Handling Thanksgiving: The peasant feast, don’t be lonely, shop and save

Fresh VegetableBy Wayne Bell

When I was a kid (OK…still am), I was obsessed with “Rent.” I suppose you could say that I was one of those “Rent-heads” that Newsweek was fascinated with in the ’90s. I felt as if the musical was speaking to me and telling my story.

Of course, I lived in Vilonia, Arkansas and couldn’t have been farther from the turmoil of ‘80s New York City described in “Rent,” but, that didn’t stop me from singing “I’ll Cover You” to my imaginary transvestite lover.

It was during my “Rent” phase that I took on an appreciation of Jonathon Larson, the creator of “Rent.” Those of you who remember, will recall that Larson died shortly before opening night of his famous work. After his death, “Rent” got lots of publicity. While watching a documentary about Larson, I was struck by one of his annual traditions: The peasant feast.

Every Thanksgiving, Larson would group his friends, cast members and family together to share in a communal potluck he called the peasant feast. For many of the (then poor) cast and crew, it was a saving grace on a day that could have been relegated to depression caused by not having family nearby or the finances to travel to see them.

I was thinking of this recently when pondering how people will handle Thanksgiving this year. I don’t know how many of you have noticed, but the cost of food has skyrocketed lately. A typical Thanksgiving dinner for six people could cost more than $100 or so. Therefore it is my mission to provide you with some Thanksgiving ideas that won’t break the bank. I am throwing in some of my favorite recipes, which would be ideal as a contribution to your very own peasant feast. I shall offer an apology that none of my favorites contain canned vegetables, lard or CoolWhip.

Cutback on cost and frustration

With any holiday, my first suggestion for cutting costs (and frustration) is stop trying to do everything. This year make a turkey resolution to actually enjoy the day with family and friends and not simply the kitchen. Therefore, I suggest you make only one thing…perhaps the bird, perhaps the side, perhaps a pie. Then ask others to each bring one thing. A side Thanksgiving is a great idea. You can leave it to Ozark Natural Foods, the Ozark Mountain Smokehouse or AQ to prepare your bird, and leave the sides for everyone else to supply.

I would suggest that whatever you make, make it ahead. So many fantastic recipes can be made ahead and simply baked before the meal. This could be true of a rustic butternut soup or an apple date cake. That way, you get to spend more time with your family…unless of course…you are trying to avoid them, and then, by all means, cook to your heart’s delight.

Think the drink

One other huge time and money saver is alcohol. Now you might be wondering how alcohol can save you time and money. First, let me stress that your drinking should be done within your home, and not with an automobile involved. That being said, alcohol can be your saving grace. You would be shocked how much less your family can sting when they are chased down with bottles of wine.

Last year, my brother-in-law brought a case of champagne home. I wondered why in the world, he had so much. However, by the day after Thanksgiving, when we were finishing off our eleventh bottle, I wondered how we ever made it through before. Everyone seems so pleasant and jovial when you’re a bit tipsy.

How does this save you time and money? Well you spend less time crying in the bathroom over childhood memories, and you spend less money on therapy bills. The only real caveat is that the Black Friday holiday shopping can hurt your head a bit at 4 in the morning, but screw it, it would annoy anyone.

Thanksgiving on your own

Those who don’t have friends or family close by should consider going to a restaurant for a big Thanksgiving meal. The holidays are no fun when you’re feeling lonely and dining out is a way of treating yourself to something special.

Several chain restaurants offer Thanksgiving dinners for economical prices. You can get an entire Thanksgiving dinner (pie included) for less than $10 at Cracker Barrel. Plus, it will give you something to do that day. Check with locally owned restaurants to see if they’ll be open Thanksgiving, for a really special treat.

Another thing to consider is doing your shopping on Thanksgiving. I don’t mean your Christmas shopping, but your everyday shopping. Most stores are now opening on Thanksgiving Day to try and get those holiday shoppers in. In the late afternoon, the stores can be dead. It can be a great time to fly through the stores and get everything you want or need on your shopping list.

Go to a movie. Hollywood often opens blockbuster films on Thanksgiving. The movie theatres accommodate those who would prefer to have something to do on the holiday, and don’t necessarily want to watch the parade. Gosh…I love that parade.

Another great thing to do on Thanksgiving is volunteer. Places like the Salvation Army serve up thousands of warm meals to those who are less fortunate. How many of us are two or three paychecks from being in a similar boat? Why not give back this Thanksgiving either by volunteering or financially supporting your favorite organizations.

Last year the Salvation Army (as well as local churches and shelters) served meals mainly from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. This is a time of the year when we should pay special attention to those people and organizations that need our support.

It doesn’t just stop with the actual meal either. Think about what organizations are important to you throughout the year. For some it may be the Red Cross. Others may have a special affection for the work of the Komen organization. Why not make a donation to an organization that you are truly thankful for this Thanksgiving?

The Big One is Coming

Start getting ready for the next one…the big one…Christmas. Chances are if Thanksgiving is hard on you, Christmas will probably be worse. Many people will be doing without this holiday season. National retailers are expecting a drop of up to 5 to 7 percent over last year’s miserable numbers. The truth is…people are still spending, and they are spending a lot, they are just spending wiser.

For those who can afford a traditional holiday season, there are a few things that can make the holidays a little easier on the wallet. First, sign up for blackfriday.info. This popular website features most all of the Black Friday ads that appear in Thanksgiving papers, in advance. By being knowledgeable, you can price match between stores, or start saving for a particular item.

Next, get up early! The truth is, you probably already know this, but the sales can sometimes end by as early as 10 a.m. Many stores only run their promotions from 4 to 10 a.m. or 6 to 10 a.m. Therefore, it truly does pay to wakeup early.

Finally, when you’re in the store, hoard it all up. My sister taught me this trick and god love her for it. Every year the stores get slammed in the electronics section with all of those $2.99 new release DVDs. You can’t just stand there and look at the options, because the stores will run out. Therefore, load up your cart with everything that has a sale sticker on it. Then mosey over to the baby clothes section (which will be dead) and sort out what you want and don’t want. This trick also works in the produce section. Of course, this explains why you can often find a DVD or CD mixed in with the bananas.

Speaking of store layout, get the floor plans for the sales online. That’s right. Many stores plan out where they are going to put all of their items to try to prevent the major crowd issues. For instance, last year Wal-Mart actually had a ton of CD’s and DVD’s set up on carts in the food section. That way the crowds could be more evenly divided. By doing a little investigating, you can often find these plans online.

Oh, and don’t forget about online. Many retailers offer the same, if not deeper discounts online during the same hours as the stores sales. That would be how I acquired my $399 Kitchen Aid Stand Mixer last year for $129.

Don’t forget what’s really important

Last but not least, remember what the holidays are all about. Last year my favorite gift was a box of homemade macaroons that a friend made for me, because she knew they were my favorite. Remember, it’s the thought that goes into a gift, not the finances.

Much like Mr. Larson did, this is the year to truly embrace our friends and family. During this difficult time when most everyone is feeling the impact of a down economy, a holiday can provide a lot of joy and relief. Although, I may not be a true “Rent-head,” I do understand the idea of coming together in adversity. This is the year to come together, to volunteer, to donate, to relax…and above all…to ENJOY.

The Bird

Roasted Turkey with Sage

From Williams-Sonoma Holiday Entertaining, Georgeanne Brennan, 2007 (adapted)

1 16-lb turkey (giblets removed)

Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

1 yellow onion, cut into 6 wedges

3 large yellow onions, cut into ½ slices

10 fresh sage leaves

2 tablespoons of unsalted butter (room temperature)

1 bottle of extra dry white wine.

Remove the fresh (or thoroughly thawed) turkey from the refrigerator about 1 hour before roasting. Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Remove and discard any pockets of fat from the cavity.

Season the cavity with lots of salt and pepper. Add in the onion wedges and sage. Tie the legs together using kitchen string. Tuck the wing tips under the body, Rub the butter over the turkey breast. Season heavily with salt and pepper. Select a roasting pan just large enough to hold the turkey. Place the sliced onions in the middle to form a natural roasting rack, and put the turkey breast side up, on the rack. If you prefer a metal rack, feel free. Either way, it is often a good idea to pour ¾ of a bottle of dry white wine in the bottom of the roaster.

Roast the turkey until a thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh away from the bone registers 170-175 degrees. This will typically take 3 and one half hours.

When the turkey is done, transfer to a platter or carving bird. Remove the strings and tent with aluminum foil. Let the bird rest for 30 minutes before carving. Whisk the fat drippings and wine mixture with the remaining bottle of wine for natural gravy.

A Side

Brussel Sprouts Lardons

From Barefoot In Paris, Ina Garten, 2004

2 tablespoons good olive oil

6 ounces Italian pancetta or bacon, one quarter-inch dice

1 and one-half pounds Brussels Sprouts, trimmed and cut in one half

three-quarter teaspoon kosher salt

three-quarter teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

three-quarter cup golden raisins

1 and three-quarter cups chicken stock or canned broth

Heat the olive oil in a 12-inch sauté pan and add the pancetta. Cook over medium heat, stirring often, until the fat is rendered and the pancetta is golden brown and crisp, 5 to 10 minutes. Remove the pancetta to a plate lined with a paper towel.

Add the Brussels Sprouts, salt and pepper to the fat in the pan and sauté over medium heat for about 5 minutes, until lightly browned. Add the raisins and chicken stock. Lower the heat and cook uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the sprouts are tender when pierced with a knife, about 15 minutes. If the skillet becomes too dry, add a little chicken stock or water. Return the pancetta to the pan, heat through, season to taste, and serve.

The Pie

Sugar Pumpkin Pie

The Art of Simple Food, Alice Waters, 2007

1 9-inch piecrust

1 cup heavy cream

2 teaspoons flour

15 ounces organic pumpkin puree (not pie filling)

3 eggs

one-fourth cup dark brown sugar

1 tablespoon granulated sugar

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

one-fourth teaspoon ground cloves

one-fourth teaspoon ground ginger

one-half teaspoon salt

Pinch of fresh ground black pepper

1 and one-half teaspoons brandy

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Prick the bottom of piecrust with a fork (all over). Bake crust for 10-15 minutes or until lightly golden around the edge. The tart should be an even light golden brown, all over. Set aside to cool.

In a small saucepan, whisk together one-quarter cup of heavy cream and 2 teaspoons of flour. Heat the mixture over low heat until it comes to a boil and thickens. Slowly whisk in another three-quarter cup heavy cream. Continue whisking until the mixture returns to a boil. Remove from the heat. In a medium bowl, whisk together the pumpkin puree and eggs. In another bowl, mix the brown sugar, sugar and spices. Stir the sugar and spice mixture into the thickened cream mixture. Once mixed, fold into the pumpkin mixture. Whisk in 1 and one-half teaspoons of brandy.

Pour into the prebaked shell and bake for 45-50 minutes, until the center is almost set. If the edges are browning too quickly, fit a ring of foil around the rim. Let cool completely before cutting.

To prevent cracking, try putting a pan of water in the oven with the pie, on a lower rack. Best served with fresh whipped cream, ginger zest or dark chocolate sauce.

The Drink

Vin Chaud (Hot Wine)

From Nigella Christmas, Nigella Lawson, 2009

1 750 ml bottle robust red wine, such as Beaujolais

4 cinnamon sticks

1 5-inch curl orange zest, shaved off with peeler

one-third cup sugar

1 star anise

5 whole cloves

one-third cup cognac

Pour the wine into a large saucepan and add the remaining ingredients slowly. Bring almost to boil (don’t actually boil) and then turn down heat and let simmer gently. The mulled wine is ready after the sugar has completely dissolved. Keep pan on very low heat. Serve in heatproof glasses. To make this beverage non-alcoholic, replace the wine with 2 cups of 100 percent pomegranate juice and replace the cognac with 2 cups of cranberry juice.

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