I had to take my own advice last week. Family was in town, and Thanksgiving dinner was on me. Truth be told, it’s always on me, but this time the stage was set at my own oven and in my own home.

That isn’t a complaint, by the way, just a statement of fact: When a chef happens to be a part of a family, all of a sudden no one knows how to cook and before you know it, everyone is asking what’s for dinner.

I’d planned and worked ahead. The free-range turkey was ordered early, the cranberry sauce was made ahead, and the vegetables were prepped the day before along with the turkey brined, the flowers purchased and arranged simply and …

As the white tablecloth given to us as a wedding present floated onto the makeshift table that stretched the limit of our “cozy” kitchen, I realized that it and the linen napkins were NOT ironed. And they weren’t going to be. One, because dinner was already ready and two, because, while I would have loved to have sat down to a table that delighted me in every way, my family wasn’t there for pressed linen napkins.

They were seated at our table to laugh, tell stories, make memories and have fun. Pressing linens at the last minute? Not fun, although maybe a good story.

So as we head into the holiday season, we all could do with the reminder that imperfect is what makes good stories and that a forgotten ironing session, a burnt dessert or a soupy creme brulee doesn’t make or break a meal when everyone seated at the table can laugh and let their cares go for a time.

 

OYSTERS MIGNONETTE

This recipe is a classic and elegant way to serve oysters. To stabilize the oysters in their shells for service, place them on crushed ice, salt or a bed of seaweed.

To toast the peppercorns, heat in a small skillet over medium heat until aromatic, about 5 minutes. Remove from the pan to a cutting board to cool, and crush with either the bottom of a clean skillet or meat mallet.  

If you happen to have leftover sauce, drizzle it with olive oil over greens for a light, refreshing dressing.

3 to 4 well-scrubbed oysters per person

1/2 cup red wine vinegar

1/4 cup lemon juice

1/4 cup orange juice

2 tablespoons minced shallots

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

2 tablespoons peppercorns (red and/or green), toasted and crushed

2 tablespoons minced chive

Combine vinegar, juices, shallots, salt and pepper in a small bowl. Strain through a sieve and use a tiny spoon to drizzle on at last minute. Makes 1 cup.

To serve: Shuck the oysters. With the liquor (oyster juice) still in the bottom half shell, place on the bed of your choice. You can cover and refrigerate until ready to serve, or serve immediately with the mignonette sauce drizzled on top and chives sprinkled as a garnish.

 

CREAMY PUMPKIN SOUP

Another recipe to make ahead and reheat at the last minute.

To use fresh pumpkin flesh, cut in half, scoop out seeds, and place open-side down on a baking sheet. Add 1/2 inch of water and bake at 350 degrees until the flesh is tender, between 1 and 1 1/2 hours. Scoop the flesh from the skin and measure the amount you need.

If you have a gluten-free guest, omit the flour and add the milk slowly at the end. It will be a much less stable soup, so it’s best to keep it on the lowest heat setting and serve sooner rather than later.

1/2 stick butter

2 cups diced onions

1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

2 teaspoons kosher salt (less if more sodium in stock)

1/2 teaspoon fresh black pepper

1/2 cup flour

5 cups cooked pumpkin flesh

4 cups whole milk

3 cups low-salt vegetable or chicken broth

Melt the butter in a stock pot over medium-high heat and add the onions, nutmeg, salt and pepper. Sweat the onions until they are tender, and then add the flour. Stir well until the flour is incorporated. Add the pumpkin and again stir well. Add the stock and milk, and bring to a simmer for 10 minutes. Puree carefully in a blender.  

Serves six to eight.

 

ORANGE AND ROSEMARY DUCK CONFIT

A nontraditional confit for sure, and one that the French purists among us will not approve, as salt and pepper are the only seasons for the classicists. However, let’s not have tradition get in the way of delicious. The tang of the orange and the herbal note of the rosemary both complement the richness of the duck to great effect.

8 duck leg quarters (thigh and drumstick attached)

4 tablespoons orange zest, zest from about 2 oranges

3 tablespoons minced rosemary leaves

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1 tablespoon salt

1 teaspoon fresh black pepper

1 1/2 quarts duck fat, about 3 pounds

Combine the zest, rosemary, garlic, salt and pepper in a small bowl. Rub the spice-and-salt mixture into the skin and meat of the duck, covering all sides. Cover and refrigerate for 24 hours or overnight.  

Place the fat in a Dutch oven and heat over low heat until it reaches 200 degrees. Remove any excess seasoning from the duck and pat dry with a paper towel. Gently place the duck into the fat and stew for 2 1/2 to 4 hours depending on how big the duck pieces are.

Be sure to keep the fat below 210 degrees – it may help to check every half hour or so. When done, the meat should be very tender and not quite falling off the bone.

Remove from heat. When cool enough to handle, remove the quarters from the fat and place in a crock, glass pan or plastic container. Strain the fat over the top until the duck is completely covered. Refrigerate for up to 8 weeks.

To serve, heat oven to 375 degrees. Remove duck from fat and place on a baking sheet, skin-side up. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes and flip. Bake for another 5 or 10 minutes, or until skin is crisp. Serve immediately.  

Serves six to eight.

 

WINTER SLAW

My girls will eat this dish as if it’s candy rather than squash and cabbage – the sugars of both caramelize and turn simple vegetables into something akin to an addictive confection.

2 tablespoons canola oil

1 pound peeled, seeded and grated butternut squash, about 4 cups or ½ of a medium-sized squash

1½ pounds sliced green cabbage, about 4 cups or ½ head of small cabbage

¾ teaspoon salt (sprinkle half over squash and half over cabbage)

Several grinds of black pepper

1 tablespoon butter

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat and add the oil. Add the squash, sprinkle with half of the salt, and saut?ntil heated through. It will stick to the pan, but don’t worry, it will loosen up at the end.

Add the cabbage and sprinkle with the other half of the salt and all of the black pepper. Break the butter into smaller pieces, and dot the top of the cabbage.  

Transfer to the oven and cook for 45 minutes or until the cabbage is cooked through, but still a little firm. Mix the squash into the cabbage and serve immediately. Serves four to six.

 

Anne Mahle of Rockland is the author of “At Home, At Sea,” a recipe book about her experiences cooking aboard the family’s windjammer. She can be reached at: [email protected]