(Nov. 21, 2019) “Thanksgiving in 19th century New England, coastwise and inland, was widely observed and hopelessly romanticized,” writes Sandra L. Oliver in her information-filled book “Saltwater Foodways – New Englanders and their Food, at Sea and Ashore, in the Nineteenth Century” (Mystic Seaport Museum, 1995).
“For most of the century its observance outranked Christmas as the premier annual holiday. Narrative and memoir descriptions echo one another and, if we can believe them, show great similarity from household to household in the day’s events, social interactions, and bills of fare,” she continues.
I, for one, have always found Thanksgiving, a non-secular holiday, the most convivial for all the reasons that Oliver mentions. I love the food of the autumn harvest all mixed together on the same plate. Savory, sweet, tart and salty.
I particularly like to tailor the menu to the place of its location. For Thanksgiving in Italy, I offered local friends a menu designed Italian-style with a first course of ravioli filled with squash, crushed amaretti cookies and nose-tingling, spicy mostarda sauced with melted butter and sage; and tacchina: local female turkey, piles of sautéed greens, and in place of cranberry sauce, more mostarda made with pears drowned in mustard syrup.
Nantucket Thanksgiving has included a memorable stuffing for turkey made by my late sister, Laura, with things that she pulled out of the freezer from the summertime harvest: peaches and striped bass. I once made a vegan Thanksgiving for friends who ate a diet exclusive of animal products. It’s not as difficult as you might imagine when put together with the bounty of fall: acorn squash stuffed with cornbread, nuts and dried fruits; cranberry sauce sweetened with maple syrup; and mountains of roasted seasonal vegetables. Fruit pies with almond- or chestnut-flour crusts, moistened with coconut oil, made for a delicious dessert.
Spinach Pudding with Truffled Mushrooms
This is a somewhat labor-intensive recipe, but it will be the show-offy one at your table. It’s an Italian recipe, so it’s really a sformato: an unmolded pudding. I can’t say if there were greens at the first Thanksgiving, but there may have been mushrooms.
4 pounds spinach, thoroughly rinsed and tough stems removed
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/4 cup milk
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly-ground white pepper
3 eggs, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons unseasoned breadcrumbs
1. In a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat, using the moisture that has remained from rinsing, add the spinach in batches until it has all wilted. If the leaves seem too dry, add 1/4 cup water at a time as needed. Remove from the heat, drain, pressing out excess moisture, and let cool. Put through a food mill or finely chop. Place in a large bowl.
2. in a small, nonreactive saucepan over medium heat, melt 2 tablespoons of the butter. Add the flour and cook for 3 minutes, stirring continuously. Add the milk and cook for another 3 minutes, stirring continuously. When the mixture begins to thicken, add the Parmesan, salt and pepper. Add to the spinach and mix well. Add the eggs and stir to combine.
3. Heat an oven to 375 F. Use the remaining 1 tablespoon butter to grease a 9-inch ring mold. Add the breadcrumbs to the mold, and tilt in a circular motion until the surface is evenly coated. Add the spinach mixture to the mold. Put the mold in a baking dish and add hot water to the pan to reach halfway up the sides of the mold.
4. Bake until the spinach starts to pull away from the sides of the mold and the top is slightly browned, at least 1 hour. Remove from the oven and immediately invert the mold onto a platter. You may have to coax the pudding a bit by running a knife around the inside of the mold. Fill the center with truffled mushrooms as desired.
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup olive oil
3 cloves garlic, smashed and peeled
2 pounds mushrooms such as cremini, portabella or porcini, one variety or an assortment, brushed clean and thinly sliced
1/2 teaspoon salt
A few grinds black pepper
2 tablespoons fresh flat-leaf parsley
1. In a large skillet over medium heat, melt the butter in the olive oil. Add garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, for 2 or 3 minutes to flavor the oil.
2. Raise the heat and add the mushrooms. When the mushrooms have released their liquid, lower the heat to medium-low. Cook until most of the liquid has been reabsorbed – you want a little sauce – and the mushrooms are tender, about 20 minutes.
3. Remove from the heat and remove and discard the garlic. Stir in the salt, pepper and parsley.
To read the complete column, including more recipes, pick up the Nov. 21 print edition of The Inquirer and Mirror or register for the I&M’s online edition by clicking here.
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