A Downtown Chicago Thanksgiving

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It’s official. I’ve morphed into Betty Crocker. When I was in dire financial straits during 2004, I realized that the surest way to financial solvency was to abandon my take-away ways. In place of delivery, pick-up, and Mickey D meals, I began a brave but fruitful journey…into my own kitchen.

I’d always been able to follow a recipe and make the childhood dishes I learned from my mom, like Spanish smoked chorizo rice cooked in beer. But I knew the only way I was gonna be able to afford to eat during some scary times last year was to meal plan, hit the supermarket, and cook every night, religiously.

With umpteen hours of the Food Network (online and on TV) as my guide, and a huge dose of bravery, I began. Slowly at first, doctoring up Zatarain’s rice dishes. Then I discovered Rachael Ray and Alton Brown, and the whole effort lost its aura of desperation and became a way fun juggernaut of food and culinary exploration.

Soon after I met Devyn this year, it became clear I was the cook. I was (and am still) so avid to be in the kitchen, he knows to just nod patronizingly if I ask him to cook with me, because in spite of myself I always seem to edge him back into the living room while I Zen my way from mise-en-place to plate.

But when Devyn asked me to cook this year’s Thanksgiving dinner for us and two of his friends, I knew it was time to sink or swim. Up until that moment, I had never cooked for more than two people, usually Devyn and I, and never for an event. It was to be, essentially, my final exam after a year of teaching myself how to cook.

Six weeks in advance, I began to plan. I set out to make a traditional Thanksgiving feast, but not in the traditional cruise-control manner with which so many people go about it. I wanted to use everything I had learned to make a hearty, balanced, and flavorful meal and I wanted to do it entirely from scratch.

Well, as it turned out, except for raising the turkey, and a cup of store-bought breadcrumbs, I did manage a Turkey Day table entirely from scratch. I used a combination of Food Network reicpes and advice, various other web resources, and a lot of doctoring from my new-found culinary knowledge.

Although Devyn and I almost came to blows over carving the bird (ah, the joys of Thanksgiving), the whole meal was a fantastic success, and our guests actually raved about the menu the next evening at a holiday party we all attended. And I ended up cooking enough for eight people (so we had mini-Thanksgivings for another couple of nights).

What’s my point? Don’t be afraid of your kitchen. If I, the former king of take-out, can learn to win accolades on a giant Thanksgiving Day spread, anyone can. It just takes a little bravery, a lot of practice, and a big sense of humor.

So what did I cook, anyway? For the record, our from-scratch menu was:

A maple-basted turkey shingled with bacon;
cornbread-raisin dressing;
braised carrots and turnips;
green-bean casserole (yes, including homemade fried onions);
horseradish mashed potatoes;
a chilled cranberry compote;
buttermilk biscuits; and
a pumpkin-rum pie.

Note: no refined sugar was harmed in the making of this menu. We’re a whole sugar couple all the way.

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