Thanksgiving Meatballs

2015 Blog November-0596I realize that it may be tantamount to sedition to suggest to most Americans that they consider having meatballs for Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is sacred: though there might be ham, there MUST be turkey. Sometimes it is packed full of cornbread or sourdough stuffing; sometimes the stuffing gets baked separately and the turkey cavity is jammed with herbs and a half a lemon (that’s the way it usually goes in our house). There are potatoes of some sort – if you are my sister, they are always these chipotle mashed sweet potatoes, originally from Cooking Light. Gravy is less important to me than to some people – I realize there are secret recipes generations old, and then there’s that sludgy stuff that pours right out of a jar. As long as the turkey is moist, I tend not to fuss about the gravy. Cranberry sauce, however, is a must, and so are vegetables, though variety is much more acceptable here than in other parts of the meal. Later, if you can find a corner of room, there’s pumpkin pie, or perhaps pumpkin cheesecake, and maybe some sort of rum-drenched dessert drink.

2015 Blog November-05862015 Blog November-0584Given all that (are you hungry yet?), you might not want meatballs for Thanksgiving. But these are Thanksgiving IN a meatball. Everything – with perhaps the exception of the pumpkin pie – is accounted for: finely whirred onion and celery from the stuffing, soaked bread crumbs, gently sautéed herbs, even the occasional tart-sweet stab of a bit of dried cranberry. They get simmered in gravy that is lightly seasoned with rosemary and a few lemon slices, to keep it bright, and nestled tenderly in a bed of mashed potatoes. It’s all there. Even the eternal quandary that is Thanksgiving veg is factored in: a crisp tumble of fried brussels sprout leaves cascading over the top.

2015 Blog November-05812015 Blog November-0587The vegetable component here is inspired by several restaurants we’ve eaten at recently, which offer fried brussels leaves as an appetizer – a kind of alternative to a bowl of french fries or maybe, just maybe, an evolution of the ubiquitous kale chip. At first I was reluctant to pay $8.00 for a paper-lined dish of these crisp little things (oh Los Angeles), but the flavor – a toastiness that almost invokes sesame oil – and the salty goodness that makes me want to finish the whole bowl, usually wins me over. Besides, several experiments to perfect them for this dish have taught me that they are only deceptively pricey – the patience and time it takes to coax off individual leaves without damaging them makes it worth occasionally paying other people to do it.

2015 Blog November-0590Still, though, the crispy fried leaves add a really necessary textural component to this whole dish. The mashed potatoes are soft, the meatballs are moist and tender, the gravy is velvety; it needs a crunch. Even though it takes a while to produce enough leaves to be worth it, and even though the frying process itself is terrifying – the leaves have a high water content, so the oil fizzes up tremendously when you first add them – they are the perfect final garnish to the plate.

2015 Blog November-05952015 Blog November-0602I’m waxing ridiculous about the brussels sprouts, I know, so let me just say: the meatballs and the gravy they simmer in are delicious too. The vegetables inside keep things moist, and the hints of sweetness from the cranberries are a nice touch. I presume they would be tasty over noodles of some sort, or perhaps on a slider or crostini. But since this is about Thanksgiving, I couldn’t see deviating from the classic mashed potato. I’m not including a potato recipe here; you should make them however you like them. I will say, though, a crumble of goat cheese melted in at the last second is never a bad thing…

2015 Blog November-0603

Thanksgiving Meatballs
Makes 18-20 meatballs (about 2 tablespoons each)
60-90 minutes
1½ cups fresh bread crumbs (from 1-2 slices of bread)
1 cup whole milk or half and half
¼ cup grated yellow or white onion (about ⅓ of a large onion)
¼ cup grated celery (about 2 stalks of celery)
4 tablespoons butter, divided
1 teaspoon finely minced fresh sage
1 teaspoon finely minced fresh thyme
2 tablespoons finely minced fresh parsley
2 tablespoons finely chopped dried cranberries
⅛ teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon salt
1 pound ground turkey, dark meat preferable
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons flour
¼ cup dry white wine, optional
2 cups low-sodium turkey broth
2 inch sprig of fresh rosemary
3-4 thin slices of lemon
1½-2 cups vegetable oil
2 cups brussels sprout leaves
Additional salt and pepper to taste
Mashed potatoes, made your favorite way


  • To make the bread crumbs, whir the slices of bread in a food processor into small, fluffy crumbs. Combine these crumbs in a small bowl or 2-cup glass measuring cup with the milk or half and half, and let soak at least 10-15 minutes while you prep and cook the vegetables.
  • Add the onion and celery into the food processor (no need to wash it out in between; everything’s going to the same place!), and let run until the vegetables are very finely minced.
  • Heat 2 tablespoons of the butter in a 12-inch skillet over medium-low heat and add the onions and celery. Sweat gently until the onion pieces are translucent and the celery is tender; 5-8 minutes. In the final minute, add the finely minced sage and thyme leaves. Turn off the heat, transfer cooked vegetables and herbs to a medium bowl, and let cool for about 10 minutes.
  • Once the vegetables have had a chance to cool a bit, add the parsley, chopped cranberries, pepper, and salt to the bowl. Gently squeeze out the bread crumbs that have been soaking in milk and add them as well; they don’t have to be squeezed dry, but ideally they should be no longer dripping. Add the turkey meat and use your fingertips or a fork to combine and evenly distribute all ingredients.
  • In the same skillet you used previously, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter and the 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil over medium-low heat. While it warms, roll the meat mixture into balls about 2 tablespoons each. You should get 18-20 meatballs out of this quantity. As you roll each, place it on a clean plate.
  • When all meatballs are rolled, turn the heat under the skillet up to medium and gently add as many meatballs as will fit in a single layer, not touching each other. Brown for 2-3 minutes, then flip over and repeat once or twice more on the other “sides” of the meatball.
  • Once meatballs are browned on 2 or 3 sides, remove this first batch to a clean plate and repeat, until all meatballs are browned.
  • In the empty skillet, sprinkle the flour over the remaining fat and whisk into a golden bubbling sludge, then let cook 1-2 minutes. Add the dry white wine, if using, whisking immediately and constantly to integrate the flour evenly. When the wine is incorporated, slowly add the turkey broth, again whisking constantly, until no lumps remain.
  • Bring the liquid mixture to a simmer, whisking occasionally. Gently add the meatballs back in along with any liquid they have generated, clamp on a lid, and simmer for 15 minutes.
  • After 15 minutes, use a spoon or a pair of tongs to gently flip over each meatball. Add the sprig of rosemary and the lemon slices to the liquid in between the meatballs, then replace the lid and cook another 15 minutes.
  • During the cooking, prepare your mashed potatoes any way you like them.
  • To make the brussels sprouts, heat 1½-2 cups vegetable oil to 350F in a heavy, straight-sided pot. The weight is important because we want it to be stable. When it reaches 350F, carefully add the brussels sprout leaves. The oil will immediately bubble up furiously, so again, be careful.
  • Fry the leaves for 2-3 minutes, frequently agitating them with a skimmer or a kitchen spider. When a few tester leaves feel crisp, carefully skim them out onto a double layer of paper towels or a brown paper bag. Immediately sprinkle with salt and reserve until ready to serve. It is best to do these as close to the last minute as possible for heat and crispness.
  • To serve the whole dish, place a healthy serving of mashed potatoes into a shallow bowl. Spread them out a bit to form a well in the center. Spoon in a few tablespoons of the meatball gravy, then nestle in the meatballs – I recommend 4-5 per person. Add a bit more gravy over the top if desired, and shower with a crisp handful of fried brussels sprout leaves.

Off the horse

As you might be able to tell, I’ve been busy.  School starts soon, the weather can’t decide whether to be summer or fall, and it seems like every thoroughfare in our town is under construction, with completion dates uncertain.  Somehow, this state of construction has incorporated itself into my life.  Most of my projects are far from done, and some have yet to be started.  When that happens, blogging goes awry, or at least gets pushed onto a sidewalk somewhere out of the way of the steaming hot asphalt I’m trying to spread evenly across my academic life.

Too much?

Maybe too much.

Anyway, with ground turkey in the freezer and a desire for protein in our hearts, we decided on this Bittman pick last week:

“30. Cook brown rice until just shy of done. Drain and mix with an equal amount of ground turkey and a little chopped fresh sage and chopped dried cherries. Form into patties and sauté or bake, turning once, until crisp and cooked all the way through.”

Sounded easy and filling and delicious.  I amassed:

1 cup brown rice, raw

1.25 pounds ground turkey (mine was frozen, so I defrosted it but it was still SO cold!)

2-3 TB dried cherries, coarsely chopped

10 fresh sage leaves, finely chopped

Salt and pepper

Olive oil, for sautéing

I cooked the brown rice in my rice cooker with two cups of water – a little shy of ideal so it would remain slightly underdone.  Then I let it cool until it was room temperature so it wouldn’t be a.) too hot to touch, and b.) so hot that it started cooking the turkey.

With cool, cooked rice, I just combined all the ingredients in a glass bowl and combined them with my fingers, working to incorporate the rice and turkey, and trying to distribute the cherries and sage evenly throughout the mix.

I formed the mixture into ten patties, each about the right size to fit nicely onto an English muffin (guess how we ate the leftovers!), then deposited them a few at a time into a preheated skillet containing a few tablespoons of olive oil.  Though I could have jammed them all into the skillet at the same time, this would have resulted in a big turkey pancake, which doesn’t sound delicious.  Rather, distribute the patties so they aren’t touching one another, which will give them room to brown.

After about five minutes on each side, I popped the burgers onto a plate so we could pop them into our mouths.  We had them alongside a salad of spinach, arugula, dried cherries, toasted walnuts, and chunks of cheddar, and they were tasty.  The sage added that dusty smokiness that suggests harvest and fall and Thanksgiving, and the cherries were chewy little morsels of brightness with a perfume-y, candy burst.

The only problem with these patties, as is often the issue with turkey, is that they ended up a little dry.  I don’t think I overcooked them, though I suppose that could have been the problem.  Rather, I think leaving the rice slightly underdone caused it to wick up the minimal moisture the turkey had.  The result was quite good, but not as moist as we’d hoped.

However, it was as leftovers that these patties really shined.  I reheated them for lunch sandwiches in a little pool of chicken broth, which I spooned over them as they warmed.  This added some much-needed moisture and prevented them from cooking much more.  We layered them into toasted English muffins along with arugula, cheddar cheese, and just a touch of mayonnaise.  Divine.

2010 Thanksgiving Menu

I get excited about holidays that involve cooking waaaayyyyy earlier than I should (then again, since our Target already has a Christmas section erected, complete with at least six artificial trees, maybe I’m not totally unhealthy).  I even told my mom over the phone this past Sunday that I’d probably go grocery shopping for the holiday late this week or this weekend.  Right, with two weeks to go.  I was already a week ahead of myself and willing to completely skip seven days of reality so I could buy a turkey.

But I love the way food impacts a holiday, and not just because I love eating.  For my family, food has a binding quality.  I love to cook, my mom taught me how and she loves to cook, my sister is developing an enjoyment and adventuresome spirit in the kitchen, and my dad… likes eating the food we make.  But still, it gives us something to talk about, something to share with each other, and something to do together, when we are in the same kitchen.  I feel close to them through the food we create.

At Thanksgiving, my mom and I make most of the dinner, my sister pipes in with seasoning suggestions, my dad carves the turkey, N. tastes things and generally tries to stay out of the way, and Lucy’s nose never stops twitching.  Every hour or so, little click-clacking dog claws tiptoe into the kitchen to take a sniff and clean the floor.

So I’ve already thought through the entire menu.  I know exactly what we’re having.  I’m even contemplating spending my evening tonight making a detailed grocery list for the big shopping trip.  Excessive?  Premature?  Perhaps.  But so delicious.

Here’s the menu for our Thanksgiving this year:

Appetizers: whole heads of roasted garlic with soft goat cheese and toasted baguette, roasted nuts with brown sugar and rosemary, assorted dried fruit.

Dinner: herb roasted turkey with giblet gravy, stuffing, chipotle mashed sweet potatoescreamed spinach and artichoke bake, and whole berry cranberry sauce.

Desserts: Mom’s pumpkin pie with whipped cream, and pumpkin cheesecake squares.  My sister doesn’t love pumpkin pie, so this year there will be two desserts.  If the recipe I invent for her works out well, I’ll post it here.

What are you having for Thanksgiving dinner this year?

Turkey Pot Pie

I have discovered that, much as I enjoy baking, I am not and may never be a master of the finicky, temperamental beast that is homemade pie crust.  Fortunately, this did not hinder me when I embarked on my major repurposing-Thanksgiving-leftovers meal last week.  No, I shamelessly bought a package of pre-made pie crusts to lovingly enclose a turkey pot pie.

We had a big turkey this year, and after stripping off the meat and making stock from the bones, I decided both could be put to good use in a pie.  Since the weather has been so chilly, baking is a good way of warming up the house and therefore a good way of choosing dinners.  Never having attempted pot pie before, I surveyed a few likely looking sources for potential recipes before scrapping them all and making it up myself.  Here’s how it went down:

I chopped up three or four cloves of garlic, about ¼ cup of onion, and five or six cremini mushrooms, which I sweated down in olive oil until they were soft.  While this was happening, I chopped up a couple of carrots and a handful of fingerling potatoes into small pieces.  I tossed these into the pot with the aromatics along with some poultry seasoning and a splash of white wine, and then added about 2 cups of turkey stock and heavy cream stirred briefly together.  In a flash of genius, I realized this was an opportunity to use up the mushroom gravy my mom had made for the big Thanksgiving meal.  Everyone seems to stress about gravy – avoiding lumps, getting the right consistency, producing a good flavor without drowning the sauce in salt, and then it doesn’t get used up.  It coagulates into a strange, meaty jelly in the refrigerator and just doesn’t microwave right.  Most years we throw the leftovers away.  But mixed into my pot pie filling, it melted back into a slightly thickened liquid, bringing all its flavor with it.  I added some extra poultry seasoning and slapped the lid of my pot on to let the vegetables cook.

In the mean time, I assessed the crust situation.  Thanks to one of my cookbooks, I had decided to do a lattice top crust.  I’ve never made a lattice top crust before.  It looked daunting.  Helpfully, I found a diagram of how to do it, so while the potatoes and carrots slowly softened I cut my top crust into about twelve strips of semi-even thickness with the tip of one of my sharper knives.

When the potatoes and carrots were almost done, I added a handful of green beans to the filling, probably around a cup of frozen peas, and about two tablespoons of cornstarch mixed with water.  That way the filling could thicken while the green beans cooked.  When things were thickened up nicely, I carefully slopped the steaming filling into the bottom pie crust, which I had carefully laid into my pie plate.

I carefully completed the lattice-work top (I don’t think I can explain without step-by-step pictures, which I unfortunately neglected to take, but it’s not quite as complicated as it looks) and then brushed it with an egg wash.  There was a little bit of filling and a few strips of crust left, so I made two mini-pot pies in tiny corningware dishes to use up the remainders before putting everything into the oven.

After 40 minutes or so at 425F, the pot pie was done.

The crust was golden and crunchy, the insides smelled delicious, and even though the whole first piece I cut fell completely apart, it was glorious.  Though N. enjoys my cooking, he is usually demure about his compliments, but not this time.  He proclaimed “I think I love this,” after only a bite or two, which I interpreted as ultimate triumph.  The veggies were tender but not mushy, the sauce had bubbled up on the sides and had a rich, meaty flavor, and the turkey itself was as delicious as it had been fresh off the bird.  I used only dark meat, which I think kept things moist and extra flavorful.  We glutted ourselves on turkey pot pie, and life was good.

Danke Schoen, Stort tack, Go raibh maith agaibh

I know it’s early, but I’m already so looking forward to it that today I invite you to review my…

Proposed Thanksgiving Menu:

Appetizers – spicy roasted pumpkin seeds, mini corn and cheese purses

Main – Whole roasted turkey stuffed with winter herbs

Sides – stuffing (thanks, Stouffer’s!), giblet gravy, green bean casserole, Mom’s fresh cranberry sauce, chipotle mashed sweet potatoes, herb and pepper biscuits to help clean off the plate.

Dessert – pumpkin pie with whipped cream.