Hello November – Time for Thanksgiving!

Wow,  this year has just flown by. I can’t believe it’s November already. Time to start thinking toward the holidays! This year, I’m ready for colder weather and the fun and excitement of the holiday season. Summer and fall were nice, but I’m getting into a winter mood. And yes, I’ll likely regret saying that in the middle of January every time I have to go outdoors. But right now, I’ll embrace it.

First up, Thanksgiving. Of course we’ll be hosting it again this year. Unlike in year’s past where I’ve done something “unusual” for our main course (remember last year’s wood smoked pheasant?) this year we’re going with a straight traditional dinner. While I’d love to do the pheasant again since it was so amazing, we’re going to have a bit of bigger crowd this year, so that prices us out of it. Since the baby is here, it seems we’re the popular Thanksgiving spot! So we’re looking at seven of us for sure, and possibly ten. With that in mind, a twenty pound turkey is what we’ll be having for our centerpiece. To go with it, I’m going to make mashed potatoes, turkey gravy, bread stuffing, a few stuffed sweet potatoes (found those on Pinterest – ingenious if you only have a few people that like them) and some kind of green vegetable. Not sure on that one yet – maybe sauteed kale with garlic and bacon, or wine braised Swiss chard. Or steamed broccoli. While I love brussels sprouts, it seems I’m really the only one. They weren’t exactly flying out of the bowl the last time I served them. And this year, I’d like to bake up some kind of home made roll. I confess I usually just put packaged croissants out… but I’ve been working with bread a lot more this year, so home made rolls should show up on the table. I’m also going to be baking my own bread for the stuffing – I’m going to do a mix of white bread and rye the weekend before, and let them go stale naturally. Mixed in with a well caramelized mirepoix, plenty of chicken stock and fresh herbs, it should be amazing. And for dessert, I’m making pie of course. Pumpkin, chocolate icebox, and maybe even a shoofly.

For my table, I’m keeping it simple again this year. We’ll have to rearrange the house a little bit to accommodate the crowd. We currently have our sofa in the middle of the room, acting a divider between our living room and dining room space. We’ll have to move it against the interior wall so that we can have the table down the center of the room. We’ll also have to add a long folding table to our dining table, which only seats four. With that small adjustment, we’ll have plenty of space. And I may have to borrow a large tablecloth from my mother in law though, since mine only fit our dining table. For the table, this year year I’m going with a dozen or two fresh gourds if I can find them at a good price. And I’ll use my regular Blue Willow place settings, as well as short tumblers for the wine. I really like tumblers instead of stemmed wine glasses at “formal” dinners – it just makes everything seem more warm and friendly – there are no worries about knocking over your glass or pretensions of wine snobbery. I also plan to turn our chest freezer into a buffet sideboard by throwing a tablecloth over it and added a centerpiece. I’ll be glad to have the extra space this year.

So, I’ve got to make a shopping list and write out this year’s prep schedule. I can do a lot of it the day before since I’m not working, which will be great. And start watching the sales to stock up on ingredients!

Apple-Smoked Pheasant

Our Thanksgiving pheasant was so delicious, I just can’t keep the recipe to myself. We did ours in a Weber kettle grill outside, so that’s the method I’ll explain here. Though I would like to try it indoors on the stovetop with the large model Cameron, as soon as I’m lucky enough to obtain one. Just think, having two indoor smokers going at the same time – main dish and a side dish both imbued with wonderful smoky flavor! But I digress – back to the pheasant.

First, you want to make sure your pheasant is ready for smoking. The night before you want to smoke your pheasant, remove it from the packaging and put it onto a rimmed baking pan. You’ll keep it in the fridge overnight, uncovered – this helps the skin get really crisp when you smoke it. If it comes with giblets, put those back in the fridge as well if you intend to make a gravy or stock.

It will take anywhere from two-and-half to three hours to smoke a three-pound pheasant. You’ll want to build a two-zone fire in your kettle grill (which means all the coals piled onto one side of the grill) using a full chimney starter worth of charcoal. We have a medium-sized chimney starter. It usually takes 30-40 minutes for our charcoal to be ready in our chimney starter, so make sure you get that going 30-40 minutes ahead of when you want to get the bird in.

After you get the charcoal started in the chimney starter, take the pheasant out of the fridge and let it come closer to room temperature. Season the bird well with salt and pepper.

For the apple smoke, we prefer to use apple smoke cans made by Cameron. They’re easy to use, require no soaking of wood, and are fairly affordable. You’ll want two for three hours of smoking – in our experience, they last for about an hour and a half each. If you don’t have the cans (or have run out of them like we foolishly did), you can make up foil packets with wood flakes that are intended for the stovetop smokers. I took an entire pint of apple wood and divided it between three foil packets, that we replaced at intervals during the smoking process. Either way, place your can or packet directly onto the coals and put the lid on, making sure the top vent is placed opposite the coals, over where the bird will sit. The vents should be halfway open, which will encourage the smoke to flow up and over the bird.

Let the wood get to smoking for a few minutes, and then place your pheasant on the empty side of the grate – do not place it directly over the coals. Then just let it go – the less you take the cover off to check it, the better it will be. You don’t want all that good smoke to escape. We only checked ours three times over three hours, to replenish our foil packets.

You want the internal temperature of the pheasant to come up to 170 degrees. Start temping it during the last half hour of smoking. If it’s only about 150 degrees, you’ll likely want to finish it in the oven, which is what we did. It was pretty cold out Thanksgiving day and our smoke was running out, so we didn’t have a choice. We finished it in a 350 degree oven for about a half hour. Just make sure you tent it with foil when it goes into the oven so that the drumsticks don’t overcook and dry out  and the top doesn’t get too brown.

When it reaches the correct temperature, take it off the grill or out of the oven and let it rest for 15 minutes before carving.

When treating pheasant this way, you’ll be amazed by the flavor. The bird is slightly gamey and imbued with apple flavor, and the meat is silky and moist. The skin takes on a burnished, rich chestnut color and will be a stunning centerpiece on the table. Our three-pound bird cost about $30 and served three people two helpings at dinner, plus three meals with leftover meat besides – a dinner with just reheated meat, a pasta dish and a soup. And if you’re smarter than I am and save the bones and giblets (I hate to admit it, but they got thrown out!) you’ll have a fourth use by making a rich stock. For larger crowds, you should figure one pheasant for every four people. For special dinners every now and again, it’s more than worth the price!

Pheasant Success!

Ah, Thanksgiving. I woke up early and baked my trio of breads right away – applesauce spice with apricot glaze, pumpkin and cranberry. The oven was on literally all day. Then I cracked fresh chestnuts for my chestnut bread stuffing, sauteed the mirepoix for it and got that pan into the oven.

While the oven was working full steam ahead, I had the husband fire up the Weber for this showpiece – the pheasant. We narrowly averted a wood chip disaster when we realized were out of the apple-chip cans. But I was able to throw together a packet with the apple shavings I normally use in the stove top smoker by putting an entire pint of them into a tin foil packet. Despite previous problems with this method, it actually worked this time, to our great relief.

While the pheasant was smoking out back, I made up a whole stockpot full of mashed potatoes (I love mashed potatoes), home made cranberry sauce and steamed broccoli. I also put together a few a few appetizer platters – proscuitto and smoked salmon with dilled mustard and a veggies – marinated mushrooms, gerkins, pickled asparagus, soy mozzarella and triscuits (for some reason, we have a box in the panty). After all that, I slid the ham into the oven and set the table.

I had a linen tablecloth down with two glittered pumpkins and a beeswax taper in a silver candleholder for the centerpiece. We used my blue willow dishware, as always. It was simple, yet nice. Jeremy’s grandpa came over for dinner and we all had a great time talking – we love hearing stories of the family and his life.

And when we sat down to dinner, the pheasant. Oh, the pheasant! The color was the deepest chestnut brown, with a crispy skin, and the meat was tender – even silky and very moist. It was gamey, but not too much so, and was redolent with apple flavor. It’s the best poultry I’ve ever eaten. I’m not sure I can go back to turkey after pheasant.

Oh, and you want to know the secret to extra pumpkiny pumpkin bread that will make you happy forever? Cook down a can of pumpkin until it’s reduced by half before adding it to your batter/dough. Concentrate the flavor. I’ll have the miracle pumpkin bread recipe itself posted soon so you can try it out.

So all in all, Thanksgiving was a great success. And we’ve got a nice pile of leftovers, so the cooking fun continues with creative leftover recipes. Happy Holidays everyone!

The Great Pheasant Debate

Pheasant is destined to grace the table this Thanksgiving, but for something so special, how should I present it? Plain, roasted with a little butter? Or something fancier, with an exciting combination of flavors – citrus and sage, juniper and cracked black pepper, with a sauce?

Whom else to consult but the revered L.L. Bean Game & Fish Cookbook by Angus Cameron and Judith Jones? There are a whopping eighteen pheasant recipes included in the book, plus one for making stock from game birds in general. With that many to choose from, how could I pick the one? Since I’ve decided that I’d like to present the bird whole since it’s the star of the show, half of the recipes are automatically eliminated because they call for the bird to be cut into pieces. Sadly, this elimination includes Pheasant Coq au Vin, which would likely taste amazing. That one will have to wait for another time and place.

Narrowing down the contenders is tricky because they all sound so delicious. The simplest preparation is the Roast Pheasant with Herbs Under the Skin – basil, tarragon, parsley, shallots and even mushrooms are pureed with a little brandy which is then layered under the skin before roasting. Pheasant Flamed with Apples sounds good though too – the pheasant is surrounded by gooseberry-filled apple toasts and the whole thing is flambéed in Calvados.

There are also several recipes for stuffed pheasant – sorrel, wild rice and mushrooms, Gruyere and noodles, and liver and mushroom. Braised Pheasant Marsala sounds pretty good, including mushrooms, Marsala wine and juniper berries in the dish. And then there’s Pheasant Cock-a-Leekie, a recipe chock full of aromatics – leeks, parsley, and bay.

And aside from the wonders in the L.L. Bean Game & Fish Cookbook, using the grill has been on my mind lately as well. Last weekend we made hickory smoked chicken on the grill and the honey-brown color of the crispy skin was stunning, not to mention the delicious flavor of hickory permeating the meat. Why not pheasant? And maybe I can riff off of the Pheasant Flamed with Apples – maybe we’ll hickory smoke the bird, stuffed with calvados-soaked diced apples, caramelized red onions and thyme…

So many choices – how will I ever decide? Stay tuned for the final decision!

Start With the Bird

Thanksgiving will be a small affair this year – just myself, my husband and my husband’s grandfather. With a trio to feed, I can really focus on quality over quantity and that opens up a world of exciting possibilities for dinner, dessert and drinks. We’re not wedded to turkey at our house, so the first question in planning dinner is – will we have a bird?

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve been wanting to do pheasant for Thanksgiving and now the cost doesn’t seem so daunting – one bird will certainly feed the three of us quite well. I’m going to roast it, but I’m not sure yet if I’ll roast it plain or flavor it in some way. I’ll have to page through my cookbooks and check out my favorite blogs to see what the options are. I’m also going to do a small ham, because I just love all things pork and I think it’s important to serve at least two meat dishes for holiday feasts. I’ll likely do a simple honey glaze and stud it with whole cloves for flavor.

For side dishes, I’ll do mashed potatoes with truffle oil, a simple herbed spaetzle, and chestnut bread stuffing. The bread stuffing will be a mix of light and dark rye bread – you just can’t beat the wonderful flavor. I also like to have something green on the table, so I might do a quick sautéed rainbow chard, as my husband has discovered this autumn that he likes chard quite a lot. It’s colorful and a nice change from kale or broccoli. And of course I’ll have a bowl of home made cranberry jelly on the table as well.

I’ll make up a small appetizer plate of smoked salmon, mixed olives, and cornichons to munch on during pre-dinner socializing. I might also do up a dozen or so shrimp for grilled shrimp cocktail with a home made horseradish cocktail sauce. Why not be a little indulgent?

For beverages, I’ll have a small bottle of my apple spice snaps for the dinner toast as well as a bottle of Longview Pinot Noir (my favorite winery in Michigan) that we’ve been saving for a special occasion. I think it will pair nicely with the roasted pheasant and honey-clove ham.

And of course, you can’t forget about dessert. I’m going to do a trio of breads – pumpkin, applesauce spice and probably gingerbread. I’m going to make them in mini loaf pans and send Grandpa home with some for the freezer.

For décor, I’ll keep it simple and fresh this year. I’ll use blue willow dishware and short café cups for the wine. I’m thinking of getting a simple woven tan table runner instead of a full tablecloth this year. And I’ll use half a dozen fresh gourds and a couple of short beeswax candles to decorate the table runner.

Now that I’ve got it all planned out, I can make my shopping list, clip my coupons and compile my recipes. This is the meal I most look forward to cooking each year (with Christmas dinner for my husband being a close second) and I think this year’s menu will be just delicious!