Monday, November 29, 2010

a nontraditional thanksgiving

Last year, I really wanted a traditional Thanksgiving. Turkey, gravy, cranberry sauce, something pumpkin for dessert. I bought a pretty new tablecloth and made a handmade centerpiece. I topped each plate with a gingko leaf and felt very Martha-ish in that moment. The rest of the day? Not so much. (Although it all worked out in the end.)

My in-laws had traveled to New York to have dinner with Dan and me and I wanted to really impress them. Instead of contributing a dish or two, as I normally do at my family's potluck-style feast, I had complete control over the menu and wanted to create my ideal version of the classic Thanksgiving feast.

This year? I threw all of that out the window. No cranberries, no stuffing, no gravy, and most importantly, no turkey. It's not that I don't love all of those delicious things smooshed together on one plate, because I really, really do. But this year, it was just going to be me, Dan, and our friend Jamie around the table and it seemed silly to cook so many things for three people.

Yeah, I could have made a turkey breast, but Dan likes dark meat. I could have roasted some Cornish hens for a tiny turkey approximation, but who wants that, really? I could have done a vegetarian meal based around Thanksgiving side dishes. Again, who wants that? I wanted a seasonal meal that felt special occasion-worthy but didn't have the normal Thanksgiving trappings. Because once you get started down that path, it's hard to turn back. You can't serve stuffing without the gravy, and what's turkey without stuffing, and of course you need cranberry relish to go with the turkey. And on and on.

In the end, I decided to make short ribs from the cookbook Sunday Suppers at Lucques. The recipe includes the usual short rib ingredients: wine, celery, carrots, and herbs, plus a few surprising extras like pearl onions and Swiss chard. The meat simmered all morning as we watched the dog show on TV, one of my favorite Thanksgiving day activities. Some rituals can't be messed with.
After several rounds of bacon-wrapped dates and fuji apple-ginger beer-lime cocktails (soo good, make them now!), I served the short ribs atop a bed of Swiss chard and pearl onions with celery root puree on the side. Oh, and an apple-blue cheese salad to start. More on that later.

We picked up our forks and tore into the meat. It was so tender and juicy, knives weren't really necessary. Did it feel like Thanksgiving? Sort of. I wasn't surrounded by the rest of our family, and there was no stuffing on my plate. But everything tasted delicious, and it felt liberating to do something different.

When you are confronted with countless articles and ads about pie crust and turkey the entire month leading up to Thanksgiving, it's tempting to throw in the towel completely. But it's not something most people do. Instead we recreate the same meal over and over again. Because Aunt Alice would be disappointed if there was no green bean casserole, or Dad would complain if you didn't make his favorite pumpkin pie. Although my tastes have grown past Jell-O salads, I still look forward to my grandma's cranberry sauce every year. The holidays are often tied to peoples' expectations. And it can be nice to meet those expectations, to please someone with a dish they've grown up eating every Thanksgiving.

But sometimes it's nice to be free of all of that, to celebrate things in your own way. To serve whatever you want, to not eat at 5 o'clock, to use the fancy napkins and china, or not. To be able to listen to the new Kanye album as you sear your short ribs in your pajamas, watching the parade of cute dogs on TV.

Thanksgiving 2010
Cider-ginger beer sparklers
Bacon-wrapped dates
Olives and nuts
Apple, blue cheese, and walnut salad with pomegranate dressing
Braised short ribs with Swiss chard and pearl onions
Celery root puree
Ginger-apple crisp a la mode

Braised beef short ribs
From Sunday Suppers at Lucques via Smitten Kitchen. I skipped the horseradish cream that is included in the original recipe, and served celery root puree instead of mashed potatoes. Be sure to give yourself plenty of time to make this dish. One day for seasoning the meat overnight in the fridge, and another to make the dish. You can also allow for an extra day to chill the short ribs overnight, then scrape off the fat that has risen to the top. I didn't have time for that and made the recipe as written below.
(Serves 4 to 6 people)

6 beef short ribs, about 14 to 16 ounces each (ask for 3 bone center-cut)
1 Tbsp. plus 1 tsp. thyme leaves, and 4 whole sprigs thyme
1 Tbsp. freshly cracked black pepper
3 dozen small pearl onions (I used 1 bag of frozen pearl onions)
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup diced onion
1/3 cup diced carrot
1/3 cup diced celery
2 bay leaves
2 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar
1 1/2 cups port (I substituted extra beef stock)
2 1/2 cups hearty red wine
6 cups beef or veal stock
4 sprigs flat-leaf parsley
2 bunches Swiss chard, cleaned, center ribs removed
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Season the short ribs with 1 tablespoon thyme and the cracked black pepper. use your hands to coat the meat well. Cover, and refrigerate overnight.

Take the short ribs out of the refrigerator an hour before cooking, to come to room temperature. After 30 minutes, season them generously on all sides with salt. When you take the ribs out of the refrigerator, preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Toss the pearl onions with 2 tablespoons olive oil, 1 teaspoon thyme, 3/4 teaspoons salt, and a pinch of pepper. Spread them on a baking sheet and roast them about 15 minutes, until tender. When they have cooled, slip off the skins (if they are not pre-frozen and have skins) with your fingers and set aside. Turn the oven down to 325 degrees.

When it’s time to cook the short ribs, heat a large Dutch oven [or a large saute pan, if you would like to use a separate braising dish; I aimed to use fewer dishes] over high heat for 3 minutes. Pour in 3 tablespoons olive oil, and wait a minute or two, until the pan is very hot and almost smoking. Place the short ribs in the pan, and sear until they are nicely browned on all three meaty sides. Depending on the size of your pan, you might have to sear the meat in batches. Do not crowd the meat or get lazy or rushed at this step; it will take at least 15 minutes. (Deb notes that this step takes closer to 45 minutes if you're really thorough.) When the ribs are nicely browned, transfer them to a plate to rest.

Turn the heat down to medium, and add the onion, carrot, celery, thyme springs, and bay leaves. Stir with a wooden spoon, scraping up all the crusty bits in the pan. Cook 6 to 8 minutes, until the vegetables just begin to caramelize. Add the balsamic vinegar, port, and red wine. Turn the heat up to high, and reduce the liquid by half.

Add the stock and bring to a boil. (Because my stock pot was slightly small, I did not use the entire amount of stock.) Arrange ribs in the pot, lieing flat, bones standing up, in one layer. If you used a saute pan for previous steps, transfer the ribs to a braising pan at this point. Scrape any vegetables that have fallen on the ribs back into the liquid. The stock mixture should almost cover the ribs. Tuck the parsley sprigs in and around the meat. Cover tightly with aluminum foil and a tight-fitting lid if you have one. Braise in the oven for about 3 hours.

To check the meat for doneness, remove the lid and foil, being careful of the escaping steam, and piece a short rib with a paring knife. When the meat is done, it will yield easily to a knife. Taste a piece if you are not sure. (If you would like to cook these a day ahead, this is where you can pause. The next day, you can remove the fat easily from the pot -- it will have solidified at the top -- bring these back to a simmer on the stove or in an oven, and continue.)

Let the ribs rest 10 minutes in their juices, and then transfer them to a baking sheet. Turn the oven up to 400 degrees. Place the short ribs in the oven for 10 to 15 minutes to brown.

Strain the broth into a saucepan, pressing down on the vegetables with a ladle to extract all the juices. Skim the fat from the sauce (if you made these the day before, you will have already skimmed them) and, if the broth seems thin, reduce it over medium-high heat to thicken slightly. Taste for seasoning.

Heat a large saute pan over high heat for 2 minutes. Tear the Swiss chard into large pieces. Add 3 tablespoons olive oil to the pan, and stir in the cooked pearl onions. Add half the Swiss chard, and cook a minute or two, stirring the greens in the oil to help them wilt. Add a splash of water and the second half of the greens. Season with a heaping 1/4 teaspoon salt and a pinch of ground black pepper. Cook for a few more minutes, stirring frequently, until the greens are tender.

Place the Swiss chard on a large warm platter, and arrange the short ribs on top. Spoon lots of braising juices over the ribs. Yum.


Unknown said...

No mention of Kanye in there? So sad. We should've thought along your lines, two people, like eight different dishes, way too many leftovers.

Lisa said...

There is! At the bottom. :)

Usually I like leftovers, especially for turkey sandwiches, but this time I'm glad we didn't have any.

Daniel said...

No turkey at Thanksgiving? Lisa, you trippin' off the power.

Lisa said...

Daniel: HA!

Casey@Good. Food. Stories. said...

Oh, but I COULD eat stuffing without gravy, cranberry relish, or turkey any time of year. Just a 9X13 casserole all to myself. Lay it on me.


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