Little culinary surprises make traditional Thanksgiving Day food so much more delicious -- and provocative. The presence and mingling in the following menu of herbs and spices, played up alone and in combinaton, spark a mostly traditional feast.
Herbs and spices figured in dishes set out on early colonial tables; cooks thought them to aid digestion, and cherished them for their restorative powers. And, dried harvested herbs were hung in rooms to deodorize them, when they were not directly used in the cooking process.
Bay, thyme, parsley, chives, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, cloves and ginger, in one amount or another, grace these recipes with warm, pungent or sweetly flavored results. Because the holiday dinner is such a mixed sampler of dishes, it is a good time to make use of the full range of herbs and spices, partly to restore the culinary feeling of our country's early history and partly because the wild assortment of herbs and spices tastes wonderful with turkey, stuffing, potatoes, onions and so on.
The following herb-and-spice-inspired menu includes recipes for Butter Roasted Chestnut and Thyme-Stuffed Turkey, Cinnamon-Scented Sweet Potatoes With Oranges, Chive Creamed Onions, Fresh Buttered Spinach, Cranberry-Pear Sauce, and Spiced Pumpkin Crunch Pie.
BUTTER ROASTED CHESTNUT AND THYME-STUFFED TURKEY (12 servings)
This is a turkey of some style and substance; it turns golden brown because it is open-roasted and basted frequently. Its cavity is gently filled with a hearty chestnut-laden stuffing; the stuffing in the bird is basted by natural juices, but it can be baked separately and be just as tempting.
For smooth carving, let the turkey (stuffing removed) sit in a warm spot for 20 minutes before carving, so that the juices have the opportunity to retreat back into the bird.
15-pound turkey, preferably freshly killed, and cleaned
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 recipe Chestnut and Thyme Stuffing (recipe follows)
2 onions, thinly sliced
1 rib celery, sliced
5 sprigs fresh thyme
1 small imported bay leaf, crumbled
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened, plus 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
4 cups good quality chicken broth
Pat dry the cleaned turkey inside and out with paper toweling. Set aside the gizzards. Season the inside of the turkey with salt and pepper. Fill the body cavity of the turkey with enough stuffing so that it is full without packing it in. Fill the neck cavity with the stuffing. Truss the turkey with kitchen string.
Place any remaining stuffing in a well buttered ovenproof bowl; pour over the remaining 3/4 cup chicken broth reserved from the stuffing recipe. Cover the bowl with a double thickness of aluminum foil which has been lightly buttered on the underside; set aside.
Scatter the onions, celery, thyme and bay leaf on the bottom of a large roasting pan. Season with salt and pepper. Place a rack in the pan and put the trussed turkey on it. Place the cleaned gizzards around the sides of the pan, if you are using them.
Rub the entire surface of the turkey, including all crevices, with the softened butter. Sprinkle the turkey with freshly ground black pepper. Cut off a double length of cheesecloth wide enough to cover the entire surface of the turkey breast; dip the piece of cheesecloth in the melted butter to saturate thoroughly. Press the buttered cheesecloth on top of the turkey breast, tucking in the sides. Combine the remaining melted butter with the chicken broth.
Place the turkey on the middle rack of a 425-degree oven. Bake for 20 minutes, then reduce the oven temperature to 325 degrees and continue baking the turkey for about 4-4 1/2 hours or until golden, basting the turkey every 25 minutes with the butter-broth blend. A meat thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the breast will register 170 degrees when cooked; a meat thermometer inserted into the thigh should register 180 degrees. Place the covered bowl of stuffing in the oven for the last hour to cook alongside the turkey. Remove and discard the cheesecloth for the last 30 to 40 minutes of cooking time to finish browning the top of the bird.
Carefully remove the turkey from the rack. Detruss and scoop out the stuffing. Place a sheet of aluminum foil loosely over the top of the turkey while you prepare the pan juices. Remove the gizzards and chop them up. Remove the meat from the neck and chop coarsely, or serve the gizzards and neck separately. If they are chopped, add to the pan juices. Degrease the pan juices, pouring everything into a saucepan and bringing it to a boil over moderately high heat. Simmer 5-6 minutes or until lightly condensed. Strain out the vegetables and gizzards and season to taste with salt and pepper. Transfer the gravy to a warm sauceboat.
Sprinkle salt on the turkey just before serving. Carve the turkey to order, or carve ahead and arrange the meat on a platter.
CHESTNUT AND THYME STUFFING (Makes about 14 cups)
This, a soulful, comforting stuffing, is particularly delicious with turkey. The deep, smoky flavor of roasted chestnuts enhances the flavor of the meat (light and dark).
3 loaves slightly stale, good quality egg bread, trimmed of crusts and cut into cubes
1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter
3 large onions, chopped
6 ribs celery, chopped
3 tablespoons minced fresh thyme leaves
3 tablespoons minced fresh parsley leaves
3 tablespoons snipped fresh chives
1 teaspoon ground bay leaf
3/4 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1 1/2 cups roasted and peeled chestnuts (available jarred at some chain grocery stores and most specialty food shops), chopped
1/2 cup golden raisins, plumped in 1/4 cup hot red vermouth for 10 minutes, and drained (water may be substituted for the vermouth)
2 3/4 cups chicken broth
Toast the bread cubes lightly in a 350-degree oven for 3 minutes; remove from the oven and cool slightly.
Melt butter in a large saucepan, add onions and celery and cook over low heat for 5 to 8 minutes, or until vegetables are quite soft. Stir in thyme, parsley, chives and bay leaf; season with salt; stir in chopped chestnuts and raisins. Dampen stuffing with 2 cups of the chicken broth (for a moist stuffing); reserve the last 3/4 cup of broth to pour over stuffing that has been turned into a bowl to bake alongside the turkey. (If you are baking all the stuffing separately, moisten bread mixture with the full 2 3/4 cups of broth)
For stuffing the turkey: just before roasting (and not a minute earlier), fill body and neck cavities with stuffing. Bake remaining stuffing in a buttered bowl, covered, along with the turkey during the last hour of roasting.
Ahead-of-time note: The stuffing may be assembled up to 6 hours before filling the cavity of the bird.
CINNAMON-SCENTED SWEET POTATOES WITH ORANGES (12 servings)
Chunks of sweet potatoes are sweetened with a syrup of liquid brown sugar, orange juice, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice and cloves. The fresh orange segments, added at the last moment, lend an edge of tartness and a pleasant freshness to the dish.
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened, for the baking dish plus 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
4 1/2 pounds sweet potatoes, steamed for 15 minutes, or until partially cooked, and peeled
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon ground allspice
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1/3 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
1/2 cup liquid brown sugar
3 oranges, peeled and cut into segments, preferably navel oranges
Smear 2 tablespoons butter on the insides of a 9-by-12-by-2-inch baking dish. Cut potatoes into thick wedges and place them in the dish. Combine remaining butter, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, cloves, orange juice and liquid brown sugar in a medium-sized, nonreactive saucepan. Set over moderate heat and cook until butter has melted; increase heat to high and boil liquid for 1 minute. Pour syrup evenly over potatoes.
Bake the potatoes on middle level of a 400-degree oven for about 30 minutes or until they are tender and glazed over. Carefully remove potatoes and glaze mixture to a warmed serving dish, adding fresh orange segments to the dish as you go.
Ahead-of-time note: The potatoes may be steamed (and left unpeeled in their jackets), and held in the refrigerator in a covered container for up to 2 days.
CHIVE CREAMED ONIONS (12 servings)
A spoonful of gossamer creamed onions flecked with snipped chives makes a delectable companion to the Thanksgiving turkey. Rich and satisfying, this is an onion lover's dish.
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
3 1/2 pounds white onions, thickly sliced
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper, or more to taste
1 cup whipping cream
2 tablespoons snipped chives
Melt the butter in a deep 10-inch skillet over low heat. Stir in the onion slices, making sure to coat them well with the butter. Cover and cook over low heat for 25 to 30 minutes or until completely softened. Uncover the pot, stir in the sugar, salt and white pepper; raise the heat to moderately high and cook the onions until they are golden-colored. Off the heat, stir in the cream, return to the heat and cook for 5 minutes or until the cream has thickened lightly and the onions appear satiny. Remove the skillet from the heat, fold through the chives, and turn the onions into a warmed serving dish.
Ahead-of-time note: The browned onions may be prepared ahead up to the point of adding the cream, cooled to room temperature, and refrigerated in a covered container for 1 day. To finish the recipe, slowly warm up the onions in a skillet, add the cream and cook until hot and thickened.
FRESH BUTTERED SPINACH (12 servings)
Accented with gratings of nutmeg, the spinach becomes a distinctive side dish. The amount of loose spinach called for here is awesome, I admit, but the bulk cooks down significantly once blanched and chopped. Fresh buttered spinach is light and tantalizing, and a lovely way to make use of tender, young spinach leaves.
8 pounds fresh spinach
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
3 tablespoons finely chopped onion
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg, or more to taste
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Wash the spinach well under cool tap water to rid the leaves of pockets of sand. Dry. Remove the woody stems. Blanch the spinach, in batches, in boiling water for 3 minutes. Refresh each batch under cold water to retain the bright green color, and squeeze each batch dry. Chop the spinach, using a stainless steel knife.
Melt the butter in a nonreactive saucepan that holds about 2 quarts; add the onion and cook over low heat for 5 minutes. Stir in the nutmeg, chopped spinach and salt and pepper to taste. Cook the spinach, stirring, until it is hot and has absorbed all of the butter. Turn the spinach into a warmed vegetable dish for serving.
Cooking note: An extra 4 tablespoons of softened butter can be stirred in during the last 1 to 2 minutes of cooking for a richer dish.
CRANBERRY-PEAR SAUCE (Makes 12 relish-size servings)
Cranberries simmered with pears in a syrup energized with spices makes a lovely chutney-like relish.
1 cup sugar
1 1/2 cups water
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
2 ripe pears, peeled, cored, and cut into chunks
12-ounce bag fresh cranberries, washed and picked over for stems
Combine sugar, water, cinnamon, allspice and ginger in a 5-quart nonreactive casserole. Cover and set over low heat. Cook until sugar has dissolved completely, then stir in pear chunks and continue cooking until pears are almost soft, about 5 minutes (firmer pears will take longer). Uncover pot, raise heat to moderately high and bring syrup to the boil. Boil 1 minute. Add cranberries and boil just until berries have popped, about 1 to 2 minutes. Remove from the heat. Pour and scrape sauce into a heatproof bowl. Let sauce cool to room temperature, cover and refrigerate.
Ahead-of-time note: The sauce may be prepared up to 1 week in advance of serving.
SPICED PUMPKIN CRUNCH PIE (Makes one 9-inch pie)
This is a pie for those people who like both pumpkin and pecan pie; following is a devious (and delicious) way to combine both flavors in one pie. Pumpkin filling, strengthened with cream and eggs, sits beneath a crumbly chopped pecan and sugar topping. Serve warm or at room temperature, with something creamy on the side.
1 prebaked 9-inch pie shell made from 1 recipe Butter Pie Crust (recipe follows)
FOR THE PUMPKIN MIXTURE:
2 cups plain tinned pumpkin pure'e
1/2 cup light brown sugar, firmly packed, blended with 1 tablespoon flour, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg, 1/4 teaspoon allspice, 1/4 teaspoon ginger and pinch of salt
2 jumbo eggs, at room temperature, lightly beaten with 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract and 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 cup light (table) cream, at room temperature
FOR THE CRUNCH TOPPING:
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened at room temperature
1/4 cup light brown sugar, firmly packed
1 1/4 cups coarsely chopped pecans
Have pie crust baking while you make pumpkin mixture: Beat pumpkin pure'e and brown sugar/flour/spice blend in a large mixing bowl. Blend in beaten egg mixture. Stir in cream. Pour into the prebaked pie shell and bake on lower third level of a 425-degree oven for 15 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees and bake for exactly 10 minutes longer.
While pie is baking, make crunch mixture: Beat butter with brown sugar until creamy. Stir in pecans. When pie has completed its second baking, remove it from oven and scatter topping evenly over top. Return pie to the 350-degree oven and continue baking until topping is golden and firm and the pumpkin custard is cooked through, about 30 to 35 minutes.
Cool the pie on a metal cooling rack before slicing into wedges.
BUTTER PIE CRUST (Makes one 9-inch pie crust)
A full quarter pound of butter makes this pie crust flaky-rich and tender; the dough makes a good case for any type of sturdy filling. The unbaked pie crust, fitted into the pie pan, may be made up to 2 days ahead of baking. Keep it, tightly wrapped, in the refrigerator.
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (stir flour to aerate slightly, then dip measuring cup into flour, and level off with the flat side of a knife)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cold, cut into cubes
1 tablespoon sugar
1 extra-large or jumbo egg yolk, cold
2 tablespoons ice cold water, or more as needed
Place flour and salt in a large mixing bowl. Toss. Scatter over cold cubes of butter and, using 2 round-bladed knives, cut butter into flour until it has been reduced to pea-sized bits. With your fingertips, further blend fat into flour by gently scooping down into mixture and rubbing with your fingertips, reducing fat to small flakes. Scatter over the sugar and quickly stir it in. Combine egg yolk and 2 tablespoons cold water in a small bowl. Pour over flour and quickly combine everything to make a firm but pliable dough. Add extra cold water by droplets, if necessary, if dough seems unusually dry.
Turn out onto a cool work surface (marble is ideal) and form into a flat cake. Refrigerate, covered, for 1 hour.
Roll out dough on a lightly floured surface with a lightly floured rolling pin to a scant 1/4-inch thickness, somewhere just over 1/8-inch thick. Place dough in a 9-inch pie tin (that is at least 1 3/4 inches deep), pressing down the bottom first, then press up against sides. Using the full overhang of dough, press it into the rim, making a thickish edge. Press up edges, evening them out, to make a high, rimmed border. With the back of a knife, make long scoring marks on edges for depth, then crimp edges decoratively.
To prebake the pie shell, line it with aluminum foil and fill to the top with raw rice (or dried beans). Preheat oven with a cookie sheet set on the lower third level to 425-degrees. Bake shell with anchoring rice for 12 minutes, remove rice (or beans) and foil, reduce oven temperature to 375 degrees and continue baking about 15 minutes longer or until it's golden. (The rice or beans may be cooled and stored in a covered container for continued use to prebake pie shells.)
The prebaked shell is now ready to be filled.