Monday, November 29, 2010

A Turkey of a Thanksgiving?

The aftermath of our French Thanksgiving

Things in my favor when I decided to cook a Thanksgiving dinner while in Dijon:
    -- I’m in France surrounded by the freshest bread and vegetables I could imagine
    -- I have a new recipe for Potatoes Gratin with French Gruyère cheese
    -- Brad and I have French friends with whom to share our American feast
Things against my plan to cook a Thanksgiving dinner while in Dijon:
    -- Our apartment does not have an oven
    -- Not a single roasting turkey exists in the entire city

Did you know that absolutely the only time the French eat roasted turkey is Christmas week – and then only out of tradition because they don’t actually like it?  I found this out later from my Paris friend, Martine.  I could get rooster, pigeon, pheasant, duck, and practically any other bird I wanted, but it was starting to look like a holiday dinner built around slices of packaged deli turkey, which was all I could find a week before the big day.

On the other hand, how would I cook it in our kitchen equipped with only three small burners, a microwave-convection over (and not the family size, either), and a Le Creuset casserole (dutch oven) large enough to serve as a deadly weapon if I were being chased by a large grizzly bear that smelled salmon on my breath?  I also had only two feet of counter space on which to prepare everything.  If I found my turkey, could I cook it?

While waiting for a turkey to drop from the heavens in a Thanksgiving miracle, I set to work on the rest of my meal because my petite cooking accommodations meant it would take multiple days to ready all the dishes I had planned.  My produce vendor helped me pick the perfect apples for my tarte du pomme, which I made with French feuilleté, or puff pastry. The French green beans were almost fluorescent in color from their absolute, just-off-the-farm freshness. The butternut squashes for my soup (that would eventually be pureéd the old-fashioned way -- by pushing the flesh through a sieve) waited on the kitchen counter to make magic. And I had several baguettes of pain de compagne (delicious hearty wheat bread) drying out on the kitchen counter for distinctly American stuffing.  While chopping, and slicing, and mashing, and mixing I also tried to imagine the scent of succulent roasted turkey filling our apartment.

After a luckless week of searching, I again trekked to my butcher on the last market day before the dinner, resigned to choosing one of the large chickens staring out at me from the butcher cases with its feather bedecked head and naked body.  Then voilá, as if on cue, I saw two turkey leg quarters isolated in a distant corner of the cold case.  Their sudden appearance made me think that my favorite meat master knew the importance of this week for his American ex-patriot customers.  I rushed them home and stuffed them into an already overpacked dorm-sized refrigerator, leaving them to await their cue to center stage.

Here’s a handy hint for shopping at French markets: say oui to whatever your butcher suggests.  On Thanksgiving afternoon I realized that my stovetop oven, even as large as it seemed, would not hold my two turkey legs.  So that was what Monsieur Butcher meant when he pantomimed cutting off the bony joint at the end of the leg, to which I replied with a smile and a no, merci because I didn’t have a clue what he was trying to say.  And now it was only a couple of hours before dinner, with no heavy knife of my own to perform the surgery on that miniscule section my butcher could have eliminated in seconds.  With fifteen minutes of cramming, twisting, turning, and attempting to loosen and bend the joints of the quarters I finally managed to squeeze them in, fitted tight like shoes in a shoebox.  Oh, Monsieur Butcher, I’ll never doubt you again!

What a wonderful meal this would be, I thought as I patted myself on the back.  I puttered and cleaned and set the table and anticipated our French guests’ experience of their first Thanksgiving feast.  Then I went to peek in the pot at how dinner was progressing.  Mon dieu!  Where was my roasted turkey?  What I had here was turkey soup, swimming in an inch of liquid.  When my landlady gave me 30 seconds of instructions for using this casserole, it seemed so simple. “You put the vegetables in, comme sa (like so) and then you put the meat in comme sa and then you add liquid un peu and set the flame comme sa.  It’s simple. C’est tout.  That’s all.”  Exactly how much liquid was “un peu”?  I thought I had put in the minimum amount to prevent sticking, but apparently the turkey had its own supply to contribute.

Only one hour until guests arrive and I had not a golden bird but a pale pot of turkey soup!  I cranked up the flame to boil off the liquid as quickly as possible.  Maybe I could salvage the meal by achieving a minimal amount of golden crispy skin on the centerpiece of the dinner.  If I couldn’t do that, what would I use to create that most essential delicacy for the meal – turkey gravy?  It was a tense thirty minutes as I waited for another turkey miracle.  But eventually the apartment filled with the aroma of the bird’s drippings (which would produce gravy ambrosia), and stuffing laced with onion and obscene amounts of sage, the mingling of cheese, cream, and potatoes in my first-ever gratin, and the first spoonful of the sage-infused (if slightly lumpy) squash soup.

Somehow in a kitchen smaller than a modern spa tub I had succeeded in replicating a traditional Thanksgiving with a bit of French flavor.  Travel – c’est l’aventure, toujours!

What is your favorite Thanksgiving story?  What dismal failures or rousing successes have you experienced?  Click to share it in the comments box.  And I hope your holiday weekend was wonderful.


Renee said...

How about burnt turkey? One year my Turkey was burnt and dry. Why you ask? Because my dear Mother turned the oven up to 500 (while we were outside in the garden) to 'hurry up' the Turkey because she was hungry and wanted to eat sooner! She was foiled this year because she couldn't figure out my Niece's electronic controls on her oven. My sister caught her eyeing them and knew what she was up to. LOL

Hey...are Le Creuset any cheaper over in France than they are here?

Julie Farrar said...

I don't think they're that much cheaper, especially when you factor in mailing them home. Don't think I haven't considered it, Renee! When I get a new kitchen in St. Louis I'll invest. There's a Le Creuset store in Nashville at the Green Hills Mall -- across from our favorite Whole Foods store.

Anne B Wright said...

Hi Julie,
The first time my sister and I cooked Thanksgiving turkey (without my grandmother or mother watching on) we could not figure out why it wouldn't hold more than a half cup of stuffing. That's when we decided to look inside it. Voila, the neck and gizzards and all kinds of organs were in there, taking up space. This called for a glass of Champagne and a great big laugh.

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