Thanksgiving, Part I: The Beginnings
Part I is not when I discuss the Pilgrims, or the native Americans, or the various inaccuracies we’ve all been taught about the first Thanksgiving. It’s not that I don’t care about the origins of my favorite holiday; rather, there’s too much else that needs discussing: I have always felt that the day’s beginnings pale in significance besides its meaning and importance—right now, in any present.
Thanksgiving crystallizes everything good about celebration, without the religious over- (or under-) tones to make anyone uncomfortable. (Perhaps this is why I choose not to focus on the origins, come to think of it.) Giving thanks for what we are fortunate enough to have, gathering with our family of origin or choice, cooking and feasting together are at once deceptively simple and miraculously complex, and they make this holiday particularly meaningful for me, a person who is prone to expressing affection through cooking and entertaining.
Having prepared Thanksgiving dinners both enormous and small, I’ve developed (as most cooks have) a stable of standbys, which I can be rudely averse to changing. My husband, on the other hand, would happily have a different menu every year. Occasionally, something new comes along that we both love so much that it becomes a permanent part of the lineup and a family tradition. The simple Champagne cocktail that follows is such a recipe. It has a couple of benefits: everyone seems to like it, and it gives you another reason to make your own cranberry sauce, a task of such minimal effort that the commercial cranberry canners should, by rights, be out of business. (I say that in jest—no one else in America should go out of business. We’ve had enough of that of late.) This recipe is also the kind of thing that you could bring as a host or hostess gift if you (like me this year) will be fortunate enough to be enjoying the holiday at a dear friend’s or relative’s house. Show up with a bottle of decent Champagne or Prosecco some unfiltered cranberry juice, a pretty jar full of your homemade sauce, and offer your services as bartender, and you have—ta da!—the perfect beginning.
If you want to make Part I even more sumptuous, you’ll take along one or both versions of my sweet and spicy nuts. My affection for “holiday nuts,” as I think of them, goes back to my Southern childhood where sugared pecans were de rigueur at Christmas parties. I always had to be shooed away from the bowl. As an adult, I happily served the first recipe for many years. . . until I found the second, which is a more faithful recreation of the southern charmers I loved as a kid. Now, I make both. With either recipe, you can vary the spicing to suit your taste. With the first version, I have made a delicious batch (or ten) using flavored grapeseed oil: lemongrass and ginger-infused oils produced unspeakably good results (though, sadly, the oil I used is no longer available—one of these days, I may have to try to make my own.) And though the recipes are written for pecans, they’re also very good made with walnuts.
And if you are the host this year? These are an ideal nibble to have on hand at the beginning of an over-stuffed meal: tasty and satisfying, they take the edge off hunger but you’re unlikely (unless you’re five years old) to eat so many you’ve got no room left for the feast to come.
Cranberry Bellini (adapted from Domino magazine)
makes 1 drink
1 T. homemade whole berry cranberry sauce (recipe follows)
2 T. unfiltered cranberry juice
a splash of Cointreau
Prosecco or Champagne
Place the cranberry sauce, juice and Cointreau in a champagne flute and fill with Prosecco or Champagne.
Whole Berry Cranberry Sauce
Makes 1-1/2 cups
1 12 oz. package fresh cranberries
1/2 cup orange juice
1/2 cup water
1 cup sugar
5 whole cloves
1 cinnamon stick
1 1-inch long piece of fresh ginger, peeled
Put cranberries, juice, water and sugar into a saucepan. Add orange zest and spices, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for ten to fifteen minutes, stirring occasionally, until thickened. Remove spices. Allow to cool completely before storing in the refrigerator.
Sweet and Spicy Pecans (adapted from Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, Broadway, 1997)
Makes 1 pound
2 T. neutral oil, like canola or grapeseed
2 t. high quality chili powder
1/2 t. dried ginger
2 T. brown sugar (or to taste)
1 t. kosher or coarse sea salt (or to taste)
1 pound pecan halves
Preheat oven to 300 F. Spread the pecans on a large cookie sheet and toast until fragrant, about 25 minutes. Stir a few times so they color evenly. Warm oil in a large skillet over medium heat and add the toasted pecans. Stir to coat with the oil. Add sugar and salt and saute, stirring continually, over medium heat until the pecans are nicely coated with the sugar and spices. (The sugar may not melt totally, but should adhere to the nuts.) Remove from heat, add the spices and stir again to combine evenly. Store in an airtight container for up to two weeks.
Makes 1 pound
2 egg whites
1 T. milk
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 t. ground nutmeg
1/2 t ground cinnamon
1 t. fine sea salt
1 pound pecan halves
Preheat oven to 300 F. Beat egg whites until stiff peaks form. Add milk, and continue beating, then add sugar and remaining dry ingredients, beating in all. When all are just incorporated, fold in the pecans. Spread in a single layer on a large, greased sheet pan and bake, stirring every fifteen minutes, for one hour or until the meringue is dry. Store in an airtight container for up to two weeks.