Thanksgiving Starters

By Thomas Madrecki

Every year, we gather around the Thanksgiving table. No matter what part of the country you’re from, whether you’re conservative or liberal, white collar or blue collar, a long-time resident or a recent immigrant, chances are you’re plenty familiar with this yearly epicurean celebration. It’s a uniting holiday across the nation, perhaps even more so than Christmas due to that holiday’s particular religious significance.

There’s only one problem: Most of the time, Thanksgiving isn’t all that epicurean. The food is blah — it’s all the same, it’s overcooked, it’s dried out. The veggies are squishy, the stuffing a shade of brownish gray. What’s that for a celebration?

This year, let’s make a promise to do it right.

Luckily, we here at Wine Lines have a menu that will redefine your Thanksgiving experience. I’ve made a point of making it accessible and yet simultaneously interesting, with big, bold, clean flavors. Vegetables are everywhere, and chances are you won’t feel overweight and almost sick even after overeating, because there’s less fat, salt and sugar than usual.

Not just that, almost everything is homemade. You want to impress your guests? You’ve come to the right place.

Thanksgiving is decidedly a rustic, American holiday. When composing the menu, I wanted something that would be equally at home in the Midwest country as it would on the coast of Cape Cod. We have an incredible bounty of produce and ingredients here in the States, and it would do us well to pay homage to what’s in season and what’s available locally.

In today’s post, we’ll cover the first four starters from the Wine Lines Thanksgiving Menu. Those are:

• Homemade bread and butter
• House-cured salmon
• Local cheeses
• Oysters with celery-juniper granite

To begin, let’s cover the obvious: Because so many of these recipes are simple and only feature a handful of ingredients, it goes without saying that you should buy the best ingredients possible. There’s no excuse for not going to your local farmers market. It’s a big day! Or take cheese for instance — why buy cheap, overly processed cheddar when every state has artisan cheese producers?

My bread recipe follows Portland baker Ken Forkish’s in Flour, Salt, Water, Yeast. Forkish’s recipe is one of the first bread recipes I’d deem nearly bullet-proof — it’s easy to understand and hard to screw up. Though I suggest picking up his book to examine the recipe in more detail, this version should serve as a good starting point. My adaptations are to make the measurements and explanations even simpler. The nuance is gone, but hey … it’s rustic bread. Just enjoy it. You will need a small cast-iron dutch oven with a lid — it must be able to withstand the 500 degree oven.

Homemade Bread

Makes Two Loaves – Adapted From Ken Forkish

Ingredients:

All-Purpose Flour
Water
Active Dry Yeast
Salt

Method (to bake on Thanksgiving Day):

1) The night before at 10 p.m., mix 500 grams of flour, 500 grams of very warm water and 1/8 teaspoon of yeast in a large bowl. This is called a “poolish.” Cover and let sit for 12-14 hours in a 72-76 degree room.

2) At 10 a.m. – noon the next day (after 12-14 hours), add 500 grams more flour, 250 grams more water, 3/4 teaspoon of yeast and 3 nice teaspoons of fine sea salt. Mix well with a big spoon, then your hands. The dough will be wet and shaggy. If it sticks to your hands too much, dab them in a bit of water. Cover.

3) After one hour, “fold” the dough. Reach in and lift the bottom of the dough, then fold over the top. Repeat a few times all around and cover again.

4) After another 1-2 hours, when the dough has approximately doubled in size, gently dump the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Cut the dough in half and using the minimum amount of flour necessary to keep your hands from sticking, shape into two round loaves. A pastry cutter can help to keep the dough from sticking to the counter and will help you shape the bread.

5) Place the shaped loaves into floured proofing baskets or small bowls lined with clean, floured, non-terry kitchen towels. Cover with a towel and wait one more hour.

6) While the loaves proof, preheat the oven and dutch oven to 500 degrees.

7) After the hour of proofing, gently dump the first loaf out on the counter. Place the other in a much cooler spot, like the front of refrigerator, to slow the proofing while the first cooks. Carefully remove the ridiculously hot dutch oven from the oven — be careful!!! — open it and place the loaf in. Dust lightly with flour. Cover and place in the oven.

8) Uncover after 30 minutes of baking. Bake uncovered for another 25-30 minutes, until dark brown and crusty.

9) Ten minutes prior to the first loaf being done, remove the second from the fridge and allow it to come back to room temperature. Preheat the dutch oven again and repeat per the first loaf.

Homemade Butter

If there’s something better than homemade bread, it’s homemade butter.

Wait, you’ve never made butter?! It’s impossibly easy!

In fact, calling this a recipe would be a bit ridiculous. It’s as good as the cream you buy, so buy the absolute best from a local dairy farmer. Here’s the method:

1) Let the thick, rich cream come up around 60-70 degrees. Pour into a stand mixer and start churning on moderate speed.

2) The cream will thicken before the butter separates from the buttermilk. You should wind up with small, bright, yellow curds in a pool of liquid.

3) Strain the liquid and squeeze the curds repeatedly to get rid of any remaining liquid. In a largish bowl, make a bath with very cold water and “wash” the curds. Squeeze again to further expunge any remaining liquid.

4) Store. For a nice presentation, roll the butter in parchment and slice into nicely shaped individual rounds. Season with the best flaky salt you can buy — something like Maldon or gray sea salt from the coast of France would be excellent! You can also season with a wide variety of spices, herbs, even seaweed!

House-Cured Salmon

Ingredients:

Salmon
Sugar
Salt
Herbs and Spices, if desired

Like making butter, curing good fish is hardly difficult. It just requires a little bit of patient and excellent sourcing.

Because you’re essentially eating this fish raw, remember to order only the best quality salmon. The same curing recipe can be used for other fish, too. Cured bluefish with a drizzle of spicy and acidic lime-jalapeno sauce is a treat. And if you want a certain flavor profile, experiment with adding herbs and spices to the salt and sugar.

To be sure, this isn’t a real “preservative” cure — it’s just a light 36-hour one that renders the fish sliceable, a bit briny and absolutely delicious. Serve with crackers and local cheeses:

1) Remove the salmon skin from the filet. Rinse the fish and thoroughly pat dry with paper towels.

2) Line a shallow pan with a good deal of salt and sugar in a 1:1 combination. Place the salmon filet on top and mix to coat. Add more 1:1 salt and sugar combination, toss to coat again and cover the entire pan with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for 36 hours, draining liquid ever 12.

3) After the fish is lightly cured, rinse the salt and sugar off under cold running water. Dry again and slice thinly.

Oysters with Juniper-Celery Granite

Ingredients:
Salty, briny oysters — local if possible
1 bunch of celery
2 limes
3 tablespoons of crushed juniper berries
Water
Salt
Sugar
Celery Salt

For decades, Americans celebrated their local oysters. Mark Twain wrote dozens of times about his love for a particular variety, and our coasts and rivers were chock-full of native species. Industrialization, pollution and environmental degradation led to dwindling stocks, however, and many American oyster populations were threatened.

Today, though, thanks to many enterprising fishermen and businesses, the American oysters are making a comeback. Even better, they’re in season! What better way to kick off your Thanksgiving party than slurping down a few briny specimens, topped with a refreshing celery-juniper granite. It’s a refreshing, crave-worthy bite that will get the night rolling:

1) In a small pot, heat a cup of water, a few tablespoons of sugar and crushed juniper berries to make a moderately sweet syrup. Let the juniper berries infuse for 30 minutes to an hour, never letting the syrup boil or caramelize. Strain and cool.

2) In a blender or juicer, juice the celery stalks. If using a blender, blitz a bit of celery at a time to get the mix going, then strain through a chinois to leave only the juice. Season with fresh lime juice and salt. Mix in the juniper syrup — you’ll probably need 3/4 cup.

3) Pour the celery juice and juniper blend into a shallow tray and place in the freezer. Every 45 minutes to an hour, stir and scrape with a fork to flake up the solution. After 4-5 hours, depending on your freezer, you should have a refreshing, flavorful granite.

4) At service, shuck the oysters. Be careful to shuck them cleanly — nobody likes to eat dirt and shell particles. Top with a forkful of granite and the faintest dusting of celery salt. Delicious!!

Question? Concern? Nervous about cooking Thanksgiving Dinner? Send an email to winelinesonline@gmail.com and ask me a question.

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