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Monday, November 26, 2007

A Thanksgiving Salad for Winter

Shockingly enough, one of this year’s Thanksgiving hits was – you won't believe this – a salad. Imagine that. Originally concocted by a bunch of Brits and composed of an unlikely mix of ingredients it was a perfect foil for the turkey and other sides, and had the extra benefit of booting boring old green beans from the menu.

I first had The Salad at an amazing Thanksgiving meal in London, hosted by some friends at Soho House . It was a magical evening. (No, this is most certainly not an everyday occurrence and I/we do not lead an even remotely glamorous life…it’s just, you know how sometimes things happen? You luck into a wonderful invitation…and there you are.) Anyway…there was a convivial group of people, a cozy private room and a menu that was entirely original. Yes, there was turkey, but there was roasted fish too! And, stuffing, of course, but shaped into croquettes and deep-fried (oh, heavens that was good!!) I remember a wild mushroom risotto I couldn’t seem to get enough of (furtively glancing around while taking a third helping to make sure no one was watching and secretly pleased that Stephen was sitting down at the other end of the table completely under the spell of a gorgeous, sassy Brazilian woman) AND, there was…
The Salad. It was perfect, in all respects.

Maybe I was enchanted by the swanky surroundings and the multiple glasses of champagne…maybe I loved it because it was part of a fabulous meal that I did not have to prepare! I studied it as I ate my, umm, second helping (?). It was composed of simple ingredients -- arugula, roasted sweet potatoes, crumbled goat cheese and toasted, whole almonds -- that sang together on the plate. I resolved to attempt recreating it at home. On our way out that evening, I cornered the delightful Soho House manager, complimenting him on the beautiful meal. He seemed genuinely pleased, sharing that he had invited a handful of American members the week before just to “test” some of the Thanksgiving dishes he had planned. Sigh. I’d spend every Thanksgiving there if I could.

Since that marvelous evening, I have made The Salad on scores of occasions and it wins raves each and every time. This year, looking for a way to bump those dull green beans from the roster, the big light bulb went on over my head: why, The Salad, of course!

I don’t quite remember the dressing very well – ahem, maybe the champagne is to blame – so, I use a rich, balsamic vinaigrette that pairs well with the rustic, charred sweet potatoes.

After spending several evenings and most of last Thursday in the kitchen, I found myself smiling dreamily as I sat amidst the chaos of Thanksgiving Dinner with the family. A bite of The Salad and memories of a London Thanksgiving had come flooding back.

Soho House Salad
Serves 6

For the Salad:
2 sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into long spears and then roasted
1 bunch/bag of arugula
1 cup whole almonds, toasted
goat cheese, crumbled (about 2.5 oz, or more if you like)

For the Vinaigrette:
5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
pinch of salt
1 shallot, finely minced

1. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Toss the peeled, cut sweet potatoes with a tablespoon of olive oil and a pinch of salt and pepper in a small roasting pan or ovenproof skillet. Roast for approximately 20-25 minutes, turning the potatoes several times with a spatula so they become evenly browned. Remove from oven, cool and chop into 1 inch chunks.

2. Place whole almonds in a small pan and toast for approximately 10 minutes, or until fragrant, alongside the potatoes.
**Keep a careful eye on the almonds -- they can burn quickly.** Cool on a separate plate.

2. Prepare the vinaigrette, using a small jar with a tight fitting lid, combine the salt with the vinegar, stirring to dissolve.
Add minced shallot and let sit for five or ten minutes to soften.  Add mustard and olive oil, cover with lid and shake to mix.

3. Layer the arugula on a large platter and sprinkle with a tablespoon or so of the dressing. Layer the chunks of sweet potato, followed by a scattering of the crumbled goat cheese. Drizzle again with tablespoon or so of the dressing.

4. Top with toasted almonds and serve.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Thanksgiving Traditions

The beauty of Thanksgiving is how many different ways one can choose to celebrate a glorious concept – gratitude -- with food. Everyone has traditions and favorites. My friend, Didier, is making beef tenderloin for his guests. Steve’s Louisiana-born boss will be deep-frying his family’s turkey. Friends on the East Coast will be firing up their grill for the bird. We’re going the standard oven roasting route. There’s something I love about the fragrance of a roasting turkey wafting through the apartment. I will tell you that years ago, we cooked two turkeys – one on the grill and one in the oven, and the grilled bird was picked clean at the end of dinner, while there were plenty of leftovers from the oven version.

Sides are what makes the meal, in my book, and the week before Thanksgiving, I have my nose buried in “research”: back issues of Gourmet, Cook’s Illustrated and, yes, Martha Stewart Living to see if there’s anything new to put in the rotation. I have a tried and true stuffing recipe, which I stray from every so often, much to the dismay of family and friends. There was the sad oyster stuffing experiment, one year. (Hmm, stuffing with bits of chewy something…the oysters, lost and overwhelmed by bread. Not good.) Then a cornbread stuffing another year.... (Too bland and well, kind of Puritan in style.) So, I stick with a Savory Apricot-Sausage stuffing cobbled together from two different recipes…it’s perfect according to my loved ones.

The one thing everyone seems to crave, and the item that is simply delightful to have around to accompany leftovers is Golden Pear Chutney. Years ago, Jeffrey Steingarten published a recipe in Vogue after a visit to Charleston with John Martin Taylor, a talented local cook. It prompted me to buy Taylor’s book, Hoppin' John's Lowcountry Cooking, and fed a fascination I’ve had with all types of Southern cooking. About the chutney, Taylor writes, “Lowcountry cooking is full of ideas that seem foreign to outsiders.” To this outsider, the chutney is the perfect companion to roast turkey. The tang of crystallized ginger is what I think gives a warm, mysterious sort of depth to this sweet and spicy relish and served with warm, or cold, turkey, it is out of this world. He recommends sealing the chutney in sterilized jars, etc.., which I did one year when I was giving pints of chutney as Christmas gifts, but for Thanksgiving I just put it in a large mason jar and keep it in the fridge, where it keeps perfectly well for at least a week.

It’s funny…the chutney has become a Thanksgiving tradition at our house, and more often than not, in the week or so before…my mother will call and ask me, a worried tone in her voice, “did you make the chutney?”
Yes, Mom, I made the chutney.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Golden Pear Chutney
adapted from Hoppin' John's Lowcountry Cooking

NOTE: I tend to use light brown sugar most of the time, and the resulting chutney is a gorgeous amber hue. This year I used dark brown sugar instead and the color is a deep golden mahogany. I can't detect any difference in flavor.

makes about 5 pints

3 pounds hard, underripe pears, peeled, seeded, and chopped (about 6 cups)
3 cups light or dark brown sugar
3 cups apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon mustard seeds
2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
1/4 pound crystallized ginger, chopped (about 2/3 cup)
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon Quatre-Epices (oooh, that sounds so Southern!)
(I used a pinch of each of the following: white pepper, grated nutmeg, ground cloves, ground cinnamon and ground ginger)
1 cup dark raisins
1 cup light, golden raisins
2 cups chopped Vidalia, or other sweet onion
1 lemon, peeled and thinly sliced

Cook the pears in a large, non-reactive pot, in water to cover until they are medium-soft. (They should still have some firmness when you slip a knife through. Don't overcook, otherwise they'll fall apart and turn into mush further along in the cooking.)
Strain out the pears and toss in a large bowl with remaining ingredients.
Boil the cooking water down until thick -- about 20 to 30 minutes.
Return pear mixture to the pot with syrupy water and cook for about 30 minutes, or until the raisins are softened and the onions are transparent. You want the chutney to have a nice, thick consistency.

Let cool and then store in a mason jar or glass bowl with a lid in the refrigerator. Keeps at least a week.
Also can be transferred to sterilized jars and sealed; process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.