By holiday here I mostly mean the semi-secular American Thanksgiving and Christmas. Other cultural and religious celebrations at this time of year come with their own food traditions (which I would love to learn!)
If you’ve been making holiday dinners for your family for years, turning out oyster stuffing and decorating your pumpkin pies, this post is not for you. I’m talking to the people whose turkey dinner normally comes on a plastic tray heated in the microwave. If you have inherited The Meal, or you just want to make it yourself, it can be daunting to take on. So many dishes, so much expectation! And on top of everything else we’re supposed to make it local and healthy?
Here are some ideas to cut that massive project down to size. First, the local healthy thing works in your favor. The great thing about local fresh foods is that they taste fantastic without a whole lot of fuss. Next, incorporate the holiday dishes into your regular meals one at a time, to give yourself time to become familiar with them. Then when you string them all together on the actual holiday you’ll already be a pro.
Assembling the food
Meat: You’ll need to order the holiday bird, ham, or roast in advance. Establishing a relationship with local livestock farmers is a good start. This year we were lucky enough to have several meat vendors show up regularly at the Poulsbo Farmer’s Market. If you’re dying to try these ideas out right now, Central Market carries the Diestel Family Turkey Ranch Heidi’s Hens.
Veggies: you’ll need potatoes, onion, celery, cranberries, brussels sprouts or another green vegetable, and a pumpkin. Almost all of these are available from the last outdoor local farmer’s markets in October, the Poulsbo Holiday Market on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, and the Bainbridge Island Winter Market that runs throughout December.
Cranberries are the exception. Although Washington state grows and exports cranberries you won’t find farmstands vending organic varieties on the Cranberry Coast. One year I sought out a weekend harvest festival and did pick up cranberries straight from the bog, although they weren’t organic. This year Central Market in Poulsbo set up the cutest display, floating organic cranberries in a cart filled with water, and equipped the display with a scoop so you could pull the cranberries out.
Dairy: the pie will use milk, and several recipes use butter. Your choice: Black Jack Valley milk, Dungeness Creamery milk picked up at Fresh Local, Organic Valley heavy cream and butter.
Flour and bread: you’ll need flour for the pastry, pick your favorite grocer (or Finnriver Farm’s grains). You’ll also need a baguette for the dressing, pick your favorite bakery (say, 15th Street Bakery in Bremerton.)
Assemble recipes and cooking instructions
I rely on Alice Waters’ Simple Food, Emeril Lagasse’s Farm to Fork, and Joy of Cooking.
If you haven’t roasted a turkey before, you can practice by roasing a chicken, which is smaller and less intimidating. A turkey can roast exactly the same way as a chicken. Thaw the bird in the refrigerator or a sink of cold water. Bring it out of the refrigerator an hour before roasting to warm it to room temperature.
Make sure all the giblets are removed from the cavity. Rub the skin with kosher salt. Place in a pan about the same size as the bird (too much bigger and the juices will smoke). Roast at 400′. Start with the bird breast side up. In 20 minutes turn the bird breast side down, then 20 minutes later turn the bird breast side up. Roast until the juice from the thigh-leg joint runs clear, or until the thigh meat reads 180 on an instant read thermometer. Let the bird sit for a bit before carving.
The thing about stuffing is that it works best when it isn’t actually stuffed into the bird – it changes the cook time for the bird and tends to be done at a different time and temperature than the bird. Simplify your meal and make it as a side dish.
Stock: take the turkey giblets, cover with water, bring to a boil, and simmer for an hour or so. You can do this while the turkey is baking.
Chop one baguette, including the crunch crust, into bite-sized pieces. Chop one small or half a large onion. Also chop some celery. Melt some butter in a covered pan – a dutch oven is ideal. Add the onions and celery and saute until the onions are transluscent. Add the bread pieces. Then add a pinch of salt and 1 tsp. of chopped sage. Moisten with the turkey stock, or chicken stock or water – the bread should take about a cup, more or less depending on how dry the bread is. Cover, turn to low and simmer for about an hour, until cooked through and soft.
Use whatever kind you like best. I tend to save russets for baking, and use Yukon Gold or Yellow Finn to mash. If the family will take it, leave the skins on; if they’re not ready to go au naturel, peel the potatoes. Cut them into chunks. Cover with water, bring to a boil on the stove, then turn down and let them boil until they are fork tender.
Drain the potatoes. Mash them with a potato masher. Yes you really need one of those to do it right, they’re not terribly pricey, and you’ll find they do a lot of helpful things in the kitchen. Add some butter, a pinch of salt, and a small amount of cream, and keep on mashing. If the potatoes still seem a little dry to you carefully add more cream. You don’t want to overdo it. If you like very smooth potatoes you can pop them in a blender and whiz them for a minute. I like mine chunky, which, happily, is also less work to prepare.
This is a great vegetable at the holiday meal because you can keep them on the stalk in the garden until the day of the event. They’re not really ready to eat until after the first frost. If you didn’t grow them this year you can find stalks in stores at the holidays. Here’s what you do: take them off the stalk, wash, cut the little ends, remove any damaged outer leaves. Steam them until they’re fork tender. Put them in a bowl, drop in a few chunks of butter, cover the bowl. In a few minutes the butter will be melted. Toss the sprouts in the butter to coat.
This basically starts with a simple syrup. Add 1 cup of sugar to 1 cup of water, bring to a boil, and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Add 4 cups of cranberries. Bring to a boil again, then simmer until the cranberries become soft, 10-20 minutes. Let the cranberries cool. If you like them smooth you can give them a few pulses in the blender. Refrigerate until ready to eat. This is so easy to do you’ll be wondering why you ever buy the canned varieties.
I’m not going to do a crust recipe. Either you can do a crust, in which case I don’t need to tell you how, or you can’t, in which case you can buy one at the store. I did two pies this year, one with a bought crust and one with my own, both just fine. In either case you do want to prebake the pie crust before filling it. Prick the crust with a fork and bake it in a 400′ oven for 10 minutes.
It’s the pumpkin filling we’re after here. Cut the pumpkin into chunks. I use an inexpensive Asian vegetable cleaver and a wooden meat mallet. Bam! Scoop off the seeds (save those to roast and eat). Roast the squash in a 350′ oven until it’s soft. Let it cool off a bit, then scrape the skin off. Mash it (see? there’s another use for a potato masher) or whiz it in the blender.
Mix: 2 cups of pumpkin, 4 eggs, 2 cups brown sugar, and 3/4 cup cream. Add the spices, 1/4 tsp. each of cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice.
Pour the filling into the pie crust. Protect the edges of the crust from overcooking, you can use tinfoil or one of those metal rings you can find in every kitchen supply store. Bake at 350′ for an hour or until the filling is set.
There you have it, the tastes of the holidays: the rich almost smoky taste of turkey, the tart bite of cranberries, stuffing with sage, crunchy brussels sprouts and creamy potatoes, and pumpkin pie scented with cinnamon and nutmeg. Eaten one at a time they bring the season home. Eaten all together and they make a fantastic feast. It’s easier to pull off than you think – give it a go!