Delicious ways to deal with holiday trouble spots

November 16, 2005|By ROB KASPER

Among the knife-and-fork-carrying masses, there is little doubt that Thanksgiving is the best holiday of the year. It is the right length of time to spend with relatives, three to four days at the most. It is devoted to eating and drinking, not buying presents. And it is a full-employment occasion, meaning there is enough work to keep everybody feeling needed.

Yet even this glorious feast can have its trouble spots. The issue, for example, of how you treat your turkey - whether you brine it, barbecue it, deep-fry it or roast it - has become laden with significance.

I could imagine its becoming a family's culinary coat of arms. You could boast, "We're roasters and proud of it." Other tribes might proclaim, "We Be Briners." Still others could posit: "If your turkey isn't fryin', your family will be cryin'."

Here, I give the turkey-treatment issue wide berth, except to say that if you have a hankering for a fried bird, but don't want to boil the oil yourself, you might want to give Willie Pearson a jingle.

He has been cooking Willie P's Deep Fried Turkeys from the code-approved commercial kitchen set up in his West Baltimore home for the last seven years. As usual, he is already booked for Thanksgiving Day.

But he told me last week that if customers called him right away, he might be able to fry a bird for them a day or two before the big day. (He charges $3 a pound. The phone number is 410-542-7910. He fries year-round, so if you miss him at Thanksgiving, there is always Christmas.)

I am, however, brave enough to address a couple of other perennial Thanksgiving trouble spots. Those would be picking a side dish that goes well with turkey, making a cranberry sauce that has a little jiggle yet still tastes terrific and whipping those terrifying, but ever-present, brussels sprouts into something palatable.

We will start with the brussels sprouts, those little orbs that look like green golf balls and can taste like penance. Why people eat them steamed, I don't know. Perhaps they do it to atone for the sins of their past lives. Nonetheless, brussels sprouts, like traffic backups at the Harbor Tunnel, are a persistent part of the Thanksgiving landscape.

For years, I tolerated sprouts at the Thanksgiving table by trying to put a napkin over the serving bowl so I wouldn't have to look at them. But a few years ago, I found a way to make them bearable. I shred them like coleslaw, then cook them in bacon and butter. There is little on earth that doesn't taste good in the presence of bacon and butter, even green golf balls.

The cranberry front usually presents a struggle between tradition, the can of cranberry jelly and the notion that cranberries should taste better than sugared paste.

Several years back, I found a happy cranberry compromise with a recipe from Indian actress and cookbook author Madhur Jaffrey. It takes the can of cranberry jelly, melts it and adds, among other ingredients, garlic and ginger. The result is a cranberry sauce with a jiggle in its past and zing in its flavor.

Finally, there is always a need at Thanksgiving for a moist side dish that gets along with turkey, without getting fruity about it. That dish is a casserole made with hominy, corn, sour cream, Monterey Jack cheese and peppers. This is a Southwestern dish - I think my sister in law clipped it from a Tucson newspaper two decades ago - that is creamy, moist and, depending on the zip quotient of the Monterey Jack and peppers, can pack a surprising tang.

There is also a corn component, which is a bow to Squanto, a member of the Patuxet tribe who back in the 1620s taught the Pilgrims how to raise corn. That is why years later, we can enjoy Thanksgiving with peace and hominy.

Garlic-Cranberry Chutney

Makes 2 cups (32 servings)

1-inch cube of ginger, peeled

3 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped

1/2 cup cider or white vinegar

4 tablespoons sugar

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 can of jellied cranberry sauce

1/2 teaspoon salt

black pepper to taste

Cut ginger into very thin slivers. Combine ginger, garlic, vinegar, sugar and cayenne in a small pot. Simmer on medium for about 15 minutes, until there are about 4 tablespoons of liquid left (excluding solids). Add cranberry sauce, salt and pepper. Mix and bring to simmer. Lumpy is fine. Simmer on low 10 minutes. Cool, put in jar, refrigerate and serve with turkey.

Per serving: 27 calories; 0 grams protein; 0 grams fat; 0 grams saturated fat; 7 grams carbohydrate; 0 grams fiber; 0 milligrams cholesterol; 39 milligrams sodium

From Madhur Jaffrey's cookbook "East/West Menus for Family and Friends" (Harper & Row, 1987)

Wilted Sprouts

Serves 8

1 1/2 pounds brussels sprouts

6 slices bacon, cut into 1/2 -inch pieces

1 large onion, finely chopped

3 tablespoons butter (divided use)

1 1/2 cups water

1/2 teaspoon salt

Rinse sprouts in a colander and drain. Cut each sprout in half. Place half the sprouts in a food processor and pulse until they resemble homemade slaw; place in a bowl. Repeat with remaining sprouts.

Cook the bacon in a large, heavy saucepan over medium heat until lightly browned. Spoon all but a light coating of fat from the pan. Stir the onion and 1 tablespoon of butter into the bacon and drippings.

Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently until onion is softened. Add the sprouts, stir to coat well, then add water, cover and cook over low heat for 5 minutes.

Uncover and raise heat to medium, cooking until sprouts are tender and crisp, adding a few drops of water if necessary to keep the mixture moist. Stir in the remaining butter, add salt and serve.

Per serving: 104 calories; 4 grams protein; 7 grams fat; 3 grams saturated fat; 8 grams carbohydrate; 3 grams fiber; 17 milligrams cholesterol; 305 milligrams sodium

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