The Carter Family Thanksgiving

I am hosting Thanksgiving this year, for the very first time. Usually we load up the car and make the trek to either Mississippi or Pennsylvania to visit our respective families. But with our recent family addition, it just seemed like too much. So we invited my family to come to us; my Mom and sister Amy will be arriving in Athens tomorrow evening.

When thinking about this post, the thought came to me, “why should I presume that people want to hear about our Thanksgiving menu?” and then I remembered that this entire website is based on the presumption that someone, somewhere, wants to hear me drone on about food at anytime; why not a major holiday?

But before you begin to conjure up images of monogram-clad children (not that there’s anything wrong with that) sitting well-behaved around a Martha Stewart-esque (ok, I’ll admit to arranging a centerpiece of fresh cranberries and tangerines) table around which are gathered immaculately-groomed, smiling adults, let me paint a more accurate picture: I will be thrilled, and consider the day a success, if we are eating by 2pm, I am out of my pajamas, and I’m not simultaneously eating turkey and nursing a baby.

All that to say, I really did try to keep it simple this year. I am almost always in charge of turkey, when we go to Mississippi, since no one else in my family has ever roasted one. But this is the first year I’m in charge of pretty much everything. I planned the whole menu, and admittedly enjoyed the somewhat dictator-like control it gave me (before I make myself sound worse that I actually am — ahem — I did ask everyone if they had specific requests. And granted them, with the exception of Tim’s request for gruyere-spinach casserole, which he asked for yesterday after hearing about it from his boss, and I told him if he wanted it he was welcome to make it).

There is almost always too much food at any given family’s Thanksgiving dinner. There will be 6 of us eating the dinner (my highly-allergic toddler and the baby won’t partake, and we’re hoping our friend Matt will join us since he’s alone studying for comps all weekend), and I’m hoping to fill our bellies and have some leftovers, but not so much food that it goes bad in the fridge. I’ve ordered a small, all-natural fresh turkey from Earth Fare, which I plan to brine and air-dry (see below) before roasting Thursday morning. Thanksgiving dinner, to me, isn’t complete without the addition of dressing, gravy, and cranberry sauce. Then, you really just need a starch and a green vegetable. We’ll be doing garlic mashed potatoes and sautéed green beans with herbs. I decided against a casserole, specifically sweet potato casserole; I’ve made one that’s heavenly in years past, but it is labor intensive and too much for our small group. For dessert, we’ll have pumpkin bread (the only family tradition from my side of the marital Mason-Dixon) and pumpkin pie (my favorite).

My sources are varied, but I’m getting a lot from I’ve made Kimball’s slow-roasted turkey before, with great success. This year I’m trying a new recipe, and while researching online, I was sucked in to their homepage links to side dishes. Here’s the lineup:

  • Turkey
    Herbed Roast Turkey, from
    This recipe caught my attention because it is brined and air-dried. You soak the bird in salted water for several hours, then let it sit in the refrigerator uncovered for up to 24 hours. This produces juicy, tender meat, and the drying promotes a crispy skin. The herbs are mixed in soft butter and rubbed under and over the skin. I roasted chicken legs last week, using a similar method, and it was the best roasted chicken I’ve ever made.
  • Gravy
    Various sources
    I make a quick stock from the neck and giblets, while the turkey roasts. Then add some pan juices, and thicken with cornstarch. Quick, easy, yummy gravy.
  • Dressing
    My sister is making the dressing, as she does every year. It’s a classic Southern recipe, from one of those old-fashioned Junior League cookbooks. Cornbread, breadcrumbs, celery, onion, etc., baked with chicken broth and an egg or two.
  • Cranberry Sauce
    The recipe is on the bag of cranberries.
    This is as easy as it gets. Simmer cranberries and sugar in water, and voila, you have delicious cranberry sauce that doesn’t look like a can.
  • Garlic Mashed Potatoes
    Same-titled recipe from
    It calls for over 20 cloves of garlic. I think I’ll use less.
  • Green Beans
    Sautéed Green Beans with Garlic and Herbs from
    This is a pretty straight-forward recipe, and should be a cleaner, quicker option than a green bean casserole.
  • Parker House Rolls
    You can find recipes for these buttery dinner rolls in most major cookbooks; I’ll be using one from The Bread Bible, making the starter a day ahead to save time.
  • Pumpkin Bread
    The best pumpkin bread I’ve ever had, and you can get the recipe here.
  • Pumpkin Pie
    A classic pumpkin pie. The recipe comes from a friend, and someday I’ll post it.

And there you have it.

I’m curious: what’s your must-have Turkey Day menu item? Care to share?

Chocolate Chip Rice Pudding

The first time I had something like this was back in grad school, at Lula. They served a dessert special that was a flavor-of-the-day Rice Pudding Empanada. Rice pudding, wrapped in pastry, deep-fried. It was unusual, rich, and comforting. I looked forward to the nights I closed when they had one leftover — it was mine for the taking.

My favorite flavor was chocolate chip, and as I was looking around for a simple desert to make after dinner Friday night, that filling came to mind. I’ve never actually made my rice pudding into an empanada, but the filling by itself is simple and delicious.

If you’ve never made rice pudding, it’s worth a try. A great way to use leftover white rice, and the ingredients are things you probably have on hand. I didn’t have leftovers on Friday, so I cooked some, which adds about 15 minutes to the prep time. This recipe is based on one from The Joy of Cooking; I’ve added a leftover-rice option and the chocolate chips. Note: You cannot use minute rice, or boil-in-bag rice, to make rice pudding. It has been processed to remove the stickiness, and it won’t form a pudding.

Chocolate Chip Rice Pudding

  • about 2 3/4 cups cooked white rice (not minute rice or boil-in-bag rice; make sure the rice was salted)
    (If you don’t have leftover rice, combine 3/4 cup med- or long-grain white rice with 1 1/2 cups water in a saucepan. Add a heaping 1/4 tsp salt, and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, cover, and let cook for about 15 minutes, until water is absorbed. Proceed with recipe as follows.)
  • 4 cups whole milk (I’ve used a combo of 2% milk and half-n-half, with success)
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla
  • 1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
  • a handful of semi- or bittersweet chocolate chips, for each serving

Combine the cooked rice, milk, and sugar in a large, heavy saucepan. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, and cook uncovered for 30 to 40 minutes, stirring frequently, especially toward the end of cooking. The pudding is done when the rice and milk have amalgamated into a thick porridge. Remove from heat, and stir in the vanilla and cinnamon.

Let cool for about 15 minutes, either in the saucepan or in serving bowls. Gently stir a handful of chocolate chips into each serving, letting the heat from the pudding melt the chocolate. You can either leave the melted chocolate in random melted chunks, or stir completely into the pudding to allow the chocolate to flavor all the rice (I prefer the former).

To really go over-the-top, serve topped with whipped cream.

Oakey, with a hint of tiny fungi.

I’m not a person who thinks that alcohol should be completely avoided when pregnant. While I stay totally away from it during the first trimester, I then adopt the European practice of enjoying it in extreme moderation. Well, usually. For the past 10 months, I can probably count on two hands the number of times I had alcohol, and those times usually involved taking a few sips of Tim’s beer. It was hot, I was queasy, and it just didn’t sound good to me.

But haven’t you heard me say something about the times, and how they’ve changed? The weather is deliciously chilly (we’ve been burning a fallen pecan limb in our fireplace each night for the past week), and the sun sets at 5:30 or so. Add to this my hearty appetite, and you have a recipe for deep, gutteral wine cravings. It’s like I want to make up for lost time.

But there’s the problem of the economic downturn. And while we haven’t exactly seen vast sums of retirement accounts shrink like a dried cranberry, we are living on a very tight budget, and are concerned that the housing market will effect our near future. So we don’t really have an existing “imbibing” budget (something we did, actually, used to have). What are we to do?

Last night, we just bought it anyway. It was our second bottle of wine purchased since our daughter was born. Tim went to Kroger to get a cheap bottle, but then realized that Gosford Wine was just a few doors down, and really, why not spend a few extra bucks to get a good bottle that was recommended by the pretentious wine guy (I actually do like that quality in a wine expert)? So he came home with a ten-dollar (doesn’t that qualify as really good wine?) bottle of La Nunsio Barbera D’asti, an Italian red that the proprietor said was “heavily oaked.” This was a bit humorous to us, thanks to family joke: Tim waited tables for a few years at a members-only dining club in Knoxville. When a customer asked him to describe a wine, he always relied on the phrase, “oakey, with a hint of plum,” (would the guest tip any better if he said he didn’t have a friggin’ clue what the wine was like?). The customer was usually satisfied with this answer (hmmm…) enough to order the bottle. So, here we had our oakey bottle, missing the plummy hints, but I still had my glass in hand, ready for the pour.

He began to open the bottle, and discovered mold on the cork. I remembered unfoiling moldy corks when working as a server in grad school; we always got a new bottle. But dinner was ready, we were all hungry, I had the glass in my hand. We agreed he should go forth, and open. Upon close examination we were both relieved to see that the mold was only on the top; it didn’t travel down the cork to the wine (based solely on evidence ascertainable by the naked, untrained eye). Throwing caution to the wind (always living on the edge, we are), he poured.

We tasted.

And it was… pretty good. We think. Since we normally drink cheap wine (3-buck Chuck, anyone?), I was momentarily thrown off by its relative dryness. And it did have a slightly off-flavor at the finish. I quickly decided it must be the oak.

It’s the oak, don’t you think, babe?

Sure. You know, we’re just not used to more complex wines. It reminds me of wines we get by the glass at 5&10 — a lot of layers there.

Hmmm. So that’s how layers of oak taste. Who knew?

So, we drank. And enjoyed more, I might add, the closer I got to the bottom of my glass (go figure). After the dishes were done, Tim decided to google “mold wine cork.” He linked to this site, which gave him this bit of information:

“The taint adds a musty, cardboardy flavor to the wine. Some people can only detect the mold in large quantities, while others can sense the mold in even small amounts. Many people don’t realize that the wine is tainted – instead, they believe that they simply don’t like that wine’s flavor.”

Some people.

Don’t realize.

Pfsssh. Silly, silly people.

I mean really. I just didn’t like the wine’s flavor.

“Hey, babe. Doesn’t Gosford offer a wine-tasting class? Maybe we should look into that.”

Lunch Special

Just in case anyone out there is still reading this blog, what with my month-long absence and all (no, I’ve not run off with Alton Brown just yet — although I think Tim still suspects that I will, since he “forgot” to tell me about a special event in Atlanta where we could’ve gone to hear him speak). It’s just been that darned newborn — she’s so selfish, and really, the very picture of gluttony. Eat, sleep. Eat, sleep. When’s she gonna start pulling her weight around here?

Anyway, for those of you still reading, the check’s in the mail.

It’s not for a lack of subject matter that keeps me from posting — I have the thought, multiple times a day, oooh, I should blog about this. But what must happen for me to actually sit down and write? An exchange has to be made. If I blog, someone doesn’t eat, or my 2 1/2 year old attempts to kill my 5-year old (so she makes it sound). Or the laundry doesn’t get done, and since I’ve yet to fully exchange our summer for winter gear, someone leaves the house in entirely inappropriate clothing (either seasonally or aesthetically). So, I’ve decided to post short articles. Yeah, right. I’ll give it a go, anyway.

Today I thought I’d share a sandwich that has been my and my daughter’s lunch several times in the past couple of weeks. It’s the winter version of a BLT. Bacon was practically a food group for me while pregnant, and though my consumption has waned a bit, it’s still top o’ my list-of-favorite-fatty-smoked-meats. In the wise words of John Travolta’s Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction, “Bacon is good.”

So how does a BLT become appropriate for autumn eating? Well, you’ve gotta lose the T — I refuse to adulterate my bacon with a chalky pink store-bought tomato, and our homegrown supply ran dry a month or so ago. And the L — while lettuce is good right now, it being a cold-winter crop and all — I prefer to trade it for something heavier. Something fatty, something rich, something cheese. So, we’ve got the bacon, we’ve got cheese. Both of those things qualify as salty, so let’s add some yen to the yang (or vice versa) — we need something sweet. And what, friends, is sweeter in autumn than a crisp, ripe apple? We have ourselves an ABC sandwich, and delicious it is.

So, do this:

  • Take a nice piece of bread, if you have it (just one piece — this is an open-faced sandwich). I typically use our regular wheat sandwich bread. I pre-toast mine, lightly, to give it an extra crispiness.
  • Cook 2-3 strips of bacon (per sandwich), as you prefer. I microwave mine; it’s not quite as nice as pan-fried, but a lot less messy for middle-of-the-week lunchtime chaos.
  • Thinly slice an apple of your choice. Crispy and sweet are good qualities — I go for a Gala, or most recently the Honeycrisp, which I later heard dis’d by an orchardist (is that a word?) on NPR’s To The Best of Our Knowdedge.
  • Layer the apples first, then the bacon, then slices of sharp cheddar cheese onto your bread. Place under the broiler, or toaster oven, until cheese is melted and a little bubbly.
  • Enjoy.

This makes a great lunch, and a side salad of mixed greens with arugula (hey — it’s cheap right now) never hurts. It would also make a lovely dinner, and pairs fantastically with Butternut Squash Soup (you must try this recipe — yes, it requires a website membership, and yes, I’d write it out here if I were legally allowed) — easily the best recipe for that soup that I’ve found.

Coming soon: Pumpkin Ice Cream!!