Why I love Thanksgiving so much
and something you can do with leftover mashed potatoes
For someone who doesn’t come from a traditional American family, my love for Thanksgiving might seem a little random. But it’s true: I really do love the holiday and there are a few reasons why.
Let’s start with the obvious: Thanksgiving is a day dedicated to eating. In and of itself that makes it a great American holiday.
Beyond that, though, Thanksgiving is one of those days that has a special meaning for many people and it exemplifies how culture, tradition and history meld together to create a thing all their own. Whether you’re descended from the original passengers of the Mayflower or your family came to this country 30 years ago (like mine) it’s likely you have your own Thanksgiving traditions. For example, my Dominican friend recently told me it’s common for Dominicans to serve lasagna on the holiday. Many Cuban families roast a whole pig. Russian-Jews might serve a turkey alongside platters of smoked fish, caviar, cold salads. You see what I’m saying? This very specific, very AMERICAN day has grown to have significance for so many of the people and cultures that call America home and to me, that’s the most American thing of all.
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And I’m not the only one: the entire Fedner/Fishman/Shnayder family has always loved Thanksgiving. My grandfather, the best cook I’ve known, always made the Thanksgiving turkey. I was always confused by the concept of a dry, bland bird (something I heard was common) because I’d grown up with grandpa’s turkey: it was juicy and garlicky with crisp, dark skin and a stuffing made of rice and dried fruits. He labored all day to make it along with all the smoked meats (from scratch, of course), cow tongue, cholodetz (meat jelly aka aspic aka the source of many of my childhood nightmares). I think of him every year on this holiday and how much he loved his family. He’d spend all day every day cooking for us if it meant we’d be happy. He showed his love through food - just like my grandmother did, just like my mom does, and now - just like I do.
The last reason for my love of Thanksgiving is that exactly 33 years ago, in November 1988, my family arrived in America after a 6-month immigration journey from the Soviet Union. I think it’s kind of a beautiful coincidence that their arrival coincided with a holiday based around the concept of abundance, a good life, and settling down in a new home. And so no, I’m not a traditional Thanksgiving expert; my expertise lies in the non-traditional, in finding creative ways to serve the things everyone expects and in making everyone feel welcome. At the end of the day, it’s not about the great American tradition or even being American at all - it’s about the traditions you create for yourself.
My Thanksgiving menu this year is Eastern European/Central-Asian inspired. In lieu of a turkey there will be a Georgian chicken tabaka: a butterflied chicken roasted with an iron press resting on it and served with adjika, a Georgian hot sauce. There will be potatoes of course (I’m a Russian-Jew, after all) but they won’t be mashed: they will be crispy and smashed, drizzled with smoked paprika and garlic butter. And there will be plov, the stunning Uzbek center-piece that involves layers of carrot, onion, lamb, and a rice pilaf that’s absorbed it all, coated in decadent lamb fat and studded with cumin and peppercorns.
If all goes according to plan I will also be making Alison Roman’s dilly pull-apart rolls because…dill + bread. And, perhaps, the one traditional item I’ll be making is some cast-iron cornbread - maybe with a miso maple butter. Oh, and maybe some Brussels sprouts! Because…health.
It’s all gonna come together on the fly (which is *very much* my style) and given none of these foods are Thanksgiving-specific, I’ll be sharing whatever recipes I deem worthy in the coming weeks. But for now let me offer a recipe that you can make to use up some leftover Thanksgiving mashed potatoes: gnocchi with blue cheese & fig jam.
Gnocchi with blue cheese & fig jam
WHAT YOU NEED
4 russet potatoes
2 egg yolks
1 cup AP flour
Pinch of salt
1 cup heavy cream
2 tbsp Saint Agur (or other blue) cheese
2 tbsp fig jam
Salt to taste
Poppyseeds, for garnish
WHAT YOU DO
Preheat the oven to 350. Bake the potatoes until fork-tender (about 1 hr - 1:30). Allow to cool for 20 or so minutes then peel and mash until smooth. Add egg yolks and about ½ cup flour. Work into the dough and continue adding flour until the dough is smooth but not sticky. Take care not to knead or overwork the dough - this isn’t regular pasta! Quick note: you can also used leftover mashed potatoes: just don’t add egg yolk or salt but proceed with the rest of the recipe as written.
Cut the dough into about 8 pieces and cover with a dish towel. Place one piece of dough on a well-floured surface. Use your hands to gently roll the dough back and forth into a cylindrical rope that’s about a 1/2 inch in circumference. Cut the rope into 1 inch pieces. Place the finished gnocchi on a floured sheet pan and repeat until the dough is finished (and if it looks like a lot - that’s okay! They freeze very well).
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.
Now it’s time to make the sauce which is VERY easy: add cream to a skillet over med-low heat. Add in blue cheese and stir until fully melted and smooth. Add fig jam, taste and add salt as necessary.
Add the gnocchi to the boiling water and cook for about 2 minutes. Transfer the cooked gnocchi to the sauce skillet and toss until all the gnocchi is coated. Serve and top with poppyseeds if you’d like.