Saturday, November 29, 2008

FoodBuzz 24, 24, 24: Local & Homemade vs. Store Bought & Prepared

When I first became aware of the current "24, 24, 24" topic (Thanksgiving), I thought, " does one reinvent Thanksgiving without taking away the essential Thanksgivingness of the food?" I certainly didn't want to eat beef or sushi or curry for a holiday that has only ever centered around a turkey and all the other fixings.

Even the idea of a homemade Thanksgiving seemed a little stupid--I mean, my family has always made this meal at home. With an extended family bursting at the seams with women who cook, we were never short on homemade fare.

But then I took a deeper look at what I considered to be homemade. Was a frozen, "solution" injected turkey really homemade? How about sweet potatoes with marshmallows? Green bean casserole contained several canned ingredients--to the best of my knowledge, no one ever made the condensed mushroom soup or fried the onions for the topping.

Admittedly, the rolls were nearly always homemade as we have an actual family recipe for them. And mashed potatoes never came from a box--they were the real thing. Occasionally cranberry relish could take the "homemade" title, although I've had my fair share of can shaped gelatinous cranberry sauce. Desserts were generally homemade--at the very least they were mostly home-prepared.

I decided to submit my proposal expanding the meaning of "homemade"--to make everything possible to make--and just to give it an extra challenge, to obtain as many ingredients from local sources as possible. This would be an event to pit the ultimate commercialized ingredients against the ultimate fresh ingredients!

For the past three years, I have hosted Thanksgiving at my home where we smoked a brined turkey and made most of the side dishes. But this year, my sister moved from her teeny cottage house into a beautiful "new" home (made of many recycled materials). She was ready to host a holiday.

I approached her with my idea for a local and homemade Thanksgiving, asking her if it would too much trouble for her to pick up a majority of those ingredients in her Stumptown neighborhood. Her response was something to the effect of, "Julie, this is how I shop all the time (snaaaap!)." Just kidding about the attitude--actually, she was super accommodating assuring me that Portland is the local food mecca of the United States. In fact, she'd already purchased her organic turkey from Abundant Life Farm in nearby Salem, Oregon.

We collaborated for a couple of weeks, gathering recipes to reinvent the traditional classics. In the days before the holiday, she scoured local farmers markets and shops for everything we'd need. Their CSA, Dancing Roots Farm delivered many of the veggies since Thanksgiving is a holiday about the seasonal harvest--pumpkins, onions, spinach. The Portland Farmer's Market, representing various local farms, supplied the green beans, apples, and hazelnuts.

Since our menu included bread products and desserts, we opted for the most local flour source. Wheat is not a very "local" crop, but there is a famous mill in Portland. Ever heard of Bob's Red Mill? Their flour products are everywhere--especially in health food stores. Even the toffee used in the apple pie was made locally. Locally roasted coffee was obviously super easy to come by in the Northwest. We used some decaf Cafe Caramelita.

The side-by-side meals began: one local and homemade, one store bought and prepared (by the way, I was slightly horrified to find that with the exception of the turkey, everything for Thanksgiving can be found boxed or canned in a sort of "industrialized harvest" pyramid at the local grocery store).

To ease oven logistics, I opted to roast the "store bought" turkey at my house the day before we left for Portland--using an onion/apple aromatic combo stuffed into the cavity. Seeing as we've always smoked our turkey, I had to follow some new directions for roasting length and temperature. It was also my day for the school carpool so my husband helped me out by removing the turkey from the oven when the timer went off. Since it had to rest anyways before carving, this seemed like it would work out great. Only, when I finally did carve it like an hour later--it was still quite raw. I decided to finish cutting up the turkey into pieces, threw them back in a roasting dish and cooked them for a while longer. No problem.

In comparison, the local turkey had a good amount of sage butter stuffed under the skin of it's breasts. It was then layered with some thick cut bacon and painted with maple syrup (we joked that next year we could improve on this recipe by stuffing the turkey cavity with pancake batter). Let me just say that syrup-bacon-butter turkey is really good.

My fabulous sister baked her own cornbread from scratch the day before, letting the chunks dry a bit before making them into a sage-cornbread dressing. We went for the best-selling "Stovetop" brand stuffing in contrast.

More than anything else, my 6-year-old daughter was anticipating the mashed potatoes. When it was mealtime, she heaped a mountain of Yukon gold's onto her plate. And with good reason--these were my special Camembert-cheese infused mashed potatoes. Although containing nearly a teaspoon of salt, all the other flavors came through; whereas, the store bought "rehydrated" potato flakes (butter and herb variety) pretty much tasted only of salt.

We replaced the classic marshmallow-topped presweetened canned yams with a hazelnut crusted yam casserole (fresh garnet yams mashed with some maple syrup, milk, and a touch of vanilla).

Only real sweet cream butter for our delicious food--the opposite of which must be "Butterlicious!"

Thanks to the turkey I roasted earlier in the week, even our turkey stock for the gravy was homemade.

Anything that ends up in the shape of the can screams industrial food. For our homemade version, I could have drawn from some family cranberry relishes using walnuts and even pineapple chunks. However, I wanted to keep it a bit more traditional so I opted for fresh local cranberries (lucky we live in a cranberry-producing area!), some freshly squeezed orange juice and zest (unfortunately, no local options exist for the oranges, but California isn't that far away), and a few pinches of various holiday spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves.

My sister baked a tray full of whole-grain dinner rolls to combat the factory produced "butterflakes"--but I only got a photo of the store bought rolls. So sorry, sis. Yours were great!

Probably no part of the holiday meal is more "canned" than the green bean casserole--canned beans, canned cream of mushroom soup, canned fried onions. Just mix, sprinkle and heat! This is my dad's favorite part of the meal, so we did save him a small dish. But he also enjoyed the fresh version consisting of blanched fresh green beans, sliced mushrooms sauteed in butter with pancetta and garlic. Everything came together with a little sour cream sauce (thank you Tillamook Cheese Factory!)

Our meal was accompanied by a spinach, pear, and hazelnut salad and various locally produced wines (Washington and Oregon only). I threw in a bottle of Martinelli's and a frozen Sara Lee apple pie to finish off the store bought meal.

But then...for the grande finale...not one, but two fantastic desserts. My sister whipped up a luscious pumpkin custard, roasting her own pumpkins and then adding the most local ingredient of all--eggs from her own chickens! After baking, she cut the custard into 2 1/2 inch rounds with a biscuit cutter and topped it with freshly whipped cream and a dash of cinnamon.

The second dessert was my caramel apple toffee struesel pie. While I put together the apples and caramel ingredients, my mom made the pie crust. She's made many more pie crusts than me--I was amazed how easy she made it look to roll out the dough. Then she expertly pinched and fluted the edges of the crust. (I think we need a Julie Jams pie crust class so she can teach us how that's done!)

Ladies and gentlemen, this was a Homemade Thanksgiving meal like none I've ever eaten. It was a tremendous amount of work--we got a little sick of cooking toward the end. But the experience of preparing each dish, laughing and talking in the kitchen with my mom and sister, and sharing the meal with our husbands and children is a memory I will cherish for a very long time. I don't fancy myself a super sentimental kind of girl...but as I watched the video my husband made I felt immensely satisfied (there might have even been a watery eye).
Julie Jams: A Homemade Thanksgiving from Arnold Arnan on Vimeo.

Thanks to FoodBuzz for challenging me to rethink Thanksgiving--the ultimate food holiday.


Joann said...

Fantastic summary, Julie! For other readers, Yes! it was as fantastic as it sounds. I had the lovely pleasure of enjoying my two beautiful daughters spending a day creatively cooking up a storm and providing a wonderful Thanksgiving for their adorable families! I cannot express adequately the deep sense of satisfaction that gives me. A true blessing!

Joann said...

Part 2 -
Arnold - great job on the video! It was fun to see you in action capturing the whole thing.

norecipes said...

I had the same dilemma as you over the 24 topic. Looks like you figured it out though. Love the juxtaposition!

Adam Rust said...

I can personally vouch for the quality of the meal. As Julie's brother-in-law, I had the great pleasure of enjoying this legendary feast. It is no exaggeration for me to say that this was the best apple pie I have ever had in my whole life. No joke, I could eat that stuff 24/7.

Parker said...

Great blog, homemade is certainly better than store bought any day, and the fun of cooking it together is memorable.

Joie de vivre said...

What a great post! A few weeks before Thanksgiving, I read in the paper that a traditional Thanksgiving dinner for 10, was about the same amount of money to prepare this year as last year (around $35.00 if I remember correctly). I was wondering, "how in the world are they doing that for $35.00?) and realized they were probably going off the going price of buying everything industrialized. Yuck! Yours looks wonderful.

Nurit "1 family. friendly. food." said...

great post. Loved to read about all the food, fresh ingredients, farms, doesn't it make everyhitng taste better, even psychologically?
your sister's house is gorgeous! Love those wooden floors with rustic look!!!

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