Grandmother’s lessons

Thanksgiving was low-key at my house this year. Not that there isn’t an abundance of things to be thankful for, but our small multi-generational family had an abundance of plans for the extended holiday. We gathered Thursday for what was to be a simple midday meal, before scattering in different directions to enjoy the long weekend.

What was to have been a small turkey breast to serve five (with enough left for a few sandwiches) became a 12-pound turkey. (The market had no fresh breasts available, and we had not built thawing time into the schedule; the option was a “smallish” fresh bird.)

The rest of it? A mix of traditional and easy prep. One large — overly large, as it turned out — fresh from the garden salad that boasted tiny boiled potatoes, green beans and dried cranberries. Roasted yams and wild rice stood in for mashed potatoes and cornbread stuffing. Savory pumpkin gratin, recipe courtesy of Jacques Pepin, homemade cranberry-orange relish, and a freshly-baked Challah, as pretty to look at as it was good to eat, kept kitchen prep time to a minimum.WP_20171123_14_01_38_ProAs usual, “simple” morphed into too much!

Friday, we were content with turkey sandwiches, salad and television movies. Saturday was a quiet day, with only a few must-do’s, and no plans for a “real” meal. Snacking at will was the order of the day.

When faced with options, make soup

I am grateful that my grandmothers were good cooks, and that I had a chance to hang out in their kitchens many years ago, not only during holiday preparations, but afterwards as well.

I learned the truth of “Waste not, want not,” and I learned to “make do” and make meals out of what was on hand. I also learned that simple meals are best!

Those were lessons well learned.

So, for Saturday supper, soup it was. Pan drippings and turkey parts that would have become gravy had we served mashed potatoes and dressing on Thursday became the catalyst. Leftover wild rice added heartiness. Fresh celery, carrots and onions, constant staples in the refrigerator crisper, are the basis of any good homemade soup, right? And leftover Challah is still delicious!

It was a large pot of soup, enough to feed son and daughter-in-law who stopped in unexpectedly Saturday evening, with enough “left over” for Sunday lunch.

No pie, you say? Well, not exactly!

It bears repeating that our Thanksgiving was pared down and simplified in many ways. There was no pie — not pumpkin, not apple, mince or pecan. No brownies, no ice cream. Apples and oranges, yes, but even they went untouched. None of us suffered from a lack of food; desserts were not missed.

However, I had purchased pie crusts, just in case. (No, I do not see any reason to make my own!)

So, for tonight’s dinner, the plan is to have Turkey Pot Pie. Actually, I can picture it already: Colorful carrots, peas and potatoes joining small bits of turkey meat, oozing with creamy goodness and threatening to bubble up through the golden crust. Chilled (leftover) cranberry sauce will add color and tart flavor to the simple dinner. With a green salad, it will be nutritious and more than ample.

Will one pie suffice to clear the refrigerator of leftovers? I am not yet sure, but if there’s enough turkey to make two, I will be happy to have an extra to pull from the freezer.

On this weekend, especially, I am thankful to have the blessings of home and family, a warm, comfortable hearth, good health and good food.

And those leftovers!

How to know if you’re a food snob

 . . . and what to do about it!

Some people celebrate their snobbery, of course, by reading restaurant reviews before making a reservation, cultivating their knowledge of the proper wine to accompany a rare steak or a traditional Welsh rarebit, diligently identifying every ingredient and perfecting the most unusual preparation techniques.

That’s okay — absolutely! The joys of cooking and eating are individual pursuits.

But good food is found in unusual places and, at least sometimes, under the oddest of conditions — on street corners, in out-of-the-way neighborhoods, in unexpected circumstances. Good food is also found, commonly and abundantly, around a simple family dinner table, whether it’s a hearty soup, a warm casserole, a generations-old treat, or a weeknight family get-together. Good food does not have to be fancy, and it can also be fast.

Food, at its best, is a celebration. Breaking bread together is an honorable tradition in every culture around the globe. It’s not in a literal sense that sharing food is so important, but in the wider sense of sharing a small slice of life with other people, be they family members or strangers, along with the slice of beef, the slice of pizza, or the slice of pie.

It’s the connection that matters; food is the glue that binds us together.

I happened to catch the last few minutes of a Jacques Pepin cooking show recently on PBS and was transported back to the time I spent in Paris as a young woman. French food was so good; learning how to prepare it properly seemed so unattainable. And then I learned.

What I learned is that French cuisine, at its heart, is simple food. It’s crafted from simple ingredients, picked fresh from the garden, or purchased fresh from the market. It’s peasant food and, as such, often there are no recipes, just general guidelines. It’s meant to be shared, with friends and family, both the preparation of it and its consumption. It evolves naturally from what’s available.

Iconic French onion soup illustrates the point — humble onions and a bit of butter combined with dry bread and a some leftover cheese! It’s a classic. But, at its heart, it is simply a “make do” meal for times when no meat is available.

Although I never met him, I feel as if I know him. Jacques Pepin’s brand of kitchen reality resonates with me; he is the chef I would most like to spend time with in the kitchen, or have as a guest at my dinner table.

Yes, I know that he once prepared dishes for the presidents of France. I know that he’s a renowned chef, and that he has written cookbooks and mastered all the fancy kitchen techniques. I know all that, but as I watch his shows, and see him interact with his family and friends, I can’t help but appreciate how this 80-year-old chef views food, with a sparkle in his eyes, and a smile on his lips. It’s always a celebration.

“The love of food, and cooking, is passed down from generation to generation, with favorite recipes at the heart of every family. What do you say to that? Happy cooking!” Jacques Pepin.

I am convinced again that this is the way we all ought to approach food — in our own kitchens, laughing and sampling and experimenting — tasting as we go along — just the way Jacques Pepin does. My grandmothers did that too. They sampled food with their fingers, added a “bit of this and a pinch of that,” rarely followed a recipe exactly, and always let the “young’uns” lick the spoon and sample the pie crust tarts hot from the oven. They also learned to “make do” when necessary.

PBS stations around the country air a final 26-week series on Jacques Pepin, “Heart and Soul,” this fall. Check local stations for scheduling. Segments from a previous series, entitled “Jacques Pepin: fast food my way,” are available to watch online.