On A Different Thanksgiving Dinner, Or, The Cranberry And Sweet Potato Reconsidered
The American Thanksgiving Day holiday rapidly approaches, and in homes across this land we will be treated to the sights and smells of the holiday feast.
In millions of homes we will also celebrate with sound.
What sound is that, you ask?
Why, of course, the slurping sound of cranberry sauce sliding out of the can in all its quivering, cylindrical glory.
For some, this is the sound of happiness, but for others it’s a sound to be tolerated at best-and we come before you today to offer easy and fun alternatives…not just for your cranberry consideration, but also for those most humble-and most delicious-of tubers: yams and sweet potatoes.
So who hasn’t passed those bags of whole cranberries and thought “what do they do with those?”
To find out, you’ll need to grab a bag or two of berries (a small bag is good for 2-6 people…but if someone really likes the cranberry sauce, grab an extra bag), sugar (plain old white is okay, Demerara or raw sugar is better, cane juice works great as well, but the darkest sugars might be avoided…and you’ll need an amount more or less equal to the amount of berries), orange juice (only a few ounces, so you may already have it in the house), a bit of red wine (cabernet and merlot and shiraz are fine, port is better…and we’ll have lots left over to drink), and a bit of ginger root.
(If you can find “young ginger”, all the better; but any ginger root will do in a pinch. Grab a medium root. Powdered ginger? Not so much. Candied ginger? An intriguing possibility that I’ve never tried…but one that could be quite good.)
Now let’s talk preparation: the hardest part of this recipe is prepping the ginger…and that’s quite easy. All we have to do is dice it into tiny pieces. First, cut off a “bulb” of the root. Now take a thin-bladed knife and peel off the “skin”, exposing the yummy interior. Trim the excess off to create a “cubish rectangle” shape.
Now here’s the cool part: Make several parallel cuts almost, but not completely through, the ginger. Now roll it over clockwise (or counter…I’m easy) 90 degrees, and repeat the process of slicing the ginger. When you’re through, you should be holding on to one piece of ginger with many parallel slices and one end which is unsliced.
Now all we have to do is hold onto the unsliced end while cutting across the slices we’ve made (cross-cutting, if you will)…and we’ll have tiny little cubes of ginger (hint: this also works great for anything else you need to dice…especially onions). If this does not work out perfectly…who cares? This is supposed to be fun, and if you choose to chop your ginger into minute slivers with a chain saw it will eventually work out OK, so no worries.
(Helpful hint: If any of this is stressful…we have wine…and this recipe will require only about a glass or so. Need I say more?)
The last step in prep is to wash the berries.
The entire preparation process now complete, let’s make cranberry sauce:
Grab a saucepan, and apply more or less medium high heat, When the pan has heated, toss in a splash of oil and the ginger, and allow it to sauté just a bit. Do not allow the ginger to change color to brown or it will become bitter.
As soon as the ginger begins to change to a less raw look toss in those berries and darn near all the sugar. This is not an exact science, so we are holding back a bit of the sugar for now. If it turns out the sauce is not sweet enough we can add a bit later as we taste. Add a bit of orange juice now as well. More or less 3 ounces (or 90 ml for my world readers) per pound (500g) should do nicely…but a little more can’t hurt.
You’ll begin to notice the berries “breaking down” and becoming “saucelike” over the next few minutes-and if you trust them around the stove, keeping the sauce well stirred is a great job for the child cooks in the family who want to help. It is mildly hazardous (risk of burn), however, and you want to be careful that no one’s going to dump the sauce on themselves, or use a finger for tasting, as it will be quite hot. (The correct first aid: cool the affected area rapidly…and dipping that finger in a bowl of ice water is quite effective.)
The entire cooking process takes about 30-45 minutes (did you have one glass of wine or two…that usually makes the difference), and as you taste, add the wine (more or less the same amount as the orange juice you added earlier) and a bit more sugar if you wish.
The sauce can be served cold or warm (make it a day ahead to save work on the big day), and it will thicken up as it cools.
Now let’s talk about my friend the tuber.
We have two choices for your consideration today: a variation of the traditional mashed and covered with marshmallows sweet potatoes (mmmmm!), and a more avant-garde interpretation that still ties to times past.
(Helpful hint: the alternative version is sautéed on the stove, and if oven space is at a premium-what with the large meats and pies and bread and all-this could be a huge advantage compared to the traditional method.)
Sweet potatoes, yams, either one is gonna be fine for this-I‘m using Red Garnet yams, but there’s no need to be all high-faloutin’ about the thing. Pretty much any extra-sugary root will do-except beets, of course. (If you can roughly “match” the potatoes, they will all bake at about the same time.)
For the traditional preparation you’ll need exactly what you expect in addition to the sweet potatoes: those tiny marshmallows. But here’s where we flip it up…grab a bag of shredded coconut, and a bottle of ginger ale.
For the avant-garde version, we’ll need a bag of frozen corn, some onions (more or less an onion for every three of four potatoes. I use sweet onions like a Vidalia or Walla Walla for this…but red Italian or Maui Sweets offer potential I’ve not yet investigated), a bunch of green onions, and raw pumpkin seeds.
If you really love the cranberries dried cranberries are a great addition to this recipe as well.
Bake and peel the chosen produce, and if you’re going with the avant-garde recipe, dice (1” dice is about right…any smaller and you may end up with mashed potatoes) the potatoes and chill them in advance.
We’re also going to roast off the pumpkin seeds now: rub a sheet pan with oil (any common oil will do except extra virgin olive oil), lay out the seeds (one thin layer only!), and sort of rub them around so that they are lightly coated with the oil. Sprinkle the seeds with a bit of paprika and salt (fine grain sea salt is best, the big rough stuff…not so much. Table salt is okay, too). This is another great “kid job”; but ensure they don’t overdo on the oil.
Toss the pan in a 275 degree (135 Celsius) oven, and be patient…and give the seeds a stirring around every so often. You’ll see them start to brown up nicely in more or less 45 minutes, and they can also be held overnight. They won’t need refrigeration.
(I used to do this at 350 degrees (175 Celsius), but I got tired of burning seeds…the lower temperature takes longer, but the results are great.)
So now it’s the next day, and all you have to do is sauté the whole thing together: the diced potato, your freshly diced sweet onion, the pumpkin seed, the corn, the cranberries…let it all work for a few minutes, lay it out on a platter, and top with the green onion. There’s great color in the dish, the mix of textures in the potato and seeds and corn is interesting, and it does not have to be done in the oven.
All good stuff. (And remember, the key to good sauté is to start with a hot pan, and don’t overcrowd the food. The idea is to brown, not to steam…and that’s the outcome in an overcrowded pan. Better to sauté twice with small batches than to “steam” once.)
Sweet potato traditionalists…now it’s your turn.
Spread the coconut out on a dry sheet pan (it can be in a thick layer…we’ll be stirring, and coconut is more cooperative than pumpkin seeds in this regard) and bake the pan at 275 degrees (135 Celsius). This takes about 45 minutes to an hour (or more, if there’s lots of coconut), and requires the occasional stirring of the pan’s contents.
You’ll see the color change…when it’s nicely golden, pull out the pan and hold the coconut overnight. It won’t need refrigeration…and it’s dandy to munch on, so make a bit extra for yourself. It can get stale, so keep it in a covered jar or your favorite Tupperware-ish container. (Another handy hint: it’s also great on salads and vegetables and curries, and you might find yourself making little jars of toasted coconut all year long, and using it almost like a spice.)
Bake and peel (yes, I said peel. Leave the peels in the mashed potatoes.), and, while they’re still hot, mash the sweet potatoes. Anyone who’s ever mashed a potato knows a liquid is helpful at this point in the process-and that’s where the ginger ale comes in. (A side note: there are a lot of recipes that add brown sugar or butter at this point in the process. I don’t, but adding more flavors can’t hurt, and Thanksgiving is already the unofficial Cardiac Day, so if you’re inclined, bring on the butter, I suppose.)
Add enough of everything to bring the mixture to the consistency you’re looking for, stir in the coconut, and load the baking dish.
This is another one of those jobs that can be done the day before, and the infusion of ginger and coconut flavors (as with so many foods) is more noticeable the next day.
Everyone knows what happens next: kids steal half the marshmallows, the other half get put on the sweet potatoes, and parents have to fight later to get the same kids to eat the potatoes under the marshmallows at the dinner table.
And hopefully, great fun is had by all.
So that’s our holiday story: we offer some new ways of looking at old foods, and we do it in a way that leaves an extra glass of wine available to the cook.
As for my family…this will be the first Thanksgiving since our godson left for Kuwait, and I expect that to be a major part of our next conversation.
And as for all of you…enjoy your holiday (or try on an American habit for the first time…), and we’ll see you back here in a few days.