The holiday commemorating the first communal meal with native Americans and the early colonists now brings families together to enjoy a feast. I strive to gather our Thanksgiving meal from our garden and to include free-range poultry. I also like to use ingredients and recipes that our foremothers and fathers would have used.
On this holiday for memories, many rise from the creation of the annual feast. Catastrophes in their time are now family legend.
One of those is the year the cat ate our turkey. When I was younger and my mother prepared Thanksgiving dinner, she would start baking the turkey at 6am. When the turkey was cooked, she set it out on our back porch to cool. When dinner was getting ready to be served, my mother discovered that our cat had come onto the porch and found the giant bird. He filled himself up with a turkey leg and wing. So that was the year with only one drumstick and one wing on the platter.
Another year I decided to make my own wine from the Concord grapes my grandmother had started years before. My cousin saw the crock of fermenting wine and said, Let’s have some. It wasn’t ready yet, but I agreed because of the holiday. Everyone drank a glass of wine, and it tasted good. Then everyone fell fast asleep, including my mother. My mom and I awakened at the same time to find all our guests in a deep slumber. Gradually everyone woke up to enjoy a very relaxed meal.
When my son was about 12, he wanted to add to the authenticity of our Thanksgiving dinner provided by the land. His plan was to hunt a squirrel and make squirrel stew. I found a recipe in my Williamsburg cookbook for Chowning’s Tavern Brunswick Stew made with vegetables and originally with squirrel.
The story behind this recipe tells that a hunting party in Brunswick County, Va., left behind one man to mind the commissary plus a store of vegetables. He was told to have dinner ready at day’s end. Disgruntled, he shot a squirrel and threw it into the pot with the vegetables. Everyone thought the squirrel made the finest stew. Ours was good but could have used a few more hours to cook. My son was very proud of his accomplishment.
An early snowfall of about six inches made another memorable Thanksgiving. We had just purchased a sleigh and a buggy horse named Nickel. My husband was eager to try out the sleigh and took his brother for a ride. When dinner was almost ready, my husband and brother-in-law were not back. A neighbor called and asked if I owned a brown horse because there was one running around his neighborhood. I said I owned a brown horse but he was with my husband — but on second thought maybe he wasn’t. I jumped in our truck and drove around the neighborhood only to find my horse with leathers dragging behind. I came upon my husband and brother-in-law both laughing and a little sore after the horse dumped them out of the sleigh and went running off through the woods.
The Main Course
Even with such experiences, the food has always been the most important element of our celebrations. A free-range turkey has always been important, and heirloom varieties seem to be extra juicy.
I prepare my turkey with lots of fresh herbs. I push the leaves of rosemary, thyme and sage under the skin. Then I chop a handful of each of the three herbs. After drizzling extra virgin olive oil over the bird, I sprinkle the chopped herbs liberally over the entire bird. Next I drizzle on molasses or honey, then fresh lemon juice and finally salt and pepper.
Allow 20 to 25 minutes per pound for birds up to six pounds. For larger birds, allow 15 to 20 minutes per pound. For turkeys weighing over 16 pounds, allow 13 to 15 minutes per pound. Bake at 350 degrees or at 325 degrees for larger birds. Baste the bird every 10 to 15 minutes. When done, a meat thermometer inserted into the inner thigh muscle — take care not to touch the bone — should register 165 degrees. Let the turkey rest about 15 minutes before carving.
If you don’t want to cook an entire turkey, try this recipe of turkey breast stuffed under the skin with walnuts, apples, rosemary, sage and thyme. Use a seven-pound turkey breast and loosen the skin. Melt one stick of butter; add two chopped onions and four ribs of chopped celery. Chop 16 sage leaves, two tablespoons of rosemary and one tablespoon of thyme plus one and one-third cups of walnuts and two cored Granny Smith apples. Add eight cups of white bread cubes. Finally add salt and pepper, two-thirds cup of half and half and one cup of chicken broth. Mix well. Preheat the oven to 375. Work some stuffing between the skin and meat and mound more underneath. Bake 20 minutes to the pound. Baste with pan drippings.
The Sides Make the Meal
I make a simple herb stuffing that I cook separately in a 9-by-13-inch pan. In a large bowl, mix one bag (or eight cups homemade, chopped or ground in food processor and toasted) dried bread cubes. Melt one stick of butter in a pan and sauté 2 large onions with 4 cloves of chopped garlic. Add a whole stalk of chopped celery and cook slowly with the onions. Add one cup of chopped parsley, one-half cup rosemary, one-half cup sage and one-quarter cup thyme. Add two cups of chicken broth and some of the turkey basting juices until the bread cubes are moist. Bake in a 350-degree oven until brown and crunchy on top.
A fall harvest salad can accompany turkey. Use a head of savoy cabbage and one half red cabbage finely chopped. Add two thinly sliced onions, two diced cucumbers, four hard-boiled eggs, diced, two sweet peppers cut into strips and two grated carrots. Toss well and dress with one-quarter cup olive oil, one-half cup white wine vinegar, one-half teaspoon salt and pepper, one-half cup of chopped chives and parsley and two tablespoons of fennel leaves and winter savory.
Pumpkin pie cheesecake makes a nice ending to a Thanksgiving feast. Drain two 15-ounce cans of pumpkin (or your own pumpkin roasted and mashed or pureed) in cheesecloth or a paper coffee filter. For the crust, stir together one and one-half cups of finely crushed ginger snaps, one-quarter cup melted butter, two tablespoons of brown sugar. Press the crumb mixture onto the bottom and about one inch up the sides of a 9-by-3-inch springform pan. Bake 5 minutes. Cool on a rack.
For the filling, in a large bowl beat two eight-ounce packages of cream cheese and one and one-quarter cup packed brown sugar with an electric mixer until smooth. Stir in five eggs by hand, plus the drained pumpkin, one-quarter cup flour and two teaspoons pumpkin pie spice. Pour the filling into the crust-lined pan.
Place springform pan on a baking sheet and then on an oven rack above a water-filled pan. Bake one hour. Turn off the oven and let the cheesecake stand in the oven for 30 minutes. When cool, top with spiced whipped cream.
Thanksgiving is a wonderful holiday that makes growing a garden even more worthwhile.