Mouths to Feed: Real, But Not Simple

By Celia Barbour

I worry sometimes that I took part in a great conspiracy. For many years, I helped create magazine stories that offered up “easy,” “stress-free,” “simple” Thanksgiving menus to hapless readers.

I tried blowing the whistle. Honest. In staff meetings, I’d remark that preparing a 10-dish meal seldom actually qualifies as what most people think of as “simple.” I’d draw my colleagues’ attention to the fact that turkey alone takes three recipes, minimum (for the bird, the stuffing, and the gravy). And then there are side dishes (at least two), cranberry sauce, appetizers, and dessert. Most of the time we’d throw in a cocktail recipe, too, because Lord knows you’d need one.

I pointed out that describing such a menu as “stress-free” might in fact have the reverse effect, ratcheting up the pressure on readers by implying that there was something wrong with them if they broke a sweat while trying to get the Brussels sprouts to caramelize and prevent the gougères from burning at the same time.

I even went so far as to suggest that we come right out and admit that preparing our latest version of the feast would be “challenging but fun!” or “stressful but super-satisfying!” My colleagues would smile at me as if I were a babbling and possibly dangerous alien who should be placated but by no means accommodated, then move on.

No matter. The truth is, we all develop our own strategies for managing the holiday workload. Most people I know go potluck, asking guests to bring the desserts or the appetizers, or even outsourcing everything but the turkey-stuffing-gravy trifecta. My own method involves many hours of cooking (because not only do I love the hands-on work, I also kind of like the stress of orchestrating a complex meal), plus lots of paper and painter’s tape. I write out my complete menu on one sheet of paper, and tape that to the wall beside the stove.

Next to that, I tack up a schedule of what needs to happen when — from chopping the celery and onions for the stuffing to gelling the cranberry sauce to whipping the cream for the pies. And then I photocopy every single recipe (except the ones I know by heart) — because it’s chaotic to have three open cookbooks lying around the kitchen at once, and frustrating to try to read through last year’s spilled gravy. The recipes get taped to the wall, too. The only page that doesn’t wind up on the wall is my shopping list, which goes into my handbag.

One other sanity-preserving strategy I’ve adopted over the years is soup. I first made it some years back as a way to shoehorn a favorite new recipe into my holiday menu, but I realized right away how valuable an ally it is. Soup can be made a week (or more) ahead and frozen.

I reheat it on the stove an hour before mealtime, then ladle it into little coffee cups the moment my guests arrive. It gives them something warm, portable, and not-too-filling to sip on while they sit around the living room or wander into the kitchen with offers to help me with the last-minute scramble, because of course everything is not ready at the appointed hour; it never is.

Soup calms people, and that, in turn, calms me, buying me a little more time to whisk the gravy, find the carving knife, and choreograph nine dishes onto the table. It gives me time, too, to take a deep breath and untie my apron before inviting everyone to come gather for a feast that could very well, to the untrained eye, appear nearly stress-free.

Winter squash, fennel and hard cider soup

If you use sweet (non-alcoholic) cider in this soup, you may need to add a squeeze or two of lemon juice right at the end to balance the flavor.

2 pounds kombucha or butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cut into ½-inch wedges

2 fennel bulbs, trimmed, cored, and cut into ½-inch wedges

¼ cup olive oil

salt and pepper, to taste

2 medium leeks, sliced

1 inch fresh ginger root, peeled and minced (about 2 tablespoons)

4 cloves garlic, minced

5 fresh sage leaves, minced

1 cup hard cider (dry), or apple cider (see note above)

5-6 cups chicken or vegetable stock

spiced pumpkin seeds, for serving (recipe follows)

crème fraiche for serving (optional)

  1. Place a rimmed baking sheet in the oven and preheat it to 425 degrees. Place the sliced squash and fennel in a large bowl, add 3 tablespoons of the olive oil,  sprinkle with salt and pepper, and toss to coat. When the oven is hot, carefully remove the baking sheet and spread the vegetables on it (they will sizzle). Return to the oven and roast 35-40 minutes, or until partially caramelized, flipping the vegetables over halfway.
  2. Meanwhile, in a soup pot, heat the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium. Add the leeks and a pinch of salt, and allow to soften about 2 minutes. Add the minced ginger, garlic, and sage and cook until soft, 7 minutes. Add a generous splash of the hard cider, let it bubble a minute, then reduce the heat to keep warm.
  3. When the squash and fennel are done, scrape them into the pot with the leek mixture. Add the stock, bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer until the vegetables are falling apart, about 30 minutes.
  4. Puree the soup with an immersion blender, or in batches in a blender. Strain through a sieve, if desired (this step improves both the flavor and the texture, nicer for a special occasion). Keep warm until ready to serve, or freeze up to 2 months. Just before serving, add the remaining hard cider. Serve topped with the pumpkin seeds and a dollop of crème fraiche.

 Spiced pumpkin seeds

Inspired by a recipe from Suzanne Goin’s Sunday Suppers at Lucques, these push the soup into another dimension (and are addictive on their own).

1 tablespoon butter

¾ cup pepitos (raw pumpkin seeds)

1 tablespoon sugar

¼ teaspoon ground ginger

generous pinch each of cloves, cinnamon, paprika, and cayenne

¼ teaspoon salt

drizzle of honey

  1. In a small skillet over medium, melt the butter. Add the pumpkin seeds and sugar, and toss to coat. Add the spices and salt and cook, stirring, until the seeds puff up, pop, and begin to color. Turn off the heat, let the seeds sit for 1 minute, then drizzle on the honey.
  2. Spread the seeds on a plate to cool.

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