The first year we moved to the Lowcountry, we had a really sad Thanksgiving. Chef J had to work of course. The Boy and I didn’t want him to come home to an empty house on such a family oriented holiday so we opted not to travel back home without him. We didn’t have any family here at that time and had only been here a few months anyway. So it was just the three of us for a very small Thanksgiving dinner. I come from a pretty big extended family and was used to joining at LEAST 20 people for the holiday feast. So having just the three of us was, quite frankly, a little depressing. And it was hard to try to scale back recipes that are made to serve 10-12 people. But because it was just the three of us, I was able to try things that I wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. People get really set in their ways about Thanksgiving meals. And some things are not to be messed with.
Everyone has a dish that makes Thanksgiving for them. Without that dish, it just wouldn’t be right, right? I know you’ve got one. We all do. Maybe it’s mac and cheese (not something I grew up with) or sweet potato souffle with marshmallows. Whatever it is, we’ve all got “that dish” that evokes memories of home and family and holidays and just ahhhhhhhh.
So the year of the mini-Thanksgiving, I made a small turkey, some pancetta and chestnut laced stuffing (we both come from cornbread dressing families so this would simply not have been acceptable back home!) and an amazing Brussels Sprouts Au Gratin (Cuisine at home No. 78, December 2009, Page 27). It was such a hit with all three of us that it became one of our Thanksgiving go-tos. Every year, I say, “THIS year, instead of the brussels gratin, I’m going to make . . . ” Whatever it is, I am always met with “Well, why don’t you just make both? It wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without the brussels sprouts.” And so this has become one of our holiday staples. And oddly, I don’t make it at any other time of year. Weird, right? But, just like with stuffing, some things just get so associated with an event they seem out of place anywhere else.
So put this together for Thanksgiving and watch it become a tradtion. OR, if you really want to enjoy it all year, wait a few weeks and make it with a random Sunday dinner. Either way, you’ll be happy. But if you make it for Thanksgiving, you may have to wait a year to try it again.
Oh, and our sad little Thanksgiving for three? It has morphed into something we lovingly refer to as “Refugee Thanksgiving.” Because so few people are actually from our area, we have several friends and neighbors that are unable to travel home for the holiday. And obviously, most of our F&B friends have to work on Thanksgiving. So we now host a random assortment of friends, neighbors and co-workers for an evening meal that tends to turn into a bit of a party. And THAT, my friends, is the best kind of Thanksgiving tradition.
Brussels Sprouts Gratin (adapted from Cuisine at Home, December 2009)
- 1 lb brussels sprouts, trimmed & quartered (see instructions below)
- 2-3 strips bacon or slices of pancetta, diced
- 1 or 2 leeks, sliced (see instructions below)
- 1 T all-purpose flour
- 2 t minced garlic
- 1/2 C low sodium chicken stock
- 1/2 C heavy cream
- 1 T fresh lemon juice
- 1 C grated Gruyere or Swiss cheese
- 1 T butter
- 1 C dry bread crumbs
- 1/4 C chopped walnuts (or pecans because I always have them around Thanksgiving)
- 2 T lemon zest
- Kosher salt/black pepper to taste
- 1/4 C chopped fresh parsley
Trim woody bottoms from brussels sprouts and remove any brown leaves from outer layer. Cut into quarters and set aside.
Leeks typically have a lot of sand and grit between the layers so it’s important to clean them properly. Start by cutting off the top part of the leek. They are very woody so just discard those leaving mostly the white end with maybe a little green at the top. Trim off root end as well. Cut leek in half lengthwise and then slice into thin half moons. Fill a large deep bowl with cool water and transfer sliced leeks to water. Agitate and rub the leeks gently with your fingers. The slices will float to the top and any dirt and sand will sink to the bottom. Carefully scoop cleaned leaks from water with your hands or a spider strainer (try not to disturb the dirt at the bottom of the bowl) and drain on paper towels, squeezing out any remaining water. Set aside. Discard dirty water.
Preheat oven to 350F.
Coat a shallow baking dish with cooking spray or butter.
Bring large pot of water to boil. Blanch sprouts until bright green, about two minutes. Careful not to overcook! These are going to bake for quite a while and you don’t want them mushy. Drain, shock with cold water (an ice bath would be perfect here) to stop the cooking and set aside.
Saute diced bacon in a large skillet over medium heat until crisp and all fat rendered. Remove bacon to paper towels with slotted spoon to drain. Pour off all but about 2 T bacon drippings. Add sliced leeks to same skillet and saute in reserved bacon fat until tender, about 5-7 minutes. Add garlic and continue to cook for about a minute. Sprinkle with flour and cook for one minute more.
Gradually stir in cream and stock. Simmer until slightly thickened and remove from heat. Stir in lemon juice, bacon, sprouts and half of cheese. Add salt and pepper as needed. Transfer mixture to prepared baking dish.
Meanwhile, melt butter in a small non-stick skillet. Stir in bread crumbs and nuts and cook for a few minutes until beginning to brown and smell kind of toasty. Remove from heat and allow to cool for about five minutes. When completly cool, stir in remaining cheese, lemon zest, parsley, salt and pepper.
Sprinkle crumb mixture over top of sprouts mixture and transfer to oven. Bake for 25-30 minutes or until bubbly. Allow to cool just slightly before serving.
To make this ahead, I usually trim and blanch my sprouts the day before and simple store in the fridge until ready to go. I generally do ALL of my Thanksgiving cleaning, chopping and grating the day before so that, on the day of, I simply have to pull the ingredients out of the refrigerator and cook them together.
To make kosher, leave out bacon and start with 2-3 T butter instead. Swap chicken stock for veggie stock.