Saturday, November 28, 2009

thanksgiving 2009, part two: on the plus side

But enough of the self-debriefing. Thanksgiving 2.0 was an awesome day. Not only did I make dinner for two families, I ate more food than two families might consume in a week. And it was all delicious.

One of the difficult parts about preparing Thanksgiving is that by the time you hit the table, you’re not at all hungry. This year was no exception.

It started with a smooth-but-chunky crab dip with fresh herbs, which I ate constantly throughout the morning with slices from a fresh baguette. How I ended up sharing any of it is a mystery to me. I wasn’t surprised it was a hit with the party. While I was a little heartbroken… in a good way.

Then I overdosed on some homemade fleur de sel caramels and hazelnut profiteroles (aside: I lost my mascarpone cheese and lost track of the morning, so I whipped up a frangelico-ricotta cream with crushed hazelnuts and paired it with dollops of nutella to fill pastry puffs) with grapes before the crowds arrived.

My fingers dabbled in the pan-remains of heavenly potatoes, shitake stuffing and sweet potatoes with apple cider as I prepared the collection of dishes for dinner. I had a good 2-3 hours of pre-eating before we sat down for the big event!

I had assumed others had indulged just as much, but I think some guests weren’t as into the appetizing scene as I. (Note taken.) The new soup arrangement—served about 45 minutes before the sit-down dinner—however, went over well. And my mom’s chicken dumpling (“magic”) soup was the Thanksgiving rock star I knew it would be.

Then a weird thing happened: when the turkey breasts arrived from my mom’s house (my dad delivered the Alsatian-brined whole bird 1.5 hours earlier), suddenly male turkey aficionados flooded my kitchen. They knew how to cut the turkey, they knew what they were doing, they knew how it should served. I was elbowed out of my kitchen.

Frustrated and oh-so tired, I grabbed a bottle of champagne, filled my glass, emptied my glass, filled it again and took my seat at the head of the table. And waited.

It didn’t dawn on me until… this morning that in all the madness surrounding the turkey carving that I neglected to actually finish the birds!

The tangerine glazed never made it near the bird; I don’t know that the Riesling gravy was paired with the Alsatian turkey; who knows whether the chile-rubbed breast boasted of ancho deliciousness. All the meat was just slapped onto a single platter and delivered. Turkey experts my butt.

But since I don’t drink, the glass of champagne left the beginnings of dinner a little foggy. I delivered another underwhelming pre-dinner prayer (Thanks to everyone for being here and thanks to our respective higher authorities for all the great things we have in life, including love of our friends and family. I’m thankful for all of us that we have relatively miniscule things to worry about in life. My dad asked that I give a much better prayer than I said last year, but I had champagne, so: good food, good meat, good lord: let’s eat!) and plopped only a few bites of food on my plate before chatting up Neil’s grandmother, uncle and parents, who were quietly sitting on my end of the long table.

Minute after minute, however, I had to keep getting up because we had forgotten something (if only I hadn’t ditched the list by 3 p.m.!). Can we have the salt and pepper? Do you have more ice? Where the shrimp?

Every year, Neil’s uncles come equipped with dozens of jumbo cocktail shrimp and sauce. I pulled out the foil-wrapped plates from the refrigerator, and sweet Jessica helped me open the sauce bottles. We were struggling getting the lids open and wondered what we were doing wrong. And as I strongarm-tugged the thing open with abandon, my bottle flew open… and all over Jessica’s shirt and sweater.

Oh, I’m such a jerk.

She beautiful wardrobe-changed into a wasabi-colored cashmere bateau from my closet (and then a backup shirt from her car—she was like a glamorous award-show host) and didn’t even threaten to beat me up for ruining her clothes. As she should have.

Just when I sat down and started telling the fam about Neil’s big race, Landon surprised us with a visit! I was probably a little loopy—from the day, the exhaustion, the excitement, the champagne—for the first 30 minutes he was there, but it was too cool to see him.

Before I knew it, though, the table was being cleared and Neil’s family was packing up to go home (it wasn’t even 8 p.m.!) as my cousin Gabriella and her Mr. Ivan were just coming in.

Gone was the intermission with cafĂ© cubano and strawberry shooter, chocolate jalapeno gelato and blood orange sorbet. The chocolate tart and fig-blackberry-pear crisp sat in the fridge untouched. My mom’s bread pudding was scooped informally from her pan on the stove. All our elegance and order out the window. Was I really hosting a Thanksgiving with people leaving before dessert?

If the night had ended then, I would have probably been bummed with failure today. But Landon stuck around a long while. Gabriella, Ivan, Jessica, my mom and I toured the house, sipping various coffees and drinks, talking about art and design. My dad played Risk with Neil, his brother Joe and Joe’s chica Corinne. And many of my 10,000 dishes got magically cleaned by two wonderful elves.

By the time the house was cleared, I lasted five minutes before I was in bed. Neil and I woke up at 5 a.m. to walk to Radio Shack for his new Garmin. Then I slept until noon (so unlike me) to recover from Thanksgiving 2009. And we made it until 2 p.m. before we started planning for next year.

Friday, November 27, 2009

thanksgiving 2009, part one: hitches + lists

One of the most fun things to show people on Thanksgiving is my to-do list.

By the beginning of the week, I always have a day-by-day list of things to complete (from hitting certain stores to cleaning particular rooms) up to Wednesday night, and then a down-to-the-half-hour to-do leading to dinnertime on Thursday. This year was no exception.

Except, of course, that the plan was totally derailed by 2 p.m.

But first: the morning. My alarm sounded at 6 a.m. I was scheduled to bake corn cakes, fill profiteroles and cut potatoes before the Turkey Trot, but when I opened my eyes I could barely move. While I’d had only four hours of sleep, it was the standing for 20 hours that really made me hurt. My knees, my feet, my back throbbed and swelled. Run? Really?

It took me a good hour of five-minutes snoozes (mostly because Neil was ready to kill me) to slump out of bed. I didn’t bake, fill or cut anything. I just got dressed, picked up my pops and hit the Turkey Trot with two of my favorite boys (read about the race).

We made it home on schedule, and I had most of the appetizers on the table by the time Neil’s family showed at 2:30 p.m. Then the time warp happened. Somehow 4 p.m. arrived, and I was just getting around to the prosciutto risotto!

I kept everyone really well fed with the crab dip, profiteroles, spinach-and-tofu dumplings, bruschetta and Jessica’s olive dip, followed by my mom’s chicken dumpling soup. But the whole turkey was delivered shortly before 4 p.m. and most of the sides were ready and waiting.

Sure, from an appetite perspective turkeys going long wasn’t bad. Everyone had been eating a while. But I could feel impatience building. Instead of seeing me, they imagined an old-style cartoonish roasted turkey bouncing around the kitchen. It’s my annual serve-late plan to trick Neil’s family into hanging out, spending quality time.

But this year’s two hours might have been too much.

Little excitement greeted the meal at the table. When the 3-4 talkers weren’t sitting, the room fell silent. No one really ooh’ed or ahh’ed anything.

There’s a huge learning curve to scale when catering to two very different audiences. How can I create a single event for one crowd that likes to mingle and another that eats and goes? What do I serve when things I think are “normal” are outside another’s box? Where’s the happy medium that won’t make me feel like I’m overwhelmed by an underwhelming occasion?

Neil highlighted a good point today: I made shiitake-seeduction bread stuffing; his brother asked where the Stove Top was. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Perhaps year three will be the charm.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

it came, we ate, i conquered

I woke up at six this morning, ran a 5-mile race and prepared an evening of food and wine for a total of 20 people. Somehow, even though I had about three bites of food once dinner hit the table, I'm filled to the brim. And now I must sleep.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

thanksgiving eve

After trying to sleep an extra 30 minutes (it was so perfect: cool, calm morning, raindrops hitting the window), I hopped out of bed around 7:30 a.m. to get Thanksgiving eve under way. I took the day off work, and, let's just say, this was no vacation!

I hit a few stores for last-minute stuff before hitting my dad's house to brine the turkey. Then I rushed home to cook, prep, whip, blend, braise, mix, brown, melt and bake everything in sight. But even after 19 hours, I'm still less than halfway done.

Much of today's time, though, was spent flipping between cooking and house projects. I finished the bathroom and dressed up our room. While I didn't have a chance to think about my disaster room (we'll call that one storage), I did get most of the downstairs looking swell for the big day.

The only downside to the large crowd is that I've had to condense my living room layout beyond recognition (our dining room is big enough for 10-12, but seating 18-20 needs a room and a half!). So, it was a little heartbreaking to shuffle the furniture placements I'd spent so long tweaking. At least we didn't take time to hang stuff on the walls.

Over these 19 hours, I think I've sat a total of two minutes. My knees, feet and back feel abused... and aren't shutting up about it. Getting up early to do pre-race prep will be almost as interesting (it's just about midnight now) as actually running the Turkey Trot.

Racing five miles is pretty far from my conceivable abilities right now. Only time will tell. Besides, it's only a race. If I don't PR, I don't PR. I will still eat. A lot.

What's promising to be delicious so far: 1) The heavenly potatoes, it turns out, are quite heavenly. They haven't been baked yet, but I'm guessing we'll end up with a casserole-sized twice-baked potatoish type dish. It's very cream, smooth and good. 2) Spinach-tofu dumplings w/ jalapeno and sesame oil were light, refreshing and appetizing... perfect for an appetizer. 3) Have I shrieked enough yet about the ancho butter? 4) I'm making up the chocolate macadamia tart as I go along. So far it has a chocolate crust with a fudgey brownie-like filling, topped with homemade buttery caramel and chopped macadamias. I'm thinking about topping it with a light, refreshing mousse, some berries and maybe a little cream.

At least I won't be lacking food energy when I race in the morning. Now, if I could have just loaded on some of that sleep.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

an ancho minute

roast broccoliPardon the interruption. If you try nothing else to test your cholesterol this fall/winter, make this recipe: roasted broccoli w/ ancho butter.

Sure, it's 3/4 butter, but the smoky ancho peppers blend so smoothly with the robust flavors of toasted pine nuts that you'll want to ignite a log in the fireplace and open holiday presents. It's that good.

But the best is yet to come: I've only made the butter. I haven't yet roasted the broccoli with it. That report will come on Thursday. The family won't mind if I type as I eat, right?

t minus two days

Whole Foods: check! Heinen's: check! Bathroom touch-up paint: check!

I have everything I need for Turkey Day, except for prosciutto and fresh baguettes. Oh, and a clean house. Both will have to be done on Wednesday.

It was surprising to see how many people already had wild Thanksgiving looks on their faces at the stores today. Granted, there was no elbowing for the good-looking turkey breasts I picked up this evening, but I did feel like I had to push my way through the baking aisle. I can't imagine whose knees I'll have to take out to get the bread tomorrow.

For now, however, I'm softening some ancho peppers in hot water, preparing to brine my turkey breasts and do some make-ahead steps on the ancho-butter broccoli. I'm new to this ancho scene, so these dishes should be interesting.

Please just remind me not to rub my eyes too soon after cutting the peppers: I pulled that mistake the first time I played with habaneros. (Shudder.) One of these days I'll wise up and get some gloves.

For now, where's that brining bag....?

Monday, November 23, 2009

three days to go: menu #1 it is!

After an almost unanimous feedback vote, menu #1, featuring the Alsatian-brined turkey, champagne mojitos and dulche bread pudding (among many others), has been crowned feast of the year.

Now the real work begins.

I've already begun tidying the house—somehow that always means it gets much more messy before anything gets better— and finishing some decorating touches, including window film, artwork and, of course, bathroom painting.

It's just my luck, though, that our second bathroom's walls don't seem to like paint. After a thorough priming and two coats of paint, the edges are messy from paint seeping through the tape, and some chunks of the walls look drippy and uneven. Sigh.

On the plus side: I've painted the bathroom an appley warm olive hue that I'm going to dress up with bejeweled accessories, like studded picture frames, rhinestone curtain rings and other dainty things. It's a confusing color, that "bamboo leaves" green. Part masculine, part regal, part mid-1970s. But like most other borderline ugly/beautiful things, I totally dig it.

I picked up the bathroom paint on my wild Sunday trip around Northeast Ohio, making grocery trip #1 (of three) to Trader Joe's. Whole Foods and Heinen's to follow. I've been really lucky so far finding most of the things I need for Thursday. But it has only just begun.

Because I'm cooking big time for the feast, I'm intending on not cooking much at all this week. So, I just returned from a five-mile run and will feast my chompers on... High Fiber O's from Trader Joe's.

Talk about gourmet.