Tweaking the Thanksgiving Feast to Pair With Wine

In the past, I’ve written about pairing wine with the Thanksgiving meal. Here I’m focusing on pairing the thanksgiving meal with wine. At first, that may sound like the same thing but they actually are two quite different things.In the first case – pairing wine with food, we’re starting with the food we plan to eat and looking for the best wine or wines to serve with it. In the case of the Thanksgiving meal, we’re focusing on a fairly limited set of primary ingredients that include turkey, potatoes, sweet potatoes, some sort of bread-based stuffing, and cranberries augmented with lots of other ingredients, many of which are decidedly non-wine-friendly. Different families have differing traditions about how these ingredients are prepared and presented but there are certain things we expect to see every year at Thanksgiving. A lot of those things – such as candied yams, vinegary sides, cranberry sauce, jalapeno-oyster-cornbread stuffing, etc. – are wine challenging so a common solution is to find the wines that get along the best with the most foods. For me, that means Riesling and Pinot Noir and, if you are a regular reader, you already know that. And that’s what I mostly do – serve Pinot Noir and Riesling at Thanksgiving.

I’ve been doing it for years and no one complains but sometimes, I want something different. Maybe I want to serve some fancier wines so to make that work, I need to pair the food with or tailor the food to the wine. In this case – pairing the food with the wine, we start with the wine and then tweak the food, even as we honor the traditional principle ingredients, to show off that wine. And here we should give thanks that turkey is as versatile as a big chicken (which it is not). It is fairly easy to cook and – because like chicken it is a bit bland (or, to put a positive spin on it, versatile) – it can be complimented and complemented with lots of flavors. With a little creativity, the other essential ingredients can be dealt with in wine friendly ways as well.

To start with, lets look at where all these ingredients can fit in. In the traditional feast, everything hits the table at once. In our revised feast, we’ll get all the traditional foods but some will be in other than usual forms.
Rather than having candied yams, we’ll use some of the turkey stock I am already making and freezing to make a sweet potato and butternut squash soup seasoned with Asian spices. That will be served (with a glass of Oloroso or Cream Sherry) at the table from a terrine while we’re waiting for the bird to finish cooking.

Once we’ve finished eating the soup, we’ll pull the bird and, while it is resting, make the gravy (or sauce) and put the finishing touches on the sides, all of which will be tailored for wine friendliness. Our wine-friendly, last minute-finished side dishes include a savory bread pudding, mashed potatoes, mom’s gravy, blanched green beans, and a yellow squash casserole.

Turkey Stock
Most people just use chicken stock that they buy at the grocery store and I don’t fault them for it. However, I am, at least sometimes (and thanksgiving is one of those times), a stickler for detail. Also, I am allergic to chicken. So I make turkey stock – even though I noticed that the grocery stores are now selling tetra-packed low sodium Turkey Stock (which I bought some of as you never know when you might need some).

Actually, I make two turkey stocks. One is a raw stock and the other is a roast stock. The flavors are different and I like the combination of both in some dishes and especially in gravy (and thanksgiving is all about the gravy). I make about twice as much roast turkey stock than raw turkey stock and a lot more of both than I will need for the principle Thanksgiving meal.

Raw Turkey Stock is just raw turkey necks and wings along with chopped onions, celery, carrots, and parsley simmered in water and white wine (I use Fairbanks White Port from Gallo) with a quarter cup of fish sauce. Bring to a rolling boil for a few minutes and then reduce to a simmer and cook for at least three hours. Strain the stock and discard all the solids. Cool in the refrigerator until the fat rises to the top and solidifies. Remove the fat discard (unless you need it to make Matzah balls for your famous After Thanksgiving Turkey Matzah Ball Soup). Pour the chilled, de-fatted stock into zipper storage bags and freeze until needed.

Roast Turkey Stock requires sacrificing an actual turkey. Remove the breast from the turkey and reserve to use some other time in some other dish. Place the rest of the carcass into a roasting pan and then the roasting pan into a 350° oven for 1-1.5 hours or until the thigh juices run clear when pierced with a knife. Let cool. Remove the thigh meat to make turkey salad or just munch on. Place the turkey carcass and all the juices from the roasting pan into a large stockpot in which you have already sweated down some chopped carrots, onions, and celery. Be sure to use the neck as this is a good source of gelatin which will enrich the stock. Add enough water and white port to cover the bird. Bring to a rolling boil for a few minutes and then reduce to a simmer and cook for at least three to as many as eight hours. Strain the stock and discard all the solids. Cool in the refrigerator until the fat rises to the top and solidifies. Remove the fat and reserve so you will have some roast turkey fat to use as the base for your roux for your turkey gravy. Pour the chilled, de-fatted stock into zipper storage bags and freeze until needed.

These stocks will keep indefinitely in the freezer but cannot be kept more than a couple of days in the refrigerator.

Sweet Potato and Butternut Squash Soup
Peel clean and dice two parts sweet potato and two parts butternut squash and one part white onion. Put the vegetables in a pot and cover with enough turkey stock and a little sherry. Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer. Let simmer for 40-45 minutes. Allow to cool. Puree. Taste and season with curry powder and Asian five spice along with salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot in cups or bowls. Garnish with a fried sage leaf, crispy curls of fried green onion, and a dollop of plain whipped cream (no sugar-added). Serve with Sherry.

Slow Roast Turkey
Buy the smallest turkey you can find. If you need more, cook two. The bigger birds are tougher and more likely to dry out as they are cooking. I look for an 8-11 pound bird. Brine it at least overnight (24-30 hours is better) in a mixture of water, white wine, salt, sugar, and fish sauce. To determine how much brining liquid you’ll need, put the thawed raw turkey in a stock pot and add enough cold water to just cover it. Remove the bird letting all the water drain back into the stock pot. Make note of the fill level and then pour out half of the water. Bring that remaining water to a boil and then mix in the salt, sugar, and fish sauce, stirring until everything is completely dissolved. I use a cup and a half of salt and 1/2 cup of sugar along with a quarter cup of fish sauce for each gallon of water. Once that has cooled, mix in the white wine and enough ice to bring the level back up to the original level. Return the bird to the stock pot, cover, and put into the refrigerator or into a large cooler packed with ice.

On thanksgiving morning, remove the bird from the brine and discard the brine. Let the bird drain and drip for a while and then pat dry with paper towels. Rub the skin with an olive oil-based herb rub (see “Tweaking Your Turkey to Work with Your Wines” below). Add some fresh aromatics to the cavity and then roast low and slow at 225° in a roasting pan. This can be done in the oven but I like to use our grill as it frees up the oven for other stuff. If you have a big gas grill, you can set the roasting pan on the grill with only the two end burners turned on (and those set on low) and the lid closed. I take out the pop up timer if it came with one and insert a remote thermometer so I can check the temperature without opening the oven (or lifting the lid). The bird starts breast side down and gets turned over about 45 minutes before I think (or guess?) it will be done. At the turn, I loosely tent it with foil to keep the skin from getting too dark. When the bird gets to 150°, I remove the foil and turn up the heat to 400° to crisp up the skin. Do not walk away at this point because the heat rises quickly. It comes out of the oven (or off the grill) just before the breast gets to 160° and stays tented with foil while the juices set for 20 minutes or so before carving. For a 10 pound bird, total cooking time will run around 3 hours to a bit more depending on the true temperature of your oven/gill and how many times you open the door/lid.

Savory bread pudding (which serves in lieu of stuffing)
A few days before you will need it, buy some rustic bread (avoid bread with garlic in or on it) and cube it up into ¾ inch chunks. Freeze it overnight and then put it in a large bowl; this will help prevent it from molding. I use a bowl that will fit into our microwave oven, not because I am going to nuke the bread but because the microwave oven will keep the bread save from our critters. On Thanksgiving morning, sweat down some mushrooms, celery, shallots ,and green onions and then mix in some sage and some crumbled pecans and toss it all together with the stale bread cubes. Put all of that into a buttered baking dish and soak with a mixture of scalded milk, turkey stock, and beaten eggs. Bake for one hour at 350°.

Mashed potatoes
You really don’t need me to tell you how … nah, didn’t think so.

My Mom’s Gravy
In my family, it isn’t Thanksgiving without gravy. I love good gravy and I love my mom’s the best. I used to have her make it. A few years back, I got her to write down the recipe and that’s where the trouble started. For several years, I tried to make my Mom’s gravy and it was never right so one year I carefully watched her and realized she was using very hot stock. I had been using cold-to-room temperature stock. The hot stock combines much more readily with the roux.

Using the reserved fat from the Roast Turkey Stock, make a roux using equal parts flour and fat in a large skillet over medium high heat. If needed, add a little more flour so that all the fat is combined with flour but not so much as to make it too tight. If it is too tight, add a little fat. If you are out of turkey fat, add a little rendered bacon fat (you do still keep a jar or coffee can of rendered bacon drippings in the ‘fridge, don’t you?). Assign someone to keep stirring the roux because the darker it gets (without burning), the more flavor it will have. I shoot for a dark peanut butter color. When the roux is right, reduce to medium heat and begin adding, a little at a time some very hot turkey stock. Once the gravy is approaching your desired level of thickness, lower the heat to medium-low and begin tasting, season with salt and pepper and add some of the same sort of wine you will be serving with your dinner. Not the same exact wine but the same sort of wine so, for instance, if you are serving an expensive Pauillac with your meal, use a little of a lesser Cabernet-based appellation such as Haut Medoc to finish your gravy. Taste the wine to make sure it is good before you use it in the gravy. Never put a wine you wouldn’t drink into a dish you plan to eat.

Blanched Green Beans finished with Butter and Cajun Seasoning
You can do this with regular fresh green beans, snow peas, or sugar snap peas but for thanksgiving, I prefer French green beans or “haricot vert.” Whichever green bean you use, snip off the ends and rinse. Bring some salted water to a boil and briefly blanch the beans. For the slender, tender French beans, 30 seconds is more than enough time. For the others, no more than one minute. Drain the water of and plunge the beans into ice water to stop the cooking once the are cold, drain the beans in a colander and set aside.
While the bird is being carved, brown some butter in a wok pan (ideally) or skillet. turn up the heat under the butter to high, wait 30 seconds, and add the cooled blanched beans, toss and coat with butter and lightly sprinkle with creole seasoning (I use Tony Chachere’s). Cook until warmed through but still al dente. Move to a serving dish and pour any remaining seasoned butter over the beans.

Yellow Squash Casserole
In a large, pot simmer two parts yellow squash and one part white onion in enough salted water to cover. Add a splash of white port and several squirts of Worchestershire sauce. Simmer for 20-25 minute or until fork tender but not mushy. Drain thoroughly and cool. Put the squash and onion mixture into a buttered baking dish, season with salt and black pepper, and toss in some grated Manchego cheese (3-month aged preferred). Top with a thin layer of more grated Manchego and cover with Panko bread crumbs. Dot the bread crumbs with butter. Bake for 40-45 minutes at 350°.

“What?” you might ask. “No sweet potatoes or cranberries?!?” We’ll have both – but the sweet potatoes will be part of that soup mentioned above and the cranberries will be part of a walnut and cranberry pie that Miss Carol bakes. Our essential food bases are covered. The dishes are all flavorful but, even though some Cajun spices are used, nothing is overtly spicy or salty or fatty. The whole menu is very wine friendly but the question now becomes “Which Wine?”
With the soup, the answer is a nice Oloroso or Cream Sherry. You can spend as much or as little as you want here. I’ll be using Lustau East India Sherry.

Carol’s walnut and cranberry pie also is easy. It is more rich than sweet and the cranberries keep the sweetness in balance so any good sweet rich white will work with it. Sauternes is a natural as are late harvest wines from the US or Australia or even a fine Tawny or Colheita Port.

Tweaking Your Turkey to Work with Your Wine.
So on to the main event – the turkey and the sides. Here is where you tailor the dinner to the wine. The sides as suggested are quite wine friendly so it is the turkey we are worrying about tweaking.

Simple roast turkey is as wine friendly as simple roast chicken, provided you don’t over cook it and dry it out. Use olive oil on the skin and season with salt and pepper and you will get something good. Nevertheless turkey, like chicken, shows off other flavors very well and those other flavors can be used to tailor the bird to the wine.

If you plan to serve red Bordeaux, Cabernet, Merlot, or a Northern Rhone red, make your herb rub from dried parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme with black pepper and a couple of peeled shallots, all blasted together in the blender with a little olive oil. Rub that on the skin and push some in between the skin and the meat to help baste the meat as it cooks. And put some of the same fresh herbs in the cavity of the bird for aromatics. Be sure the roasting pan and carving board juices make it into the gravy. Cabernet Sauvignon has a natural affinity for all those flavors and they will help show of the wine.

If you plan to serve red Burgundy or Pinot Noir, make your herb rub from dried parsley with black pepper, some salt, and some peeled shallots, all blasted together in the blender with a little olive oil. For more earthy richness, add some fresh shitake mushrooms to the herb puree. Rub that on the skin and push some in between the skin and the meat to help baste the meat as it cooks. And put some peeled shallots and a couple of mushrooms in the cavity of the bird for aromatics. Again, be sure the roasting pan and carving board juices make it into the gravy.

To make this work with White Burgundy, Chardonnay, white Bordeaux or richer style Sauvignon Blancs (not New Zealand or Loire), use the same mix is for Pinot Noir but loose the parsley. For Sauvignon Blanc or White Bordeaux, add some green onions both inside and out. For Alsace whites (Riesling, Gewurztraminer, or Pinot Gris), use shallots and shitakes along with a little creole seasoning for the rub and add a halved lemon, shallots, and celery inside the bird.

For a Southern Rhone Red (Chateauneuf, Gigondas, Cotes du Rhone), a Rhone-style red blend (from California, Australia, or the South of France) use the same herbal mix as for Bordeaux but punch up the rosemary and thyme and add chervil and lavender.

If you want to serve Tuscan or Sangiovese-based reds or Zinfandel, use dry basil and dry parsley in the rub with some granulated garlic, salt, black pepper and olive oil. And use fresh basil and fresh flat leaf parsley with some crushed garlic cloves inside the bird. To go over-the-top, put some sundried tomato in the bird as well.

So, you get the idea. You can tailor the basic dish to the wine, just by using the spices and seasonings that have an affinity for that wine. So have fun, be brave, and go ahead and serve that great bottle of wine with confidence that it will pair well with your holiday feast.

One thought on “Tweaking the Thanksgiving Feast to Pair With Wine

  1. Pingback: Thinking About Thanksgiving | Bear On Wine

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