Friday, December 9, 2011

Holiday Dishes at the Maine Homestead

Every year at Thanksgiving, I tend to use fewer and fewer recipes. That's because I've spent the last decade or so going every November to my sister and brother-in-law's place in North Berwick, Maine, where we mostly cook what they've grown. (And where they grow almost all of what they eat.) More and more, I want to see, smell and touch what they've picked -- or pick it myself -- before I decide what to do with it.
Wood-roasted, honey-glazed root vegetables.

In case you haven't gathered this already, my sister Rebekah spoils me at Thanksgiving. By the time I got there this year, on Wednesday afternoon, she had made several pies' worth of her perfect butter-lard dough; foraged a couple pounds of oyster mushrooms; picked, trimmed and cleaned celery root, carrots, parsnips and kale and other greens; defrosted their own chicken sausage; ground their own corn into meal; slaughtered, plucked a neighboring farmer's turkey; and stocked the fridge with farm-fresh milk, cream, yogurt and cheese. The garlic and onion braids hung in the mudroom, ready for me to twist off whatever I needed. The potatoes were hanging out in a tiny cold storage room nestled against the side of the house.

Celeriac soup.
All I had to do, really, was cook. So you see what I mean about being spoiled. 

Mashed potatoes with butter, buttermilk and goat's milk.
When the group of us that call ourselves Let's Lunch (and coordinate blog posts on a theme every month) decided we'd write on the topic of holiday side dishes from our family, I wasn't exactly sure what I'd do, because this year we didn't really use a recipe for any of the side dishes -- except for, I suppose, the standard sausage cornbread stuffing she's been making for years from a Saveur recipe. The pies are a mix of her crust plus recipes for apple and pumpkin ginger from Rose Levy Beranbaum's "The Pie and Pastry Bible" and pecan from Virginia Willis's "Bon Appetit, Y'all."And I love making James Beard's sweet potato rolls from "Beard on Bread" or Lisa Yockelson's soft buttermilk rolls (this year, I made the latter).

Everything else? We kinda winged it. That, of course, doesn't mean it's not worth writing about. On the contrary, I suppose. So here goes:

I always like a soup for Thanksgiving, because it forces everyone to pause a little bit and talk at the table before the build-your-plate-mountain craziness ensues. I took those beautiful celeriac bulbs, peeled  and cut most of them into big chunks -- but held out a cup or so that I finely diced. I chopped up about 1/2 cup of the leaves, too. I cooked the celeriac chunks in chicken stock, pureed with an immersion blender (after adding some celery seed and salt), then stirred in a little cream before serving. I garnished each bowl of soup with the celery leaves and the crispy celeriac pieces that I had pan-fried.

Meanwhile, Rebekah sauteed that beautiful Tuscan kale in Maine-grown canola oil (not their own -- yet!) with crushed red pepper flakes, and splashed in a little vinegar at the end. I boiled the smallest of their Yukon gold and red potatoes until tender, then put them through a food mill -- a way to rice them while leaving the peels behind -- and folded in fresh butter, buttermilk, goat's milk and a palmful of salt.

Most of the other cooking happened in their wood-fired brick bread oven, which is truly a magical thing. It's an intense heat that seems to sear the outside of foods quickly and leaves them juicy inside (not to mention tinged with smoke flavor). So the turkey was simply butterflied -- something I do every year -- and then I stuffed a paste of bacon, garlic and sage under the skin and roasted it at probably 550 degrees until it was caramel-colored and done. I didn't time it, because I hadn't weighed it. Instead, I just kept an eye on it, tented it with foil when it got brown, and pulled it when the instant-read thermometer said it had reached 165 at the thickest part of the thigh. The drippings made for fabulous gravy when combined with more evidence that my sister spoils me: beautifully gelled homemade turkey stock.

The mushrooms were meant for the wood oven, of course -- just simply tossed in olive oil and coarse salt. But my favorite side dish was probably the roasted root veggies: a combination of parsnips and carrots with a few turnips thrown in. I drizzled them with oil, dusted them with cumin and pimenton and roasted them until they had brown spots here and there, then took them out and gave them another drizzle, this time with raw honey. The earthy spices layered with the sweet, sticky honey pulled them into special-occasion territory, if I do say so myself.

It wasn't as many different dishes as we had done in years past, and that was on purpose. There were 10 of us, and my sister and I wanted to make sure people got to really taste everything. Those plate mountains were tall, but each dish got its due. T
he pies awaited, and we served them with freshly whipped cream. Amazing cream, actually.

This is not a tradition I plan on breaking anytime soon. In fact, next year there will be even more of the same, because as of the New Year I will be living with them in North Berwick while I take a yearlong leave to work on a couple of book projects -- including one, you guessed it, on the art of homesteading. My brother-in-law is installing the insulation, putting up siding and investigating Murphy bed kits for the little studio they're building, just past the chicken coop. 

That means that, among other things, next Thanksgiving I won't be nearly as spoiled, reaping the fruits of the harvest without sowing any of the seeds. Next year, in fact, my elbow grease will have gone into every dish, too. 

I have a feeling that things will taste even better.

This post is part of Let’s Lunch – a virtual lunchdate with food bloggers around the globe. Want to join us in the kitchen? Comment on this post or tweet using the hashtag #LetsLunch. 

Here are more posts on the theme from the Let's Lunch crew:

Patrick Glee: Baby Pecan Pies

A Cook and Her Books:
Not My Mama's Black-Eyed Peas & Greens

Cowgirl Chef:
Lime-Chipotle Carrots

Burnt-Out Baker:
Eating Butterflies: Festive Treats for Ordinary Days

Spice Box Travels:
Trinidadian Baked Pastelles

Of Loaves and Fruitcakes

Zest Bakery:
Coconut Date Balls and a Gluten-Free Dinner on Vashon Island

Free Range Cookies:
Bake Me a Salad

Monday Morning Cooking Club: 
Potato Latkes

Maria's Good Things:
Grandma Dorothy's Deviled Eggs

The Kitchen Trials:
Sweet Potato Casserole with Pecan Crumble

A Tiger in the Kitchen:
Auntie Jane's Potato Gratin

Wok Star:
Easy Festive Side

The Taste of Oregon:
Roasted Parsnips, Carrots and Delicata Squash


  1. Oh my goodness, what an experience! Roasted root vegetables are a mainstay at our house, and I bet the fresh ones really make a difference. The honey, too. Looking forward to more of your adventures in Maine.

  2. i love cooking garden to table and those root veggies in honey sound fantastic!

    btw, i think you mentioned last month's seduction theme in the bottom of your post.;-)

  3. Thanks, HM and ZB! (And I fixed that little snafu...)

  4. Wow... That's an amazing meal. So jealous of how your sister spoils you like that.

  5. I would marry those glazed root vegetables in a second. Smokin' hot!

  6. I would make the trip from Australia (and back!) just to eat that meal. This post leaves me salivating and speechless!! WOW. Wow. And wow.

  7. Oh, so jealous. Would love to have some fresh picked oyster mushrooms!The food looks lovely. And so glad you got to spend Thanksgiving with family and nature.

  8. OK, I'll take second helpings of each -- wait, no, a third of those mashed taters. Can I please crash your Thanksgiving dinner next year? Do you think your sister would mind?

  9. Everybody come! I think next year's going to be pretty special. Maybe we'll have a pig roast!

  10. Joe I just discovered your column--and plan on reading it all. Your sister's place sounds a lot like my brother's homestead just outside of Grants Pass OR...I love being there from "picking" dinner from the garden to baking our own sourdough in the 1920's oven. Sibling bond is a blessing. I cannot wait to read more about your upcoming year.