I’ve lived abroad since I was 23 years old, which has taught me a few things about spending Thanksgiving far from my family. Growing up, we would celebrate at my grandmother’s house in Montana and the table would be full of food that took her days to cook: three types of pie, five different vegetable sides, a turkey and a goose. With free rein to eat as much as I possibly could, I was in heaven.
When I moved to France and met my husband, who is a French chef, Thanksgiving began to look very different. Often, it was just the two of us. Still, I made a point of celebrating because it was important to me to keep the tradition alive.
While being away from my family stung, I learned to embrace our new style of Thanksgiving. Imagine my husband’s face when I suggested topping the sweet potatoes with marshmallows. “Quoi?” he would exclaim with a typical Gallic raised eyebrow. Liberated from the traditional ways of cooking, I could explore new dishes to serve.
Living with a French chef also taught me to up my culinary skills. Why suffer trying to roast an entire turkey in the oven? The breast meat always gets dry before the legs are done. Besides, most French ovens are too small to fit an entire turkey, even if you are lucky enough to find one.
Instead, after some serious soul-searching, I agreed to cook the turkey in parts. The legs? Braised in a Dutch oven with a rich red wine sauce that would make Julia Child proud. The breast? Roasted in the oven to get that delicious crispy, buttery skin in half the time that it takes to cook a full bird. I learned that I wasn’t sacrificing tradition. I was becoming a better cook.
Without the pressure of cooking for 15, you can really flex your culinary muscles, take risks and try a new technique – one you never thought you could master. What’s the worst that could happen? It doesn’t work. So what? Pour yourself a glass of wine and enjoy telling the story for years to come.
Freed of the obligation of cooking five different sides to satisfy your guests’ preferences (lovers of green bean casserole with fried onions, I am looking at you), you can choose to level up and prepare one or two dishes really well – and learn a new skill while you’re at it.
One of the improved classics in our home is Turkey au Vin, done in a similar style to Coq au Vin, accompanied by buttery smooth mashed potatoes. This dish is regal yet comforting, and is actually quite simple to prepare.
Turkey au Vin (serves four)
2.75 lbs turkey thighs – skin on, salted
1.5 lbs turkey legs, salted
16 oz mushrooms (any kind will do, but I like a wild mushroom mix)
8 oz white pearl onions, left whole
2 cups red wine
1 cup of water
1 stick of butter
4 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp sugar
Aromatic Garnish Mix
8 oz Cipollini onions, sliced in two
1 full head of garlic (cloves separated with skin left on)
2 carrots, diced
2 springs each thyme and rosemary, finely chopped
2 bay leaves
1 star anise
Preheat oven to 350 degrees
Prepare the Turkey
In a Dutch oven on medium high, heat 2 tbsp olive oil.
Sear turkey meat skin down until dark brown pieces stick to the bottom of the pan.
Remove turkey and set aside.
Deglaze the pan with the water and scrape the bottom with a spoon (this is where all the flavor comes from!)
Add the aromatic garnish mix and 1 cup of wine. Bring back to a simmer.
Set turkey pieces back in the Dutch oven on top of the aromatic garnish. Cover and let cook in oven for two hours. There should be a generous amount of liquid left in the pot, surrounding the turkey.
When there are about 15 minutes left on the timer for the turkey, begin the sauce.
Cook The Sauce
Heat 2 tbsp of olive oil in a sauce pan over medium heat. Add pearl onions and stick of butter with sugar.
Once butter is melted, toss in mushrooms and sauté for five minutes. Onions should be slightly tender.
Take off the heat and let cool slightly before stirring in 1 cup of wine. Set aside.
Once the turkey is cooked (meat is tender and juice is clear when you pierce with a fork), remove and arrange in a serving dish.
Place the sauce pan with the mushroom sauce back on the stove at medium heat. Add 1 cup of the aromatic garnish liquid from the turkey pot and bring to a simmer together. Your kitchen will smell amazing!
Pour the sauce over the turkey and serve with mashed potatoes on the side.
Who knows? This delicious spin on a Thanksgiving classic might become your new holiday favorite. If not, the green bean casserole will always be waiting for you next year.
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