The directive arrived a little more than a month ago, an empty email with a subject line that simply said, “call me re Thanksgiving story.”
As the rookie on the Newsday food team, who happens to have a cooking school background, I had been drafted to create this year’s Thanksgiving menu.
In the food world, few weekly dining sections are as important as the one that reveals a new way to cook turkey and how to put a twist on traditional side dishes.
Yup, I replied, no big deal. I am on it. Sweat. Sweat. Sweat.
I started reflecting on Thanksgivings past. I have been cooking turkeys for more than 20 years, going back to my college days. As sophomores freed from dorm life, three roommates and I decided to cook a “Friendsgiving” the Saturday before going home to our families. The blooper that year: The turkey was still frozen. We used a hair dryer to thaw it. It worked, but please don’t try it.
Since then, I have experimented with brining for juicier meat; spatchcocking — taking out the back and cooking the turkey flat for a faster finish; cooking the bird breast-side down and flipping it half way through for brown skin and juicier white meat; taking the entire bird apart to roast the breasts, braise the legs and wings and use the bones for stock.
Over the years, I have stuffed cavities with all kinds of fruit (apples, persimmons, grapefruit) and vegetables (fennel, carrots, celery). I have rubbed the outside with olive oil, butter, clarified butter, traditional sage, nontraditional cumin. One year, I decided to embrace my ethnic background and try a recipe that called for an Indian mix of yogurt and tandoori spice. I found it overwhelmed the subtle flavor of the meat.
These days, with a young daughter and starved for family time, I want a juicy, brown bird without all the added work, and a mix of sides that can be made in advance, don’t require oven time or can be heated while the roasted bird rests.
Beets are this year’s starter, shredded into a dip of tahini and lemon and served with crudités and bread.
For sides, instead of mashed potatoes, we substituted a butter-and-lemon-packed cauliflower puree that requires no oven time. It can be made ahead and finished just before serving. For this year’s brassica, crispy cabbage finished with crushed pistachios takes the place of Brussels sprouts. For the stuffing, we turned to cornbread, playing on Cajun versions with twists like lamb sausage, serrano pepper and cilantro. It can be prepared while the turkey cooks and go in the oven while the bird rests.
Butternut squash was replaced by roasted delicata squash that can share oven space with the stuffing. The squash is finished with crispy curry leaves. (In place of curry leaves, I’ve used thyme, rosemary and parsley in the past.)
For the turkey, I like to stuff the cavity with oranges and lemons along with onions, garlic and herbs. The steam from the citrus helps keep the bird moist.
Of late, my wife and I have been obsessed with curry leaves, pairing them with everything from popcorn to pasta. Curry leaves have nothing to do with curry powder — the leaves, which are a key to so many South Asian dishes, are subtle yet aromatic. They can be found at just about any South Asian market and even at Amazon.com.
To get that brown, crispy skin and juicy breast meat, I turned to jarred ghee, a nutty and smoky derivative of clarified butter that also takes its cues from South Asia. By gently pulling away the skin from the turkey breast and coating the meat with a healthy helping of ghee — and liberally rubbing more on the skin itself — you get tender meat and brown skin. It adds another flavor dimension and makes the house smell great.
BEETS IN TAHINI SAUCE
This can be served as an appetizer with crudite and bread. It’s an earthy, nutty and bright dip that takes its cues from the Middle East. It can be made a day in advance. Just remove from the fridge about an hour before serving and garnish with fresh herbs.
FOR THE BEETS
5 cups plus 1⁄2 teaspoon kosher salt (this helps to quickly draw out the moisture, but you can use less salt), divided
8 medium beets, about 3 pounds
1⁄2 cup tahini sauce (recipe at right)
1⁄2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1⁄4 cup lemon juice (about 1 lemon)
1⁄4 cup chopped fresh dill, plus extra for topping
2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint, plus extra for topping
1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Spread 1 cup of salt in an ovenproof skillet or baking dish. Place beets on the salt and cover with 4 cups salt. Bake until the beets are tender, about 90 minutes. While the beets are cooking, make tahini sauce.
2. When beets are cool enough to handle, remove from the salt and peel. Set aside to cool completely.
3. Grate the beets into a mixing bowl using the coarse holes of a box grater. Add the tahini sauce, oil, lemon juice, dill and mint. Season with the remaining 1⁄2 teaspoon salt. Mix well.
4. Top with more chopped dill and mint, and serve. Makes 6 to 8 servings.
FOR THE TAHINI SAUCE
1 bulb garlic
3⁄4 cup lemon juice (about 3 lemons)
1 1⁄2 teaspoons kosher salt, divided, plus extra, to taste
2 cups tahini
1⁄2 teaspoon ground cumin, plus extra, to taste
1. Break up the bulb of garlic with your hands, letting the unpeeled cloves fall into a blender. Add the lemon juice and 1⁄2 teaspoon of the salt. Blend on high for a few seconds, until you have a coarse puree. Let stand for 10 minutes to mellow.
2. Pour the mixture through a fine-mesh strainer set over a large mixing bowl, pressing on the solids to extract as much liquid as possible. Discard the solids. Add the tahina to the strained liquid, along with the cumin and 1 teaspoon of the salt.
3. Whisk the mixture together until smooth (or use a food processor), adding ice water, a few tablespoons at a time, to thin it out. The sauce will lighten in color as you whisk. When the tahini seizes up or tightens, keep adding ice water, bit by bit (about 1 1⁄2 cups in all), whisking energetically until you have a perfectly smooth, creamy, thick sauce.
4. Taste and add up to 1 1⁄2 teaspoons salt and cumin, if you like. If you’re not using the sauce immediately, whisk in a few tablespoons of ice water to loosen it before refrigerating. The tahini sauce will keep a week refrigerated, or it can be frozen for up to a month. Makes about 4 cups.
To encourage a good rise, warm the eggs and milk before mixing. You can also preheat the pan for a few minutes. Don’t open the oven until you are ready to pull the popovers out; a sudden decrease in oven temperature may cause your popovers to deflate like popped balloons.
4 large eggs, warmed in bowl of hot tap water for 15 minutes
1 1⁄2 cups low-fat milk, lukewarm
1⁄2 teaspoon salt
1 1⁄2 cups all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Position a rack on the bottom third of the oven. Place a 6-cup popover tin or a 12-cup muffin tin on the rack.
2. Combine the eggs, milk and salt in a blender. Add the flour and blend until smooth. Add the butter and blend until frothy.
3. Remove the pan from the oven and spray the cups and the spaces between the cups with cooking spray. Pour the batter into the cups, filling them about 3⁄4 full.
4. Bake the popovers for 15 minutes. Reduce the heat to 325, and bake until deep golden brown, about 15 to 20 minutes, depending on cup size.
5. Remove the pan from the oven. Insert the tip of a sharp paring knife into the middle of each popover to release steam and overturn onto a wire rack. Serve immediately. Makes 6 large or 12 small popovers.
Recipe by Lauren Chattman
GHEE-BASTED TURKEY WITH CITRUS AND CURRY LEAVES
Ghee is clarified butter whose milk solids are carmelized, resulting in a nutty, smoky flavor. It doesn’t burn like butter, adds flavor and makes the house smell wonderful. If you don’t have curry leaves, any mix of herbs (thyme, rosemary and parsley work well) may be substituted.
1 (12- to 15-pound) turkey, giblets, neck and liver removed
2 blood oranges, zested and halved (regular oranges may be substituted)
2 lemons, zested and halved
8 ounces ghee, homemade or from a jar, plus more for basting (clarified butter may be substituted), divided
Kosher salt and fresh black pepper
2 large onions, peeled
2 bulbs of garlic, halved
3 sprigs of curry leaves, plus additional for garnishing
3 tablespoons olive oil
1. The night before, remove giblets, neck and liver from inside the turkey. Pat turkey dry, and put back in the fridge.
2. About an hour before cooking, take turkey out of the fridge, pat dry again and let rest on counter, allowing skin to continue drying out and turkey to reach room temperature.
3. While turkey is resting, position one rack in the bottom third of the oven and preheat to 425 degrees. Mix zest from oranges and lemons with 4 ounces of ghee, 1 tablespoon salt and a large pinch of pepper; set aside.
4. When ready to cook, heavily salt and pepper the cavity of the turkey. Place your fingers under the skin of the breast and gently pull the skin away from the meat, being careful not to tear the skin.
5. Using your hands, rub the ghee and zest mix over the meat, under the skin.
6. Place 1 lemon, 1 orange, 1 onion and 1 bulb of garlic in the cavity of the bird, along with 2 sprigs of the curry leaves or herbs. Tuck the ends of the drumsticks under the flap of skin or the plastic or metal “hock lock,” or tie them together with kitchen twine.
7. Place the remaining orange, lemon, onion, garlic and last sprig of curry leaves in the bottom of the roasting pan, distributing evenly; drizzle with olive oil and toss to coat.
8. Generously salt the outside of the turkey and rub with remaining ghee. Sprinkle with a large pinch of pepper and place the turkey on top of a roasting rack, breast-side up.
9. Roast for 30 to 45 minutes, until the skin has turned a light golden brown. Using a pastry brush, baste with ghee, turn heat down to 325 degrees, tent with foil and continue roasting, basting with the ghee every 30 to 45 minutes. About 30 minutes before turkey is done, take any remaining curry leaves or herbs and brush them with ghee and place on the turkey skin. They will crisp as the turkey finishes cooking.
10. The turkey is done when an instant-read thermometer inserted in meaty part of the thigh (not touching a bone) registers 165 degrees, about 3 to 3 1⁄2 hours. The bird will continue to cook outside the oven, rising to a temperature of about 180 degrees.
11. Transfer turkey to a carving board. Remove the crisped curry leaves or herbs and set aside, reserving the pan drippings for gravy. Let the turkey stand, uncovered, for at least an hour or tented with foil for up to 90 minutes before carving. Serve with gravy and crisp curry leaves or herbs. Makes 10 to 12 servings.
3 cups turkey or chicken stock, preferably homemade
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1. Once the turkey is out of the pan, remove the rack and place the pan with all the citrus, curry leaves and aromatics on burner of stove. Add stock and heat over medium heat, using a spatula to loosen any drippings stuck to the pan.
2. Strain stock through a fine mesh strainer into a saucepan, using a spoon to tamp it down and release all the juices. In a small bowl, add the cornstarch and about 1⁄4 cup of the stock; whisk to combine.
3. Add the cornstarch mixture to the stock in the saucepan and whisk over medium heat until gravy thickens. Transfer to a gravy boat. Makes about 3 cups.
HOT, BUTTERED CAULIFLOWER
An alternative to mashed potatoes, this cauliflower has the look and consistency of that buttery puree everyone craves.
2 heads cauliflower, cored and broken into large florets
1⁄2 stick of butter, plus 1 tablespoon
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon pepper
2 tablespoons of lemon juice (about 1 lemon)
1⁄4 cup of finely chopped parsley
1. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil, add the cauliflower florets and cook until they are fork tender, about 15 to 20 minutes.
2. Drain and transfer to the bowl of a food processor and pulse until smooth. (You may need to do this in batches depending on the size of your food processor.) Reserve (this is can be done a day in advance).
3. When ready to serve, melt the half stick of butter in a large saute pan, mix in the cauliflower and add the salt and pepper. When cauliflower is heated through, add the parsley and lemon juice. Taste and adjust seasonings if needed. Transfer to a bowl, top with remaining tablespoon of butter and serve. Makes 6 to 8 servings.
Cabbage is the new Brussels sprouts. When roasted until crackly crisp, it has a sweetness.
1 head of savoy or green cabbage, cored and shredded by hand or with a mandoline
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
3 tablespoons olive oil
1⁄4 cup lemon juice (about 1 lemon)
1⁄4 cup shelled roasted pistachios, roughly chopped
1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Place shredded cabbage in a roasting pan and toss with salt, pepper, fennel seeds and olive oil.
2. Cook for 30 to 45 minutes until lightly brown and crispy. Place on a platter, drizzle with lemon juice and finish with pistachios. Makes 6 to 8 servings.
ROASTED DELICATA SQUASH WITH CURRY LEAVES
There is no need to remove the skin on this delicate squash. Roasting can be done while the turkey rests.
2 large or 3 small delicata squash
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
5 to 6 large curry leaves (any mix of herbs may be substituted)
1⁄4 cup lemon juice (about 1 lemon)
2 pinches of a large crystal finishing salt, such as sea salt
1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Cut the squash in half, remove seeds and slice into 1⁄2 thick semicircles.
2. Toss with salt, pepper and 2 tablespoons of olive oil and spread on a parchment-paper-lined baking sheet. Roast for about 20 minutes, turning once until the squash is caramelized on outside but not too soft.
3. In a saute pan, place remaining olive oil and cook curry leaves until crispy. Remove to a paper towel to drain. Reserve the oil.
4. Arrange roasted squash on a platter, drizzle with lemon juice and curry-flavored olive oil in the pan. Gently crush the curry leaves with your hands. Sprinkle leaves and finishing salt on top of squash. Makes 6 to 8 servings.
SAUSAGE AND CHILI CORNBREAD STUFFING
A play on Cajun cornbread stuffing, this version takes on South Asian flavors such as lamb, cilantro and a hot chili.
1 (9-by-13-inch) pan of cornbread, cut into 1⁄2-inch chunks
2 links (about 1⁄2 pound) lamb sausage, removed from casing (spicy Italian or chorizo can be substituted)
3 tablespoons butter
1 medium onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 scallions, finely chopped, green and white parts separated
Kernels from 2 ears of fresh corn cut from the cob or 1 cup frozen corn
1 serrano chili, finely diced (include seeds and veins if you want added spice)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1⁄2 cup heavy cream
3 cups chicken stock
1 cup cilantro, finely chopped
1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Place cornbread chunks in large baking pan or a 9-by-13-inch casserole dish and toast in oven, tossing every 10 minutes, until all the pieces are crisp and dry. Remove and set aside to cool.
2. Place sausage in a large saute pan and cook over medium-high heat, crumbling with a wooden spoon until crisp. Transfer sausage to a large bowl and set aside. In the same saute pan, melt the butter, add onion and garlic, and saute until soft. Add white parts of scallions, corn, chili and salt, and saute until soft.
3. In a separate bowl, whisk together eggs, cream and chicken stock. Mix in cilantro and green parts of scallion.
4. When cornbread is cool, add sausage to the casserole dish and gently toss with the butter-and-onion mixture to distribute ingredients evenly. Pour the stock mixture a little at a time over the stuffing, making sure to coat all the bread. Cover with aluminum foil and bake in 375-degree oven for 30 minutes. Take off the foil and bake 10 minutes longer, or until stuffing is set and brown on top. Makes 6 to 8 servings.
PUMPKIN-CHAI SPICED CHEESECAKE
Chai flavors can include cinnamon, ginger, cloves, cardamom, saffron, rose, fennel, peppercorn, clove, and star anise.
FOR THE CRUST
1 1⁄2 cups finely ground graham crackers (from 10 whole crackers)
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
2 tablespoons sugar
FOR THE FILLING
3 (8-ounce) packages cream cheese, softened
1 3⁄4 cups sugar
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
5 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 large egg yolks
1 (15-ounce) can pumpkin puree
1⁄2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1⁄2 teaspoon ground ginger
1⁄2 teaspoon ground cloves
1⁄2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1⁄2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1. Spray a 10-inch springform pan with nonstick cooking spray. Tightly wrap a layer of heavy-duty aluminum foil around the outside of the pan. Make the crust: Combine the graham cracker crumbs, melted butter, sugar and salt and stir until all of the crumbs are moistened. Press evenly across the bottom and 1 inch up the sides of the pan. Refrigerate until ready to fill.
2. Preheat the oven to 500 degrees. Beat together the cream cheese, sugar and flour with an electric mixer until smooth, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary. With the mixer on low, add the eggs, one at a time, scraping down the sides of the bowl after each addition. Beat in the vanilla.
3. Remove 2 1⁄2 cups of the filling to another bowl. Add the yolks, pumpkin, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, cardamom and pepper to the remaining filling and beat until smooth.
4. Pour half of pumpkin filling into crust, then half of plain. Repeat with the remaining pumpkin and plain fillings. Gently swirl a butter knife through the filling to create a marbled effect.
5. Bake for 12 minutes. Without opening the oven door, reduce the temperature to 200 degrees and continue baking until an instant-read thermometer reads 150 degrees and the cake is mostly set but still a little loose in the center, about 1 1⁄2 hours. Transfer the cake to a wire rack and run a paring knife between the cake and the sides of the pan. Cool completely on the rack, 2 to 3 hours. Wrap tightly in plastic and refrigerate until cold, at least 3 hours and up to 4 days.
6. Remove the sides of the pan, slide a thin metal spatula between the crust and the pan to loosen, and slide onto a serving plate. Let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes before slicing and serving. Makes 12 servings.
Recipe by Lauren Chattman
BEHIND-THE SCENES BLOOPER
Even the most seasoned cook fumbles in the throes of the Thanksgiving cooking crush.
My humbling experience came last week on a video and photo shoot for this year’s bird. As I started to carve the turkey, I realized the fowl had been cooked upside down. How it eluded me still seems unfathomable. As one colleague joked, “This has to be an act of God.” She also has promised to never let me forget it.
We ended up cooking a second bird that we present as this year’s Newsday turkey. That said, the upside-down version is the tastiest turkey I have ever cooked.
I learned I am not alone in this conclusion. Others who have done this — accidentally or intentionally — have expressed the same reaction. The juices drip into the breast, instead of the other way around, when you cook a turkey breast-side up, which leads to basting, placing fat under the skin and countless other techniques cooks use to make sure white meat comes out moist and tender.
You’re sacrificing presentation — puffed golden breast and plump legs — for juicy white meat resting on soggy skin and a less-desirable back-side up view. Note, once it was carved and the guests arrived, no one was the wiser.