of a dressing each year. Some years it has been outstanding, but I forgot to write it down and attempts to recreate never did justice to our memories of the occasional great year. I would rate this year’s dressing among my best. But it should be noted that, even thought I am writing this in recipe form, it in fact resides in my head as more of a formula: a certain proportion of bread + savouries like bacon or sausage + herbs and aromatics + eggs to set + stock for moisture. Feel free to make substitutions at will. My sister is happy with cornbread and apples. I really liked this year’s version with bacon, spinach and oysters. Any bread will work, but you’ll get better results if you are thoughtful about what you are going for. I am going to hear from my mother that this should have been made with plain French baguette, but I chose a crusty wholemeal sourdough for it’s flavor and structure. I wanted crust to stand up to the sogginess of the oysters and I thought the sour notes in the bread would help keep this from being too rich.
Loaf of wholemeal sourdough bread (approx 450g/1lb), cubed and left out for a couple of days or dried in the oven
450g/1lb of spinach (not baby spinach) cleaned, blanched or wilted, drained and chopped
150g bacon (streaky for those of you who aren’t American)
1 yellow onion, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, crushed
2 dozen oysters and their liquor
approximately 1 cup of turkey stock
large handful of finely chopped herbs — I used celery leaves, parsley, chervil, and tarragon
Blanch or wilt spinach until just cooked. Drain and set aside.
Chop bacon into 1cm pieces. Fry bacon until soft and beginning to color but not yet crisp. Remove to paper towel
Pour off excess grease, or add butter if there isn’t enough.
Saute onions in bacon grease/buter until soft.
Add garlic and cook for an additional minute.
[If using thyme or rosemary or other sturdier herbs, add now to bring out their flavour]
Squeeze any additional liquid from the spinach. Chop and add to pan. Cook for another minute or two to coat and warm spinach.
Remove to a bowl.
Deglaze pan with water, stock or white wine (add enough liquid to cover the bottom of the pan about 1-2mm deep, scrape tasty bits from the bottom as it boils).
Add equal parts oyster liquor and turkey stock. Simmer for a couple of minutes. This will mellow out the oyster liquor.
Taste and further reduce if the flavor is bland. Season, but be careful of salt as the bacon and the oysters can be salty. Set broth aside.
Add butter to pan and fry bread cubes for a minute or two.
Add spinach and mix well.
Remove to a bowl and allow to cool slightly.
Add oysters and bacon and gently fold in.
Scramble two eggs and fold into bread/spinach mixture.
Add broth til wet, but not sloppy.
Put in baking dish. Adjust liquid if necessary. [Can hold here for a while.]
When ready, bake 30-45 minutes (depending whether it was allowed to cool or not) until the liquid is coked away, the eggs are set and the top is crusty.
Serve hot or warm.