It began with two days of shopping and cooking. Thistle wanted to throw a holiday party for friends, co-workers and neighbours, and solicited my assistance. We prepared Mrs Robinson’s Turkey (see previous post, A Truly Noble Bird); Roast Stuffed Loin of Pork; Sausage, Cherry, and Chestnut Dressing; a Puree of Sweet Potatoes, Carrots, and Creme Fraiche, Roasted Root Vegetables; and Brandied Apricot Cheesecake.
Brandied Apricot Cheesecake is made with apricot brandy, as the name might suggest, which was not to be readily found in the supermarkets of Las Vegas. We visited five, dropping by a GoodWill in search, not of the brandy, but of a roasting rack: a kitchen imperative not in Thistle’s possession. Brand loyalty forbade me from suggesting we find a Williams-Sonoma. At long last, led on a merry chase by Siri, we found a dusty bottle at a liquor store we had driven by a dozen times.
Back to the Ogden to brew the Brandied Cheesecake, but not before visiting a Mexican dive (conveniently adjacent to the liquor store) where we took an order of some sort of carnitas, carne asada, sour cream, guacamole, salsa and French fry mosaic. Disgustingly delicious. One begins this cheesecake by reconstituting dried apricots in a bath of water, sugar and apricot brandy. We chose to substitute apricot brandy for the water. As the brandy simmered and the apricots plumped, we ground graham crackers and tossed them with butter and pressed them into a springform pan. The apricots were drained and pressed, then pureed in a processor. We beat a standard cheesecake batter, reserving 2/3 of it, and pouring 1/3 into the prepared springform pan. We blended the remaining batter with the apricot puree and poured it into the pan. Then it was only to bake it. This recipe did not call for a water bath. While the cheesecake baked, Thistle and I began our compilation of the greatest film actresses and actors of all time. (See previous post, AFI Can Suck It.) The labour and care we put into this task cannot be understated: writing vertically has always, as a left-hander been a burden to me, not to mention the mental anguish of trying to remember every actress and actor who has moved us over our many years as movie-goers. Here again, I produce a facsimile of our long list, let those who were vanquished never be forgotten.
Bake the cheesecake until it is done: firm, yet pliant at the centre. Remove from the oven and let cool completely. It may be easiest to refrigerate overnight. That is what Thistle and I did, removing ourselves to warm, red glow of Nick and Anthony’s Steakhouse.
When the cheesecake has cooled completely, the time has come to create its topping. Begin with a standard sour cream cheesecake topping. (This is a boon, if you have overcooked your cheesecake, as it will hide any unsightly cracks. Needless to say, Thistle’s creation included no such unsightly blemishes.) When you have spread your sour cream mixture across the cheesecake, you must give it an apricot garnish. Ideally, one would create a glaze from apricot jam, pipe it into a pastry bag and make artistic and/or atavistic designs upon its top. Thistle is not the owner of a pastry bag, so we improvised with fork and toothpick. This is the finished product:
Monday dawned with much to do. After completing the cheesecake, it was time to begin the puree. The Sweet Potato, Carrot, and Creme Fraiche Puree is taken directly from The Silver Palate Cookbook, which is a tome no kitchen should be without. If you do not have a copy, I suggest you purchase one from The Book Frog in Rolling Hills Estates, CA. If they are out of stock, they can order it for you, and can ship it anywhere in the US. Shopping independent bookstores is the way to go.
The puree is simple to make, remember to use a sufficient amount of butter for flavour and texture. Creme Fraiche is best for the recipe, but if it is unavailable, and you are unwilling to make it yourself (Julia Child has a simple recipe she shares on The French Chef) sour cream is a suitable substitute. A food processor is of great aid to its completion, as you must puree the potatoes and carrots, but a fork and whisk with a strong forearm will suffice in absence of a Cuisinart.
Thistle declared that he could not eat turkey without stuffing. Stuffing the cavity of the bird is no longer in style: it complicates both the cooking of the turkey and the stuffing. Those in the know prepare the stuffing outside the bird, where it is more appropriately called “dressing.” I am a great fan of dressing, and it is so easy to make that there is no real need to fall back upon store-bought brands to cook upon the stove top. In my opinion, a dressing needs a meat, a fat, a bread, and a fruit. Thankfully, the first produces the second! The first thing one must to in creating a dressing is to toast cubes of bread. I recommend a combination of French Bread and cornbread to create a variety of flavour and texture. Toast them lightly, and allow to cool. This task may be completed a day ahead. Brown a breakfast sausage in a skillet (a loose, sage based sausage is best for this) and remove, reserving the fat. Add a little butter to the pan, and soften onion and celery in it, adding fresh minced sage, parsley, and thyme at the end, with just a pinch of fresh minced rosemary.
In a large bowl, combine the bread cubes, sausage, and softened vegetables and herbs. At this point, your creativity comes into play: it’s time to add what you like. If I can find peeled chestnuts in the market, I’ll toss them in. (I roasted my own chestnuts once–that’s not a euphemism, these were actual chestnuts–and it was the biggest pain in the ass I’ve ever experienced–and that was a euphemism. Let someone else do the work as far as that’s concerned.) I always like to add some fruit at this point, moderate your choice to the selection of your fowl; dried cherries or cranberries always go well with turkey, but fresh slices of apple will also be suitable. Once all of the solids have been combined, it’s time to add the liquids. I believe in beating a few eggs and tossing them into the bowl with some stock, and if you are feeling bold, some sherry. (It will probably be chicken, but if you have a surplus of turkey, by all means use that.) Combine the liquids and solids, mixing them with your impeccably clean hands, until you receive the consistency of a bread pudding. Pour the dressing into a buttered baking dish or casserole. The dressing is ready to go into the oven at this point, but will benefit from sitting in the icebox for a few hours, so the flavours may meld. 30 minutes covered in foil, and 20 minutes uncovered in a 375 degree oven will give it a consistency crunchy on the outside and tender and moist within.
Roast Stuffed Loin of Pork is another recipe from The Silver Palate Cookbook (see the above reference to The Book Frog) and, while it calls for Madeira in its sauce, I have used that, bourbon, and sherry with equal success. It is important to watch the oven as it cooks, to ensure that the sugars in the sauce do not move from caramel to charcoal: a perilously thin line. By the time the pork entered the oven, the turkey was already roasting and I was moving from apartment to apartment, and floor to floor, ensuring that everything was adequately basted. Thistle, all this time, proved a markable sous chef, balancing what needed to be cooked with the dining area needing to be set up and with his day-to-day responsibilities, while chopping vegetables and cleaning after me with an almost Crawfordian zeal.
When the pork loin has achieved a mahogany hue and the appropriate internal temperature, it is ready to remove from the oven. Thistle declared that the finished product looked like Admiral Ackbar, from Return of the Jedi, in profile–in my opinion, it looked liked roast, stuffed, loin of pork. After 2 hours of sprinting like Jesse Owens, the meats were roasted and ready to rest. Meat must always rest after it is cooked, whether it is the lowliest chicken wing or the most succulent cut of steak. The juices must redistribute, and it gives the flesh time to cool enough to touch it: I scoff the carving fork; use your fingers! You’ll have greater control, and your hands should be impeccably clean, anyway.
There were vegetarians and vegans invited to the dinner, so something meatless and creamless was required. In our grail-like quest for apricot brandy, Thistle declared that he wanted rutabagas as part of the meal. Thus was born my dish of roasted root vegetables. We combined rutabagas, turnips, carrots, parsnips, shallots, and garlic cloves (Thistle cut the larger pieces beautifully) and tossed them with olive oil, lemon zest, and thyme. After they roasted for an hour, we sprinkled them with balsamic vinegar, and let them roast some more. I was too busy to take a picture of them, however, so they will be left to your imagination.
The feast that took place was worthy of anything undertaken in Whoville. Though we were absent jingtinglers, floofloovers, tartookas, whohoopers, gardooka, trumtookas, or slooslunkas, all the Whos at the Ogden were busy that night, and provided such delicacies as a turnip green and potato mash, ratatuoille, a delightful onion and cashew gratin, Brussels Sprouts with bacon, and a surprising chicken enchilada in pumpkin mole.
And thus, the first annual Las Vegas Gourmet Holiday Dinner occurred.
It was an exhausting, but lovely, experience. I’m told that the people of The Vegas still speak in reverence of Mrs Robinson’s turkey. Thistle’s neighbours inherited the carcass and spoke with joy at the thought of lentil soup to be imagined. For myself, I was all but too tired to eat; I sipped my wine and nibbled here and there, enjoying the happiness in Thistle’s eyes, watching him relish in the joy of community, for that is what we all seek in the end, isn’t it? Simply to have a place in our lives. Perhaps my heart grew three sizes that night. Probably not, though.