As the holiday season nears, cookbooks are always among the first items considered for the gourmet on your gift list, but today I've got a recommendation that can't wait: “Thanksgiving: How to Cook It Well” (Random House, $18) by Sam Sifton.
The unfussy prose fits this authentic, traditional approach to preparing a Thanksgiving feast for friends and family.
Sifton, who is now national editor for The New York Times, honed his skills as a food scribe doing reviews for the Times and still writes a food column for the Sunday Times Magazine. His descriptions of memorable feasts and the requirements for creating your own are richer than turkey stock.
As for the recipes, Sifton has provided the most practical turkey preparations, keeping in mind all budgets. But he makes clear from the beginning that this is not a book for ingredients purveyed from cans or boxes. Neither is the book for those seeking alternatives to turkey. I have never hidden my disdain for roasted turkey, but after reading Sifton's book I am born again in my faith in turkey as the centerpiece of this holiday.
“You will make a turkey. Turkey is why you are here,” Sifton writes in the introduction.
Nor is the book aimed at redefining the feast. The recipes are not avant-garde and don't include molecular gastronomy or vertical presentations. The book is all about turkey, dressing/stuffing, potatoes, gravy and three kinds of pie — apple, pecan and pumpkin.
There are a few additions to each part of the feast, but none promise to be pushing the culinary needle. That's not the intention, and it was refreshing to read what amounts to a refresher course on why we celebrate the holiday and how it's done best. Forward thinking can at times distance us too far from the source idea.
Readers will learn how to make everything from scratch that they want to. They will be taught how to plan, organize and decorate — even set a proper table regardless of what flatware shortcomings beset your kitchen drawers. Finally, there is a great little section on Thanksgiving leftovers, which includes Turkey A la King (the General Tso's chicken of turkey leftovers), gumbo and the perfect turkey sandwich.
The book is well-organized, which is important since one of the things it aims to do is help its readers organize their attack on the holiday. Besides the cooking, you will learn how to warm your plates, stock the pantry, what etiquette to take seriously, how to divvy up help from guests and what libations to make and avoid.
“Thanksgiving” is the perfect addition to your ever-shrinking bookshelf as it's slim but chocked full of utility.
Here are a couple of recipes to whet the appetite.
BASIC CRANBERRY SAUCE
Cranberry sauce should be sweet but not cloying, and tart without causing pucker and anguish. It should have a jellylike quality, but should owe more to the appearance of jam. The key element to making cranberry sauce is to understand that cranberries are high in pectin, a carbohydrate that exists in many fruits and which is released by the berries when they are heated and the cells of the fruit break down. In the presence of sugar, which we add to cranberry sauce to offset its tanginess and acid, which is why the berries are tangy in the first place, the pectin molecules bond to one another, forming a kind of gel. The longer you cook a cranberry sauce, the more pectin is released and liquid is evaporated, and the stiffer the result will be.
Science! Sometimes it's helpful. So is spice. Some like a clove or two added to their cranberry sauce. (I am not one of them.) Others, a whisper of ginger and a small handful of nuts, for texture. Of this, I approve.
1 12-ounce bag fresh or thawed frozen cranberries
¾ cup sugar
¾ cup orange juice, preferably freshly squeezed
Zest of 1 orange, or to taste
Place cranberries in a small saucepan over medium-high heat and pour over these the sugar and orange juice. Stir to combine.
Cook until sugar is entirely melted and cranberries begin to burst in the heat, 4 to 6 minutes. Stir again, add zest, and cook for 2 or 3 minutes longer, turn off heat, cover pan, and allow to cool.
Put cranberry mixture in a serving bowl, cover, and place in refrigerator until cold, at least 2 hours, or until you need it.
ROASTED CAULIFLOWER WITH ANCHOVY BREADCRUMBS
It is important to note that this dish does not have an anchovy flavor. Indeed, there is no reason ever to tell anyone who eats this dish that there are anchovies in it. The taste is merely salty and rich — and reflects beautifully off the sweet, creamy taste of the cauliflower beneath its slightly crunchy breadcrumb topping.
2 heads cauliflower
8 to 10 fresh sage leaves, roughly chopped
Zest of 2 lemons
2 teaspoons sugar
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
8 anchovy fillets, rinsed and finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
1 shallot, peeled and diced
1 cup fresh breadcrumbs
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Break cauliflower into florets and toss in a bowl with sage, lemon zest, sugar, and olive oil. Season with salt and pepper and spread out on a large baking sheet. Place in oven and cook until tender and golden, approximately 20 to 25 minutes.
Meanwhile, prepare breadcrumbs. Heat olive oil in a sauté pan set over medium heat. When oil shimmers, add the anchovies, garlic, shallot, and breadcrumbs. Cook for 5 to 7 minutes, until golden.
In a large bowl, toss together cauliflower and breadcrumbs and serve on a warmed platter.
Excerpted by permission from Random House's
“Thanksgiving: How to Cook it Well” by Sam Sifton.