Editor’s Note: Julia Reed just published her latest book, Ham Biscuits, Hostess Gowns, and Other Southern Specialties: An Entertaining Life (with Recipes), and suggests you try the andouille and turducken from Poche’s.
This Thursday at three o’clock PM, I’ll be pulling into my parents’ driveway in Greenville, MS, where we will shortly sit down to eat my mother’s turkey, cornbread dressing, giblet gravy, scalloped oysters and other casseroles so numerous that she is forced to put half of them on the sideboard in the dining room and the other half on the butcher block in the kitchen and we have to make a lap between the two just to fill our plates.
I am exhausted, I don’t want to cook and I really adore my mother’s Thanksgiving menu, which is exactly the same as her Christmas menu. I have never tried to duplicate it because I know I will never be able to make gravy or dressing as delicious as hers nor turkey quite so tender. We are completely different kinds of cooks and anyway her menu is by now too iconic. It belongs to her and to my childhood. Which is not to say I veer too far from it when I do cook on Thanksgiving myself. I clearly remember the first time I did it alone, at 20, for assorted stragglers in my exposed brick walk-up on Dupont Circle in Washington, DC. The kitchen did not even have a counter in it, so I sat on the floor and made: turkey and oyster dressing out of the old, and far, far better, Joy of Cooking (the turkey was covered in cheesecloth soaked in melted butter and the dressing was made of stale French bread crumbs, a radical departure for someone raised on dressing made from cornbread); scalloped sweet potatoes from Gourmet (another radical departure because there was not a drop of sugar or a single marshmallow anywhere near them) and the tacky but oh-so-delicious green-bean casserole with the cream of mushroom soup and fried onion rings on top (a guilty pleasure because, although I had always secretly loved them at other people’s houses, my mother, for all her casserole making, would not stoop to such a common low).
Since then I have had Thanksgiving in foreign countries, dined alone on filet of sole, had a glorious time in a snowbound house in Connecticut with my closest friends (one of whom refused to let me make the green-bean casserole), stuffed a duck with red rice and andouille and oysters, and fed 26 highly thankful souls at my new dining room table (which seats same) in New Orleans three months after Katrina.
But one of the more enjoyable and festive Thanksgivings I’ve ever spent was several years ago, just after my now-husband, then-boyfriend John and I had spent a week in Barcelona and Madrid. We had such a grand time and I was in such a good mood that I expansively called my mother — from Spain — and asked her and my father to come to New Orleans and let me cook for them in my old place on Bourbon Street. We brought back divine Serrano ham (you cannot get the real thing in this country and it is worth possible jail time to smuggle it in) and some great Spanish wines, and I ordered a Turducken from the best Cajun butcher I knew as soon as we landed in Louisiana. (A Turducken is a relatively new invention that resembles a classic French gallotine. It is a deboned chicken stuffed into a deboned duck, stuffed into a deboned turkey, with rich dressing stuffed into each cavity and it is excellent and very, very easy — I wasn’t about to try to match my mother’s turkey the first time I’d ever made her Thanksgiving lunch.)
While everyone stood around in my tiny kitchen, we had Spanish cava with those lovely Spanish Marcona almonds. (New Orleans was, after all, ruled by the Spanish for a lot longer than by the French.) My father adores oysters, but I was not about to try to match my mother’s scalloped ones either. Instead, for the first course, I slivered that fabulous ham and sautéed the oysters with shallots and the ham and the juice of a Meyer lemon off my tree and served it over toast. Then we had the turducken with some braised fennel and a cauliflower puree with a hint of curry that my friend Jason Epstein taught me how to make. Everyone went crazy over the puree and now I serve purees all the time with roast meats in the fall. Jason does one with rutabaga and a bit of maple syrup and I do one with carrots and potatoes (leaving it a bit chunky) with some scallions quickly sautéed in butter. I also love Brussels sprouts and, for Thanksgivings past, I have braised them with garlic and the aforementioned ham, diced them like slaw and sautéed them either in a mustard dill butter or with bacon and thyme, but it turns out they are really delicious pureed as well. Here, I offer the recipes. Happy Thanksgiving.
Sauteed Oysters on Toast
1 stick (¼ pound) butter
¼ cup Serrano or Prosciutto ham, sliced and cut into half-inch pieces (any good country ham, can be substituted)
1/3 cup finely chopped shallots
¼ cup finely chopped green bell pepper
1 pint shucked oysters, drained
Juice of one lemon, preferably a Meyer lemon
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 or 3 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leafed parsley
Melt the butter in a large heavy skillet and sauté the ham over medium heat for two or three minutes, until slightly crisp. Add the shallots and green pepper, turn heat to low and cook for another two minutes. Add the oysters and cook until the oysters have plumped and begin to curl on the edges. Quickly swirl in the salt, pepper, Tabasco and lemon juice, and spoon over grilled toast. Sprinkle with parsley and serve immediately.
For the toast
Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
Trim crusts from six slices of homemade white bread or Pepperidge Farm White, and spread with softened butter on both sides. Put on a cookie sheet and “grill” for eight to ten minutes, turning once so that both sides are golden brown.
Puree of Cauliflower with Curry
1 2-pound head cauliflower (untrimmed)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened, plus more to taste
3 teaspoons hot curry powder (like Madras)
¼ teaspoon ground white pepper
Heavy cream (optional)
Trim off leaves and cut out central core of cauliflower; break into florets. Peel the core and slice. Halve the florets lengthwise.
Bring ½ cup water to a boil in 1 2-quart saucepan over medium heat, add the core and florets and cook, covered, until tender, about 5 minutes.
Drain the cauliflower pieces, reserving cooking water, and place in food processor. Add ¼ cup cooking water, butter, curry powder, salt and pepper and puree to desired consistency, adding more cooking liquid or more butter, if desired. (I like this puree a bit rough, but you can puree until smooth and add a bit of heavy cream for a richer and more elegant looking puree.) Check for seasonings and serve immediately or turn puree into a gratin dish and reheat in a 250-degree oven when read to serve.
Brussels Sprouts Puree
5 cups Brussels sprouts
1 cup heavy cream
3 tablespoons butter
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon white pepper
Pinch nutmeg, preferably freshly grated
½ cup diced, boiled potatoes, optional
Trim root ends of sprouts and pull off any loose or discolored leaves.
Steam sprouts over salted water until tender, but not too soft. Drain well in colander. When sprouts are just cool enough to handle, slice in half and place in bowl of food processor. Add two tablespoons of the butter and ¾ cup of the cream. Puree until smooth. Add salt, pepper and nutmeg and blend well. For a richer puree, add remaining butter and cream.
For a puree with a less powerful Brussels sprouts flavor, add remaining butter, cream AND the potatoes. Check for seasonings and serve warm. (It may be reheated, covered, in the top of a double boiler or in a gratin dish, covered with foil, at 300 degrees Fahrenheit.)
Brussels Sprouts “Slaw” with Mustard Butter
For the Brussels sprouts
1 pound Brussels sprouts
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 teaspoon caraway seed or celery seed, bruised in a mortar
4 to 5 tablespoons mustard butter
Trim root ends of sprouts and remove loose or discolored leaves. Cut each sprout in half on a large cutting board and chop roughly with a demi-lune or a large chef’s knife. (You can also do this in a food processor but the leaves will be finer and the texture not quite as interesting.) Melt three tablespoons mustard butter in large skillet or sauté pan over medium heat. Add sprouts and sauté, stirring often, for five minutes or until tender. Lower heat, stir in caraway seeds and one more tablespoon mustard butter. Taste for seasoning. Add salt and pepper, a squeeze of lemon and more butter to taste.
For the mustard butter
1 stick butter
1 garlic clove, put through a press
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
3 tablespoons minced green onion
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1 tablespoon chopped dill
Salt and fresh ground pepper
Soften butter at room temperature and place in a mixing bowl. Add all ingredients and beat with a wooden spoon until the mixture is smooth. Butter may be stored, covered, in the refrigerator, or rolled in a cylinder on a sheet of wax paper and frozen until needed.