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Recipes for an American Thanksgiving

This week is the busiest travel time of the year in the United States, as we Americans travel far and wide to be with family and our closest friends. It’s the holiday where we celebrate our history and reaffirm our sense of American identity and community by (1) eating a meal based around foods native to the Americas and (2) watching a colorful ritual called American football. A couple of nights ago, the New England Patriots narrowly defeated the Denver Broncos in an outdoor game where the temperature was a balmy 6 degrees F / -14 degrees C. Now that’s dedication!

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Thanksgiving began, the story goes, here in Massachusetts in the seventeenth century with a feast shared between the Pilgrims (immigrants from England seeking religious freedom) and the native Wampanoag Indians.  Thanksgiving almost disappeared in the early nineteenth century but was revived during the US Civil War (1861-1865), when it was celebrated twice a year for a brief time. Congress made the fourth Thursday of November the official date of Thanksgiving in 1941.

This Is AmericaBerkshire’s new book This Is America is designed to explain other complexities to today’s students, both those born in the USA as well as the increasing numbers of those who come from other countries. We are announcing the book here with a special offer, naturally, because Thanksgiving is also the day before “Black Friday,” the biggest shopping day of the year. (“Black” not because it is an experience sure to sink the spirits of any sensible person but because it puts businesses “in the black.”) You can preorder This Is America now for only $11.95 and shipping is FREE this week only.

All of us at Berkshire Publishing are passionate about food, and most of us are keen cooks. Some of us are competitive, too: a mashed-potato-making contest has been scheduled. The results will be posted at our blog after tempers cool down. Tom is said to be writing both an acceptance and concession speech. We will also get the opinion of William H. McNeill, the renowned historian who has been writing since the 1930s about how the humble potato shaped European and world history. He may have to be the final arbiter, given the heat around this particular dish.

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Immigrants to the United States learn to make traditional American dishes, and Americans living abroad go to enormous lengths to recreate the special foods of Thanksgiving. I cooked a turkey and fixings every year when I lived in England, even in 1984 when the gas company hadn’t yet connected the lines in my new flat. I had started an MA at University College and invited my fellow students to Thanksgiving dinner. Most were American and they were all bringing along a dish – in the “potluck” fashion that Americans like and that made my British friends uncomfortable – so I didn’t feel I could cancel. In any case, the Gas Board said they would get us connected that day, and I’m the perennial optimist. When it was time to get the turkey into the oven, the gasman still hadn’t turned up, so we squeezed it into the tiny oven of a Blackwell Science colleague who happened to live down the street.

Everyone sat on the floor and played Trivial Pursuit and drank wine while the gasman crawled around looking for the line, and eventually we bore the rather charred bird up the street and put it into my oven for a final roasting.

At Berkshire Publishing there has been a big exchange of favorite Thanksgiving recipes this year and you’ll find a few of them below. These are not “twists” or “spins” on the classic Thanksgiving dishes, but instead some side dishes and special treats. Among my own favorite recipes are several from British cookery writers, and I’ve included a recipe for vegetarian “tofukey” sent by Mar Kaiser in Germany and published here in spite of the protests of managing editor Bill Siever. I’m also enclosing a special recipe for “Peking Turkey” from our Washington, DC-based friend Dimon Liu that I’m looking forward to trying sometime after Thanksgiving, when I have a chance to cook at home. (For the basics, this interactive feature from the New York Times is as good an introduction to the meal as any I know.)

I’ve found lots of ideas for Thanksgiving in British writer Nigella Lawson’s Feast and see that at the attractive Random House website you can purchase ebooks directly from the publisher. A few of the Lawson recipes I’ve come to depend on:

Lawson has some regrettable lapses. She praises the traditional but hideous Sweet Potatoes with Marshmallows, which we offer here only for educational reasons, suggesting a classroom discussion question, “Why do Americans put marshmallows in savory dishes? (Including “salad” Jell-O molds). Perhaps I wouldn’t find this dish quite so offensive with her addition of lots of lime juice. My own favorite alternative for its place at the table is roasted pumpkin from one of my favorite books, The Vegetable Book by the late Jane Grigson, available in the USA from the University of Nebraska Press.

Recipes from Berkshire Staff and Friends

Note: Although we at Berkshire generally use the metric system, the following recipes use the “English” measurements still standard in the United States – the reasons for this are discussed in This Is America!

Popo’s Green Beans
Tom Christensen’s Mashed Potatoes
Bill Siever’s Mashed Potatoes
Lisa Sabatini’s Curried Apple Pumpkin Soup
Mar Kaiser’s Stuffed Tofurkey
Dimon Liu’s Peking Turkey

Popo’s Green Beans

Popo is the Cantonese grandmother of Berkshire designer Anna Myers. This is a simple recipe, but Popo’s green beans always turn out perfectly!

Enough green beans to fill about 2/3 of a frying pan or wok (3/4 pounds should be enough for 4–6 people)
One or more cloves of garlic, sliced thinly
Cooking oil (canola or high-temp cooking oil)
1/2 cup water
Salt to taste

1 large deep pan or wok with cover
bamboo chopsticks (or cooking tongs or a wooden cooking spoon)

1. Rinse the beans, then snap or trim the ends of the beans off; particularly long beans should be snapped in half.
2. Heat a little oil in deep pan or wok on medium-to-high heat, to check the temperature, wet ends of chopsticks, press the ends in the oil. It’s hot enough if it causes sizzling.
3. Add green beans to pan, stir-fry for a minute or two until the green beans are coated in oil, and just start to turn a darker green.
4. Add garlic, stir until mixed.
5. Pour in half cup of water and cover pan. Reduce heat to low and cook, covered, for exactly 8 minutes. Resist the urge to remove the lid early!
6. Spoon beans and garlic slivers into serving dish, leaving remaining water in pan. Add salt to the dish to taste.

Tom Christensen’s Mashed Potatoes

1. One bag Yukon Gold potatoes chopped into small cubes, boiled with salted water and a large head of peeled and slightly crushed garlic.
2. Cook until very soft, and drain. Don’t worry about them becoming too soft, cook until they start to fall apart after a light poke with a wooden spoon.
3. Keep on very low heat.
4. After draining, mash in milk and 1 stick of unsalted butter. Mash until slightly too runny in consistency (it will thicken).
5. Mash with a slapping motion, making sure to whip in as much air as possible. You are essentially trying to whip the potatoes, like whipped cream.
6. Mix in two tbsp. of Dijon mustard and one large egg yolk.
7. Mash more.
8. Stir in salt and cracked  black pepper to taste.

Bill Siever’s Mashed Potatoes

1. Take a bunch of white potatoes or Idaho golds. Peel them. Chop them roughly into fairly big, 1 1/2 inch cubes. Put them in a huge pot of cold salted water and bring to a boil.
2. Meanwhile, very slowly heat up a ton of butter and a ton of milk. I’d say a stick of butter and at least 3 cups of milk for a decent amount of potatoes.
3. When the taters are just starting to become soft, drain them in a colander, then put them back in the big pot.
4. Add a ton of kosher salt, and WHITE pepper. White pepper is key. It just is.
5. Using a hand masher, mash the living hell out of them until there are absolutely no lumps at all.
6. Repeat step 5.
7. Repeat step 5 again.
8. Repeat step 5 again until your arm is about to fall off.
9. Repeat step 5 again, just to be sure.
10. OK they should now be properly lump-free. Check the seasoning and hold in the pot with the lid on until everything is ready to go.

Lisa Sabatini’s Curried Apple Pumpkin Soup

2 tablespoons butter
1 cup chopped onion
1 cup chopped celery
1 medium apple, peeled, cored, and chopped
2 teaspoons mild curry powder
3 cups water
1 can pumpkin  (15 oz.)
1 whole bay leaf
1/3 cup half and half
3 tablespoons honey
chives for garnish

1. Melt the butter in a medium-sized soup pot.
2.  Stir in the onion, celery, and apple.
3. Partially cover the pot and saute the ingredients over medium-high heat until the onion is clear, about 8 minutes.
4. Stir in the curry powder and saute the mixture for another minute.
5. Stir in one cup of the water and saute for 1 minute more.
6. Pour the contents into a blender or food processor, add the pumpkin, and puree the soup unThanksgiving Tofurkeytil it is smooth.  Pour it all back into the pot, then stir in the remaining water and the bay leaf.  Set the soup over medium-high heat and bring it to a simmer, stirring occasionally.  After 5 minutes, stir in the half and half and the honey.  Simmer it for 2 minutes more, remove the soup from the heat, and serve it hot.  Sprinkle with chives.

Here’s the Stuffed Tofurkey (click for recipe), promised. The photo you see here was taken at the meal prepared by our Dutch China projects editor Mar Kaiser in Germany. Finally, to round out this global Thanksgiving collection, here is Dimon Liu’s Peking Duck Turkey.

She writes, “Eating turkey is a must on Thanksgiving Day in the US, but the way a turkey is usually cooked here, I find too tough and lacking in taste. In the early 80’s, while living in Hong Kong, I forged my own way with a turkey. I have been cooking it for friends ever since.”

Peking Duck Turkey

One turkey — any size of your choice. Defrost, wash and pad dry. Leave the bird on a rack to air dry for 24 hours, so the skin will be crispy when cooked.

Sauce — 2/3 cup of dark soy sauce. 1/3 cup of sherry (or French brandy, which I prefer.) 1/4 cup of maple syrup, (better than honey, which chars too easily.) Ginger, enough to match the size of your palm, and more if you like — grind as fine as possible. Mix well all above ingredients to make sauce.

Brush sauce on bird, both inside and outside. Let dry, and brush on more sauce. Repeat until all the sauce is on the bird. Tedious process, I know. Here is a short cut, but you need to have a hair dryer.

After the bird has been defrosted, washed and padded dry, blow hot air on the bird until it is dry, (no need to air-dry, but you will need about five minutes of hair dryer on high.) Brush on sauce, and blow-dry for about a minute. Repeat until all sauce is on the bird inside and out.

It usually takes me about half-an-hour to do this, instead of 24 hours to air dry, and another two to three hours to apply the sauce the long way. I have to say that with the long way, the bird tastes better. If you are in a hurry, which I am usually, the short cut is not bad at all.

Turn the oven on to the highest — in some ovens, it is 450 degree, in others 500 degree. Cover bird in tin foil, (so the skin wouldn’t burn,) and put it in the oven. Check it after half-an-hour, and turn the bird over. Check it again after 15 minutes — this time poke the bird with a chopstick. If the chopstick goes through the bird easily, it is cooked. If not, give it another 10 or 25 minutes, depending on the size of the bird you have chosen.

Take tin foil off bird when chopstick goes through the bird easily, and turn the oven off. The residual heat will brown the bird nicely without burning the skin. Leave the bird in the oven until you are ready to serve it. Cooking time is about an hour, more or less depending on the size of the bird. If you like stuffings, you will have to cook it on the side. Peking Duck Turkey cannot be stuffed!

Enjoy and happy holiday!

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