In Which a Culinary Mystery is Solved

The turkey is finally gone– used up in last night’s sweet potato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches– and now the only thing left is the dressing. The mashed potatoes are always the first thing to disappear, aren’t they?

Over a week ago, well before Thanksgiving Day, my mom arrived on our porch with a semifrozen 22-pound turkey. Stuff had to leave the refrigerator to make room for the bird! My husband was not too pleased to find out that his box of pamplemousse seltzers had been sacrificed and had become room temperature– until I reminded him that this all meant there would be turkey leftovers for days and days. That seemed to make the sacrifice well worth it.

We usually try to do a smaller Thanksgiving here at our house the weekend after the real Thanksgiving. Because what use is a major holiday that is nearly all food-based, if there are no leftovers? Yes, yes, it’s about being thankful. FOR LEFTOVERS.

Don’t imagine us cooking Thanksgiving II in wondrous harmony together in my kitchen. I did it myself while my husband and kid watched football and went for a walk and generally had a relaxing day at home. My mom came over after it was all done and was ready to eat.

My mom has either forgotten how to cook, or just doesn’t care to cook anymore. It’s for a variety of reasons. She was always a bit of a utilitarian sort of chef, and once she divorced her last husband she did not seem as interested in cooking. I was 17 at the time, so instead of cooking once in a while, I did it more and more often. She worked and I didn’t (until I was well into college, and even then I worked on campus) so I tried to have dinner ready. It wasn’t always possible, though, because I didn’t know how to drive.

Then I did learn to drive in my mid-twenties, and shortly after I started dating my future husband I moved out. I think she must have cooked even less then, but here is a great foggy area, because we did not see each other as often. For a great while, I just assumed she was cooking and eating as she had when I was living with her. At some point, though, on a random visit, it dawned upon me that this was not the case. But she had always eaten like a bird, and I did not understand why she couldn’t just cook healthy food for herself more often.

A few years ago, she got cancer and her eating habits deteriorated even further. This is pretty normal. Who wants food when they’re getting chemo treatments? Nobody. She was sick the whole entire time. At one point, her weight was unhealthier than the state of her cancer. She stayed with us for a little while and my husband and I were able to feed her.

Now she is cancer-free, but she still doesn’t cook for herself, not really. Once, when she had dinner over here and took home some leftovers, I was horrified to learn that she had made a single swai fillet last four days. My seven year old eats a fillet, peas, and a scoop of rice– all in one sitting.

I spend a considerable amount of time worried about my mother’s eating habits, and also listening to her complain of symptoms I know would be remedied, at least in part, if she ate. A few weeks ago, having her over for dinner again, she revealed– as she ate up a mess of kale and a dollop of pureed butternut squash– that she had not eaten a vegetable in at least two weeks. No wonder she used to look so blankly at me when I would exclaim happily about a CSA box! She was probably thinking, what the @#%$ do I do with a butternut squash, anyway?

It’s nuts, because I always thought it was my mom who taught me how to cook. I thought this for the longest time. Now I don’t think that’s true.

The Greek things I cook are things my grandmother taught me how to do. She also taught me that if I didn’t know what to do with a vegetable, just saute it in olive oil and garlic, and it will be just fine. Also, if you make liver, fry the first side on a superhigh heat to sear it nearly black, then flip it over and cook it at a reasonably lower temperature. My grandmother’s father owned a diner, and she married my French-Turkish grandfather, so there were a ton of cooks on that side of the family. Men, women, everybody had an opinion. This is one of the reasons why I can’t fathom my mother’s loss of desire. It’s part of our very fabric, to savor food and recreate it, experiment with it and feel emotions and memories through the eating of it.

Other things I learned from my Vietnamese friend in high school (ask me how to make a spring roll!), and from The Bible– also known as the ninth edition of Fanny Farmer’s cookbook.We collect cookbooks in a big way in this house, but quite seriously, Fanny Farmer is the only one I crack open on a regular basis. It’s got some odd monstrosities from the 1950s, but it has all the basic American/ French-American recipes you could ever want, plus basic info about vegetables and cuts of meat. It is actually easier and faster than wading through the internet.

My husband and I have grown together as cooks. He’s learned basic skills from me, and I’ve learned to take more chances from him. I love living with someone who picks up a vegetable at the store, brings it home, and wonders what to do with it. He has totally embraced my love of finding the darkest olive oil and using it in everything. He is not afraid to add an extra clove of garlic, just because.

He has also embraced the love my mom and I have for my grandfather’s Thanksgiving stuffing. It’s a bit unusual for a stuffing– and just recently, browsing through a Turkish cookbook, I found out why. It’s not actually a stuffing. It’s Turkish pilaf. Yep. So the other night when I remarked to my mom that, gosh, this would probably taste good with some pine nuts– she responded that my grandmother used to make it with pine nuts, but stopped because sometimes it was a pain to find them.

This isn’t my dressing or even my table, but it sure looks very similar. It’s from here: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Food_fromTurkey.jpg

So, here it is. My grandfather’s recipe for dressing, or stuffing, or pilaf, or whatever you want to call it. It’s a meal unto itself, and you don’t really need to eat it with turkey, as it turns out.

(This recipe is for two big casserole dishes. Just cut it in half for a regular dinner sized portion.)

— 2 white or yellow onions, diced

— 3 cloves of garlic, or more

— 2 small celery hearts, or one large regular celery

— 6 peeled and diced green apples, preferably Pippins, but Granny Smith will do. Sour is better.

— salt and pepper to taste

Saute all of this in a liberal amount of olive oil until nearly done, then pour into a large bowl and set aside.

— 2 lb ground beef ( I like 96% fat free, but that’s just a personal preference)

— 5 regular to small bratwurst or something similar, or a tube of Jimmy Dean with extra sage. My mom swears by Jimmy Dean, but since I doubt Jimmy Dean was available in Turkey, I’m not a stickler. These must be uncooked! Precooked sausages will not do at all!

— 1-1.5 cups uncooked, long grain white rice

— salt and pepper to taste

— a dash of cinnamon

Saute the meats (slit the sausage casings and smoosh the meats together well, making smallish, crumbly pieces) in olive oil until they are nearly done, then add rice and stir well. If necessary, add only enough water so the rice does not burn. Cover briefly and stir often, until the meat is completely cooked and the rice is half cooked. Do not let it get too wet.

In a very large bowl, mix the two components. This time, I scooped two cups of vegetables then two cups of meat and rice into a casserole dish and mixed them up in the dish, then repeated until all the casseroles were full.

Bake covered with tin foil at about 375 for an hour to an hour and a half. It’s done when the rice is cooked all the way through. The top layer of rice gets a bit crispy, so don’t go merely by peeking under the foil. You have to taste it.

And then because the recipe is so big, you will have to keep tasting it.

I sent half of this home with my mom, half the mashed and half the sweet potatoes, half the white meat (picky little bird doesn’t like dark!), half the gravy– and she’s actually eating it. Victory. That’s a victory for me, folks.

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