Thursday 25 November 2010

Thanksgiving: A beginner's guide for Brits

When we used to live in the US, we celebrated Thanksgiving. We had no idea what we were supposed to do other than eat a lot. We also didn't have any suitable items to eat a roast dinner off of, so we spent a small fortune at William Sonoma, not realising that Crate & Barrel would have saved us quite a bit of dosh. Got to love being new in a country.

Anyway, the first Thanksgiving we had, we invited an American work colleague to join us. She was in her early 20s and didn't have anyone to spend it with. She advised us on what to do. For example, she explained that the way you make pumpkin pie is you buy a ready-made pie crust, open a tin of ready made pumpkin puree, put the puree in the crust and possibly scatter it with marshmallows (it was vile). She also told us that after eating, you just watch telly and eat giant packets of crisps.

I don't think she was the best person to introduce us to Thanksgiving. Maybe that is genuinely the way most Americans spend Thanksgiving, but given the number of Bon Appetit magazines I've read and Martha Stewart shows I've watched, I know that there are people who don't do this. And I think I prefer my version.

So for those of you Brits who might want to hold a Thanksgiving meal but aren't sure what to serve, here's a beginners guide (P.S. as we're not actually American, we don't have Thanksgiving on the correct day. Rather the Saturday closest to it - so that we're not managing a hangover at work):

1. Starters
Despite having a main course that would easily be more food than any one person needs in a year, there is still the need for a starter. This is usually something light (thank god) but like all Thanksgiving dishes, reflect the season. Salad leaves with figs wrapped in bacon. Pumpkin soup. Cream cheese roulade with autumnal chutney. You get the idea. My advice: either skip this or keep it VERY light.

2. Main event
Front and centre should be a turkey. One that is so big it's unlikely to fit in your oven. However, at a push, you can have a whole baked ham. Or you could have both. I mean, why the hell not right? The ham should always be glazed in something sweet (honey, maple syrup, brown sugar, brandy etc) and usually involves cloves unless you're married to my husband in which case you don't put a clove anywhere near a perfectly good dead pig.

The turkey won't be ala Delia wrapped in bacon. No sirree. You might want to try a shitake mushroom rub, a citrus-glaze with chipolte or perhaps maple and dijon. The flavour you choose for your turkey will dictate the flavours for the rest of your meal. It's tricky. Trust me. It is basically the theme for your meal. Are you going Tex-Mex? Deep South? Classic? Citrus?

Your turkey flavour will dictate your gravy flavour. So a thyme-roasted turkey might go well with a ginger snap gravy while and orange-and-mustard basted turkey would pair well with apple cider-mustard gravy. See? Tricky.

Right, now you have to get all the other bits to match the piece de resistance.

Dressing or stuffing: this is seldom found stuffed in a turkey. This is a dish in itself usually involving bread. For example: chestnut, bacon and corn bread stuffing or artichoke, sausage and parmesan stuffing with sourdough. This should complement your turkey's flavour. No clashing please.

Potatoes: Unlike a traditional British Christmas dinner, roast potatoes are probably not that likely to feature. Or they may feature, but alongside mashed potato, twice baked potatoes, new potato salad with bacon, sweet potato (topped with marshmallow - gag) or all of the above. On Thanksgiving Day, Americans become Irish in their love of the spud.

Vegetables: Roasted root veg feature strongly, but so do green beans, sweet potato puree, butternut squash or even southwest corn, chili and cumin saute, depending on your flavour theme. The thing is, there will be a lot of them and they all require more work than just peeling a few carrots and microwaving them till they're soft. Trust me.

Cranberry sauce: I love cranberry sauce. I love making it because it is dead easy and looks like you're really clever. And it's a great way to add additional alcohol to meal. My personal favourite is cranberries with port and dried figs.

Bread: Because obviously everyone will have a little spare room after eating all of the rest of it, there is a need for a bread basket. The bread should be made by you. It could be corn bread, sweet potato rolls or rosemary twists - basically it is another labour intensive thing for you to do and which is really just plain unnecessary waistline-wise.

3. Dessert
Having eaten so much that you can barely move, it's time to tuck into some pud. Pies are the order of the day really. Ideally pumpkin pie, but due to the incident mentioned above, I just can't get excited by the stuff. But you could try apple pie or pecan pie too. Alternatively, cranberries are big at this time of year, so anything cranberry related is a winner.

Some people do suggest a cheese board for afters. I seldom make it that far. Depends on your gluttony level really.

So that's the food covered. And that's all I know. Because I've never quite got to the bottom of what you're actually supposed to do on Thanksgiving other than eat and eat and eat. Maybe it's because I'm not American, but we find it woefully embarrassing to sit around a table with friends saying what we're thankful for, when all anyone is really thankful for is that they don't have to do the washing up and that there are still five more bottles of wine. I just don't see Brits sitting around holding hands while they give thanks for things. We're more likely to stop queuing or reading red top newspapers first.

In our house, we simply have friends over to eat, drink and be merry - sort of a Christmas for friends, rather than family. And that I have friends and family and food - that is what I am thankful for.  Here's our Thanksgiving menu for this year:

Waldorf salad with cranberries and walnuts in radicchio cups

Honey and cider glazed ham
Wholegrain mustard mash
Maple glazed roast butternut and carrot chunks
Green beans with pecans
Creamed savoy cabbage
Apple cider mustard gravy (strictly speaking you shouldn't have gravy with ham but the mash needs it - going off -piste here!)

Cranberry cheesecake


Potty Mummy said...

Thanks for the heads-up; off to my first thanksgiving lunch on Sunday (I know, wrong day, but it seems Americans here are more pragmatic), and I now know not to eat AT ALL on Saturday...

Home Office Mum said...

Potty - I'd stop eating from now if I were you

Jen Walshaw said...

Do they really eat that much?

Also how can you put marshmallow on top of sweet potatoes?

Home Office Mum said...

yes they really eat that much. And you cook sweet potato or pumpkin, then mash it, put it in a serving dish, dot with marshmallows and melt under the grill. Yum. Not.

nappy valley girl said...

We're cooking Thanksgiving lunch with a Brit /German twist today.

Delia's turkey (I'm afraid), roasted butternut squash, brussels sprouts, green beans, cranberry sauce and bread sauce - with some German dumplings our friends are bringing. Devils on horseback as an appetiser and German baked apples for pudding.

In our town, there's a 5 mile run that takes place in the morning - many people take part (I'm thinking of trying it next year). It makes people feel less guilty about the amount of food you're about to eat. Or, you could just sit and watch the Macy's Thanksgiving parade on telly.

Metropolitan Mum said...

Bleurgh. When comes the part where everybody just throws up? No surprise that half of the US is overweighed.

Morag said...

Umm. Just a dite exaggerated. The marshmallows/sweet potato is a southern thing, not common everywhere. No starter, just turkey & sides. (Ham???) Pie later in the evening. Many leftovers on purpose so you can send guests home with plates, and have several days afterward with no need to cook. And the point is just to make a nice dinner, the way people used to every Sunday, set the table nicely, dress up a bit, invite someone who's on their own to join you, and be thankful for what you have and say it out loud.