It is hard to believe that we are already halfway into November. Autumn couldn’t come fast enough, and now it seems as if it is zipping by. Thanksgiving fast approaches.
Thanksgiving is a magical time: a day when family and friends gather to give thanks by stuffing their faces full of poultry, carbs, and sugar. Nationwide, it is THE culinary event of the year, and so it is important to do it right. Plans are made weeks in advance, and several days prior are often spent shopping, prepping, and cooking for the feast.
I had the privilege yesterday of attending the Autumn’s Gold Slow Food cooking class at Yew Dell Gardens , hosted by Brown-Foreman executive chef and Slow Food Southeast Governor Mark Williams. The event took place in the cozy Gheens Barn, where fifty or so chairs had been set up facing a table with pots, pans, a hot plate, and various ingredients.
Chef Williams told us of growing up on various army bases, where Thanksgiving decorations included the classic clean-cut pilgrims and clean-cut “Indians” eating the traditional turkey. Of course, this childlike image with which we are all familiar is hardly how things were, and many of our “traditional” Thanksgiving foods were probably not actually served. However, says Williams, “I like tradition,” so we were treated to a demonstration of some holiday favorites, as well as some new things.
The first thing discussed was country ham. Country ham is something of a staple in our region, and if you haven’t tasted it, you must be new. (Welcome!) It is ham which has been salt-cured for a few months, smoked, and aged for a few months to a year. It becomes hard, and is usually served sliced thin.
Chef Williams told us about the concept of endangered foods, of which country ham is an example. (A complete list of endangered foods can be found here .) The problem isn’t that country ham is in danger of extinction; the customary method of making it is under attack. The traditional aging method involves hanging the hams in an open-air barn. The FDA has decided that this is unsanitary, and now only two people in the country are allowed to prepare the food this way. All others must cure, smoke, and age in a climate-controlled factory setting.
The way to preserve endangered foods is to consume them. “You eat them to save them,” says Williams. A greater demand means greater production, and people who enjoy country ham should be sure to eat only those procured from a reputable source.
On a happier note, Chef Williams had prepared country ham and corn fritters for sampling. They were basically fried balls of cornbread with small chunks of country ham and corn floating around inside. They were delicious: “If you fry ‘em, they’ll buy ‘em,” joked the chef.
Another example of endangered food is oysters – raw oysters, specifically. Nothing has been outlawed yet, but the FDA is looking at banning the service of said shellfish unless they have been cooked or irradiated. (And if you are ok with putting food described as “irradiated” into your body, you are reading the wrong food writer.) No more oysters on the half shell, which I swear aren’t as gross as people think. (You’ve just got to get past the texture.)
While hardly anybody thinks to include oysters with their Thanksgiving meal, the fact that the first pilgrims lived by the ocean means that it was likely a common food source. Chef Williams demonstrated the preparation of an oyster stew. The procedure is simple: it involves first making a roux (equal parts flour and fat), then throwing in onion and celery. The juice of the oysters (from a can or jar if canned or jarred, or from the shell if fresh) is added (chicken stock is a decent substitute for a less shellfishy taste; the chef used the stock), followed by cream, salt, pepper, and a dash of hot sauce. Finally, the oysters are added. They should only be cooked very lightly: the stew is ready to serve when the edges start to curl. Overcooking oysters will cause them to be tough and chewy.
Of course, the centerpiece of any proper Thanksgiving meal is the turkey (ham is NOT an appropriate substitute). As the actual turkey which had been brought had already been prepared for us to sample, Chef Williams demonstrated with a chicken. The cavity of the bird should be stuffed with apple and/or onion; apparently cooking the turkey with dressing inside is discouraged nowadays, because the juices that soak deep into the stuffing won’t get hot enough, which constitutes a food safety hazard. The turkey should be rubbed with butter or oil and salt, pepper, and sage. Turkey preparation is simple, but there are a couple of specific dos and don’ts:
+”If you’re looking, you’re not cooking.” Continuously opening the oven lets the heat out, and frequent heat fluctuations will not be kind to your bird. Turkeys don’t need to be basted terribly often – they are a naturally moist bird, and there is a simple method to help out:
+If using a roasting pan, cook the turkey directly on the pan, and not on the accompanying rack. This elevation causes the bird to be a bit drier. Instead, surround the turkey with onion, celery, and about an inch of water. The steam from the water will fill the oven, helping to keep the turkey moist. (You can also use this liquid for gravy later.)
+”Friends don’t let friends brine.” A brined turkey is one that has been soaked overnight in stock in an attempt to increase the coveted moistness. While it succeeds in its task, it also detracts from the turkey’s natural flavors, and so should be avoided.
Of course, whenever possible one should strive to procure their food locally. Thankfully, there are many places in our state from which one can purchase a fresh, happy, free-range turkey. One such place is Star Farm, and one of the owners, Kathy, was present to tell us about these wonderful birds.
Kathy raises Heritage turkeys of the Bourbon Red variety. Heritage turkeys are pretty much the antithesis of commercial turkeys. Heritage turkeys breed naturally, grow slowly, and can live up to nine years. Despite the vastly superior quality, demand suffers because of the lack of convenience. However, what many consumers probably don’t realize is that their frozen supermarket turkeys have been genetically altered to grow bigger faster, and once killed are pumped full of a solution of sodium, water, and bicarbonate (for preservation and to increase flavor). These turkeys will only live two years before dying because they become crushed under their own weight. A local, natural turkey won’t be as big, but the flavor is mind-blowing, as we were privileged to experience first-hand: it didn’t need the saltwater artificially added.
(Kathy’s turkeys are long since sold out this year, but you can find more information about the farm and the turkeys here .)
Along with stuffing, cranberry sauce is the other traditional complement to Thanksgiving turkey. I never really saw the appeal in the gelatinous stuff that slid out of a can with a wet plop. Surprise, surprise, cranberry sauce can actually be made with cranberries! Chef Williams demonstrated a simple sauce, made by cooking fresh cranberries, sugar, orange chunks (peel removed, of course), and water, and finished with a little bourbon. He didn’t mention measurements, but everything is pretty much up to the individual taste and consistency preferences.
We were also able to sample a slice of cushaw pie. A cushaw, which I had never heard of, is a rather large squash. A pie made from one is prepared and spiced the same as a pumpkin pie, but it has a different flavor which is difficult to describe. It was, however, delicious.
Arguably, the most important part of any holiday meal is the libations. A well-chosen wine can bring a meal together like nothing else, and on hand to talk to us about this stimulating subject was the owner of Party Mart (I, unfortunately, didn’t catch his name). He had brought three wines to sample: the first, the Schloss Vollrads dry Riesling, from Germany.
Speaking from bartending experience, Riesling (along with white zinfandel) is often the wine of choice for those who like their wines very sweet. I am familiar with the flavor of Riesling, but this example was like none I had ever before tasted. It had a deliciously crisp, acidic bite which would wonderfully complement the poultry.
The second wine was the “375” Rosè. All grape juice is white; red wines come from leaving the grape skins in during fermentation. A rosè is what you get when the skins are only left in for a brief time, imparting a pinkish tinge to the liquid. The grapes for this specimen come from Napa Valley and are a combination of merlot, syrah, and Grenache.
Finally, we tasted the Guigal Cotes du Rhone, a French wine similar to a full-bodied pinot noir. Turkey and pinot noir make a classic pairing, but, as we were informed, “there’s no value in pinot noir.” It is a very popular wine, and so a decent pinot can be a bit pricier. A $15 bottle of Cotes du Rhone has just about the same characteristics as a $25 pinot noir.
Thus ended our class. Much food wisdom was imparted, and I’m sure the families of all who attended will be greatly benefited by Chef Williams’ demonstrations.
Photo: Allan Day