Slow Cookin’ Turkey Lurkey Blues

My dinner guests are hungry
They’ve come from near ‘n far
but If I don’t platter this birdie soon
They just might leave me in scars

I’ve got the slow cookin’ turkey
Slow-cookin’ turkey-lurkey blues.

The mashed potata’s are wow
Desserts are sweet and fine
But without that bird and gravy now
I’m apt to just hear whines

I’ve got the slow cookin’ turkey
Slow-cookin’ turkey-lurkey blues

The coals’ so hot they’re white
Please throw your firey heat
And cook my little turkey bird
So everyone can eat!

I’ve got the slow cookin’ turkey
Slow-cookin’ turkey-lurkey blues

Well two and two are four
And four and four are eight
But I have twenty guests who are
A knockin’ at my gate

I’ve got the slow cookin’ turkey
Slow-cookin’ turkey-lurkey blues

The sun’s behind the clouds
Oh man! It’s gonna rain
Looks like I’ll have to use
My neighbor’s oven once again

I’ve got the slow cookin’ turkey
Slow-cookin’ turkey-lurkey blues

HAPPY THANKSGIVING, EVERYONE!

Kathy Galgano

November 28, 2013

HOMEWARD BOUND (THANKSGIVING PART III of III)

This piece is dedicated to the memory of our dear friend, Patrice.

I needed two shopping carts to collect everything on my list, and this didn’t even include the turkey. I had ordered a beautiful bird at the mom and pop grocery store near my job; years ago only a handful of markets sold turkeys raised without hormones. That wasn’t the main reason I selected what I now call my “Save the Whale” turkey, however. These birds were fresh, not frozen for weeks on end, and my guests said they could taste the difference. That’s all that mattered.

Looking for ideas in my cookbooks, I landed on this one recipe for stuffing (we had never called it “dressing”), and immediately stopped turning the pages. It’s true that aromas can trigger very powerful memories, but I was instantly transported to another place and time merely by perusing a list of ingredients. Immediately, I was a kid with my family visiting Manhattan for the day. We’d see the sights and the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center in December, and then would stop to buy a wonderfully warm pretzel from a street vendor. On freezing days, I found these carts a bit of inviting warmth. I can recall the enticing aroma wafting from that stand. It was the chestnuts. Vendors scooped the warm nuts into little paper bags before handing them over to the customers, and I breathed in this drifting essence. I looked down at my page; I would recreate this memory. Roasted chestnut stuffing was on the menu.

Friends began to arrive early Wednesday evening. They brought cheese, crackers and chips, and wine, tossed their coats in the bedroom, rolled up their sleeves, some donning aprons, and grabbed peelers, knives and cutting boards. They were eager to get to work. Throughout the evening, the “Slicers and Dicers” peppered me with questions. “How far down do we need to peel the acorn squashes?” I answered, “You want to peel down to the bright orange.” “Got it.”

Next question: “What do I do with these chestnuts?” “We’re supposed to prick them with a knife before roasting them in the oven.” “Like this?” “That looks about right,” I said. Then I added, “Here, I’ll help you.” I was looking forward to working with the chestnuts. I had even called my dad about preparing them. In response to my question, Dad had said, “Prick them with a sharp knife.” That corresponded with the recipe’s description.

Next I heard, “Are you sure you want us to do two bags of potatoes?” “Sure, just peel ‘em all.” “Okay! You’re the boss.” I figured people would want seconds, right?*

“Do you want the bread for the stuffing cubed like this?” “That looks great,” I answered. We played music, sipped wine, and conversations filled the kitchen, dining and living rooms. There was the inviting expectation of a holiday in the air, and it just felt right.

With this group toiling away, I prepared the standard pre-Thanksgiving fare. When I gave the word, we quickly cleared the table and sat down to a dinner of pasta and meatballs, salad and garlic bread, just like all those times years ago with our friends who had moved to Germany. One time, a neighbor’s cat had wandered in our partially open patio door; the kitchen was so cozy and warm. Hours later, when only a few of the Slicers and Dicers remained, and we began to rearrange furniture for the next-day’s feast, a surprised, long-forgotten sleeping cat jumped down from his perch on a kitchen chair, hidden by the tablecloth. We had truly extended our family of friends that year.

So I had the chestnuts in the oven. The potato “KP” team was on a roll; I grew up believing that “KP” meant “keep peeling.” I was stirring the large skillet of sizzling sausage, diced celery and onion, and at some point would add the diced apple and fresh herbs. The chestnuts would be shelled, chopped and added, too. Early on Thursday morning, I would toss this savory blend in with the bread and eggs, and then stuff the enormous bird. While from year to year I may have changed recipes for stuffing or side dishes, there are a few established components of my turkey prep that I will never alter. An entire bottle of chardonnay gets poured into the bottom of the roasting pan, and I choose from fresh herbs, rosemary, sage, thyme, growing in my garden. Very early on, my visiting cousin had explained to me the value of draping bacon over the bird. The bacon drippings baste the main course. When our guest list included people who didn’t eat pork, I switched to turkey bacon. As I was stirring away that night, making one mental note after another, I glanced at the clock. It was time. Grabbing a potholder, I opened the oven door and began to smile. Just as I had hoped, I was back in New York City, next to a little cart filled with warm pretzels and chestnuts. What heaven. I knew the aroma was starting to drift because I heard a few others murmur “MMMMM.” Not bad for a first-timer, I thought. As I began to draw the tray out of the oven, it happened.

POP! POP! Chestnuts exploded in the oven. What a show! My dad had warned me that if they weren’t pricked deeply enough, the steam inside would cause them to erupt. I smiled again. Dad was 3,000 miles away and right again. I lingered in front of the oven. After a few seconds of all quiet, I withdrew the tray. More POPS! There were a few shrieks; I think they were mine. Bits of chestnut hung from the ceiling. They clung to the refrigerator, the walls, the floor, a few guests, and me. Nobody was burnt, thank Goodness, but what a mess! We were all laughing hard now, but I had gotten my wish! In all the years that I have been making Thanksgiving dinners, I have never lived that moment down.

Dinner was delicious, and there was good reason for this. Over the years, so many friends and visiting family members have pitched in, not only to complete the Wednesday night prep work, but to cook entire dishes, and to stir, mash vegetables, season foods, create desserts, prepare the cranberry sauce from scratch, make roux for the gravy, heroically attempt to keep up with the growing mound of pots and pans, and most importantly, remember to add charcoals to the grill each hour. And as carving is not my strongpoint, yearly I have relied on one guest in particular to help me. As the turkey rests on the counter, and I spoon the stuffing from it into a bowl, we all stop to enjoy the crisp smoky bacon that basted the turkey. Now that’s a fitting hors d’oeuvre.

Some years, we’ve rented tables and chairs and extra linens, even chafing dishes. With the extra tables, we have formed a giant “H” configuration in the living and dining rooms so everybody can be seated. The largest group was 34 people. Sometimes, I’ve knocked on neighbors’ doors requesting oven space because the briquettes weren’t catching in either grill (one grill for each bird.) A few times, the turkeys were done ahead of schedule, and my electric warming tray came to the rescue. The year we hosted 34 people proved to be one of those “Help! They just aren’t cooking!” years. My sister and her family were visiting. When my sister asked what she could do to assist, I quickly responded: “Play! Please play.”

My niece calls her mom a “human jukebox.” What a fitting description. While I was frantically checking my watch and chanting, “Cook, Turkeys, Cook,” my sis was leading the guests in an impromptu sing-along on our yard-sale-purchased upright piano. Who knew two opera singers would be in the crowd that year? The crew in the kitchen started to hum, too. After playing popular show and movie tunes, my sister segued into Beatles’ songs. The animated group was really into their pre-dinner show now. When I heard, “Deck the halls with boughs of holly,” I couldn’t even imagine the appetite this gang had worked up. The place erupted in cheers when I delivered my sing-song, long-awaited message: “The turkeys are done!”

Every year there comes a time when several of my returning guests approach me individually, and whisper, “Are we going to do it again this year?” I smile. My response is always the same. “Yes!”

Returning guests can’t wait to see the faces of new guests as they experience this time-honored tradition. It is the moment we have long awaited, or dreaded, perhaps. It is our signature Thanksgiving experience, and so we crank up the volume, loud. As the bowls of heavy cream make their way around the table along with the whisks and my ancient frilly pink apron or my moo cow apron with little cloth bovine ears on the bib, guests are inspired to work by the appropriate, mood-setting tunes. Well, that’s the idea, anyway. Booming is the Devo classic, “Whip it.” Guests recite, “Whip it. Whip it good.” The bowl gets passed to a newcomer. Someone places the apron on their neck. While whisking away, Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” comes up next on our personal Thanksgiving hit parade, again played at eye-popping decibels. It’s likely that not everyone has had a chance to whisk, and the bowls of cream aren’t quite ready. Now people are dancing to Weird Al Yankovic’s wonderful spoof, “Eat it.” Guests clap and groove to the beat. It’s a raucous affair.

Imagine this scenario as experienced by quite an elderly woman who spoke not a word of English. Our dear friend’s daughter brought her boyfriend and his grandmother for dinner. We had never met. A little unsure of what she would think, I went ahead with the tradition and just kept my fingers crossed. As the music rocked the room, she was the life of the party. Another time, a friend brought a guest whom we were excited to meet, but as I was behind schedule, I hugged each of them and handed over a large bunch of freshly washed parsley. “I’m so happy you came,” I told them. “Now, can you garnish all the plates with a sprig, please?” Another year a friend brought a colleague from Japan to our home. Experiencing his first Thanksgiving, this engineer settled in at the piano and played magnificent jazz. Somehow, guests found just enough room between tables and chairs to dance before dinner. It was a thrill.

Other years, it wasn’t just unlit charcoals that created drama. When the kitchen sink stopped up, we couldn’t run the water without catching it in pans lest we’d need to call out the rowboats. That year my husband’s family was here. Not only were my sister-in-law and brother-in-law fabulous cooks, they were quite handy with tools, too! Another time we had a small flood in our basement. No little plumbing issue is going to put a damper on Thanksgiving. One year I had to set-up a booth at a crafts fair I was participating in, to be held on Friday. Our family of friends took care of everything!

One neighbor really jazzed things up one time. Guests watched him as he walked back and forth in his yard outside our dining and living room windows. First, he wore a red wig. The next time he walked by, he modeled a different one. I don’t know how many wigs he owned, but he sported a different one with each pass. We were dining on seconds before somebody finally said something. Then, everyone howled. While they were perplexed, guests figured they should be polite, so they had said nothing. At my urging, my sport of a neighbor had advised me that he would “come up with something” for us that day.

Just like the Thanksgivings of years ago, everyone here always inquires about each other’s family living in other parts of the country. Over the years, many of us have lost loved ones back home, and sadly, we have lost one of our own, a dear friend with whom we shared every holiday and who always graced us with her presence, her spirit, her smile, her sense of humor, her great conversation, her friendship, and her incredible desserts. While we miss her, we feel her presence through time spent with old friends.

Unlike the Thanksgivings of years ago, we no longer think of ourselves as “transplants,” or “orphans.” We no longer play “Homeward Bound” with each meal. Each year, when our house is brimming and the living room windows are steamed up because of all the cooking, we build on the treasured memories of years past, and know that we are home.

Happy Thanksgiving, Everybody!

*Note to self: Making 20 lbs. of mashed potatoes is ridiculous.

Kathy Galgano

November 18, 2013

HOMEWARD BOUND – Thanksgiving Part II of III

I enjoyed inviting friends over to dinner, and my confidence level had grown dramatically having sliced and diced for our chef turned engineer friend so many times over the years. I grew up in a family that shared regional cuisines of Eastern and Southern Europe, and I gravitated to the Italian recipes.

Cooking was never scary. Well, not in the way you think. My mom and dad were adept in the kitchen and dad especially enjoyed the process, and we kids were expected to pitch in and help. Dad loved to play-up a mannerism that my mother and I found maddening. Dad talked while holding a knife. He would be telling us a story, and inevitably my dad would stop slicing or dicing or carving and start walking around the kitchen, swinging his arms and making his point, drawing circles in the air with the small razor sharp paring knife, or full-sized carving knife. I knew Dad used keen-edged blades; I watched him sharpen them on a stone before every cooking session.

“Carl,” my mother would call with exasperation. “Put down the knife!” Dad would be wandering around the kitchen, fully engaged in his story. My mother and I focused our eyes on his dominant, knife-wielding right hand as it cut through the air like a magician’s wand. He gesticulated wildly while nonchalantly forging ahead with his humorous story. He reacted to his own yarn, and smiled and laughed all the while seemingly unaware of the momentary kitchen angst he created. How Dad loved to tease! In his defense I have to say he never once dropped the knife; Dad’s grip was too strong to let that happen. My mother and I would look at each other and shake our heads as Dad wandered over to the sink, where I might be rinsing iceberg lettuce, or strolled the few steps to the stove to check out the pots my mother was stirring, still talking and waving his hands. At the conclusion of his story, Dad would return to his thick wooden cutting board wearing a broad smile, and dive into his work with great skill. We’d still be shaking our heads and he always pleaded innocence. Dad would look up at us and say, “What?” “What did I do?” My mother and I would sigh, maybe even roll our eyes in exaggerated exasperation, and then Dad would pull out his signature expression, contorting his mouth downwards to reveal his ridiculous “look ashamed” visage. Laughter erupted.

So while I’ve never been afraid to dive into a culinary project, I don’t remember recreating our friend’s fabulous Coquiles St. Jacques, those sumptuous scallops he made for us one Sunday night years ago. It was the first time I had ever eaten scallops, but I wasn’t going to confess that to our friend as I washed and cut vegetables. Nor did I tell our host and hostess that I had never before tasted barbecued ribs, let alone purchased them at the supermarket. I worked on the salad that night. The ribs were great and I became a fan. My comfort zone was in roasts and pastas and meatballs and chicken and fresh water fish and potatoes and vegetables in season and soups and stews. My mother was allergic to seafood, and we just never ate ribs; barbecues were for hamburgers and hot dogs and sausages. Pesto was a dish new to me, as well. My Italian grandparents hailed from Southern Italy, and pesto, traditionally a Northern Italian recipe, was not part of my family’s legacy. But I liked cooking and I liked my food processor and my gadgets, and so I dove into new recipes with enthusiasm.

I prepared dishes for our family of friends, and for loved ones who visited from the East Coast. I remember making homemade linguine for pasta Carbonara. One evening I spent a long while at a bookstore, searching for just the right cookbook. I purchased it and a paella pan and tried my hand at the dish I had enjoyed while living in Spain for a summer when I was in college. That book also taught me how to make Spanish tortillas; those potato and egg skillet dishes that can be eaten alone, or put between two slices of fresh bread for a great sandwich. When my study-abroad group took weekend bus excursions to tour different parts of Spain, the kitchen staff in our dormitory made these tortilla sandwiches for the ride. I loved them. I also tried my hand at my dad’s fabulous rolled steak, an Italian dish that takes a fair amount of prep time. The results were satisfying.

Frequently I called home and chatted with my folks, asking them how they seasoned or cooked different things. When I called for clarification of my father’s recipe for potatoes (all these recipes are passed to us by doing and watching – nobody writes them down), my mother bristled at my request. I wasn’t surprised. Dad made these roasted potatoes with fresh parsley and garlic and cheese. “The Good Kind Of Potatoes,” we called them. The cheese would crust on the edges of the roasting pan and we’d love picking out the charred pieces. How tasty! Mom used to ask, “What about all the other kinds of potatoes?” She made delicious cabbage with boiled potatoes, and dumplings stuffed with a potato mixture, and fried potatoes and yams and roasted ones. And she made tasty mashed potatoes. “Are those the ‘Bad Kinds’?” Again, there was the familiar head shake back and forth and accompanying sigh. Dad did his playful best to keep this recipe name game alive. “Kids,” he’d yell upstairs to us in the house on Sundays, “Do you want me to make ‘The Good Kind of Potatoes?’”  Naturally, the phrase, “The Good Kind of Potatoes” received particular emphasis. Our response was always an enthusiastic, “Yeah!” I just knew my mother was wincing. If Dad or we kids said the phrase “The Good Kind of Potatoes” more than a couple of times, inevitably, Dad would catch my mother shaking her head or sighing, and then would don his trademark expression, and we’d all laugh as he looked ashamed again.

The California chef turned engineer friend taught us how to make roux. I didn’t have the heart to tell my mom that this technique was better than hers for making gravy. No more stirring and stirring the pan drippings, trying to attack each little lump of corn starch or flour with the back of a spoon. This was a revelation, as was white pepper. A bowl of mashed potatoes seasoned with white pepper was beautiful.

So it just seemed natural that I would host Thanksgiving dinner for however many friends and family would be joining that day. What was the big deal?

Stayed Tuned for the third and final part of Homeward Bound!

Kathy Galgano

November 13, 2013

Homeward Bound – Thanksgiving Part I

The tradition started years ago, when we were out of college and making our way in the world. On that special Thursday in late November, with so many of us 3,000 miles away from family and home, it was the one holiday that proved a bit tough. Yet we had established a network of friends – our new family of friends — and one among us was a chef.

We spent many a Sunday afternoon at the chef turned engineer’s home, first in Silicon Valley and later in the nearby Santa Cruz mountains. Always on the menu was a spirited game of Trivial Pursuit which we played in teams, and some California wine, cheeses, crackers and bread, and fruit. Wine was a new foray for many of us and it was sitting around the board game table or stretching in front of the fire with the cat on cool, rainy winter afternoons listening to music that we began to appreciate the nuances of the varietals and blends. White zinfandel was a favored choice at first; the sweet, crisp taste was perfect for wine tasting neophytes, but in time, we uncorked bottles that were less sweet and more complex. Buttery chardonnays were in vogue and that became a favorite.

Sometimes we took a little hike, not always successfully avoiding the poison oak on the hillside, or visited one or two of the many wineries tucked in the steep hills of the local coastal redwoods. Or we could complete the drive in the Santa Cruz mountains “over the hill” and check out the sea lions in the pilings of the wharf in Santa Cruz. The sea lions barked that loud, deep, raspy call of theirs, and we playfully called back to them. Mostly, though, we enjoyed the company of good friends, and spent Sunday afternoons just relaxing together.

There was never any question as to where everybody would go for Thanksgiving. We all showed up at the chef turned engineer’s house on Wednesday evening after work and the process would begin. As more friends arrived, we would spread out from the kitchen into the dining room and even head to the coffee table in the living room, setting up shop, mincing onions and celery and parsley, slicing and cubing bread for stuffing, dicing carrots and preparing turnips and butternut squashes, and peeling potatoes, stroking downwards, so that the peels would drop directly into the brown paper bag placed under our hands. We would sip wines we brought to share, and work and talk and listen to albums while our host and hostess prepared a pasta feast for the crew. When word from the kitchen came, we’d clear the dining room table and enjoy a wonderful spaghetti dinner with homemade rolls and salad. After dinner, we’d wash up and put the final touches on our peeling, slicing and dicing, and lastly prepare the pumpkin pies. It might be close to midnight when we pulled the pies from the oven, but dinner prep was in great shape.

Early afternoon on Thanksgiving Day, as we walked through the front door, the aromas from the kitchen welcomed us. The scent of turkey and stuffing and vegetables and rolls brought each of us back home for a moment. There were smiles and waves and hugs as we made our way in and tossed our jackets in the bedroom and uncorked our wines, donned aprons and rolled up our sleeves to get to work. Many of us had already telephoned home and spoken to our families who were dining or preparing to dine at home three hours ahead of us. We all shared a similar story; family members were always happy to hear that their Silicon Valley “transplants” each had someplace to go for Thanksgiving. We understood. While it would have been nice to share the holiday with our families, there was something very special about embracing our own tradition.

Back then, we called ourselves “homeless.” That phrase hadn’t been coined yet to mean what it means today. Sometime during dinner our host would play “Homeward Bound,” by Simon and Garfunkel. While a bit melancholy, it was a fitting acknowledgment of our families back East. That mood didn’t last, however, as we enjoyed seconds of this amazing meal, and another glass of wine and great conversation with dear friends. Dinner was never hurried, and we laughed a lot. After a long while, we would gather up the plates and carry everything back to the kitchen. Somebody would make coffee and our hostess poured heavy cream into a stainless steel bowl. We’d unveil the desserts we had brought and the pumpkin pies we had baked just hours earlier, and again sat down at the long table. As we stirred cream and sugar into our cups, our hostess clasped a whisk and expertly turned the cream in the bowl. After a spurt of high-powered whisking, she turned, smiling broadly to the guest sitting next to her and hung her apron around his neck announcing it was his turn. As the bowl and whisk and apron made its way around the table, we cheered as each person worked a little whisking magic, and we each posed for the camera with that frilly apron wrapped around our necks. When the stainless bowl returned to our hostess, it was filled with perfectly whipped cream. Then, people sitting nearest to the pies and cakes began to cut slices, and we passed dessert plates around, filling each one with the tastes of the season, apple and sweet potato and pumpkin pies, and always something chocolate, with our hostess adding a heaping dollop of fresh cream onto each plate. It was fabulous.

One day, however, our dear friend, our host, told us that his job was taking him to Europe.  This was a great career move and of course, we were very happy for him, and offered our heartiest congratulations. Still, how could we not be saddened?  We were a tight group and our friendship was strong, so we knew that staying in touch would not be a problem, but this nearly weekly tradition was coming to an end. And then there was that big unanswered question hanging in the air … What about Thanksgiving?

End of Part One