Monday, November 26, 2012

Thanksgiving Post Mortem

Six of the Thanksgiving dishes at the Wheeler household this year,  Clockwise:  Deviled Eggs, Dad's Cornbread Dressing, Browning Bag Turkey, Sweet Potato Anna with Prunes & Port, Pearl Onion Gratinee, and Cranberry Chutney

Most of the food press spends all of November giving you ideas for the Thanksgiving holiday dinner.  The problem with that is most of the dishes are so complicated and/or expensive most cooks won’t test drive them before the holiday and the dinner guests become lab rats for your culinary experiments.

This year we had no absolute disasters, only a couple of minor disappointments, and we had a few major triumphs. 
  • I have never been happy with the amount of turkey stock we have been able to extract from turkey neck, tail, and giblets and in the past have had to supplement with purchased stock.  This year we invested in a couple of turkey wings which we roasted at 400 degrees on a bed of carrots, onions, and celery, drizzled with olive oil and seasoned with dry sage, thyme, kosher salt, & black pepper.   Once the wings were browned and the veggies caramelized, we transferred the lot to a stock pot, deglazed the roasting pan with a cup of Chardonnay, added the fond and wine to the stock pot, added enough water to cover and simmered for three hours.  The result was the best stock I’ve ever managed.
  • All of the cooking shows focus on the main event, the Turkey.  Over the years we have tried several variations on the theme.  In recent years we have fallen victim to the trend of brining the bird.  While the result is a juicy bird, the texture is more Kobe beef than heritage turkey.  We had also fallen into the practice of preparing two ten pound birds rather than one large bird to avoid the uneven cooking of the large bird and the extra roasting time needed.  This year because of a lack of planning we ended up with a 19 pound bird and insufficient time to brine Mr Big.  We also could not manage to maneuver the monster into the browning bag with enough excess to close the bag with the recommended twist/tie.  We finally settled on using two overlapping bags to compensate.  These serendipitous circumstances gave us a center piece that was lovely to look at, incredibly juicy, with great taste and texture.  From here on out we eschew any other variation on the turkey theme.
  • In a misguided attempt to appease the healthy food police, I halved the amount of sausage and eliminated the butter in my dressing recipe, a mistake I will not repeat.
  • I also turned down the heat, using less crystalized ginger and red pepper flakes  in the Cranberry Chutney to accommodate the children.  Next year I will go back to my original recipe and dare the children to eat it.
  • One of the new recipes that will get a major overhaul next year was the Sweet Potato Anna with Prunes & Port.  I had been seduced by the above photo which promised a pretty presentation without the dessert like sweetness normally associated with the carnival side show with marshmallows.  The recipe was not only labor intensive, requiring peeling and carefully slicing & arranging the sweet potatoes, it was expensive, using two cups of a lovely 10 year old Tawny Port (Taylor Fladgate).  The result was a bland, not savory, mass that failed to keep its shape.  Next year we will add a little flour to bind everything together and cook in a tart pan.   The Port is definitely a keeper.
  • The other new introduction that needs minor tweaking was the Pearl Onion Gratinee.  How could you go wrong with this recipe?  I mean who how can you miss with onions, cream, butter, and cheese?  By substituting cocktail onions for frozen pearl onions, that’s how.  After failing to find the frozen variety I got the brilliant idea that I could use cocktail onions after rinsing them several times.  Note to Billy, never, never try that again.  The basic recipe is a winner.  Next year we will substitute sliced onions if pearl onions are not available.
We also minimized the desserts this year with only bite size pecan pies and a NBA sized pumpkin pie, both purchased.   While it did keep the caloric damage down, it was a sad end to an otherwise pretty good effort.  You know, that chutney would make a hell of a mince pie substitute.


  • 1 lb bulk pork breakfast sausage (preferred brand. Jimmy Dean)
  • 1 skillet corn bread, cooled and cut in half inch cubes (about 6 cups)
  • 1 cup chopped celery
  • 1 cup chopped onion
  • ½ to 1 cup chopped pecans (optional)
  • 1 ½ cups turkey stock (chicken stock works too)
  •  ¼ melted butter
  • 2  eggs, beaten
  • 1 tsp dry Thyme
  • 2 tsp dry rubbed Sage
  • Salt & Pepper to taste
  1. Preheat oven to 350° F.
  2. Brown sausage, drain, & reserve fat.
  3. Combine all ingredients, including two tbsp of the reserved fat, gently in a large bowl.
  4. Transfer mixture to a well greased 1 ½ quart casserole or 8-inch square baking dish.
  5. Bake 45-50 minutes or until internal temperature reaches 160° F.
Variation 1.  Bake in your trusty cast iron skillet, unmold, & cut in wedges.
Variation 2.  Mold raw dressing mixture in custard cup & unmold onto a greased cookie sheet & bake.


  • 1 cup water
  • ½ cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
  • ½ cup raisins
  • ½ cup golden raisins
  • 3 cups fresh cranberries
  • ¼ cup orange marmalade
  • 1 Granny Smith apple - peeled, cored and diced
  • 1 teaspoon lemon zest
  • ¼ cup fresh lemon juice
  • 2 tbsp finely chopped crystallized ginger
  • ½ tsp crushed red pepper flakes

  1. In a medium saucepan, mix dark brown sugar, raisins and water. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat, and simmer 5 minutes, stirring constantly.
  2. Mix in cranberries. Simmer 10 minutes.  
  3. Mix in orange marmalade.  Allow mixture to cool to room temperature.
  4. Mix in , apple and lemon zest, lemon juice, crystallized ginger and red pepper flakes.  Serve at room temperature or chilled.


  • 5-6 sweet potatoes
  • ½ lb butter
  • 2 cup port
  • 30 pitted prunes

  1. Preheat oven to 450.
  2. Heat a cup of port and soak ten pitted prunes until slightly plumped, about 20 minutes. Drain and chop the prunes coarsely. 
  3.  Melt 1/2 pound butter and clarify.
  4. Brush clarified butter onto your favorite eight- or nine-inch round baking dish or oven-proof  frying pan.
  5. Put a layer of potatoes, overlapping in circles, in the dish. Brush with clarified butter, and salt and pepper. Put another layer of potatoes and about half the prune pieces. Salt and pepper. Brush with clarified butter. Repeat two more layers, embedding the rest of the prunes at the end and brushing each layer with clarified butter and salt and pepper. You can do four layers of potatoes or six, it's up to you. Pack the potatoes tightly. If there's a little butter left at the end, it's no big deal.
  6. Bake at for 45-60 minutes until crisp and tender.
  7. Remove from oven when crisp and tender. After a few minutes, flip onto a serving plate.
  8. Cut into wedges to serve.  Serves 6-10 people.



  • 1 lb pearl onions
  • 2 tbsp butter
  • 2 tbsp flour
  • 1 ¼ cup half-and-half
  •  ½ tsp salt
  •  ½  tsp freshly ground black pepper
  •  ¼  tsp ground mustard
  • Dash of ground nutmeg
  • 1 ½ cup shredded Jarlsburg cheese, divided
Crumb Topping:
  • 4 tbsp butter, melted
  • 1 ¼ cup fresh breadcrumbs
  • ½ tsp dry thyme
  • ½ tsp kosher salt
  • ½ tsp cracked pepper
  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F
  2. Peel onions
  3. Combine all onions with  remaining onion ingredients.  Transfer to buttered 8” X 8” oven proof dish.
  4. Combine topping ingredients & sprinkle over onion mixture.
  5. Bake until topping is browned.


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