Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Nina Roux's Introduction: T'day 2006

I would say my cooking journey started around Thanksgiving 2006. After my wedding the previous July, I had a fully stocked kitchen – dishes and appliances I never imagined in my moved-about-once-a-year-all-through-my-twenties, twenties. I never even had a set of plates. Well, I bought 4 matching plates once at Fishes Eddy, but then promptly broke one. Or a room-mate did. (Isn’t that always the way? Now, thankfully my “room mate” is my “husband” and he only goes into the kitchen to see if there’s something to drink). Three isn’t a set, right? So anyway – for a creative-in-the-kitchen type, I was barely getting by using recycled pickle jars for Tupperware (still do, if they’re cute - or as vases), and using the wok with the ill-fitting lid my grandma gave me 8 years ago to cook EVERYTHING from steamed artichokes to tomato-meat sauce. Always making do - and rarely making anything - out of sheer frustration and a stubborn refusal to buy anything that I might someday get a better version of on a gift registry, meant that despite my greater inclinations, I was a bore in the kitchen.

So there I was, last fall, a married-lady-grown-up-person, post wedding-gift registry with a Kitchen-Aid mixer, a Cuisinart, a beautiful shiny SET of pans (thanks Mom and Dad!), matching silverware, mixing bowls, and an assortment of wooden and OTHER types of spoons, and absolutely NO excuses remaining to not cook on Thanksgiving.

There was one year, my first year in New York, in my Harlem apartment with the crooked floors, when I hosted an orphan Thanksgiving. I bravely offered to cook the main course and host the pot-luck party for friends stranded without family in NYC for the holiday. The sweet potatoes arrived, the stuffing arrived, and the mashed-potatoes arrived. My room-mate made deviled eggs. (She was an adorable, still adorable, vegetarian who ate nothing but junk food meals considered healthy simply because they lacked meat). I ventured to near-by Fairway to get the turkey, and instead brought home a delectable alternative; Pre-cooked maple ham! It was delicious! But when asked “why did you opt to serve ham instead of turkey for Thanksgiving?” my response was something like “it was easier.” What I was really thinking was just a longer version: “I’ve never cooked a turkey, wouldn’t know where to begin, don’t have the utensils or a cookbook or a pan to my name, and don’t they take like, all day to cook? Plus I had to work a shift waiting tables today, and I hope you also enjoy the leftover dishes I carted all the way up here from my SOHO restaurant job for you ingrates.” So ham it was.

In the years following that first T’day away from my family, I was spoiled by my boyfriend-now-husband’s parent’s gracious invitations, and his mom’s Thanksgiving spread (ham AND turkey! Leftovers to take home!) These holidays were much quieter than I was used to, as my husband is an only child. I was accustomed to the cacophony of 3 siblings, 2 nephews, a niece, various uncles, aunts, girlfriends, hanging out downstairs and watching a movie so as to not overwhelm the cooks, "who let Pepper in the kitchen? That dog is always underfoot!”, fights, laughter, tears, doors slamming, cars peeling up and down the gravel driveway, wind-storms blowing a branch through the dining-room window spreading glass all over the table, barbecuing the turkey because there is no power type of Thanksgiving. I ADORE these holidays, and miss them horribly - but haven't found the means to fly to Seattle for Christmas and Thanksgiving over the years, so I've had to settle for once-a-year cacophony. In the end, a peaceful South Orange, New Jersey table for four with formal china was a pleasant alternative. Then my boyfriend-now-husband’s parents moved to Virginia.

The year after they moved (2005), I talked my youngest brother into coming to NYC for the holiday, and we had a charming meal in an intimate bistro in Carol Gardens, Brooklyn. But four months after my wedding, with my well-stocked kitchen, I couldn’t justify another Bohemian Thanksgiving. I invited my brother to NYC again, summoned 3 other orphaned friends to join our table, and asked only that they bring the booze.

I started researching recipes in September. I decided on a Martha Stewart Thanksgiving, with a few variations; I was going to cut a few corners – like, no table decorations, and no soup course, and add a few touches – some family recipes, and vegetable broth instead of chicken broth for my vegetarian guest (my adorable old room mate had graduated from mac and cheese and pizza, and offered to bring green bean casserole, but I insisted on doing everything myself. A control-freak streak I didn’t know I possessed – likely handed down from my German and English generations past – introduced itself to my household. I have since worked with and continue to work with shamans and Exorcists to excise this trait, hoping to eliminate the newly mastered “martyr sigh” from my vocabulary.)

The choicest recipes in hand, I began scheduling my cooking and shopping. I made a weekly calendar, and sorted the dishes and chores by what could be prepared ahead. I estimated preparation time, considered cooking times, planned out re-heating times, and did all the grocery shopping in stages. Not owning a car makes this last chore such a pain. And for some ridiculous reason, Fresh Direct does not yet deliver to my zip-code in Brooklyn.

So here’s about how the week went (I’ve since burned the preparation calendar in a cleansing ritual, so this is a rough estimate based on my memory):

Saturday before T’day: Purchase non-perishable groceries
Emotional State/Surprises: Feeling confident, accomplished, organized. When did Target run out of roasting pans, and why didn’t I buy it last week when I first saw it?

Sunday before T’day: Clean house
Emotional State/Surprises: Feels good to have a clean home! Good thing I found all the extra things I needed, including roasting pan, twine, cheese-cloth, gravy boat, and turkey-baster in one spot! Thanks Bed, Bath and Beyond!

Monday before T’day: (After work) More non-perishable groceries
Emotional State/Surprises: Man, my back hurts from carrying all these groceries. Wait, why didn’t I send my husband to get a few of these on his way home from work? Oh, he doesn’t cook, so he doesn’t know the right things to buy, and it’s just “easier and faster” if I do it myself. Even though I wasn’t able to find everything, I’ll round up the last few items in my neighborhood.

Tuesday before T’day: (After work) Make and freeze pie crusts. Cut loaf of bread into cubes and let dry for stuffing. Make cranberry-pear chutney using fresh cranberries. Iron table cloth/napkins. Ethan arrives from Seattle. Send Ethan and husband to friend’s house to pick up Fresh Direct-delivered organic fresh turkey and brine mix. Clean turkey and put in Brine mixture in fridge. Cube celery and pears for stuffing, roast, peel and chop chestnuts for stuffing.
Emotional State/Surprises: Dishes. Why didn’t I consider how much extra work there would be with washing dishes in between each project? Why don’t more NYC apartments have dishwashers? What am I supposed to brine this huge freaking turkey in? I can’t leave it on the fire escape, can I? I think it’s too warm out. I guess I’ll use a garbage bag – I’ll rinse it out first, then put in all the water and the brine mix, then put the whole heavy mass in the fridge. It wont taste like garbage bag, will it? What am I going to do with all the crusts left over from the bread crumbs? I know, I’ll make pumpkin bread-pudding! I have all the ingredients! It’s not on my schedule, but it’s a fast recipe. Why am I light-headed? Oh my god, it’s 10PM and I haven’t eaten since 10AM. Let’s order some Mexican. Just get me some black bean soup – I’m too tired to eat. My back is killing me, I can only wash dishes by leaning my elbows on the counter at the sink. I’ve changed from my clogs to my slippers and back 3 times, trying to be comfortable. Man this kitchen floor is slippery. Why doesn’t my husband like washing dishes? Well, he cleans the bathroom. Boy, does my back hurt. I hope you brats are enjoying your burritos. I’ll get to my soup as soon as the damned chest-nuts are peeled. My soup is cold; I’ll put it in the microwave. Ah…let me just carry it to the counter to pour into my bowl…AAAAGH!! I’ve spilled boiling hot black-bean soup all over my hands, and in reaction have thrown it’s container into the air! It lands on the floor, splashing BLACK bean soup all over the kitchen! It burns! It burns! Rush to sink in tears, run hands and arms under cold water, crying “I just wanted to eat my soup!” Husband and brother rush to kitchen (for a change) to clean up soup for me. I decide to skip dinner. The pumpkin bread pudding was good though!

Wednesday before T’day: (After half day of work) Make home-made potato rolls. Assemble then bake Apple and Pumpkin pies. Make pecan tarts. Peel potatoes for mashed potatoes. Make Sweet potatoes, prepare for reheating tomorrow. Buy green salad ingredients. Make hummus. Assemble stuffing to prepare for baking.
Emotional State/Surprises: My back hurts. Dishes, dishes, everywhere. My hands are cracked and nearly bleeding they’re so dry from dishes. Thank god I only had to work a half day. The damned rolls are too dense, but taste pretty good – not sure where I went wrong, other than not using the recipe I wanted from Mallow…The pies are pretty, but look very “home-made” – I guess that’s the idea? I ended up NOT using fresh pumpkin for the pie – I’m such a loser. I ended up NOT doing twice-baked sweet potatoes. I’m so lazy. Sweet potato puree it is! Marshmallows will make it look legit. Hummus is my only appetizer, people are going to starve. I’ve already sent my husband to the store 4 times for items I forgot to buy. Hopefully someone will ignore my instructions and will bring some cheeses and bread. Should I go to the store? So tired…so…very...tired.

Thursday/T’Day/Emotional State/Results: Wake up at 9AM to remove turkey from fridge to let stand. Not a lot to do today!! Just have to schedule re-heating and cooking times. Once the turkey is room temp, I have to improvise a bit; since I’m not cooking the stuffing inside the turkey, I guess I should put something else in the cavity. I cut an orange in half, and poke cloves into the peeling, and sprinkle a bunch of cinnamon and nutmeg inside (genius!). Folks are arriving at 4, and hopefully everything is done and ready on time! Should I use the cheese-cloth soaked in white wine turkey recipe, or the maple glaze recipe? In the end, I forgo the cheesecloth, thinking the white wine might taste wonky with the cloves and cinnamon. Today is mostly about setting the timer to remind me to check/baste the turkey. Cook and mash the potatoes; sour cream or garlic?
The turkey thermometer popped up. The turkey is done at 3:15!? Gasp! Can I let it “sit” for longer than a half hour? Everything is re-heated. The salad is assembled. SALAD DRESSING!? Throw some olive oil, balsamic, salt and pepper on and toss. My guests are seated at the table and I try to force them to eat their salads while I struggle through the gravy. EASY AS GRAVY MY ASS! I have no idea how it tastes. I sit down and realize:

Everything looks beautiful.
Everything came out on time.
The table looks beautiful.
I’ve out-done myself.
Everything tastes exactly how it should, and is amazing and flavorful.
I did this all myself.
I’m never, ever, ever, doing this again.

Mainly, I tried to understand how people do this every year, and mostly, why do they do this every year? I get that it tastes good, and you want to please the people you love. But I nearly broke my back and I still don’t know how I got away with just one melt-down (the black-bean soup debacle). I realize I didn’t cut any corners – didn’t have guests bring dishes, made my own rolls, didn’t use pre-cubed bread, made my own pie crusts…also, I didn’t have a dish-washer. I also imagine some people have hired-help. Also, I don’t think every person doing this has a full time job!!! Isn’t the point of Thanksgiving to come together and share a meal? And shouldn’t that include the cook? And why does it seem to be in my genetic make-up to NOT ask for help? As wonderful as everything tasted, next year I’m making dinner reservations at that charming, intimate bistro in our neighborhood, and tipping our server generously.

What I ultimately learned from Thanksgiving 2006, is that I do enjoy cooking. I can follow a recipe and can even improvise here and there. I tend to have creative solutions and alternatives at the ready in my mind. I just didn’t enjoy it as much as I could have, because I was so tired and cranky from over-extending myself. I enjoyed planning the meal and researching the recipes. I tend to enjoy this even on weeknights when I have the energy to make dinner. So with the encouragement of my best-friend-since-Jr. High, Mallow (far my superior in the kitchen), I’ve decided to challenge myself, and to share my kitchen foibles, fiascos, I Love Lucy moments, and the occasional success stories and happy mistakes with others. And the best news? My Christmas present from my in-laws: a beautiful, efficient, shiny portable dishwasher.

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