Sunday, November 28, 2010


I'm just home from a long weekend of festivating in a kitchen orientated fashion. Hence the painting. Some people may not see a kitchen's worth of chaos as festive, but trust me when I say that it's one of my favorite forms of fun. Although my faithful readers might not actually be all that surprised.

The painting is Christ in the House of Martha and Mary by Joachim Beuckelaer. This worthy Flemish master took great delight in mounding his paintings with foodstuffs. This panoply of roasts and fowl is rather restrained. I cannot remember the name for the genre of painting that has a scene of ordinary life in the foreground, and a scene from the Bible as a vignette in the background. There is such a word. I wish I could remember it. At any rate, this is one of them, and one of Beuckelaer's favorite subjects, since it gives him an excuse to show the uproar in the kitchen that prepares to feast an unexpected guest.*

But enough self-indulgent noodling about art, lets talk about food. Thanks to the magic of some really sharp scheduling, I managed to attend three Thanksgiving dinners taking in both sides of my family as well as my friends' families. My weekend did not feature enough snoozing in a turkey induced coma, but it had laughter, fat babies, happy toddlers, and enough good food that I don't think I actually need to eat again until I fly home to Alaska for the holidays. Not that I am going to let that stop me.

Despite the good times, I did miss my immediate family fiercely. At home Mom and I collaborate on Thanksgiving dinner. I usually make the sides, and Mom deals with the turkey, the stuffing and the gravy. Dad gets the short straw and potato mashing duty. It's chaotic, loud, and the Ervine family kitchen can't actually comfortably hold four full sized adults (my brother may or may not cook anything but he definitely wanders through to snitch tastes). Then the guests start arriving.

I usually end by making elaborate plans for how it is all going to be different and sane next year.

This year I wanted the crazy, the off-key singing, and the squabbling over oven space. To say nothing of Mom's stuffing. Mom makes the best stuffing, and I don't have her recipe. However I think I have figured out the secret to the excellence of her stuffing and consequently her gravy. Judging from the evidence before me, most people do not cook the stuffing in the turkey. An understandable choice-- turkey cooks faster and theoretically more thoroughly without stuffing. The secret to Mom's stuffing is a bunch of fruit, and apple juice to moisten the bread crumbs before it goes in the bird. The stuffing is good whether it was the in-bird stuffing or the large casserole that is cooked on the side to meet demand. However, the in-bird stuffing flavors the juices from the bird. Hence the best gravy ever.

Gravy is extremely important. The entire Thanksgiving meal is an excuse for the gravy. You may ask my grandmother if my word is in doubt.

Without my mom's stuffing recipe, you and I have no hope of making a truly superb gravy, but despite this good gravy is within easy reach.

The secret is making a proper roux**.

Turkey Gravy

Take all the rendered juices from the turkey and pour them in a glass container. A Pyrex measuring cup of appropriate size is dandy. This is a tricky operation, if you're a klutz like me, you may want to get someone else to do this for you.

When the liquid separates, you should have at least a couple of tablespoons of fat floating on top. Pour the fat carefully into either the pan you roasted the turkey in (if it's suitable for stove top use), or a shallow, not non-stick skillet. Reserve the rest of the turkey juices.

Place the pan over medium heat and add an equal volume of flour. Stir constantly with a fork or a spring whisk as the paste forms. Attempt to squash out all the lumps. Keep stirring as the paste turns golden and begins to smell of toasted grain. It's not an altogether bad thing if the roux gets a bit burned. This takes five -ten minutes depending on your burner temperature.

Pour in the turkey juices. If the result is too thick, add some water, wine, or broth. The result should be fairly thin. Continue stirring and bring the proto-gravy to a boil. Allow it to reduce to the desired consistency. Check the seasonings. If it's too salty add more water, wine, or broth (assuming that the broth is low or no sodium). Resist the urge to get fancy. Keep it simple. Good gravy is zen gravy.

Pour it into a pitcher, a gravy boat, or -- if all other containers are in use -- a candy dish. Pour it on everything and jealously guard it from all comers.

Bonus Casserole

One might also make chicken gravy and pour it over a casserole dish of leftovers, and bake for half an hour at 350. Serve it with lingonberry jam if you've already run out of cranberry sauce.

*The story is here: Luke 10:38-42. It's one of those stories that makes you wonder about how the Puritans came up with their famed work ethic.

**a cooked paste of fat and flour. The language of cooking is often French and "roux" sounds better than fat and flour paste.


  1. This year the stuffing also had pineapple juice and walnuts in it. Your Dad often helps cut the contents of the stuffing and I must remind him to cut it in small pieces, especially the oranges.

  2. I'm not sure what I think of pineapple in the stuffing, but walnuts sound brilliant. But I shall keep an open mind. At the very least, one of the people probably reading this had words of high praise for your stuffing this year.

  3. You need to play Kingdom of Loathing, if you don't already. "You drink the gravy. What the hell is wrong with you?!"

    Also, stuffing goes in the turkey. Unless you're a complete moron, it will cook through, and you will not die/vomit horribly from uncooked turkey juice. Stick a probe in it and check if you wish, but in the 30 years I've had Mom's turkeys (I missed the year in Leicester) and the one year I bothered to make one myself (shortly before Leicester, because dammit, I wanted Thanksgiving, so I did it with friends in late July/early August--it was a hit, by the way) I've never gotten sick.

    Also, while I'm sure your mother's stuffing is excellent, it is not as good as my mother's, by virtue of the fact that your mother is not my mother. Ours is extra-simple. Save all the heels, lonely last pieces of bread, and random hot dog/hamburger buns over the course of a year in the freezer. Storebought only--homemade remnants become breadcrumbs or croutons, and might I mention that Mom's banana bread croutons are the crack cocaine of the crouton world? Also, do not use weird loaves that had nuts and crap in them--the sunflower seeds et. al the stuffing.

    Tear these remnants of bread into a giant metal mixing bowl, big enough to bath a six month old child in. Do this Wednesday night, after you get back from Mexican food because really, we're only in Eugene for two weeks and need our various restaurant fixes (also, because Mom made four pies that day and is a bit...cranky).

    Chop an entire bunch of celery--including leaves--and I don't know how many onions (2? 3?). In the morning, sauté the onions and celery in vast quantities of butter, then season with a shot glass full of dry-rubbed sage and dried time (and presumably salt). Toss in with the bread. Sodomize the prepped turkey with the stuffing, then take the remaining stuffing and cram it into whatever baking dishes you have left (most of them will be used to hold your other delicious sides), and rotate these through the oven, periodically basting with the turkey juices. Mix gooey delicious turkey stuffing with the crispy delicious oven baked stuffing in that giant bowl that held the torn bread the night before.

  4. I like stuffing in the mode you mention. I've been known to make a small amount to go with a chicken, and eat the results for days after. But you need the apple cider and the juice of the fruit in the stuffing to get all nice and caramelized with the turkey juices. Mom's turkey gravy is almost as dark as my hair. Except without a white streak.