I want to talk about Thanksgiving food. I don’t want to talk about the gap in the blog. But here it is, there was a month or more that pretty much sucked. My father passed away unexpectedly. My mother was in the hospital at the same time, different city. R was doing the road-warrior thing. Holding things together doesn’t always look how other people expect. Some of them let me know I didn’t measure up. I drove more miles than I have since I finished the book. I watched a lot of tv with my mom. By the time it came to cook the feast, I was really thankful to be home with my guy.
In 1991 or so I read a Texas Monthly article about what Houston star-chef Robert del Grande would cook if his family would let him. We’ve used those recipes as the basis for our feast for the last two decades. (Am I really that old that I have been cooking Thanksgiving for over 20 years? Awk!) The turkey gets cut up into breast and dark meat-the first year in Houston I asked the butcher’s assistant to do it for me. He was flummoxed and the exasperated boss looked at him and said “do it like a big chicken.” The white meat gets a cinnamon-chile rub; the dark meat goes into a cranberry-ancho mole. Everything comes out properly cooked, nothing too dry or overdone.
In years past, we purchased an organic turkey from a yuppie food market, something that needs to be ordered ahead. Nearling the order cut-off this year, I called R from mom’s house: “Do you want turkey or one of our chickens?” In the end it was clear: we honor the animals we harvested from our land by using them and not something from the store. I had cleaned out their guts, I could certainly break them down into parts and use them in the turkey recipes.
The chicken was fantastic. Cooking with these birds has had a learning curve. The meat is much denser than store-bought, even organic store-bought chickens. The muscles on the breast have more grain, like a beef roast. The first time I checked a chicken for doneness by cutting into it, I thought it wasn’t ready because the meat was glistening with internal fat and it looked raw. I should have believed the thermometer, because I really overcooked that one. Figuring out how to handle these birds is like when we bought a share of bison meat. Our first few bison steaks were pretty black on the outside because they took so long to heat up in the middle. Turn the heat down and be patient! It seems the same is true with these older birds.
I say older, as if a 15 week old bird is past her prime. Grocery store birds, nearly all the Cornish Cross breed, generally die of heart attacks if you try to keep them around that long. They are bred to grow fast, harvest by 8 weeks, and their hearts wear out quickly. Heritage birds, especially those that have enough room to forage like our Jersey Giants did, grow slower, use their muscles and develop meat with flavor and texture.
Planning ahead for a weekend of sloth and leftovers, we prepared two chickens. I wasn’t so sure how the breast roasting would work out, but our fancy oven came with a thermometer probe that shut the oven off when the meat reached temperature and it was perfect. The crockpot mole is easy to get right-cook it until the meat falls off the bones. I have brought magazine-cover-worthy turkeys to the table, but never with as much pride as the meat we raised ourselves.
We tried to use what we grew as much as possible for the rest of the feast. I put the blame for the store-bought components squarely on the fact that I was watering 300 trees all summer and not tending the garden. But I know from experience that we can and will do better. The idea of growing everything we need for a feast is an inspiring gardening goal for next year. Here’s what we cooked and what I need to grow:
- roast white meat (I put sliced apples and onions under the bird in the pan instead of a roasting rack to add flavor to the drippings. We haven’t given up the garden space to onions so far, just leeks, shallots and walking onions. Leeks would probably work even better.)
- dark meat mole (all store-bought except the meat. It calls for cranberries, ancho chiles, onions and pecans. I can do the veg and have to think of a substitute for the cranberries.)
- mashed potatoes (fail this year due to lack of weeding, easy to fix) and gravy (the drippings from the breast work out ok even with the cinnamon rub),
- cornbread dressing with mushrooms, apples, pecans, poblanos and goat cheese (we still had some corn for cornmeal left from last year, the apples came from the Capitol Reef National Park orchards. I had to buy the onions, celery, parsley, peppers and goat cheese. I can grow the veg, and if we start early enough we could grow the mushrooms. Goat cheese I’m leaving to Randy in Caineville, but I can plan to buy it ahead. It will be years before we have our own nuts though.)
- green salad (from the hoop house),
- Brussels sprouts (skipped this year, but if I’d had them in the garden this year, we would have had them, or parsnips, or broccoli, or any other seasonal veg),
- blackberry applesauce (We like this better than cranberry sauce. I made it from apples from the park and blackberries from the SLC farmers market. Will our berries ever fruit?)
- stuffed celery and olives (there’s not an olive tree for 500 miles and that’s ok. I haven’t ever grown celery, not sure it’s worth the bother but R really likes it.)
- winter squash pie (bought the squash from the SLC winter farmers market. I prefer butternut and haven’t been able to get one to finish here (yet). Last year I grew another squash I liked just as well, but I lost track of what was in which bed, so I have to repeat that test and figure it out. Another weeding/watering fail in 2014.)
- hard cider and 2011 Seghesio Home Ranch Zinfandel (hard cider is possible; Zinfandel is in my opinion the perfect match to Thanksgiving and it won’t grow here.)
There’s a garden planning list right there. I need to grow potatoes, squash, peppers, onions, celery, Brussels sprouts, parsley and greens. That’s doable, I’ve done it before. More Painted Mountain corn must go in to restock the pantry. We need to start mushroom logs early to have any hope of harvesting them in time. Fingers crossed, we should harvest apples and berries next year. There might even be honey. Nuts and dairy aren’t in the cards, but I can get most of the dairy locally. And if we can’t make the cider, we have friends that will hook us up with the good stuff.
What I see from writing it all down is that work isn’t the barrier. I just really need to plan ahead to achieve the level of self-sufficiency represented by a homegrown Thanksgiving meal. The Brussels sprouts and parsnips have to be started in May. If the berries aren’t going to fruit again, is there a strawberry or rhubarb applesauce we want instead? Back-up plans like that have to be executed in season, at least by putting extra strawberries in the freezer. If I want mushrooms, we need to cut logs in March and get them inoculated with spawn before spring busyness overwhelms us. And for the centerpiece of the meal, we have already decided next year it will be turkey. The Sunday after Thanksgiving, I placed an order for 15 turkey hatchlings to be delivered in June.
Yup, we are adding turkeys to the menagerie next year. We liked raising the chickens, but we think turkeys might do even better at grasshopper control in the orchard. Besides, I got them cheap on an early-bird special.