“It was dramatic to watch my grandmother decapitate a turkey with an ax the day before Thanksgiving. Nowadays the expense of hiring grandmothers for the ax work would probably qualify all turkeys so honored with “gourmet” status.”
– Russell Baker, Journalist
Buenos Aires – We didn’t have a single request from any norteamericano expats for a July 4th special dinner, we have none for Christmas or New Year’s. But we were inundated with requests for Thanksgiving dinner. Amazing how a holiday with a food tradition can have such a strong pull. We could easily have booked Thanksgiving night itself five or six times over. However, a woman from the States who was on her way down here beat everyone to it several months ago, booking the entire evening for a group of her family and some Argentine friends. Then she had to cancel a couple of weeks ago when their trip was delayed. I considered just throwing the evening open, it would have filled rapidly, but I’d also had another request to book the entire evening just that day, and I buzzed the young man back and told him we could do it after all. It turned out to be a larger group than we can handle here, but he said he and his friends had a house that could handle the group of 20… so I nervously agreed to cater the event. (One never knows what sort of kitchen, equipment, etc. is going to be on hand in a situation like this.) He graciously headed to the house a few days in advance and gave me a rough inventory of the kitchen, so I knew in advance that we needed to pretty much cook everything here, bring it, reheat it, and have pans with us for any last minute cooking.) The evening went very smoothly – despite the limited cooking space we were able to get everything heated, and because of lack of counter space we sort of plated everything one plate at a time, put it out on a small service window, and the group took care of serving the plates themselves, along with most of the clearing, and certainly the eating! We cleaned up, and headed back home. I’m going to cover the menu the way we more or less repeated it last night, Friday – we had so many requests that we decided we’d do an additional post-T-day dinner.
You can’t get a “real” pumpkin here. At least I’ve never seen one. They probably exist somewhere. But most folks substitute the zapallo coreano for flavor and color – it really is pretty close, and you could make a great pumpkin pie out of it following the very same recipe. Depending on how old the squash is, it ranges from a deep yellow color to a deep orange color – I haven’t figured out how to tell from the outside, so I always end up with a mix. I had decided to serve the pumpkin first – although I wanted to serve a more or less traditional Thanksgiving meal, I wanted to give it a few twists here and there. So I made a creamy soup – it’s a mixture of beef stock and the squash and a bit of celery all simmer together and then pureed. I added pumpkin pie spices – cinnamon and nutmeg – plus a touch of dried chipotle pepper for a kick, and then finished it off with a bit of cream and milk. On the second night most of the group went with a wine tasting – so this course was started off with the Jotados Brut sparkling.
If you’re not familiar with the name Stephanie Alexander, you should be. Especially if you’re really, really into food. She’s one of Australia’s most famous chefs, and she’s written numerous cookbooks, my personal favorite of which is called Stephanie’s Australia – it’s a tour of the various regions of the country along with visits to what she considers some of the most important artesanal food producers – and her recipes to go with their products. I was thinking about the classic green bean casserole with the cream of mushroom soup and the crispy onions atop. I knew I couldn’t do that. The first night, for the big group, I’d blanched and sauteed some fresh beans along with mushrooms and roasted onions. It was good, but I wanted to go a different direction. For the second night, I remembered an asparagus custard with morel sauce that she talked about in that book. I turned it into a green bean custard, and since no morels were available, went with a simple mushroom and butter sauce with a splash of semi-sweet white wine in it. When I announced “green bean custard” everyone looked at me like I’d just offended them. Afterwards, I think everyone was wowed by it. Served it with what is my favorite Sauvignon blanc from Argentina, La Flor de Pulenta.
Green Bean Custard
3 cups of heavy cream
3 cloves of garlic
6 large eggs
2 cups of blanched green beans
salt and white pepper to taste
Put all these ingredients into a blender and blend on high until well pureed. Adjust seasoning. Pour in ramekins (this makes about a dozen, depending on the size of them) in a bain-marie (water bath) and bake at 300°F for about half an hour until set and lightly browned on top.
¼ pound of button mushrooms, sliced
¼ cup of butter
¼ cup of fruity or lightly sweet white wine
salt and white pepper to taste
Simmer the mushrooms in the butter until they are limp but not browned. Add the wine and simmer for another 10-15 minutes over low heat. Add salt and white pepper to taste. Serve over the top of the custards.
The main course was the most traditional. The turkey – and yes, turkeys are available here in Argentina, before you ask, I simply went to the supermarket and bought them, I could also have ordered them from one of the farm stands (I think I’ve gotten more than a dozen e-mails from people in the States who seem completely perplexed by the idea that I could find a turkey outside of the continental U.S…. why, I don’t know) – so, the turkey I charcoal grilled in our parrilla – just lightly salted on the outside and then the turkey on a rack off to the side of the coals, and the lid closed. I let it cook for about two hours (10-11 pound turkey), which more or less cooked it through and smoked it at the same time, and then finished it in the oven with the convection fan on to brown the skin nicely. I served it with giblet gravy, cornbread, potato pancakes (first day I used grated potato and made fairly traditional pancakes, second day I changed to mashed potato pancakes), cranberry sauce (had to go with canned Ocean Spray whole berries and then jazz them up with some sauteed red onion, salt and pepper), and a simple sausage and apple bread dressing – cooked outside the bird – when grilling a turkey it doesn’t get hot enough fast enough to cook the dressing if it’s inside, and you’d be taking some major health risks in hand. For the main course the wine was the Belgrano 10.640 Malbec.
I originally thought of making pecan pies for the dessert. But pecans seemed to be out of the markets, other than one bin of whole pecans in the shell (not going to happen…). Not everyone really likes pecan pie anyway, but, there’s always my now world-famous cheesecake (only because I write about it all the time)… So I made some cheesecakes and then for the topping, made more or less the filling that I’d use for a pecan pie – with other nuts. I melted butter, cream, unsweetened chocolate, white chocolate, cane syrup, and brown sugar together, brought it to a light boil and let it go until it was at a light caramel thickness, about 6-7 minutes. Then off the heat I stirred in a little vanilla and some chopped walnuts, almonds, and cashews. A nice scoop of that, warmed, atop the cheesecake, was a winning combination – especially paired with a bottle of El Retiro Tardió dessert wine.