Prepare yourself, because my next sentence could be considered heresy. I don’t make turkey for Thanksgiving. I haven’t for about 10 years. Now before you fly off the handle and gather your pitchforks and torches, let me explain. I’ve never been all that crazy about turkey. It’s a rather flavorless bird. Oh sure, I grew up eating it every Thanksgiving like all of you, have countless recipes aimed at making it THE best turkey ever, blah…blah…blah. Yet despite excellent cooks and creative methods from brining to stuffing things under the skin to wrapping in bacon to immersing in a giant pot of bubbling fat in the driveway (thus preventing that pesky burning-the-house-down tradition that seems to make the news every year), when all is said and done, I find turkey boring. Which, by the way, is the reason every year there is another new crop of recipes for the “best turkey ever.” And let’s just admit it once and for all. The best part of the holiday menu is all the stuff un-turkey on your table. The sides rule and you know it.
It’s not that I suffered some turkey-trauma as a child. I had a lovely and very traditional Normal Rockwell-y holiday. Growing up we were anywhere from 16 to 22 around the table. My grandparents would board a train from Brooklyn at dawn and make the trek over the boroughs and thru the suburbs to our home. And the bird usually rode along with them. Since my grandmother was a cook in a deli and could therefore get a turkey the size of a small child to feed our hungry horde from her butcher, scoring the turkey was her job. The beast, sides, breads, pies and all the rest would land on the table at precisely 2 p.m., and the great feast would ensue. It really was a lovely meal, and one I looked forward to every year, but to me the turkey was never the point. The vast majority of real estate on my plate would be filled with every side on the table blanketed in delicious gravy, and I’d gleefully make my way through it and then some. Year after year the usual fare continued, as family passed on and we kids grew up and away to our own tables. I would make a turkey with all the trimmings too because, well, that’s what you’re supposed to do. Then somewhere around 10 years ago the thought hit me. Why was I making something the centerpiece of my table, put all that time and effort into trying to coax it into being interesting, and at the end of the day it was still, well, turkey. Couldn’t I be still thankful, still gather with family and friends, still keep the spirit of the day in mind and heart and not make that boring bird? That was the moment my NEW Thanksgiving began.
Since that day Thanksgiving has transformed to a day for playing with food together with family and friends. Rather than usual fare, menu has become a food adventure. The only rule is the recipe has to be one we haven’t tried before. Weeks before the holiday we pour through clipped and dog-eared pages from magazines or cookbooks, searching for the one for that year. We debate and discuss the ingredients, what have we always wanted to try, what looks interesting and fun. The first year it was Thanksgiving in Algiers, with Algerian lamb shanks. Another year brought us to Provence with Provencal short ribs. Brisket has had starring roles twice, once crusted in horseradish and once braised in merlot with prunes. We laugh, drink wine and have a blast, together. The meal is never boring and always delicious. So what if the menu is not pilgrim-esque. The feelings and warmth in the kitchen and around the table is the same. We still gather together, express gratitude, share hopes, remember times past and laugh and love. Isn't that, and not turkey, really the point of it all?
So, what’s on the menu this year? After a little debate, Fennel Crusted Pork Loin with Potatoes and Pears came out the winner. The recipe was clipped from Real Simple magazine years ago and had all the prerequisite qualities. It was a roast, thus making the kitchen warm and cozy and filling the house with wonderful smells. Plus it will be a great meal to go with my mom’s apple pie, which is the only thing we MUST have on Thanksgiving every year. After all, some traditions you just don’t mess with.
I’ve also included a recipe I think will go beautifully the pork, Butternut Squash Caponata. While this is not my idea originally (I saw Mario Batali make it on TV last week to accompany that other white meat), when I looked up the recipe on the show’s website it wasn’t listed. So I figured I’d try to reinvent it, adding in a few adjustments of my own. The result may not be exactly what Mario had in mind, but it sure is good!
Fennel Crusted Pork Loin with Potatoes and Pears (From Real Simple Magazine)
Serves 4, and can easily be doubled for 8
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
2 cloves garlic, minced
4 tablespoons olive oil kosher salt and pepper
2 pounds boneless pork loin
2 red onions, quartered
1 pound small white potatoes, quartered
3 firm pears (such as Bartlett or Bosc), cored and quartered
Heat oven to 400° F.
Using the bottom of a heavy pan, crush the fennel seeds. In a small bowl, mix the seeds, the garlic, 2 tablespoons of the oil, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Rub the mixture over the pork, then place the pork in a large roasting pan.
In a bowl, mix the onions, potatoes, pears, 1 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon pepper, and the remaining oil. Scatter around the pork, trying not to overcrowd the pan or the heat won't distribute properly and the food will steam. Roast until cooked through, about an hour and 10 minutes (internal temperature 160° F). Transfer the pork to a cutting board and let rest at least 5 minutes before slicing. Serve with the roasted fruit and vegetables. Calories: about 415 per serving.
Butternut Squash Caponata (Inspired by Mario Batali from “The Chew”)
Makes about 4 ½ cups
NOTE: Try to chop the vegetables all about the same size so they cook at the same time
4 cups or about 1 pound peeled and cubed butternut squash
1 ½ cups chopped onions
1 cup chopped fennel
1 cup chopped celery
1 TBSP unsweetened cocoa powder
2 TBSP honey
¼ cup balsamic vinegar, plus 1-2 TBSP to add into finished dish
½ cup dried currants (you could substitute golden raisins)
¼ cup toasted slivered almonds, pine nuts or hazelnuts
1 TBSP olive oil
Salt and pepper
Sauté the vegetables in the olive oil and a generous pinch of salt over medium heat until they start to soften, about 10-12 minutes. Add in the cocoa and ¼ cup balsamic vinegar, honey and currants and toss well, scraping up any browned bits on the bottom of the pan. Continue to cook until the vegetables are tender but not mushy, about another 5-10 minutes more. When the vegetables are done, turn off the heat and add in the remaining 1-2 TBSP balsamic and a few good grinds of black pepper. Taste and adjust seasonings if needed. The caponata gets better as it sits, so this is the perfect dish to make ahead and keep in the fridge until you need it. Serve at room temperature with pork, turkey, duck, or whatever you like. (It’s great with goat cheese on toast too.) Calories: about 100 per ½ cup.