15 November 2012

Playing the Classics

I used to be in the Thanksgiving business. From the early 90s to the mid aught-aughts, my brother and I hosted 100s of guests and learned two important things about Thanksgiving-

  1. The cooking part is better than the eating part. Kitchens are places of intimacy – Secrets shared, food tasted, stories told, food cooked. The activity is controlled and chaotic, it’s messy, it’s busy, and even if stress is occasionally measurable, laughter and camaraderie are far more frequent. Find people you love to cook with and you’ll have an awesome holiday.
  2. The classics need to be represented.

As for the second point, people want the foods that mean Thanksgiving to them. Your guests want certain foods – that people don’t actually eat the green bean & cream of mushroom casserole or that Cool Whip may be an abomination against all that is good has little real life relevance; if someone grew up eating pie and Cool Whip, they may not be initially impressed your whip cream is made from cultured cream, pure sugar cane and Mexican vanilla bean.

Thankfully, there’s room to maneuver. The real deal whip cream is good enough to make people forget about Cool Whip. Or a cook can rediscover the combination of mushrooms and cream is actually pretty awesome – both examples give a nod to tradition while incorporating more modern ideas about food (fresh, local, etc.). Still, when attempting to rework the classics, there are dilemas, such as how do you solve a problem like cranberries?

As a boy, cranberries were served straight out of the can. Not truly out of the can, the presentation looked more like a cylinder of red that had recently molted it’s metal skin, resting untouched on a crystal plate. I don’t remember eating them, but I distinctly remember not liking them, so there had to be a taste somewhere. Yet they were on the table every November. Cranberries recall the custom of chow-chow’s, chutneys, marmalades, jellies and other sweet and sour condiments that would have been put on the table to cut through the monotony of salt-pork, salt-preserved meat and fish, salt-biscuits, salt-flour gravy and the floury-salty pudding, all common to English winter meals, which in turn, are arguably the progenitors to American feasts.

The first years of hosting we threw away a lot of cranberries, untouched on plates, disturbingly self-served buffet style. A better man would have doubted his cooking ability, but not me, I vacillated between blaming this on the cranberries or the guests themselves. Tired of throwing food away, we hosted the Thanksgiving still known as the Year Without Cranberries! That was the year we really learned the lesson about representing the foods of Thanksgiving past.

After that year, we would always work cranberries into the meal. This isn’t a list of recipes, you’re on your own there, just a list of ideas for cranberries…

  • Cranberry cocktail: BTW 3 parts sweetened cranberry juice to 1 part pear brandy, shaken over ice, served up. This is very good tasting, but in retrospect, and this seems obvious now – starting guests with a strong drink on an empty stomach isn’t good in any other sense.
  • Cranberry cheesecake, to which I can say pinkalicious without any trace of irony.
  • One year, my friend Kristin made the NPR’s Mama Stamberg’s cranberry relish, a relish so pink, describing it as pink doesn’t do it justice – maybe Princess Pink Möbius. It’s pink. Really, really pink. The combination of cranberries, sour cream and horseradish are wonderful counterpoints to roasted meat, it’s just so profoundly pink, like staring into a pink sun.
  • Wild rice pilaf with whole cranberries – if you poke the raw cranberries with a needle before cooking, and cook at a simmer, the berries keep their shape.
  • Cranberry-cornbread stuffing.
  • Cranberry, cheddar, cream cheese spread for Rosemary-sage crackers; that was good.
  • The single best non-traditional cranberry presentation was cranberry sorbet. Served in the martini glasses, the glasses we wouldn’t dare use for cocktails again. Sorbet has a different texture, a break from serious eating, a chance to stand and spoon food out of a glass – it was a winner. Except it’s difficult to serve when people eat buffet style.

As an adult I’ve come to understand the allure of cranberries, bitter, acidic and sweet – all the flavor of Thai food, but in a berry. Cranberry relish on turkey sandwiches! For this reason alone they’re worth making. How is that cranberries and mustard work so well together? I don’t know, but load up on the cranberries and save some for sandwiches. Organic, Oregon grown Cranberries at PSU Saturday and our King Reunion Market this Sunday.