To say I love the holidays would be a vast understatement. By the time Labor Day arrives, I'm already counting down the days until Thanksgiving. And, as soon as November 1st comes, I whip out my never-ending Christmas Playlist. Don't get me wrong, I love all seasons and their respective holidays — which makes living in Los Angeles particularly difficult — there's nothing like that crisp shift from summer to fall — but Thanksgiving and Christmas have always been my favorite. I'm not expecting that to change anytime soon either.
Every year is special, there's always so much to be grateful for, even when it doesn't feel like it. But, this year was exceptionally important, because my mom was [still] with us. More importantly, she was back to her old witty, sharp, and strong self. In fact, her strength was impossible to ignore, especially when my older sister Traci and I suggested that she rest this year and let us cook Thanksgiving dinner. Initially, we said she wasn't allowed to cook anything. Then, she made it quite clear who the mother was and said she'd merely make her iconic stuffing. We agreed. But, soon her mouth-watering Sweet Potato Fluff was added to the list as well. Surprisingly, we were able to put our foot down after that and set out to make everything else. What a journey that was!
Much like my mother, my sister's a great cook. It's become a tradition for us to spend New Year's Day at her house with a table full of delicious traditional foods like Black-Eyed Peas, Fried Chicken, and Collard Greens. We all look forward to it each year. And, I never turn down dinner at her house after spending some quality time with my nephews.
I'd like to think I'm inching up to my mother's skills, slowly but surely of course, but I'd never roasted anything but a chicken. So, we decided that Traci would make Salmon, Brussels Sprouts, and String Beans, I would whip up an Arugula Salad with Persimmon, Pomegranate & Pecorino, Saffron & Garlic Mashed Potatoes, and an Apple Pie, and we would do the turkey together. I'd hosted a Friendsgiving just two weeks prior, which featured the salad and potatoes and had made quite a few pies over the years, so I really only had nerves about the turkey. Who am I kidding? Cooking Thanksgiving dinner not just instead of but for my mom — I was terrified of it all. Terrified, but determined. Little did I know I would be cooking the turkey all by my lonesome.
I decided to tackle Thanksgiving like I did my Friendsgiving: plan ahead and take it one step at a time. I ordered an 18-20lb turkey Saturday afternoon and picked it up Tuesday morning. From that moment up until cooking, I handled it like I would a chicken. That evening I thoroughly cleaned the turkey and after making sure it was completely dry, I seasoned it liberally with kosher salt and fresh-cracked pepper. Lots and lots of salt and pepper, folks. Then I placed it in a large bag and put it back in the refrigerator. Wednesday evening I took the turkey out of the bag and kept it in the fridge uncovered, which allows the skin dry out a bit which results in a crispy, golden, and delicious outside — at least it had with chickens I've made. I had no idea if the same would happen with turkey, but I kept going. Thursday morning I lathered the turkey in butter and various seasonings. Lots and lots of butter and seasoning. Then, I placed it in an oven bag and roasted it at 425 for about 3 1/2 hours.
I don't want to brag but it was perfect— turned out great. I mean overall, it was an epic Thanksgiving dinner. Sure, I had about 4 small freakouts, usually as a result of my mom's backseat cooking, especially when it came to the turkey, but ultimately kept my cool. My sister (a genius) decided to make everything at her house and brought it over an hour and a half before we sat down for dinner.
Once the turkey was in the oven I could get started on everything else. I made the pie dough Monday morning, and took it out of the freezer the night before. The mashed potatoes and salad are extremely simple dishes, even when you're working in an old-school minimalist's kitchen that only includes liquid (not dry) measuring cups, no rolling pin (used a tall glass), and a 30-year-old peeler.
I stumbled upon this salad on Barrett Pendergast of Valleybrinkroad's website. It looked like fall which seemed perfect for a Friendsgiving. The colors, the pops of flavors, the simplicity. It looked incredible and tasted even better if you can imagine. I've made it at least 3 times since, sometimes sans persimmon (if it's unavailable), and it never dissapoints.
I found this mashed potato recipe on Heidi Swanson of 101 Cookbook's website around the same time as the salad. Growing up, my mom would make Saffron Rice all time — always reiterating how expensive the beautiful herb is and how little of it you get — and I loved it. It never ceased to amaze me how just a few strands could completely alter the color of a dish. The taste wasn't too bad either. So, when I simply saw the title of Heidi's dish, I knew I had to try it.
Aside from nixing the nuts and seasoning (simply using kosher salt and pepper), I followed the recipe to a T. Although, I bet they'd be amazing just as written. Not only are these mashed potatoes delicious and different (than the classic buttermilk), but they're stunning. Like Heidi says, they literally look like clouds. Clouds that melt in your mouth. In fact, much like the salad (my dad and brother-in-law's favorite), the potatoes were a hit (my mom and brother raved about them). My newphews loved them too, but I think it's mostly because Carter (The 2-yaer-old) got to help me "mash." And, my mash I mean slam the fork in the bowl in between giggles and, "I wan to eat it!" Me too kid, me too. So glad we did.
While my sister and I held the reigns when it came to cooking, my Dad participated to he made his is classic Jello-Mold. He's been making it every holiday without fail. A mildly sweet treat filled with nuts and pineapple that everyone asks every holiday dinner, we can't imagine a spread without it.
Believer or not, I freaked out more about the pie than I did the turkey. I HATE CRIMPING. With a passion. That combined with no rolling pin, and incessant questions like, "I think it's ready, you should take it out" almost threw me over the edge. On top of it all, the crust turned out very tough, either from over-rolling (probably, because I was using a glass!) or over-cooking, or both. Actually, I'm going to go with both.
It looked decent, but most people ended up eating the apples with ice cream. Note to self: carry a rolling pin with you wherever you go. I used Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen's tried and true Apple Pie recipe, however, which is why it wasn't a complete wash. I have yet to make anything of hers that isn't delicious.
The best part of the day was celebrating not two but three birthdays! November 13th for Caleb (4), the 19th for my mother, and 23rd for Carter. It's another tradition we've become custom to in the last couple of years, and it's the best. We celebrate each individually of course, but curling up together in our family room with birthday cake for all, endless laughter, and two adorable boys rocking their PJ Mask pajams is pure bliss. Like I said, there's so much to be grateful for.
I think I love the holidays because they put everything into perspective. Granted, I'm sure they're painful for several, they could've been dreadful for my family in particular this year if my mom hadn't pulled through. But, sitting around a table with people that love you unconditionally, who laugh at your corny jokes and quirks, who tell you the truth even when it hurts, makes it impossible to be anything but grateful if you ask me.