Always Thankful by Tom Yates The drives to Washington through the Shenandoah Valley on bleak gray mid-November days still dance in my head as reminders of simpler times. Even from a distance, the houses looked happy, with driveways full of cars from visiting family members and little clouds of smoke poofs drifting from their chimneys. All those Thanksgiving families gathered together in all those passing farm houses. A mental postcard. We always stayed at the Howard Johnson's Hotel in Washington across the street from the Watergate building. Even then it was run down and old, but it was cheap. Not even the dish rag spilling out of the gas tank of my beat up 1977 Granada drew a second look in the parking lot of this HoJo's. We would arrive in the afternoon on Thanksgiving day and have dinner in the too brightly lit hotel reataurant. It was a HoJo's after all and ambience was not their strong card. It is poignant now to think back on the cheap, room-temperature white wine served in cheap bulky stemware that began our special Thanksgiving holiday meals at HoJo's. It was always the same. Very consistent. Warm wine in cheap glassware. Thanksgiving dinner for two: A rounded ice-cream scoop of cornbread dressing topped with sliced turkey and gravy, buttered corn, and an oval slice of tin-can indented cranberry aspic. Pumpkin pie with whipped cream was included for dessert. Those meals were always wonderful. They were always comforting and familiar. They were our Thanksgiving meals, and we were always thankful. Those were our first trips together out into the world. Funny how food memories burn into our hearts. Forever, it seems. SEVEN SIDES for any Thanksgiving Table Scalloped Sweet Potatoes, with a twist. Using my mandolin, I sliced a combination of four Madison County white-skinned and red-skinned sweet potatoes into 1/8 inch rounds. I buttered the bottom and edges of a spring form pan, dusted the butter with dried breadcrumbs, and layered the potatoes by color in a circular pattern with overlapping edges (Pommes Anna style), dotting each layer with butter, salt, and white pepper. Midway through the potato stack, I tumbled a cup of dried sour cherries onto one layer before finishing the layers with a topping of additional butter, salt, pepper, grated parmigiano reggiano, and fresh parsley. After drizzling a cup of heavy cream over the potatoes, I tapped the pan to evenly distribute the cream, covered it with foil, and slid it into a 350 oven to bake for 1 1/2 hours. While the scalloped potatoes bubbled away, I soaked 1/3 cup of the dried sour cherries in equal portions of brandy and apple cider vinegar. After an hour, I uncovered the potatoes for the remaining 30 minutes to brown the top. I drained the plumped sour cherries and used 3 tablespoons of the infused brandied vinegar to make a very basic vinaigrette ( 3 tablespoons vinegar, 1/4 cup olive oil, salt, and pepper). I pulled the gurgling scalloped potatoes from the oven to rest and tossed baby arugula in the sour cherry brandied vinaigrette with orange zest, slivered tomatoes, and the re-hydrated cherries. When the sweet potatoes were cool enough to slice, I nestled delicate wedges of them over the arugula. Soft and creamy, the potato layers seemed to melt and fuse together in the buttery cream. While the bronzed parmigiano cheese crust provided slight salty nuttiness, the hidden cherries cut through the richness, adding tangy tart bites with contrasting textures. Sweet Potato Gratin Adapting a recipe from Southern Living, I prepared a layered sweet potato, yukon gold potato, and gruyere gratin encased in a rosemary gruyere pie crust. Using refrigerated store-bought pie crusts, I sprinkled the first piecrust with grated gruyere, cracked pepper, and 1 tablespoon of fresh chopped rosemary. After covering it with the second piecrust, I rolled it out to a 13 inch circle and placed the double crust into a 9 inch spring-form pan making sure the dough went to the edges of the pan. I slid it into the refrigerator to chill while I pulled the mandoline from the cabinet to thinly slice the potatoes. I preheated the oven to a blazing 450 degrees and pulled the crust from the refrigerator. Starting with the yukon golds, I layered the potatoes with gruyere and salt until finishing with sweet potatoes and cheese. I microwaved 1 cup of heavy cream with a minced garlic clove for 45 seconds, poured it over the gratin, covered it with foil, and slid the gratin into the oven for 1 hour. After an hour, I removed the foil and let it bake 30 minutes longer until browned and bubbly. After it cooled, I released the springform pan and carefully slid the gratin onto a platter. Sweet Potato Galettes I adapted this recipe from Fine Cooking for these individual sweet potato and goat cheese galettes. Goat cheese and sweet potatoes? Weird, fabulous, and a far cry from sweet potato casserole. Before getting started, I slushed through our snow-covered back deck to snip handfuls of fresh thyme and chives. I pulled out my mandolin and sliced the sweet potatoes into thin rounds. After buttering small individual ramekins, I filled them with alternating layers of sweet potatoes, parmigiano reggiano, crumbled goat cheese, fresh thyme, salt, and pepper before ending with a final layer of goat cheese. After preheating the oven to 375 degrees, I placed the galettes onto a foil-lined sheet pan and slid them into the oven to bake alongside a pan of roasting whole grape tomatoes. Because the individual galettes were small, I checked on them frequently. I burn stuff...a lot. Really. Yep. After 45 minutes, they were beautifully browned and tender, and I pulled them from the oven to rest. The galettes were delicate, soft, and sweet. The nutty parmigiano added subtle saltiness while the fresh thyme provided floral undertones. The goat cheese profoundly elevated the simple galettes to another level. Suspended between layers of thinly sliced sweet potatoes, the soft goat cheese had the mouthfeel of tangy soft marshmellows. Turnip Souffle. Souffles have a reputation for being finicky, but I think they're worth the small effort. Yes, they deflate. A lot of things in life deflate without tasting like an utterly fantastic collapsed souffle. Who cares? Go with the flow. Even when they fall, their flavors and textures remain intact. Before starting the process, I brought 5 large organic eggs to room temperature and separated them into 4 beaten yolks and 5 whites. After peeling and dicing 2 large turnips (2 1/2 pounds), I plunged them into salted water and boiled them for 45 minutes. When the turnips were fork tender, I drained them in a colander before pureeing them in a food processor and allowing them to cool. I used a basic souffle base for a 6 cup souffle dish. After melting 3 tablespoons of butter in a skillet over a medium flame, I added 3 tablespoons of flour to the butter and combined them to form a light roux (no color). When the roux pulled away from the skillet, I added 1 cup of warmed whole milk and whisked it to break up any lumps until it thickened, about 5 minutes. When the bechamel sauce napped the back of a spoon, I tempered the egg yolks before incorporating them into the sauce along with 1 cup extra sharp aged white cheddar cheese, 1/2 cup pecorino romano cheese, 1 cup of the turnip puree, fresh picked thyme, salt, and white pepper. I tossed the egg whites into a squeaky clean mixing bowl, added a pinch of cream of tarter, and beat the egg whites with an electric mixer until they formed very stiff glossy peaks. To lighten the souffle base, I added 1/2 cup of the beaten egg whites before carefully folding (without over mixing) the remaining whites into the base. After buttering a 6 cup souffle dish, I dusted it with fine bread crumbs before filling it with the eggy turnip mix. I cranked the oven to 400 degrees, slid the souffle into hot oven, turned the temperature down to 375 degrees, and let it rip....without peeking. Hard. After 40 minutes, I pulled the turnip souffle from the oven. With sharp nutty undertones from the combined cheeses calming the slight earthy tang of the pureed turnips, the souffle was ridiculously light. Like eating flavored air. Butternut Squash Brulee with Bacon Brittle I brushed the flesh of a halved butternut squash with olive oil, seasoned it, and placed it cut side down on a sheet pan before sliding it into a 350 degree oven to roast for 45 minutes. While the squash bubbled away, I sliced three pieces of thick-cut applewood smoked bacon into 1/4 inch lardons before frying them in a cast iron skillet until they crisped and caramelized. I scooped the bacon onto paper towels to drain and discarded the rendered bacon fat. After wiping the skillet clean, I placed it back over a medium flame and added 1 cup of sugar, 1/2 cup corn syrup, and 1/4 cup water. Without using a candy thermometer, I cooked the mixture until it was the color of milk chocolate. Working quickly, I added 1 tablespoon of butter, a few fresh rosemary leaves, and the reserved bacon. With a frenzied desperate purpose, I carefully poured the molten mess onto a sil pat to harden. It was rock hard within seconds. When the butternut squash collapsed from the heat, I pulled it from the oven, scooped out the soft flesh, and pureed it in a blender with salt, pepper, and 2 tablespoons of butter. I spooned the buttery squash into small ramekins before topping it with broken chards of rosemary-flecked bacon brittle and fresh rosemary leaves. The bacon brittle slowly melted from the steaming wetness of the warm whipped squash, oozing and puddling between bites. The crazy combination of salty sweet brittle, aromatic rosemary, and pillowy squash had the luxurious mouthfeel and texture of a desconstructed savory butternut squash creme brulee. Simple honey-glazed purple carrots After trimming the green tops, I gently scraped the thin purple skin from the carrots and sliced them in half. They were stunning. When sliced, the purple gave way to red which bled to a soft orange center. I blanched them in salted water until tender, drained them, and set them aside. After melting several pats of unsalted butter in a heavy cast iron skillet, I tossed the colorful carrots into the butter to coat. When the butter sizzled around the carrots, I drizzled 2 tablespoons of clover honey over them and tossed them in the buttery sticky honey until they were well glazed. I wasn't shooting for cloyingly sweet church pot-luck carrots, so I squeezed fresh lemon juice over the bubbling carrots, removed them from the heat, and gave them a good toss in the newly anointed lemon honey glaze, then finished with fresh thyme. They were tender and soft with subtle acidic sweetness from the glaze. Kohlrabi Slaw. After snipping the arms from the kohlrabi bulbs, I peeled the skin with a vegetable peeler. I expected the flesh to be dry and hard like turnips, but they were incredibly juicy. Juicy and tender, like apples. They tasted like a cross between mild turnips, apples, jicama, and water chestnuts. Wow. Who knew? I chose the mandolin for uniform julienned pieces. I carefully sliced the kohlrabi (using the hand guard) into delicate shreds, shaved baby fennel bulbs into thin slices, and tossed them into a large bowl. For texture and sweetness, I added a small julienned carrot and thinly sliced spring radishes. After giving the slaw a quick toss, I slid the mix into the refrigerator to chill. I combined 1/4 cup fresh lime juice ( about 3 limes), 3 tablespoons local honey, 1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar, 2 tablespoons fresh orange juice, salt, and cracked pepper. After whisking the honey into the fresh juices, I slowly added 3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil to emulsify the vinaigrette. I quickly tossed the kohlrabi slaw with the honey-lime vinaigrette and twirled the ribbons into individual bowls. After tumbling raw shaved baby beets to the side, I finished the slaw with a dusting of citrusy sumac. Tangy. Tart. Crisp. Refreshing. The sassy kohlrabi slaw spanked the sleepy main course awake with crunchy mouthwatering wetness. 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