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Setting the Scene

[Table setting, August 2007.]

A good meal needs a good presentation, which is why I often spend at least 10 minutes thinking about what dish ware to put on the table to make it look nice. (I suppose 10 minutes really isn’t that much time, but there’s that whole full-time job thing I have going on which sometimes doesn’t leave many extra minutes in the day.) I love polishing the silver (i.e., ensuring the forks and knives are free of water spots), ironing the linens (errr … checking that they’ve been recently washed), unpacking the crystal (taking out the wine glasses), and buying flowers. It sets the tone for a lovely evening — and meal — ahead when I think a little bit about how to well set the table.

As Laurie Colwin wrote

Oh, domesticity! The wonder of dinner plates and cream pitchers. You know your friends by their ornaments. You want everything. If Mrs. A. has her mama’s old jelly mold, you want one too, and everything else that goes with it — the family, the tradition, the years of having jelly molded in it. We domestic sensualists live in a state of longing, no matter how comfortable our own places are.

which resonates with me, in part. I think one of the reasons I love so much to cook, and to invite people over, is for the necessary ceremony of it. All the little flourishes that go into a dinner party make it worth doing — even if it’s a simple gathering — for it’s marked by the quiet excitement that comes with plotting and working out the details. Holidays, then, are even more special for their rarity.

For the Thanksgiving meal, the beginning of the season’s madness, I love a few small squashes as a centerpiece, flanked by tall candles. Fall-like, you know. At one of my Thanksgiving holiday extravaganzas in Washington, a friend gathered some bright red leaves from the tree outside my apartment building, and we scattered them over the table to bring the outside in. Unfortunately I don’t have a photo to share, but — it was so pretty, and I recommend this trick for your own Thursday dinner.

I won’t be cooking the whole meal this year (though I do have some assigned dishes, including an apple pie), but I’ll be in my small hometown, hoping for one of those brilliantly clear, cool days in Sonoma County that occur after the morning frost has burned off. I have an important afternoon rendez-vous with a cranberry margarita, and a catch-up with old friends and dogs to attend to, so I’ll be wishing for sun, and the air to snap with its familiar sweet smokiness.

November, when it doesn’t rain, is wonderful here.

Tomorrow: A reminiscence on Thanksgivings past, and some main-meal vegetarian suggestions.

[Fall apples, Sebastopol, 2007.]

THANKSGIVING —> Soups and Sundries

Potage Jacqueline, adapted from New Recipes from the Moosewood Cookbook [the copy editor in me is compelled to point out that there is a misspelling on the listing]

I’ve been making this soup for years and years, and it’s always clamored-for by my friends. It’s also deceptively simple to make, so you can focus on the more elaborate (and important) parts of the meal, like dessert, while still serving a dreamy and delicious first course.

2 Tbs. olive oil
2 cups chopped onions
1 stalk celery, chopped
1 tsp. grated fresh gingerroot
3 medium-sized sweet potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced
4 cups water
1 bay leaf
1/2 tsp. salt
Black pepper to taste
1 cup milk
1/2 cup heavy cream (or milk; see notes)
4 or 6 thin slices lemon for garnish

1. Sauté onions in the olive oil until translucent, stirring occasionally. Add celery and ginger, and continue to cook until onions begin to brown. Add sweet potatoes, water, bay leaf, salt and pepper, and bring to a rapid boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer 15 to 20 minutes, until sweet potatoes are tender.

2. Remove and discard bay leaf. In blender or food processor, purée small batches of soup mixture with milk and heavy cream. Adjust salt and pepper to taste, and reheat gently, but do not boil.

3. To serve, garnish with 1 thin lemon round on each serving.

Notes: I usually leave out the heavy cream, subbing in a 1/2-cup of milk, because I don’t like soups to be too heavy. If you’re going the vegan route, you could use (unflavored) soy milk instead of dairy, or if you don’t like soy, use about 2 cups of vegetable broth. The lemon slices may seem an unexpected addition, but please don’t leave them off — you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how their tartness cuts the creamy sweetness of the soup.

Vegan cornbread with sage and fresh corn

I actually like this vegan version better than many non-vegan versions; friends at my pre-Thanksgiving harvest dinner last year concurred. Some corn breads are a bit too eggy for my taste, so this one, obviously, is not.

2 cups cornmeal
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
2 teaspoon baking powder
1/3 cup canola oil
2 tablespoons maple syrup
2 cups soymilk
2 teaspoons apple cider vinegar
1/2 teaspoon salt
corn kernels from two ears of corn
1/4 cup fresh sage, coarsely chopped

1. Preheat oven to 350 F and line a 9×13 baking pan with parchment paper or oil the bottom of the pan.

2. In a medium bowl, wisk together the soymilk and the vinegar and set aside.

3. In a large bowl, sift together the dry ingredients. Add the oil and maple syrup to the soymilk mixture. Wisk with a wire wisk until it is foamy and bubbly, about 2 minutes.

4. Pour the wet ingredient into the dry and mix together. Add the corn and the sage and stir to combine. Pour batter into the prepared baking pan and bake 30-35 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Slice into squares and serve warm or store in an airtight container.

Note:This if also fine to use in the forthcoming cornbread dressing recipe.

Vegetarian gravy, adapted from all-recipes.com

1/2 cup olive oil
1/3 cup chopped onion or shallots
5 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
4 tablespoons light soy sauce
2 cups vegetable broth
1/2 teaspoon dried sage
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

1. Heat oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Saute onion and garlic until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Stir in flour and soy sauce to form a smooth paste. Gradually whisk in the broth.

2. Season with sage, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat, and simmer, stirring constantly, for 8 to 10 minutes, or until thickened.

Note: The gravy thickens up quite a bit, so keep some warm water or vegetable broth on hand to thin it out before serving, and for the next day’s leftovers.

Apple sauce

I’m bringing a jar of the stuff we canned last month up to Sebastopol for the long weekend; it’s nice to have it already prepared, although this recipe is so quick and easy, I wouldn’t mind making it again if I had to.

4 apples, peeled (or, if organic and you like the texture, unpeeled)
Bit of water

1. Peel, core and slice the apples. Place in a heavy saucepan with about an inch of water. Bring to a boil, then let simmer until apples are tender, about 15 minutes.

2. Remove from heat and mash with a fork, or potato masher. Let cool before serving.

Notes: This seems really boring I know. But I love a simple, direct applesauce that’s not too sweet — and if your apples are sweet enough you won’t miss any additional sugar. However, if you have a hankering for maple syrup-y apples with cinnamon, do this: after cooking, stir in 3 Tb. of maple syrup and one tsp. of cinnamon. Some fresh or ground ginger would be nice here, too.

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