Saturday, December 5, 2009

Thanksgiving EU Style.

I've been thinking about what I will do about thanksgiving since I heard about the previous office Thanksgiving: Overpriced fake Mexican food at ChiChi's. Mary and I decided we would attempt the task of cooking for thanksgiving with an added ambition... We wanted to introduce the Europeans to the concept as well. The logistics of the situation didn't fully soak in until I looked up "how much turkey do I need for 22 people?" on the google. The USDA suggests 1 pound per person fresh turkey. A few things went through my head: (1) Can I buy a turkey in lbs instead of kilos? (2) Where does one get a turkey? (3) How many thanksgiving recipes are written in metric conversion?

I then forgot what day thanksgiving was... only to remember about a week and a half in advance. The ONLY reason I remembered? A very good American friend from the beginning of my internship was flying from Berlin specifically for the event, and she asked me how everything was looking. Step one - write a menu, Step two - write a list of ingredients, Step three - look up new recipes for all the things that are pre-packaged and then get those ingredients. UGH.


Turkey (which is not bred for thanksgiving, difficult to find over 14lbs.)
Gravy (I have french friends, they should know how to make a sauce)
Stuffing (no stove top in belgium...)
Mashed potatoes (we're in luck, they love potatoes here - just not the right kind)
Corn Pudding (no creamed corn, no cornbread mix)
Carrots (if this isn't easy I'm going to have a LOT of trouble)
Green Bean Casserole (covered by previously mentioned American friend)

Pumpkin Pie (you thought there was a canned shortage in America? no one here knows what canned pumpkin means, why would you put pumpkin in a can?)
Apple Cobbler (more complicated than one would think)

Preparation began a little more than a week before Thanksgiving when I took my French co-worker to a butcher to discuss turkeys. We learned that it was going to be difficult to get a turkey above 7kilos (15.5lbs) and if we wanted anything larger she (the butcher) was going to have to fight to get it. It could take over a week to get something as large as 8 kilos. Alternatively she could get us two 6kilo birds, pull the meat off turkey one and stuff it into the cavity of turkey two... making a 10kilo meta-turkey. This was unacceptable, and expensive to boot... I decided to ask my boss for help. It started as a request for financial aid, this was an Office event so I thought maybe I could get a party budget. She graciously OKed my proposed budget and also did some phone calls and found me a turkey for half the price of the butcher. The major problem was the size: only 6 kilos (13.5 lbs) for 22 people was a bit short. If you use European standards we've still got plenty of protein (200 grams per person) but that's if the turkey is made entirely of meat. In the end we decided to just make extra sides to supplement.

I thought it best to prepare the pies well in advance and just reheat during dinner so Saturday before Mary and I went out pumpkin hunting. Our only goal was a pumpkin, some crusts and pie tins. We went out to the 'burbs for grocery store fun and looked around to the produce section. There was a large selection of pumpkins, none of which looked like a pumpkin. I need round, unnaturally orange gourd in order to recognize a "pumpkin." Unfortunately the largest one they had was short, fat and very reddish. They also had a "turban" pumpkin but it just didn't seem right. We were a bit upset, we had no idea what the flavor of this pumpkin was going to be. Then while looking for parts 2 and 3, we saw a fall display with JUST THE RIGHT PUMPKINS! They don't sell them to eat, they only put our iconic American pumpkin on display. Ten minutes later we had an English speaking manager with us trying to understand why we want to buy a display pumpkin... he grabs the biggest one and says, "sure go ahead." We end up with a 7kilo pumpkin (larger than the turkey we are supposed to get). Pie crusts seem easy enough, they have plenty of pre-made pastry stuff.

Pie tins are last... aaaannnnddd non-existent. How did it turn out pie tins are the hard part of this trip. #1 Europeans don't eat pie. Europeans eat tarts. Tarts are very wide. Tarts are very shallow. Tarts are not coincident with pumpkin pie. #2 Why would you ever buy anything to bake in only once? Grocery store brand tart tins were close to 10 euros and we had lots of pies to make, at least four. Our next stop? IKEA the land of cheap anything. We learned at IKEA that #1 Europeans don't eat pies and #2 Why would you buy anything to bake in only once. Luckily the Ikea version of this is slightly cheaper and while we were there we picked up the largest roasting pan (one might say turkey sized) we could find.

We went through recipes a few times, first for how to extract the pumpkin goodness from the large orange gourd in front of us. A few hours later we had a roasted pumpkin and some fresh seeds to munch on. We scraped, strained, pureed, re-strained all the pumpkin we could get and chilled while we prepared to bake our pies. Which was when we realized we had absolutely no measurement tools. None in standard, none in metric. We have spoons, and a stupid starbucks 8oz. thermos. We proceeded to calculate and measure with our ridiculous tools and got incredibly lucky that one recipe fit exactly in these strangely proportioned tart tins. Our 7 kilo pumpkin yielded three perfect pumpkin pies, perfect because they tasted like pumpkin pie. Were they good? eh, they were ok, but damn it a six hour pie is gonna be delicious no matter what. Apple cobbler? Complicated because of the tin issue but we ended up with two clamp based tins used for cakes or something. These came with our tart tins and seemed conveniently shaped for our extra pies. *spoiler* Europeans loved apple cobbler and destroyed the two pies instantly... pumpkin? not so much, we've still got a whole pie in the fridge that we were happy to escape with.

Wednesday night goal: Make the corn pudding and chop up a ton of veggies to reduce prep the next day. Wednesday night accomplishments: Seeing an awesome lecture by a Swiss architect and eating a Mitriellette (hamburger sandwich with onions and frits on top). I'll claim my excuse to be based on a lack of can opener, but it was just a bit of pre-cooking jitters.

Thursday: Turkey is delivered to the office plucked (a happy surprise) and ready to cook. I've got a great American co-worker who deadlined previous to thanksgiving so he was able to take the day off from real work and help me out. The two of us covered the majority of the dishes... with the mashed potatoes being covered by Mary at home and green bean casserole being covered by Liz at another location as well. One of the fun parts was cutting up all the bread to be used in the stuffing and corn pudding... you can't really buy croutons here. I sat in the model room and chopped veggies for a few hours and directed the assembly of the dishes. Once all the sides were ready we covered them with foil and hid them in the back and started the turkey. Lots of butter, lots of aromatic veggies, salt and pepper and we're good. A few of my co-workers enjoyed watching me stuff the turkey with carrots, onions and leeks.

I threw the turkey in the oven and crossed my fingers. I actually crossed my fingers before putting the turkey in the oven; I was uncertain it would fit. Everything cooked up perfectly, the skin was nice and brown and the legs jiggled loosely. During a consultation session with my uncle, he gave me some hints on how to cook everything, including testing the turkey by jiggling the legs to make sure they were done. I had some co-workers go out and get wine and bread and then I got my french friends to start a gravy. I don't think I gave very good direction as the gravy was SUPER thick and soon after dinner started closely resembled meat pudding. Another American co-worker was worried about the amount of meat we had on the table so he ordered some great asian pork with the skin fried. The whole meal came together very well, and there was a very American moment where everyone was completely slouched in their chair, hands resting on belly. A few continued eating... more people showed up and then we ate dessert.

It was a great thanksgiving and I'm very happy to have shared it with lots of new friends.

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