Menu planning is one of my favorite parts about cooking. I’ve never really understood how the home cook gets a sense of satisfaction if they’re just following a bunch of recipes. If it’s a success, how can you take credit? When you cook an original recipe and it works, the feeling is much, much more satisfying. And if it fails, it’s a great learning experience. This (very long) explanation is how this year’s Thanksgiving menu came together.
I wanted to make a duck. I haven’t had duck in awhile and have already had turkey twice this year. A duck would be festive; Peking duck would be a fun challenge. Other than that I just had a few other notes based on tradition:
When I visited my preferred butcher on Tuesday I ran into a problem: no ducks. No worries! The local supermarket would have a duck and even if it was frozen I could make due. But then I started thinking about tradition. Does Thanksgiving have to be a roast bird with stuffing, veggies, etc? It’s a holiday to celebrate what you’re thankful for so I started thinking about my favorite meals of the year. While in LA this summer I went to one restaurant twice, El Compadre, because their carnitas was the best I’d ever had. Flavored with orange—it tasted like triple sec actually—it was rich and crispy. It was perfect. Why not try to reproduce the meal that I am most thankful for at home?
After writing out a recipe to approximate what I had at El Compadre I started brainstorming around a carnitas Thanksgiving. When tradition flies away, anything becomes fair game. No foul, no problem.
I’m back to my original list. The kabocha stays. When roasted it’s one of the best, simplest foods you can make this time of year. It’d take a lot to knock it out of the running for any meal.
Next up: oyster stuffing. Stuffing is heavy. Delicious, but heavy. How to lighten? I’m reminded of Momofuku Ssäm and the Bo ssäm they serve there: a whole roast pork shoulder with a dozen oysters. With carnitas on the menu why not skip the dressing and just have the oysters? Easy. And, actually, traditional in the most strict sense.
Next up: green bean casserole. One of my favorites due mostly to the fried onions. I love those things. Sweet potatoes were on the list too which makes me think of sweet potato gnocchi with sage and sausage. Add in some crisp sautéed green beans and top with fried onions and nostalgia is achieved while elevating a boring casserole dish.
Carnitas, oysters, gnocchi; I’m already all over the place geographically speaking so why not push it? I have a head of red cabbage in my fridge, I wonder if braised cabbage can find a place at the table. It’s at this point, I have to admit, that I turn to the internet. I’ve never made braised cabbage. Start from a point of knowledge, not just guessing.
Looking at the list I am happy with the mix of traditional and non traditional ingredients with some interesting twists. But it doesn’t quite feel right yet; it’s not complete. As I consider all the Thanksgiving dinners over the years I remember what I like the least. It’s the lack of any fresh, light dishes. The table is a sea of beige: gravy, stuffing, and casseroles. Not this year! What’s green and fresh? Parsley salad.
Nothing has been cooked yet. It might come together into a great meal. It might be a disparate mess. I won’t know till it’s all on the table. Either way, I’m thankful for all the traditional meals I’ve cooked over the years. They served as the inspiration to try something new.
Thanksgiving Dinner, 2013
Sweet potato gnocchi with green beans, sausage, sage, fried onions
Roasted spiced kabocha squash
Parsley, onion, tomato salad with preserved lemon and anchovy vinaigrette
I’ll post photos and methods this weekend.