As a young girl growing up in the wilderness that was East Harlem in New York City, I always enjoyed the holidays.
There were certain days of the year that by virtue of their inherent meaning and collective cultural significance, by their joyful reminders that we are all one in the spirit in our desires for this life, this liberty, this pursuit of happiness, this ability to share with others the bounty of our table, gave us the ability to willingly release all or any of the angst of our yearly hardships and focus, instead, on the good & the beautiful in our world over the evil and the ugly.
Their wonderful Americana transcended the longitude and latitude of a particular place and time uniting most of us under one flag at an enormous virtual table; no matter that our feet touched hard concrete pavement or soft dewy sun-kissed grass, or whether we sat down to a tidy, orderly Norman Rockwell rendition of the typical American feast or stood up to a wildly messy but love-fueled buffet filled with the jewels of ancestral pasts that mixed & matched traditional foods from wherever our first generation of family hailed, be it Palermo or Shanghai.
Thanksgiving is one such holiday with its central theme of gratitude for being alive and surviving another year and, of course, it's wonderful gift of culinary delights.
That tiny kitchen in my grandparent's housing projects apartment (where the small government issued refrigerator stood adjacent to the front door because it was far too large to stand at its rightful place in cooking heaven) was wafting out clouds of such sheer tantalizing scents for three days before the blessed event, it took all my strength not to swoon from the pleasure & anticipation of a yummy holiday feast. Picture if you will, Bob Cratchett's children in full frenzy over that roast goose & plum pudding In Dicken's "A Christmas Carol" and you have a fair idea of how we felt.
My grandmother, a woman of quiet but steely reserve, was in sole charge of the spectacle; shooing away anyone who dared enter her domain to stick a finger in pumpkin pie batter.
The only assistance she accepted was the grating of the crateloads of green bananas for the making of the pasteles, a holiday treat that was laborious to make despite the simplicity of its presentation which at first glance might seem an odd choice to the uninitiated with it's meaty savory filling hidden buried treasure like in a green banana bed of earthy goodness that was then lovingly tied up in a banana leaf & set to boil in cauldrons of water by the dozens.
Nope, Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore... with the arroz con gandules, garlicky roasted pernil, garbanzos simmering in a pumpkin sauce studded with crispy bits of pork rind & redolent with the alchemy of the sofrito or the recaito that is the mainstay of all national Puerto Rican dishes (la comida criolla, as we of Borinquen descent called it).
Sofrito is a bunch of herbs and aromatics: garlic, cilantro, sweet Scotch bonnet peppers, onions, tocino (pig fat) with either achiote (aniseed) infused oil or tomato pastes and, I suspect, lots of love. It is either chopped to a paste consistency by hand as my grandmother painstakingly did or blended in a food processor as we do now. I still will often chop it by hand, I love feeling those aromatics succumb to me under my knife's sure blade. So sexy...
There are some things Dorothy & Toto would recognize if their Kansas tornado blew them into 421 East 102nd Street like Tom Turkey, all trussed & stuffed with a traditional "American" bread dressing, the mounds of fluffy buttery mashed potatoes, roasted candied yams in a casserole crowned with pineapple rings & of course the ubiquitous "what would Thanksgiving be without it" cans of Ocean Spray cranberry sauce, the only processed item on the menu but a necessary element to every Thanksgiving day feast that we all seemed to love mainly because of those wonderful rings you could slice them into... such F-U-N food for a kiddie!
Dorothy would be able to readily identify the pumpkin and the coconut custard pies as well as the bowls of nuts still comfortably nestled in the safety of their shells until we cracked them open with the always in need of repair nutcracker. Although she may stare in wonder at the guava paste, the turrone (a hard almond & meringue candy) & the sugar cane that I loved sucking the sweet sap out of & then chewing on mercilessly grinding every bit of juice out of the fibrous stalks.
Still, she and Toto would surely have partied hearty with us.
With my grandfather holding court crooning tango after tango while strumming his guitar in one corner, while my beautiful Aunt Meyda was cranking up the old tunes like the "Watusi" that we would all dance wildly to & of course, the television blaring Dorothy's story, "The Wizard of Oz" or other seasonal wonders like "It's Thanksgiving Charlie Brown", the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, or maybe a Bing Crosby or Bob Hope special with even more laughter trilling in the background...
Dorothy would have noted the wildly disparate elements in the room, all relics from my grandfather's merchant mariner days: the Bali heads (carved exotic wood busts of Balinese nationals), the wild painting over the plastic-covered sofa depicting a tropical bacchanal with conga players, women dancing frenetically & men clapping to their pulsating rhythms, the giant Happy Buddha whose belly we all rubbed for good luck, the enormous stone elephant with real ivory tusks, the modest china closet filled with two entire sets of beautiful table settings that Don Pedro (my abuelito) was so proud of, that Carrera marble topped coffee table whose hard edges gave me a scar I bear to this day when as a silly child I decided I could fly from the sofa cushions and land cat-like on its marble surface (I didn't, I landed scud-like at one of it's sharp edges & bled all over the snowy white stone . One anguished grandmother, a trip to the emergency & two stitches later I was good as new and pretending to be a pirate instead...).
Yep, Dorothy & Toto would have noted the shabbiness of the walls that were only painted once every five years, the low square footage of a 3 bedroom, one bath apartment that housed three generations of family members (8 of us cohabited the place at any one time) that the windows appeared not to close fully, that my mother appeared to be in some drug-induced coma or bitter rage off on her own, never participating in our reindeer games; but she would have also seen all the plants that grew so lush & happily on those window sills, she would have heard the laughter, the singing, joined us in our revels and our dances.
Enjoyed the general silliness, the banter about politics, movies, books, art, music. The fights that would break out as everyone disagreed about agreeing with each other because they were all such looneys and enjoyed a good heated debate (even if it did end in police and ambulances being called in half the time). Dorothy would have seen an abundance of love.... and felt the gratitude we all did to be there together sharing... EVERYTHING, all of it. The good, the bad, the sad, the joyful, the exaltations and the terrible sufferings but still... alive, Alive, ALIVE!
And she would realize that every family from far and near share this commonality, this humanity, the beauty in the distress and the dysfunction that while trying also binds them to each other in an eternal alliance that nothing - not even death - can ever set asunder...
Dawn has just now broken over the San Francisco Bay & with it a realization that those taken from us really truly never are, so long as we have the honey in our memories to preserve them sweetly, and the traditions like Thanksgiving Day feasts that seem to stir their spirits and revive them even if only for a few hours on a dark November morning... My family no longer exists as such, but I felt them here today as I wrote in the cool dark of this early morning. They were such hams - particularly my grandfather, Don Pedro and my Aunt Meyda... If this computer screen were a camera they'd be mugging for it. Looks like some things never change because they surely took over my keyboard, and kept me from my main task which was to suggest a possible Thanksgiving menu. Such being the case, I will just share with you, gentle reader, last year's menu at Casa Gomez. Every major holiday, I devise a menu, type it out, print it & present it to my spouse and guests (or just my spouse when we don't have guests). It gets my creative juices flowing and keeps me organized. I always take the menu with me when I go shopping for the meal.
The potage is a lovely creamy potato soup that can be made a day or two in advance. I used sweet potatoes & yukon golds and added roasted poblanos for an extra kick as a foil against the creamy sweetness of those tubers. I make the cranberry sauce on Monday of Thanksgiving week, and make the turkey stock on Tuesday, and usually prepare the dessert, the croutons for the stuffing, as well as season the turkey itself the night before the big day. I wake up early on Thanksgiving morning, make coffee, turn on George Winston's, Autumn, and spend the morning & early afternoon slaving away at the kitchen, sending my husband and guests into exile from it until I am ready to serve. I am a very jealous & territorial cook. I haven't an inch to spare in my tiny galley kitchen, so I make sure before I start cooking the big dinner itself, I bake something the others can eat first.
Last year it was this pumpkin bread for breakfast:
And this swiss chard and feta crostata for lunch:
Recipes for crostata (an Italian, open-faced pie or tart) date at least as far back as the 15th Century. These delicious free-form pies were traditionally made with a mix of sweet and savory ingredients and included fresh, seasonal produce. I'll keep faithful to the original concept and make it with briny olives and feta, the crunch of roasted walnuts, peppery swiss chard roasted red peppers and the rich sweetness of caramelized onions.
- 6 Kalamata Olives
- 1 Red pepper, sliced & coarsely chopped
- 2 Cloves Garlic
- 1 Vidalia (or other sweet) Onion
- ½ Cup All-Purpose Flour
- ½ Cup Whole Wheat Flour
- 1 Head of Swiss Chard
- ⅓ Cup Crumbled Feta Cheese
- 1/3 Cup Roasted Walnuts, chopped
- Extra Virgin Olive oil for sauteing plus 4 TBS for crust
- 1/4 cup of ice cold water
Preheat the oven to 425°F. Wash and dry the fresh produce. Using the flat side of your knife, smash the olives; remove and discard the pits, then roughly chop the olives. Peel and thinly slice the garlic and onion. Rinse swiss chard, dry thoroughly, de-stem & coarsely chop it
In a medium pot, heat 2 teaspoons of olive oil on medium-high until hot. Add the onion. Cook, stirring occasionally, 6 to 8 minutes, or until completely softened. Reduce the heat to low and cook, stirring occasionally, 8 to 10 minutes longer, or until thoroughly caramelized and golden brown.
While the onions are caramelizing, heat a large frying pan until medium hot, add a tablespoon of olive oil, wait 5 seconds then add red pepper, saute until softened (about 3 minutes) and add sliced garlic, saute garlic for 30 seconds until it releases its aroma , then reduce heat to medium, and add swiss chard. Cook until chard is wilted (about 5-7 minutes).
Make the dough:
Set aside veggies, dust a large sheet pan with a pinch of the all-purpose flour. In a medium bowl, combine the whole wheat and all-purpose flours with a pinch of salt. Stir in 4 tablespoons of olive oil and ¼ cup of cold water until a dough forms, being careful not to over-mix. Transfer the dough to the prepared sheet pan. Using a rolling pin or wine bottle, roll the dough into a ¼-inch-thick round.
Assemble the crostata:
In a medium bowl, combine the swiss chard and the olives. Drizzle with olive oil, if the chard seems dry, then season with salt and pepper and gently toss to coat. Place the caramelized onions in the center of the dough and spread them towards the edges, stopping about a ½-inch from the outside edge (there should be an onion-less border all the way around). Place the chard mixture on top of the onions and evenly sprinkle with the feta cheese, then the walnuts. Gently fold the outer edge of the dough over the toppings with your hands (this is the fun part, don't worry if the dough breaks off, remold it into shape) to create an open-faced pie.
Bake the crostata:
Bake the crostata 12 to 15 minutes, or until the dough is browned and cooked through. Let it rest for 15 minutes in a warm spot. Cut the baked crostata into wedges to serve. Enjoy!
So... I bake them, place them on the dining table with cutlery, napkins, dishware, and shoo anyone who happens to be around away encouraging them to go for long walks on short piers. This is quite different from the chaos that I grew up with, but happily my husband understands my need to totally immerse myself in the cooking process and allows me room to breathe. Every year, we bargain about what time dinner will be served. I was raised with holiday dinners being served in the late evening. My husband's family counted the day wasted if they hadn't gobbled their gobbler by 2 in the afternoon. This causes minor rifts every year wherein I promise to have dinner ready by 5, but invariably never deliver the first course before 6.
Two years ago my inner clock went completely awry and dinner wasn't ready until 8. My husband refused to eat and went to bed. I slammed every door in the apartment before I left with two bags full of a delicious roast turkey dinner with all the trimmings (and serving wear) in the hopes of finding some hungry homeless person to feed, and wound up walking for two hours and several miles before I finally begged a homeless man sleeping in the doorway of an abandoned bank to please allow me to leave the dinner with him, promising him I was a pretty good cook. He looked at me wearily, but accepted hearing the desperation and tears in my voice... Still, I harbor hopes of making dinner by 5 Post Meridian, Pacific Standard Time this year.
Wish me luck.
Apropos of nada, I love this Van Gogh, and will go from the ridiculousness that was my writing today to the sublime that is Van Gogh's majestic art: