Thanksgiving is almost upon us and cooks are fretting about the upcoming feast. For some, the menu is a done-deal and always the same - family favorites that are a must on the Turkey Day table.
For others, finding a way to be creative yet traditional is the goal; perhaps using the classic ingredients - turkey, sweet potatoes, cranberries, pumpkin - in different ways.
On a trip to Albuquerque, N.M., earlier this month, the idea for a menu with Southwestern flair and flavor came to mind. After almost a week of eating green chiles for breakfast, lunch and dinner, I was still eager for more. Why not incorporate some of the foods and flavors of New Mexico for the Thanksgiving feast?
With that in mind, I looked for dishes that would work for the holiday meal and asked locals for their family favorites.
My first stop was Jane Butel's Southwestern Cooking School (www.JaneButel.com), in her home kitchen in Corrales, a small town north of Albuquerque. Butel, often called the Queen of Chiles, is credited with starting the Tex Mex craze in the 1960s, when her first book was published.
Eighteen books later, Butel is firmly established as the authority on New Mexican and American Mexican cooking. But when it comes to Thanksgiving, she's fairly traditional.
Butel roasts a turkey, but the stuffing calls for blue corn bread, green chiles and pine nuts, giving the bird a definite New Mexican flavor. She also adds red or green chiles to the turkey gravy.
A family-favorite side dish is sweet potatoes laced with tequila. A local indigenous dish, called quelites, refers to local greens such as lamb's quarters, traditionally cooked in bacon drippings or lard and sprinkled with green chiles and vinegar.
For today's article, she shares an updated version of this dish, featuring spinach cooked without fat but still bursting with flavor. For an easy but delicious dessert, try her recipe for Sweet Potato or Pumpkin Pudding.
The next stop was La Fonda del Bosque, the highly acclaimed restaurant at the National Hispanic Cultural Center (www.nhccnm.org) in Albuquerque. Executive chef Daniel Baca and his assistant, Engracia "Gracie" Cano, showed us how to fold tamales in corn husks in the traditional way. He shared the recipe for a cranberry-pine nut sweet tamale, just right for the holidays.
During dinner one night at El Pinto, a landmark restaurant in Albuquerque, (www.ElPinto.com), we obtained a copy of a delightful home-style cookbook, "A Family Affair," written by the restaurant's founder, Josephine C. Griggs.
The little spiral-bound book, published in 1968, is a treasure trove of traditional New Mexican dishes plus Griggs family favorites. Calabacitas, a squash side dish, is just right for the Thanksgiving table. As the restaurant's slogan goes, "Panza llena, corazon contento." (Full stomach, happy heart.)
The Native American aspect of New Mexican cuisine can be explored at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center (www.IndianPueblo.org), dedicated to the preservation of the Pueblo Indian culture, history and art. Women from the 19 pueblos in New Mexico take turns preparing bread in two outdoor horno ovens at the center. At the center's Pueblo Harvest Caf, you can taste authentic American Indian cooking.
No trip to Albuquerque is complete without a stop at Golden Crown Panaderia (www.GoldenCrown.biz), a family-owned bakery that is known far and wide for its biscochitos, the official cookie of New Mexico. Owner Pratt Morales and his son, Chris Morales, are also famous for their New Mexico Green Chile Bread, which is adorned with a bread-dough coyote howling at the moon. They do all sorts of custom bread sculptures. Although they don't share their recipes, you can taste their wares via online ordering.
Another must is a meal at Duran's Central Pharmacy - that's right, a drugstore! It's where the locals eat their green chile chicken enchiladas, as well as handmade tortillas, tamales, carnitas, chiles rellenos and much more. The diner is tucked away in the back of the pharmacy and is always packed.
You can wash it all down in a festive way with some New Mexican beer or wine. Kelly's Brew Pub (www.KellysBrewPub.com) and Chama River Brewing Company (www.ChamaRiverBrewery.com) both offer specialty brews, including beers, ales and lagers.
New Mexico is the country's oldest wine-making region. Spanish missionaries planted grapes in the Rio Grande Valley nearly 150 years before the first wines were made in California.
Gruet Winery of New Mexico (www.GruetWinery.com) began as an experimental vineyard in 1984, planted by the Gruet family of French Champagne house fame. The resulting grapes produced exceptional sparkling wines made in the traditional methode champenoise. Today, Gruet produces seven sparkling wines - perfect for your Thanksgiving dinner - as well as two Chardonnays and two Pinot Noirs.
Casa Rondena Winery (www.CasaRondena.com) boasts lovely gardens and amazing architecture, complete with 600-year-old stone window frames from Pakistan and 400-year-old stone arches from India. Well known for its Meritage (a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon), the winery offers several other styles of wine. Their Chocolate Cabernet Wine Sauce is a little taste of heaven.
Season your Thanksgiving feast with a dash of green chile and a pinch of New Mexican flair for a memorable meal for which your family and friends will definitely give thanks.
SAGE-ROASTED TURKEY BREAST WITH BLUE CORN BREAD STUFFING
1 (6- to 8-pound) bone-in turkey breast, with skin
1 tablespoon salt
Blue Corn Bread (see recipe)
Blue Corn Bread Stuffing (see recipe)
1/2 cup Spanish dry sherry
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
2 tablespoons thinly sliced fresh sage
Salt the inside of the turkey breast 2 1/2 hours before roasting. Try not to get salt on the skin as it may crack and release juices during roasting.
Meanwhile, prepare Blue Corn Bread (see recipe.) When corn bread is ready, prepare Blue Corn Bread Stuffing (see recipe).
Place stuffing in a well-buttered shallow baking dish for roasting. Mold stuffing into a football shape to accommodate turkey.
Drizzle sherry over stuffing. Drape boned breast over stuffing and mold to a nice, round uniform shape. Tuck sides and any loose skin under the stuffing. Brush turkey breast with melted butter and sprinkle sage over breast.
Roast in preheated 375-degree oven for 45 minutes, then turn breast and roast for another 45 minutes, or until meat thermometer inserted into the thickest part of breast reads 165 degrees.
Let turkey rest for 20 minutes before carving.
Yield: 6 to 12 servings.
Turkey and corn bread recipes shared by Jane Butel's Southwestern Cooking School.
BLUE CORN BREAD
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup blue corn flour
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup milk
Place butter in skillet. Melt butter by placing skillet in oven while it is preheating to 400 degrees.
Combine flours, sugar, baking powder and salt in large bowl; stir to mix. In a separate bowl, whisk together egg and milk. Add milk mixture to flour mixture; stir to combine. Pour melted butter into mixture. Stir just until combined.
Pour batter into heated skillet. Bake in preheated 400-degree oven 20 minutes, or until toothpick comes out clean. Let cool in skillet.
Serve as corn bread with any meal, or use as an ingredient in Blue Corn Bread Stuffing (see recipe).
BLUE CORN BREAD STUFFING
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup finely chopped onion
1 cup finely chopped celery
Blue Corn Bread (see recipe)
1 cup chopped parched green chiles (see note)
2 tablespoons minced fresh sage
1/2 cup chicken broth
1/2 cup pinon nuts (pine nuts), toasted (you can substitute pecans)
Salt, to taste
Melt butter in skillet over medium heat. Add onion and celery; cook, stirring, until celery is soft and onions begin to turn translucent.
Break corn bread into large pieces in large mixing bowl. Add onion, celery, green chiles, and sage. Blend gently. Add chicken broth and pinon nuts. Blend, but do not overmix. Add salt to taste.
Follow directions in recipe for Sage-Roasted Turkey Breast with Blue Corn Bread Stuffing. Or, to bake stuffing on its own, place stuffing in a well-buttered shallow baking dish. Bake in preheated 375-degree oven for 45 minutes, or until heated through and lightly browned on top. Serve as a side dish.
Note: Parching fresh green chiles is a process of blistering the chile under a broiler or over an open flame to remove the peel but leave the flesh uncooked. Parched chiles can be frozen for later use. You can substitute canned green chiles, drained.
SWEET POTATOES TEASED WITH TEQUILA
"My daughter Amy has always been able to eat her weight in sweet potatoes. Just for a change, I once added tequila to a favorite recipe instead of the usual orange juice, rum or brandy," says Jane Butel. "It gave the potatoes a different, interesting taste - and we've been 'into' tequila'd sweet potatoes ever since."
2 large or 3 medium sweet potatoes (about 2 pounds total)
2 to 4 tablespoons tequila, to taste
1/4 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
Freshly grated nutmeg, to taste
1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
Freshly ground white pepper, to taste
Scrub unpeeled sweet potatoes, cut in large chunks and cook in lightly salted boiling water until tender. Pour off water, cover pan and let potatoes "fluff" about five minutes.
Quickly peel the potatoes. Add 2 tablespoons tequila, butter and nutmeg. Beat with an electric mixer or process in a food processor until fluffy. Taste and add more tequila or seasonings, if desired. Serve warm.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings.
SPICY SESAME SPINACH
This quick and easy spinach is a perfect low-fat side dish for Thanksgiving or anytime, says Jane Butel. It can be enhanced with other vegetables, or toss it with pan-seared meats for a light meal.
1 tablespoon sesame seeds
3 cups loosely packed fresh spinach, well rinsed
1 1/2 teaspoons red wine vinegar, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon crushed dried red chile flakes (preferably pequin quebrado), or to taste
Toast the sesame seeds in a heavy skillet over medium heat for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring frequently.
Add the spinach, cover, reduce heat to low, and cook about 5 minutes, or until wilted. Season with the vinegar and chile, adding more if desired. Serve hot.
Yield: 2 servings.
Note: Recipe can easily be increased for the number of servings needed.
SWEET POTATO OR PUMPKIN PUDDING
"This dessert is most easily made with canned pumpkin; however, if you prefer the taste of sweet potatoes, just puree a 15-ounce can of drained sweet potatoes or bake or stew 1 1/2 pounds of fresh sweet potatoes until done,"says Jane Butel.
2 cups pureed sweet potato or pumpkin (one 15-ounce can)
1 1/2 cups evaporated skim milk
1 large egg
1 egg white
1/2 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice (or 1/2 teaspoon EACH ground ginger, nutmeg, allspice and cloves)
Combine sweet potato, milk, egg, egg white, brown sugar and spice(s) in container of electric blender. Process to blend well. Pour mixture into six to eight individual buttered baking dishes.
Place dishes in the microwave oven and cook on HIGH for five minutes, or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Cook another minute or two, if needed. Serve warm.
(To cook in conventional oven, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place pudding dishes in a baking pan large enough to hold them. Add hot water to about halfway up the sides of the baking dishes. Place the pan in the oven and bake for 30 to 40 minutes, or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.)
Yield: 6 to 8 servings.
Recipe adapted from "Jane Butel's Quick and Easy Southwestern Cookbook" (Harmony Books, 1998).
1 tablespoon lard or bacon drippings (or vegetable oil or butter)
1 small onion, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt
Kernels cut from 3 ears of corn
1/2 cup water
2 pounds squash, sliced (zucchini, yellow summer squash or gooseneck)
About 1/2 cup roasted, peeled, sliced green chiles (can use canned, drained)
Heat lard or bacon drippings in skillet. Add onion; cook and stir until soft. Add salt. Stir in corn kernels; cook until golden brown. Add water; bring to a boil. Add squash and chiles. Cover and simmer 15 to 20 minutes, or until corn and squash are tender.
Note: Calabacitas are round, light-green squash that grow wild in New Mexico.
Recipe adapted from "A Family Affair" by Josephine C. Griggs and Elaine N. Smith (1968).
SWEET CRANBERRY PINON TAMALES
2 cups masa harina de maiz (corn tortilla mix)
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup honey
1/4 cup pinon nuts (pine nuts)
1/4 cup dried cranberries
1/4 cup raisins
1 cup water
Place masa harina in a bowl. Add cinnamon, brown sugar, honey, pinon nuts, cranberries, raisins and water; mix well.
Spread mixture onto corn husks; fold to make tamales. Steam tamales, standing upright, for one hour. Serve hot.
Yield: 6 to 8 tamales.
Note: If you can't find corn husks (available in the Hispanic section of the supermarket), you can use aluminum foil. You can make a steamer by placing a rack in a large pot. A rice cooker works well. Recipe shared by executive chef Daniel Baca, La Fonda del Bosque Restaurant.