A hummus fail turned tasty lunch

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This garlicky tomato-kale soup was a bit of a revelation for me, mainly because it came out of a failed kitchen experiment.

Earlier this week, I tried making hummus in a plastic bag. It happened just as you’re picturing it: I dumped chickpeas, a few tablespoons of tahini, minced garlic, lemon juice, olive oil and S+P in a quart-sized freezer bag and mashed it with a meat hammer. The end result was really coarse and unattractive, though delicious enough when laboriously smeared on bread for breakfast.

With about 1/2 cup of my chewed-up hummus left, my thoughts turned to soup. I often love a few spoonfuls of pesto or pureed beans swirled into almost any veggie-based soup; why can’t hummus(ish) serve the same purpose?

I. Was. Right. The starchy chickpeas provided heft (plus I liked getting whole chickpea bites here and there for texture), the tahini lent a round sesame note and the garlic–well, it gave the soup its primary descriptor.

Because I can never have too much starch when it’s this cold, I served it over cous cous.

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Garlicky tomato kale soup
serves 1 to 2

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 small onion, finely diced
Salt and pepper, to taste
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 bunch kale (about 10 leaves), stemmed and finely chopped
1 cup diced tomatoes (I used canned)
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/3 to 1/2 cup homemade hummus (recipe here)
3 cups chicken broth (or good quality vegetable broth to make this vegan)
1/2 a lemon
1/4 cup fresh parsley leaves, roughly chopped and divided
1/2 cup cous cous

Method: Heat the olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium high heat until it slides easily around the pan. Add the onion and a sprinkling of salt and pepper. Saute for 5 minutes until soft. Add the garlic and cook for another minute until fragrant. Then add the kale and cook for 2 to 3 minutes until the kale has wilted slightly. Add the tomatoes, paprika and hummus, stirring to combine everything.

Pour in the broth, cover the pan and bring it to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium low and simmer for about 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat a small pot with 1/2 cup water and a pinch of salt. When it comes to a boil, add the cous cous and immediately turn off the heat. Let sit, covered, for 5 minutes. Fluff with a fork and set aside until serving.

Cut the 1/2 lemon in half again, saving one wedge for serving. Squeeze the remaining juice into the soup along with about half the parsley. Check for seasoning and adjust as needed with salt and pepper.

To serve, pile some cous cous in the bottom of a large bowl. Ladle the soup on top and sprinkle with the rest of the parsley. Squeeze additional lemon juice as desired.

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A love letter to the restaurants that feel like home

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The Mr. and the Mrs. stuff themselves with Smalls fried chicken

The Mr. and the Mrs. stuff themselves with Smalls fried chicken

My friend Mary over at the lovely blog See View Play mentioned something in a recent post that got me thinking. When describing a meal she’d eaten at West Loop spot Nellcote, she mentioned how the place just felt like home to her.

I think we all have restaurants like that in our lives. New or old, trendy or fusty, there are certain eateries or bars that feel like they were made for us. Know what I mean? It could be the cuisine, decor, staff, a certain cocktail mixed just right, the music selection, or just the general vibe. It just gets you.

But that’s one of the many joys of going out to eat. It’s not always about having adventures in eating, but finding your homes away from home, too.

I’m writing this in part because 2014 saw some of my favorite Chicago spots shutter: from my beloved neighborhood wine bar Bluebird; to the craft beer bar that predated the craft beer bar trend, Smallbar on Division; and more recently, Azzurra EnoTavola–an inviting little Wicker Park newcomer with great handmade pastas and wine.

Now I know there are a lot of factors that impact the success or failure of a restaurant–among them location, experience (or lack thereof), management ability and food quality. Azzurra co-owner Ron DiNella admitted that the year-old eatery simply wasn’t in the right neighborhood.

That being said, I have really mixed emotions about the way media cover dining and drinking in this city. There’s so much emphasis on what’s hot or what’s new, which chefs moved where and whether there was drama involved. I understand that’s part of the business of covering restaurants; it also tells us a thing or two about ourselves–the way we eat and how we spend our disposable income.

But amid the 24-hour news cycle of what’s hot and what’s next and why we should get ourselves on that shit as quickly as possible, we sometimes forget to commend the restaurants that nestle themselves into our regular rotations. Where we feel perfectly apt to go whether we feel celebratory or like total shit; where we order the same thing over and over again without a shred of shame.

Admittedly, I keep a running mental list of new restaurants I want to try–and check them off every few months or so. But my dining-out life is far more defined by the places I keep going back to: because of a consistently perfect burger (Owen & Engine), the best glass of (insert wine varietal) whose name I always forget but don’t care (Vera), the only cup of coffee that never needs cream (Buzz: Killer Espresso), wonderful service and impeccable lamb (Cumin), because I want to feel fancy for an hour (Trenchermen’s bar), succulent fried chicken brought to me in takeout box from next door while I sip cider in a bar called Lizard’s Liquid Lounge (Smalls Smoke Shack & More), or the most beguiling poblano rajas taco there is (L’Patron).

New restaurants make my regular rotation from time to time, too–like Dove’s Luncheonette, for its heavenly Tex-Mex diner food and warm service. And others make my “dream” regular list (if only freelance work paid a bit more regularly), like The Publican, with equal parts perfect raw shellfish and cured weird meat parts. Or The Winchester, with its almost militant dedication to locally procured ingredients packaged in comfy yet refined ways like meatloaf, BLTs and brandade.

So if you find a place that feels like home to you, tell someone–or five people–about it. Bring friends and family there to share a meal. There might be a lot going on behind the scenes that you can’t control, but showing loyalty to a place that feels like home to you can’t hurt either.

Piece Pizza: ordered (almost) every Friday night without fail.

Piece Pizza: ordered (almost) every Friday night without fail.

One more Big Star margarita for the road? Yes, please.

One more Big Star margarita for the road? Yes, please.

Awaiting the perfect burger at Owen & Engine

Dan and Sean await the perfect burger at Owen & Engine.

Snails before steak frites is a must at Le Bouchon.

Snails before steak frites is a must at Le Bouchon.

And all the Publican's oysters were gone

And all the Publican’s oysters were gone

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Shakshuka (eggs in spiced tomato sauce)

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Lately, it seems everywhere I look I’ve been seeing recipes for shakshuka. To the point where the word has begun entering my thoughts and daydreams like a soft chant: Shakshuka, shakshuka, shakshuka. Doesn’t it sound lovely when you say it?

I’ve been unwittingly making variations on this North African soft cooked egg dish for years without even knowing what it was called. (I think I called it tomato-poached eggs or some other similarly unrhythmic, not-sexy name). So I thought it fitting to begin 2015 with a proper shakshuka, whose gorgeous, fragrant sauce combines turmeric, caraway seed, paprika and cumin, and is laced with hearty greens, plenty of garlic and onion, salty feta, and a bit of heat from a minced chile.

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I heard somewhere you’re supposed to eat round foods to bring good luck in the New Year. With the amount of eggs we eat, we’re sure to have some marvelous luck in 2015. (Above: The Mister, eating his round lunch out of a round bowl atop a round pouf, is positively swimming in good fortune.)

I hope the coming year is good to you all, too.

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Shakshuka
adapted from Jerusalem, by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi

Ingredients

    2 tablespoons olive oil
    1 medium onion, diced
    3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
    1 serrano chile, finely minced
    Salt and pepper, to taste
    1 teaspoon smoked paprika
    1 teaspoon caraway seeds, crushed
    3/4 teaspoon ground cumin
    1/2 teaspoon turmeric
    1 28-ounce can diced or crushed tomatoes with their juice
    2 tablespoons tomato paste
    2 teaspoons honey
    1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
    1 cup loosely packed greens, such as kale, spinach or watercress, coarsely chopped
    4 ounces crumbled feta
    4 eggs

Method: In a wide skillet, heat the olive oil over medium high. Add the onion, and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for another 2 minutes, until fragrant. Add the chile, salt, pepper and spices. Cook for a minute, stirring constantly, to release their aromas.

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Add the tomatoes, tomato paste, honey and vinegar, plus more salt and pepper to taste. Reduce the heat to medium and cook for 12 to 15 minutes, until it has thickened a bit but is still fairly loose.

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Check the seasoning and adjust as needed, and turn off the heat. Stir in the greens, and sprinkle in the feta.

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Then, use the back of the spoon to create a well in one corner of the pan. Crack an egg into the well. Repeat this step in the other three corners of the pan.

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Turn the heat back on medium low, cover the pan and simmer for 5 to 8 minutes, depending on how done you like your yolks. While the eggs cook, periodically baste the whites with spoonfuls of sauce.

To serve, spoon some sauce in the bottom of a large shallow bowl. Top with two eggs, and serve with crusty bread for sopping.

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Note: This dish would also be wonderful served over soft polenta.

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Popovers!

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Have you ever made popovers? Man, are they easy! I made a batch on Christmas Eve in between watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” and mixing cocktail sauce for shrimp.

Sean and I had maybe my favorite Christmas Eve night ever this year. We sat in sweatpants by the fire with the dog, drank a little champagne and ate a spread of really simple appetizers: soft brie with crackers, shrimp cocktail, roasted broccoli with soy-Dijon sauce and these popovers.

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Then we each opened one gift, and I went to bed at 10 or so. (The Mister isn’t capable of falling asleep at such a granny hour and stayed up to watch The–oh-so-Christmasy–Shining.) I know life can’t always be this simple, which is partly what made this Christmas Eve so great.

Popover batter is a little like crepe batter–it’s thin and eggy with a stream of melted butter poured in–except you don’t mix it that much. You start baking the popovers in a blazing hot oven for 15 minutes, and then reduce it to 350 for the remaining 20 minutes.

I imagine these would be great gussied up with some rosemary and black pepper, or little cubes of ham with grated Parmesan or Manchego cheese. Or you could just make this plain version and then eat it at the kitchen counter in sweats while drinking champagne from a fancy glass. Because why change clothes for a popover?

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Popovers
makes 8

Ingredients

    1 cup flour
    1/2 tsp. salt
    2 eggs
    1 1/4 cups whole milk
    1 tbsp. melted butter, cooled

Method: Preheat the oven to 425F with a buttered muffin pan (or popover pan, if you have one) inside.

Whisk the flour and salt together in a bowl.

Whisk together the eggs, whole milk, and butter in a bowl.

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Then add the wet ingredients to the flour, stirring with a wooden spoon until combined (it’s OK if it’s lumpy). Pour the batter into the hot muffin pan, filling each tin two-thirds to three-quarters full.

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Bake for 15 minutes, then reduce the heat to 350F and continue baking until the popovers are puffed and browned, about 20 minutes more. Note: No matter how tempting it may be to peek, don’t open the oven till they’re done or they’ll deflate!

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Remove, unmold and serve.

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Filed under Appetizers, Baked items, Breakfast/Brunch, Eggs

Holiday food

IMG_7354I think we have a tendency to get overly fussy with holiday meals. Everything has to be shiny, tall and fancy–we opt for the several-course dinners culminating in hulking, centerpiece-worthy roasts that are prone to overcooking under pressure. We bravely tackle temperamental cakes or souffles–compulsively checking on them as they bake–their fragile centers threatening to collapse and take our self-confidence with ‘em.

That’s why I like serving things like spaghetti and meatballs, croque monsieur or hash when I host holiday gatherings. Casual food can still be gorgeous–a cast iron skillet or Dutch oven brimming with meat and vegetables makes for a most festive edible centerpiece. Plus, it satisfies what I consider to be the most important characteristic of holiday food: that it can be easily shared.

Case in point: chicken hash.

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This makes for a beautiful, casual dinner, but you could also throw a couple fried eggs on top and serve it for brunch. 

As many of you know, I’m not a huge fan of chicken breast. But I think the lean white meat works better in this dish than rich thigh meat would. I stole a technique from Ina Garten (AKA the Barefoot Contessa) by roasting the chicken breast on the bone with basil leaves tucked under the skin. This is a lovely way to cook chicken breast–the end result is moist and delicately anise-flavored. I recommend roasting a whole bunch at once and using the leftovers for chicken salad sandwiches, cobb salad, pasta, chilaquiles … you get the idear.

You may also notice that there’s no garnish on my chicken hash. That’s because I packed it up after snapping these photos and brought it to two dear friends for dinner. (It majorly improved the aroma on the bus.)

Happy Holidays, everyone. Remember to enjoy them. <3

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Chicken hash
serves 4

Ingredients

    4 split chicken breasts
    10 large basil leaves
    Extra virgin olive oil
    Butter
    Salt and pepper, as needed
    2 bell peppers, large diced
    1 large onion, large diced
    3 large garlic cloves, smashed
    2 tablespoons sweet paprika, divided
    1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
    1 teaspoon dried thyme
    1 tablespoon tomato paste
    2 pounds boiling (red) potatoes, cut in 1-inch cubes
    2 scallions, finely chopped
    1/4 cup parsley leaves, finely chopped

Method: Preheat the oven to 350F.

Place the chicken on a sheet pan. With your fingers, separate the skin from the breast meat, leaving one side attached. Tuck a few basil leaves underneath the skin, and pull it over the meat to cover as much surface area as possible (to prevent it from overcooking). Repeat with the other 3.

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Rub the chicken all over with olive oil and sprinkle generously with salt and pepper. Roast the chicken on a sheet pan for 40 to 45 minutes, until an instant-read thermometer reads 160F when inserted into the thickest part of the breast (it will continue cooking to 165 once you pull it out).

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When it’s cool enough to handle, remove the bones and skin and cut into 1-inch cubes. Set aside.

In a large cast iron skillet or Dutch oven over medium high, heat 1 tablespoon each of olive oil and butter. Add the bell pepper, onion, garlic, half the paprika, the red pepper flakes, thyme and a sprinkling of salt and pepper. Cook until softened and slightly brown, 5 to 7 minutes. Add the tomato paste, and cook for another 2 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, scrape the veggies into a bowl and set them aside.

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Wipe out the skillet. Add another tablespoon each of oil and butter over medium-high heat. Add the potatoes in a single layer, the rest of the paprika and a large sprinkling of salt and pepper. Cook, untouched for 5 to 6 minutes to totally brown one side. Turn the heat down to medium, flip the potatoes, and repeat, until they are are well browned on all sides and cooked through. This will take about 20 minutes (You may have to do this in two batches depending on the size of the skillet, so allow extra time.)

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When the potatoes are cooked, add the veggies and chicken back to the skillet. Toss and cook for a few minutes to warm everything through. Just before serving, stir in most of the scallions and parsley, reserving a few tablespoons to garnish each plate.

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Filed under Breakfast/Brunch, Chicken, Dinner ideas

What French people bake

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I know I’m about the millionth blogger to do a post on Dorie Greenspan since she went on tour promoting her new cookbook, Baking Chez Moi, which is about what French people bake at home. But I can’t help it. She is so likable, and her cookbooks are so likable–and I’m not even a baker.

I saw her during her Chicago stop at Kendall College, which was co-hosted by the Greater Midwest Foodways Alliance (GMFA) and Culinary Historians of Chicago (CHC). One of the things I love most about the events put on by these groups is that during the introduction for whoever is speaking, they always do a long plug for the next event–as in the one coming up after the one that we’re all currently attending.

Last month, when I went to a writers workshop with Kathleen Flinn, they introduced Kathleen by talking about an upcoming event about Duncan Hines–the MAN, not the cake mix. “I know it doesn’t sound interesting, but I think it really will be,” GMFA vice president Cathy Lambrecht said. In case you were wondering, Duncan Hines was one of the original restaurant reviewers; he self-published this popular little restaurant guide that he meticulously updated, removing any that fell out of his favor from the next edition.

So obviously I was excited to learn what was coming up after Dorie when I went to see her. Turns out it was a trip to Dekalb, IL that would involve a visit to a couple of wineries (yes, they apparently make wine in Dekalb). Then CHC president Bruce Kraig told a long joke about the Pillsbury Dough Boy’s untimely death, complete with “bun in the oven” and “rising” (yeast) puns.

But then there was Dorie.

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Chic in all black and a colorful scarf with her signature close-cropped brown hair and roundish specs, Dorie said great little things like “I miss my oven,” and “I’ve never heard a French woman turn down dessert.” She told us that cream cheese had only just come to France during the last few years, where it’s affectionately known as “philadelphia.” (Until that point, she was the sole provider of philadelphia to her Parisian friends, schlepping it over from Connecticut 10 pounds at a time in her suitcase.)

She invited us into the process of learning what French people buy (macarons and layered cakes) versus what they bake at home (loaf pan cakes, simple tarts). And she admitted that despite swearing that she’d never do a macaron recipe in any of her cookbooks, she caved for Baking Chez Moi at the request of her editor.

It was a delightful morning that left me with an urge to bake–a feeling that doesn’t strike me very often–so I decided to make one of the first recipes in the book: vanilla bean and brown butter loaf pan cake. I chose this cake because I always like bakery recipes that involve cooking prowess of some kind (browning butter!), and because I love the name: gateaux de voyage, which translates to weekend cake. This is the kind of cake you bake and then take with you–on a little trip or to a picnic or a friend’s house. And all the while, it sits there getting tastier and fuller in flavor.

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Brown butter and vanilla bean weekend cake

Ingredients

    1 stick unsalted butter
    1 3/4 cups AP flour
    1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
    1/4 teaspoon salt
    1 1/4 cups sugar
    1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise and scraped of its pulp (could substitute 4 teaspoons good-quality vanilla extract)
    4 large eggs, room temperature
    1/3 cup heavy cream
    2 tablespoons dark rum or amaretto

Method: Center a rack in the oven and preheat it to 350F. Butter a 9- by 5-inch loaf pan and dust it with flour, shaking out the excess.

Put the stick of butter in a small saucepan over medium heat and bring it to a boil, swirling occasionally (not stirring). Let it bubble until it turns a deep honey brown and smells quite nutty, 5 to 10 minutes. Don’t walk away from the pan–even if you become tempted to go searching for that lone bottle of dark rum in the liquor cabinet–the difference between brown and black butter is just a few seconds. And don’t be afraid of those little brown flecks coating the bottom of the pan; they provide beautiful flavor and color. Remove the pan from the heat and set aside to cool.

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Whisk the flour, baking powder and salt together in a medium bowl.

Put the sugar and vanilla bean pulp in a large bowl and rub them together with your fingers until the pulp is well incorporated into the sugar.

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Whisk the eggs into the sugar and beat until incorporated, about 1 minute. Still using the whisk, beat in the heavy cream (and vanilla if you’re using it in place of the bean), along with the rum.

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Now switch to a large spatula, and gradually stir in the dry ingredients until you have a smooth batter.

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Fold in the cooled melted butter in 2 or 3 additions, and then pour the batter into the loaf pan, smoothing out the top with the spatula.

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Bake for 55 to 65 minutes, until a knife inserted into the center comes out clean. Check the cake after about 30 minutes. If it seems like it’s browning too quickly, cover it loosely with foil for the remainder of the baking time.

When the cake is done, transfer it to a rack to cool for 5 minutes, then remove it from the loaf pan and let it cool right side up.

If you have time, Dorie says to wrap the cake in foil or plastic and let it age for a day before serving to ensure the fullest flavor. This cake is heavenly with a cup of coffee or a little shot o’ dark rum.

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Filed under Baked items, Dessert

Don’t give me creative ideas for Thanksgiving

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I am 30 and a certified chef, but this Thanksgiving will be the first time I cook a turkey by myself. I’m not that nervous about it–a turkey is basically a giant chicken. What I am nervous about, however, is screwing up everything else, because when you do that, you Fuck With Tradition.

I never understood all the hullabaloo in foodie magazines and on the Food Network this time of year about getting creative at Thanksgiving. Smear this interesting spice rub on your boring roasted turkey! Revamp that tired stuffing with chestnuts or pomegranate seeds! Surprise them with parsnip puree instead of those old mashed potatoes! In my family, if I did any of those things, I’d be crucified because the whole point of Thanksgiving is for everything to taste exactly the same as it did the year before.

This is how you prepare a Proper Shea Family Thanksgiving Dinner.

The turkey is smeared with butter, salt and pepper and roasted with the giblets. No, not bouquets of herbs or lemon wedges. Dad bastes in between watching football and mixing (stiff) 7 and 7s for his wife and daughters.

Said unfancified turkey is–naturally–jammed full of stuffing (no, you do not bake it in a separate container for food safety reasons). The stuffing consists of celery, onions, two big tubes of breakfast sausage, a few hefty shakes of Bell’s seasoning and torn up hot dog buns. No, you can’t substitute the hot dog buns with white bread or crusty artisan bread or even hamburger buns. FORGET IT.

After the potatoes are mashed with butter and milk or cream, they’re baked in a disposable aluminum pan with a layer of caramelized onions and more butter on top. Yes, a disposable pan. This minimizes dishes.

The green beans are blanched and tossed with a pat of butter, salt and pepper. Don’t even think about adding slivered almonds.

The gravy is made up of drippings, flour and water–maybe chicken stock. MAYBE. No goddamn wine or herb bundles or any of that. Typically one of the daughters is tasked with skimming the gravy, which begins with a spoon and ends with a fork, because that’s the best way to get those weird little giblet gobs.

The anchor of the Thanksgiving plate is of course cranberry sauce. But not the kind with the glossy, bursted cranberries laced with orange and cinnamon. Instead, it’s the kind that is coaxed out of the Ocean Spray can five minutes before dinner and sliced into rounds with the imprint of the can all around the outside.

One year, Mom tried making it with real cranberries cooked down with sugar and orange peel and fresh lemon juice–all lovely and photogenic and time consuming. We picked at it tentatively for a few minutes before someone bravely ventured, “How come we aren’t having the canned cranberry sauce?”

“Yeah, I like the canned–it’s so good,” another said, wistfully.

Then there was the time Mom tried adding roasted squash with brown sugar to the spread. My sister took one look at it, ran up to her room and slammed the door, refusing to have any further part of this pathetic excuse for Thanksgiving dinner. (She may have been an angsty teen at the time, but we took it for what it was: a stern warning not to Fuck With Tradition.)

And don’t even remind me of the year Mom tested out a Mexican-inspired cornbread stuffing. Let’s just say, fue un DESASTRE.

The one allowance my family will make in the creativity department is probably dessert, because we’re all too full, tired and drunk by then to put up much of a fight. Oh, and you can try out new appetizers, too. But there had better be potato chips with sour cream & onion dip because that’s all we’re really interested in.

So please Bon Appetit and Food Network, don’t give me any creative ideas for “updating” or “shaking up” or “overhauling” or any of the other gerunds you use to describe what to the Sheas essentially constitutes Thanksgiving dinner molestation. Just show me how to make a nice stiff 7 and 7, so my family won’t get too mad if I get something wrong.

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