This weekend we celebrated Canadian Thanksgiving and for the first time in 10 years, I headed home for the holiday. Our family farm has been a part of my life for over 30 years. It’s hard to believe that I was about Lauren’s age when my parents bought it. Some things are still the same – the pond, the forest, the vegetable patch, the old meandering creek.
And some things are new – the renovated kitchen with the long-awaited gas stove, the screened in porch with a view of the pond, and most important, the coyotes who have built a home for themselves near the barn.
Travel is tough when you have young kids, so we don’t get up to the farm often. And I’m lucky enough to have my family visit me in New York. Particularly for American Thanksgiving every November.
Learning to cook Thanksgiving dinner was a turning point in my cooking career. It goes without saying – this dinner is a beast, the most fearful night of cooking for many a home cook. There are high expectations, loads of prep work, and biggest source of angst – the turkey itself.
If you’ve ever dealt with a raw turkey before, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Forgive me for being blunt, but it’s not often that most people need to handle an 18-lb dead animal.
Prepping a raw turkey can make even most die hard carnivore squeamish. Lifting it up is strenuous, and that wingspan! It’s impressive and horrifying all at the same time.
To this day, prepping the turkey is one of my least favorite activities in the kitchen. But I buy organic, sustainably-raised birds to ease the guilt factor, and handle it with care, brining it and layering it with butter and herbs. It’s cooking as spectacle to some degree, but it’s tradition, and Thanksgiving dinner wouldn’t be the same without it.
In 2003 I cooked my first Thanksgiving dinner. I’d been cooking actively for a few years at that point, but had yet to venture into Thanksgivingdinnerland.
But faced with the prospect of my hosting my first dinner, I relied on tried and true tactics – I had someone teach me. I enrolled in a several-day course at the Tante Marie cooking school in San Francisco and learned all I could about sequencing my activities, prepping ahead of time, and getting it all done without breaking a sweat.
I learned about the importance of making a great stock as the base ingredient for nearly all of my Thanksgiving dishes. I’ll never forget when I first prepared it at home, dutifully chopping all of the turkey parts with my new cleaver. Once cooled, I stuck it in the fridge and was shocked to find out the next day that it had jellified.
I emailed my teacher in a panic, “Is this normal? Should I throw it out?”
“It sounds wonderful” was her response. And she was right, it makes all the difference in the world for your gravy and sides.
It may seem like overkill, but I start preparing Thanksgiving dinner up to several weeks in advance. I make the stock and freeze it. If I’m making pie, I’ll freeze the crust. Although it takes some advance planning, they’re easy tasks to knock off my list, and I find that doing things in baby steps makes the whole event less stressful.
I offered to cook Thanksgiving dinner for my family this year. I was happy to do it, overjoyed really, because there’s nothing better than the smell of Thanksgiving dinner in the making.
But without several weeks to prepare for our 20+ guests, I made it easy on myself. Simple was the name of the game, from the hors d’oeuvres to the soup, the appetizers and the sides.
And thankfully other family members pitched in with a few extra dishes, including my brother’s incredible gravlax appetizer.
But the best part of Thanksgiving this year, truth be told, was watching my kids enjoy the Farm as I did as a kid. Running through the fields, taking in the sights and smells. Learning to appreciate the wild Canadian beauty that I took for granted so long ago.