A twist on tradition: some tips from culinary professionals

By Sheila Himmel and Aleta Watson and Courtesy of the Contra Costa Times

At the first Thanksgiving, the Wampanoag and Plymouth colonists most likely ate seasonal waterfowl such as duck or goose, or venison. Not turkey. Cranberries, sweet potatoes and pumpkin pie were also still generations away.

Much has changed since the three-day harvest festival in 1621. Generations make alterations, immigrants add dishes from home, and Thanksgiving evolves.

Lemon meringue pie moved into Sheila's family with her husband. Her family rejected his clan's creamed pearl onions but liked the sour touch that lemon inserted between creamy pumpkin and sweet apple pies. Now, her family tradition is a sliver of all three.

This year, we asked local cooking school teachers and cookbook authors to help us put a twist on tradition. Each shared a favorite recipe for a side dish that has brought new life to his or her Thanksgiving table. After all, sometimes you need a newcomer to add just the right zip.

For Linda Carucci, former dean of the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, the top Thanksgiving newcomer was an Italian-style garlic spinach dish tossed with pine nuts, currants and pecorino cheese. Carucci, who last year was named Cooking Teacher of the Year by the International Association of Culinary Professionals, had made the spinach dish before, but never for Thanksgiving.

``So much gets done ahead at Thanksgiving,'' she says. ``This doesn't get done in the oven, and it doesn't take a long time. And you don't feel like you're messing with a favorite.''

The dark, leafy greens tinged with slightly sweet garlic powder also add color, health and lightness to the heftier side dishes.

For a dozen years, Oakland-based cooking teacher Ruta Kahate and her husband, Neville deSouza, have been celebrating Thanksgiving with other Indian immigrants who have no family in the Bay Area. Everyone brings a dish.

``Over the years, the party has grown from a few couples to a houseful of people,'' she says. ``Couples have had children, and over the years we have noticed that there has been one new baby every November. This year, it will be us toting an infant.''

Along with 5-month-old Mira, Kahate probably will bring the crusty potatoes with cumin and coriander that she concocted when she was in college. The dish can be finished at the last minute on the top of the stove, and its vibrant Indian flavors go well with non-Indian foods.

Bringing a taste of home to the quintessential American meal is only natural for first-generation immigrants, says Chat Mingkwan. The former chef of San Jose's E&O Trading Company was raised in Bangkok and now teaches in Northern California cooking schools and conducts culinary tours of Thailand.

``Usually I don't cook at Thanksgiving; I'm invited to people's homes,'' he says. ``Of course when I cook at home, I do a couple of things that make it more Thai.''

One of those dishes is a beautiful, aromatic coconut rice, bright yellow with turmeric, that can take the place of stuffing. It's easily made in a rice cooker or atop the stove. Mingkwan's Thai-infused take on pumpkin pie employs palm sugar and coconut cream to create a custard that's just exotic enough to revive jaded palates but not so unusual that it will outrage traditionalists.

Jose Luis Relinque usually serves Thanksgiving dinner at Iberia, the Spanish-themed restaurant he and his wife own in Menlo Park, where it has always been a very traditional meal. Even at home, his family tends to stick to turkey basics, introducing Spanish flavors only in a chorizo-studded stuffing.

This year, Relinque -- who also teaches at Draeger's -- has decided to be a bit more playful with the stuffing. Smoky Spanish paprika, pimentón, adds a spicy touch to a dish laced with dried figs and deeply flavored sweet sherry.

``Face it, turkey is a bit bland, especially the breast meat,'' Relinque says. ``You do need to give it a little pizazz.''

Like many Chinese-Americans, Joyce Jue doesn't find the Thanksgiving feast complete without sticky rice stuffing. Unlike traditional bread stuffing, it is made with white glutinous rice mixed with shiitake mushrooms, dried chestnuts, dried shrimp and loads of lap cheong, sweet, fatty, dried pork sausages that give it incredible flavor.

Jue's mother prided herself on making it. But one year, Jue, a San Francisco cookbook author, decided to surprise her mother by making her own version -- with black rice. The nutty taste of the black rice proved a hit. Well, with almost everyone.

``My mother said, `Where did you get this?' '' recalls Jue, the eldest daughter. ``She liked it. But I don't think she could bring herself to say that.''

After all, food may change, but some other things just don't.

``This dish is a slight challenge to tradition. It's a little bit of a rebellious thing. But then, any time you do anything different in a Chinese household, it's rebellious,'' Jue says with a laugh. ``And my mother always said I was different.''

Victor Chamorro manages research and development of recipes for Draeger's delicatessens and its private label, Epicurean Classics. His wife, Katya Chamorro, is a pastry chef. Their 4-year-old son ``eats everything. Leeks, goat cheese, everything.'' The Chamorros don't do turkey for Thanksgiving. Instead, they roast a ham or a leg of pork. Side dishes include butternut squash with leek gratin, topped with Gruyère cheese. ``Lots of Gruyère.''

Katya Chamorro's ancestry is French, Victor Chamorro's Spanish. They grew up in Nicaragua, where most of the family lives. So Thanksgiving is improvisational with friends. Sometimes they'll have a whole roasted goose with oranges and wine, or a cassoulet.

``In Nicaragua, people have turkey at Christmas,'' Victor Chamorro says. And how is it prepared? ``You won't believe this. First you get the turkey drunk for a couple of days. Then you roast it.''

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