Since we eat from scratch, I love simple preparations that accentuate the flavor of the ingredients (and go together fast enough to satisfy our hungry children). But on special occasions, the work of a dish can intensify my pleasure in preparing it. This is especially true at Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving revolves around food and tradition and family and thankfulness, and through years of holidays, these strands have become entwined for me. When I cook for my family, memories tiptoe in from other days, other years.
This morning, I spent time alone in the kitchen making our favorite cranberry chutney. I'm rarely alone when I cook. Blossom and Fern share the family passion for cooking, and we are often all there together, talking and laughing. But today, the girls had chickens to tend. Birch was out and about. So I found myself cooking and going wherever my mind wandered. Fortunately, making the chutney requires blanching and peeling a half-pound of shallots. So my mind had a lot of time to wander.
It wandered from the May day I planted the shallots in my garden to the first Thanksgiving I spent in New York City, a day when a friend and I roasted our first turkey and watched the Macy's parade across from the Museum of Natural History. The sky was so blue it seemed like a Missouri sky to me; I ached for the only family I'd ever known. But that was also the Thanksgiving I realized the joy and importance of the family one finds in the world.
As I trimmed shallots for tomorrow's feast, I thought of waking on Thanksgiving day to hear my mother in the kitchen, to smell the celery and sage, to feel the deepest sense of well-being I have ever known in my life...because it happened every year and I imagined it always would. I thought of the long walks my father and I took every Thanksgiving along the railroad tracks: I would be eager to get home to the fireside, and he would distract me with the same joke he seemed to fish out of his back pocket every year, "You may think this is an icicle on my nose, but it'ssss not."
As I blanched and peeled the shallots this morning, I thought of how lucky we are that my grandfather will be at my mother's Thanksgiving table this year. He'll tell 92-years of great stories. Even though I won't be there to hear them, I love knowing that he'll be telling them. I thought too of how my great-aunt Ella was always at our Thanksgiving table when I was growing up and how her homemade noodles are still on our every holiday table and how the great-great-nieces she never knew nevertheless know her...and know how to make her noodles and will be making them for Thanksgivings beyond the stretch of even my imagination.
I was filled with thankfulness as I cooked this morning...for the children chasing chickens outside the kitchen window, for the husband who will bake our bread, for the people who love us and show us they do. I felt such deep gratitude for the kindness shown to us this year.
For me, cooking is an act of deep thoughtfulness and thankfulness. It's the perfect start for our celebration. It is itself an act of thanksgiving.
"Best" Cranberry, Shallot and Dried-Cherry Chutney
1/2 pound shallots (about 16)
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup white-wine vinegar (tarragon is very good)
1 cup dry white wine
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup dried, unsweetened sour cherries
2 cups fresh or unthawed frozen cranberries, picked over
1/2 cup water
• In a saucepan of boiling water, blanch shallots for one minute. Drain. Peel shallots and separate into cloves.
• In a heavy saucepan, cook shallots in butter over moderate heat, stirring until coated. Add sugar and 1 tablespoon vinegar and cook until the sugar mixture turns a golden caramel. (The texture will be very grainy, dry, and weird-seeming; don't be discouraged.)
• Add remaining vinegar, wine, and salt and boil one minute. (Don't panic if the sugar caramel hardens; it will melt.)
• Add cherries and simmer, covered, 45 minutes, or until shallots are tender.
• Add cranberries and water and boil gently, uncovered, stirring occasionally, ten minutes, or until cranberries burst. Transfer to bowl and cool. Serve at room temperature.
• Makes about three cups and can be cooked five days ahead and chilled, covered.
In my kitchen memory book, I did not note where I found this recipe. The first time I made it, in 1996, I spent part of the same day re-reading Jane Austen's Persuasion and listening to Ella Fitzgerald by the fire. I've been making it for Thanksgivings ever since.