Thanksgiving 2007: Martha Stewart, Move Over!

I’m leaving for India Wednesday, so we had to have our traditional Thanksgiving dinner early. The first step, which started two days in advance, was to roast and peel the chestnuts for the stuffing – unlike Martha Stewart, I cannot buy them pre-cooked and frozen or canned.

Above you see them ready to go into the oven (I had two oven pans, both almost full), with an x scored across the flat side of each with a knife, as per instructions in the Silver Palate cookbook. They didn’t all have an identifiable flat side, and I was scared of slipping with that sharp little knife and cutting my fingers.

This is how they looked partway through the roasting; it took over an hour to get the last ones done enough to peel relatively easily. Per Italian tradition I should have roasted them over an open flame in a pan with holes in the bottom (which would have been faster), but I don’t own one of those pans. Hmm. Something to get for next year.

Peeling them all took hours. Depending on degree of doneness and other mysterious factors, any given chestnut can be more or less difficult to coax out of its woody outer shell and then the papery inner one. Like walnuts, they have wrinkles and crevices from which any woody bits must be removed so that guests don’t break their teeth – you don’t always get a perfect whole chestnut as shown above.

I no longer have an oven large enough to roast a whole turkey, so in the last few years I’ve had to find another solution. An American recipe for herb-roasted turkey breast expects me to have a turkey breast with the skin still on, something you don’t find in Italy. You can order a whole turkey breast from the butcher, but it arrives skinless.

My solution was to replace the skin with thin-sliced pancetta (Italian bacon). Instead of working the herb mixture under the skin, I just slather it onto the turkey, then lay on the pancetta slices to completely cover the surface. This retains moisture in the meat, adds lots of flavor, and becomes a nice, crispy addition to the dish.

Italian poultry takes longer to cook than the estimates given in American cookbooks. The Joy of Cooking says 10-12 minutes per pound for turkey. By this calculation, this 3.8 kg (8.4 lb) turkey breast should have cooked in less than two hours. But I knew from previous experience that this was not going to happen. The turkey was perfect at three hours – cooked through, but still moist. (I used a meat thermometer, let it reach the “poultry” marking and stay there 10-15 minutes.)

I had so many chestnuts this year that I saved some whole ones out from the stuffing and put them in the roasting pan with the turkey, adding more at the end when the turkey had shrunk and there was more room. They soaked up the gravy deliciously.

Italians don’t make the flour-thickened gravy traditional in America – it’s a lot easier to just use the pan juices as-is (had I thought about it, I should have tried adding Calvados and simmering as the recipe called for – but then there wouldn’t have been enough to go around). I simply poured the juices and chestnuts into a bowl, and people spooned it onto their slices of meat.

The above photo is by Duke, a young fashion photographer trying to make a career in a tough city (Milan). I figure, if I’m going to have my picture taken at all, I should leave it to the most competent person in the room. (He also plays a mean blues guitar.)

I was too busy cooking, serving, eating, and talking to take any pictures of the actual guests – there were about 35 people present, and during the first part of the evening we managed to get them into the taverna (instead of clustering in the dining room and kitchen as people tend to do) by putting all the wine and antipasti down there!

I wasn’t the only cook. Ivo brought his justly-famous cheeseball, plus veggies and dip. Darlene’s American/Asian style cabbage salad was a great accompaniment to the main course. There were many great desserts: Maryellen’s pumpkin pie, Fabrizio and Irene’s ricotta torte, Marianna and Zeno’s apple cake, plus various yummy store-bought sweets. Andrea and Nives also brought us some authentic Genovese pesto which we will have to eat before I leave.

And somehow we always end up with more wine than we started with at these things: I didn’t even buy any, and we have 6-8 bottles left over! We finished off the Franciacorta that San Lorenzo had donated to Web Women Weekend, and I liked very much the 2007 Novello “Falò” that Andrea and Nives brought.

It was our usual mixed crowd: mathematicians, IT geeks/bloggers, neighbors, and various other friends. I was happy they all came and enjoyed themselves and the company, though I didn’t get as much time to talk to most as I would have liked. That’s what happens when you’re the hostess. But it was worth it. Happy Thanksgiving!

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