An explanation and a recipe
I must confess right at the start that I’ve never been a fan of Thanksgiving. Call me Scrooge if you will, but I don’t see the point of eating oneself into a stupor, even on just one day of the year.
And to my palate the food on the Thanksgiving table, at least in the traditional New England household in which I grew up, isn’t even all that interesting. An unnaturally plumped out bird, its interior filled with sundry pastes made from stale bread, roasted for hours until the meat is dry and stringy; a traditional sauce that is too tart to eat on its own and requires massive quantities of mashed potatoes to make it go down; a selection of vegetables cooked to death then beaten to a uniform pap; and finally a selection of desserts about which the less said the better--pumpkin pie (more pap), mincemeat (as with Christmas fruitcake, nobody actually likes it, but we all pretend), and pecan pie so sweet it makes my teeth ache just to write the words.
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When mother began to serve lobster
That was Thanksgiving when I was growing up, before my mother saw the light and began serving lobster instead, which she did only after her children had left home and she no longer had to maintain the Norman Rockwell illusion of the holiday. You can see why my memories are not exactly nostalgic for Thanksgivings past. The only things I really liked were the silver bowls of nuts and mints (each melting white mint hiding a spot of jelly inside) and the peculiar divided crystal tray that was brought out once or maybe twice a year in which were served carrot sticks and celery stuffed with Philadelphia cream cheese.
But truth be told, the real reason I didn’t like Thanksgiving–which I only now have the courage to reveal–is that there are No Presents! We had gifts at Christmas, gifts at Easter, gifts at birthdays, and fireworks on the Fourth of July, but nothing at Thanksgiving--and no overstuffed, over-roasted bird could make up for that. Not even the exciting presence of my uncle from Cambridge, who always brought a collection of guns and taught me to shoot them at targets on the river below our house, not even that could overcome my disappointment in the holiday.
Nonetheless, Thanksgiving has had its pleasures over the years and many of them have taken place in Tuscany where Thanksgiving as such is not a recognized holiday but we celebrated anyway on our miniature olive farm—but only for the sake of the children, we said.
Well, why not fry your turkey in extra-virgin?
I could tell you such tales about Tuscan Thanksgivings--about the best turkey I ever made, deep fried in extra-virgin olive oil from a four-year-old stash of oil that had improbably been forgotten in the back of the store room. Olive oil, we say, is only good for two years but this oil was just fine, lacking the freshness it had once had, but still stable and delicious without a trace of rancidity. (I put that down to the fact that the oil had been undisturbed, in the cool dark of an almost-underground pantry for all that time.) And if it was not actually a whole turkey but only a quarter of an extremely large Tuscan bird, it was memorable nonetheless. The skin was crisp and crackling, the insides were moist and flavorful, truly an extraordinary experience, to be repeated the next time I find a large stash of old olive oil in good condition. If only.
Or I could tell you about the time the power went out for no discernible reason, which it did with alarming frequency back in the early days of our Tuscan tenure. So that meant no heat in the electric oven and no power to whip up the cream for the pies, and no lights to see by in the lowering twilight. But we made do, somehow, figuring out how to bake Thanksgiving brownies in the oven of the wood-burning cookstove, lighting all the candles, and beating up the cream with a wire whisk, just like grandma used to do. And the greatest bonus? As the afternoon waned and darkness descended, I realized there was no possibility of cleaning up the kitchen by candlelight—all those dishes, all those glasses, all those pots and platters and roasting dishes—and so we went happily off to bed that night, leaving the cleaning up for next morning.
But let me also tell you about the chestnut soup, potage de marrons, with which the meal in Tuscany always began.
Made from a recipe in an old Elizabeth David cookbook, the soup calls for skinning and peeling a lot of chestnuts (not a task for pikers, requiring as it does a hot oven and a very sharp knife), making a vegetable stock, cooking the peeled chestnuts in the stock until soft, pureeing them and finally thinning the puree with milk or cream. “Although all this may sound a lot of fuss to make a chestnut soup,” Mrs. David comments, “it is well worth the trouble.” And so it is, especially when made with the marrone (sweet chestnuts) gathered from the line of trees that extends below our Tuscan farmhouse. This year, although we’re feasting in Maine, we’ll still start with chestnut soup but using frozen peeled chestnuts, one of the great boons of a modern consumerist economy.
Give thanks for the farms. . . and the farmers
And after all, Thanksgiving is about giving thanks for an abundant harvest, is it not? A harvest of chestnuts, a harvest of olive oil, a harvest of squash and pumpkins, of cranberries and even turkeys, bless ‘em? Moreover, to celebrate the harvest, to celebrate the goodness of what’s been safely gathered in, even if you’ve only gathered it from your local supermarket, is a way of honoring and paying respect to all the people who made the harvest possible, especially the farmers. It’s a good time to remember that without farms, we would have no good food, and without good food, in my reckoning, we would have no real happiness.
So: gifts or not, deep-fried turkey or not, mashed turnips or not, sweet potatoes with marshmallow sauce or not, like most Americans, we’ll celebrate Thanksgiving in our own distinctive way. This year I’m going to offer a special pasta dish that takes elements of a traditional Thanksgiving and mixes them up to create something new and different that still brings seasonal delights and maybe even a little applause for my courage in stepping outside the envelope.
Pasta al Forno: Crumbled Garlic Sausage, Sage and Winter Squash
A normal dish of pasta should be cooked and served immediately, which makes it hard to produce successfully for a Thanksgiving crowd. Pasta al forno, on the other hand, pasta baked in the oven, is much easier since after baking, it can be held for an hour or so in a warm place before serving it up. I use small shells or pennette, but any small, round pasta will do--orecchiette, rigatoni, penne, gemelli, farfalle, or any other quirky shape.
The squash comes from my cook-gardener friend Sandy Oliver who grows this strange looking critter in her garden on an island in Penobscot Bay. You could use any hard winter squash, such as Hubbard, butternut or buttercup; sugar pumpkins are too sweet, but a pumpkin grown for eating (not for Halloween), such as Long Island cheese pumpkin with its pale skin and flattened shape, would be good. The squash should weigh about 2 pounds when trimmed. Chop it coarsely, and don’t worry if the pieces are not equal. Part of the charm of the dish comes from some pieces disintegrating almost into a puree while others stay a little firm to the bite.
For the sausages, look for pure pork sausages with nothing but salt and aromatics (and garlic) added. I use sweet Italian sausages for this, and when I can find them, fennel-flavored ones. If you like spicy food, however, use the hot kind. If you use sweet sausages, consider adding a pinch of ground or flaked red chili peppers or a teaspoon of wild fennel pollen or crushed fennel seeds to perk things up a bit. And if you can’t get garlic-flavored sausages, by all means add more garlic to the sauce.
This makes 6 to 8 servings, but you can easily double the quantities. It’s adapted from a recipe in The Four Seasons of Pasta, which I wrote with my daughter Sara.
About 1/3 cup unsalted butter
10 to 12 sage leaves
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil plus more for garnish
1 medium red or yellow onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped
2 Italian-style sausages, sweet, fennel or spicy (about ½ pound)
2 teaspoons wild fennel pollen or ground fennel seed (optional)
Pinch of ground or flaked red chili pepper (optional)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 to 5 cups coarsely chopped firm, orange-fleshed squash
About 1 pound (500 grams) pasta
½ cup ricotta
½ cup chopped flat leaf Italian parsley
1/3 cup parmigiano reggiano, plus more to pass at the table
1/3 cup toasted unflavored breadcrumbs
Turn the oven on to 425ºF. Use some of the butter to grease the bottom and sides of a 9 x 13-inch rectangular baking dish that’s at least 2 inches deep.
Set aside 4 or 5 of the largest sage leaves to use for a garnish. Chop the rest to make a few tablespoons of chopped sage.
Combine 3 tablespoons of the oil with the onion and garlic in a large saucepan over medium-low heat. Cook , stirring, until the vegetables start to sizzle. Remove the sausage meat from its casings and crumble the ground sausage into the vegetables, breaking the meat up with a fork. Let the meat cook briefly, tossing and stirring until it starts to render its fat. When it just stops being pink, add the chopped sage, fennel and chili pepper if using, and salt and black pepper, and stir it in. Turn the heat down as low as you can to keep the mixture warm.
Heat the remaining tablespoon of oil in a small saucepan over high heat and add the reserved whole sage leaves. Sauté, turning, until the leaves are crisp, then remove to a paper towel to drain. You’ll use these as a garnish in the end.
Set a large pot of abundantly salted water on to boil. When it’s boiling vigorously, add the pasta and stir with a long-handled spoon.
While the pasta returns to a boil and cooks, add the squash to the sausage in the saucepan and turn the heat to medium high. Cook briskly until the squash is soft, some pieces cooked through while others remain whole. Add a ladleful of pasta water to the sauce and stir it in. Keep the sauce cooking while the pasta cooks, and add pasta water from time to time if it starts to dry out.
The pasta should cook until it’s not quite done—pennette, for instance, will take only about 7 or 8 minutes from the time the water returns to the boil.
When the pasta is not quite but almost al dente, use a slotted spoon to remove it and transfer it directly to the squash mixture simmering in its saucepan. Don’t worry if the pasta isn’t fully drained—the residual water will add creaminess to the sauce. Add a few more ladles of pasta water along with the parsley and stir to combine all the ingredients, coating the pasta with the sauce.
Spread about half the squash and pasta in the bottom of the buttered oven dish. Using a spoon or your hands, drop blobs of ricotta all over the top, then top with the remaining squash and pasta. Finally, sprinkle the grated cheese and breadcrumbs liberally over the top and dot with the remaining butter, then dribble with another spoonful of olive oil. Transfer to the hot oven and bake for 15 or 20 minutes, until the pasta is fully cooked and the crumbs are brown and crisp. Serve immediately or hold the dish, tented with aluminum foil, in a warm place until ready to serve. Garnish with the crisp sage leaves when you serve it.
Note to cooks: Use this as a master recipe for all sorts of sausage-and-vegetable pasta sauces. Once Thanksgiving is past, try it with broccoli rabe or turnip greens; or chop a bunch of leeks into smaller pieces, rinse them thoroughly, and add in place of the squash.
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