Enjoy a Pescetarian Thanksgiving, Just Like Those Old-Timey Pilgrims

YUM. Make this your 'Thanksgiving Turkey. Photo by WoodleyWonderWorks/Flickr Creative Commons.

My household is primarily ovo-lacto vegetarian, and I say “primarily” because I have small children who like those gross chicken lumps and fish sticks you find in your grocer’s freezer, and also because it’s nice to have a grilled, cedar-planked slab of wild-caught salmon on Thanksgiving. On the West Coast, you can do this outside on your grill, just like the Pacific Northwest tribes did for thousands of years before “Portlandia” and the Microsoft Surface tablet. In colder climates, you can broil the salmon in the oven if you don’t have a coat? But this method does create the “burning flesh” smell so loathsome to delicate souls such as Morrissey and myself, so just go outside and cook your fish.

Along with the salmon, I’m cooking an entire vegetarian (not vegan) feast that is perfectly delicious and completely satisfying without the fish. So if you’re wondering what to do for Thanksgiving and don’t do turkeys, here’s a relatively simple menu that you can start late on Thursday morning and still have a delightful table ready by 4 o’clock. (Do go to the grocery and farmer’s market before Thursday; otherwise you’re stuck with whatever the Together People picked over earlier in the week. Good bread, for example, is almost always gone by midday Wednesday, and most bakeries are closed on Thanksgiving, because people deserve a holiday.)

Here is what we’re having: Grilled & planked wild-caught sustainably fished salmon, homemade macaroni and cheese, mixed-bread baked stuffing, roasted nutmeg carrots, plain old broccoli and my famous fresh cranberry business. (I am also baking bread, because there are no bakeries within 30 miles of the desert compound where I’m spending the holiday. Otherwise I’d buy a bunch of good loaves and save baking for another, less hectic day.)

These aren’t recipes, because I don’t cook from recipes unless it’s something insanely complex, like delicate little pastries made with rosebuds and live frogs. What follows are guideposts, sort of like the Lord’s footsteps on the beach or what have you. Use them to get the essential foodstuffs and supplies piled up in your kitchen, and then “adjust to taste,” because it’s more fun that way. Dishes are listed in order of what needs to be prepared first.

Remember to buy your cedar salmon planks and soak them in water on Thanksgiving morning! They need to soak for several hours!

Famous Real Cranberry Business: Buy two bags of fresh organic cranberries, which you can only find everywhere this time of year. Also make sure you have an orange, real cane sugar, and some dusty old bourbon in the cabinet that you’re kind of not sure about. Now it is Thanksgiving Morning, hooray! Rinse your cranberries and remove the fingernails or teeth or whatever the Stephen King characters who harvested these things might’ve dropped in the bucket. Now dump the berries in a wide baking dish, grate some orange peel and drizzle a couple of ounces of bourbon over the berries, squeeze in the pulpy juice from the oranges, and spread 3/4 cup of granulated sugar over everything. Don’t use too much sugar! This is a tart, citrus-y and bourbon-y cranberry relish. You don’t want it all sickly sweet. Okay, make it a cup of sugar if you have to, it’s okay.

Now put some foil this in the oven at 250 until its bubbly, about an hour? Go ahead and have a taste of that bourbon, neat. Does it need an ice cube? Fine then! Relax, it’s only … uhh, noon already? Remove the dish, let it cool, then scoop it all into a serving bowl and stick that in the fridge until dinnertime. Looks amazing, doesn’t it?!

Mixed-Bread Baked Stuffing: This is super hearty and will be a main dish if you’re skipping the salmon. Start with two good-sized rustic boule loafs, one whole wheat and one white (sourdough if you like that), and saw these up into cubes. Day old bread is best, but anything works. Don’t get frustrated trying to make the cubes uniform. Anything reasonably bite-sized is fine; I am not ashamed to use poultry shears to cut up the bigger pieces. Put your bread “cubes” on lightly oiled baking sheets and give them a thin coat of spray olive oil. Now dust them with pepper, a mix of whatever Italian herbs in your pantry, and not too much sea salt. Bake these at 250 degrees until they’re toasted, about 10 minutes. Watch them closely! Take them out, try a few. So good! If you’re making a green salad (or having somebody make a salad while you do the “real cooking”), reserve a cup of these delicious homemade croutons for your salad.

Chop a big onion, a half-dozen garlic cloves and a half-dozen celery stalks. Get these going in a saucepan with more olive oil. When the onions are translucent (not caramelized, because that takes forever) add a liter of vegetable broth (or a vegetarian bullion cub plus water) and let that warm up while the croutons are cooling and drying. Mix it all up in a big covered baking dish, make sure there’s enough seasoning, and bake for an hour at 350F. (Depending on the density and dryness of your bread, you might need to add more vegetable broth.) You can brown it right before dinnertime, alongside the mac ‘n cheese.

Macaroni and Cheese: Baked mac ‘n cheese is a holiday specialty in the American South, so I’ve heard. (I was born and raised in the nearby autonomous zone of New Orleans, and certain regional traditions did seep through from the larger South.) Not a lot of reason to “reinvent” the dish here. It’s good, it’s simple, and it’s just time-consuming enough to be special in its own right. Pick up a 2-lb. bag of large elbow macaroni, a 2-lb. block of good medium cheddar, make sure you’ve got some milk and a couple sticks of butter in the fridge, and get ready to season this 1950s style: with salt and black pepper and paprika. (My comrade Tom Scocca believes the mac ‘n cheese should not have a sprinkle of paprika. On this, if nothing else, he is mistaken.)

Set the oven to 400F. Cook pasta until not quite ready to eat, about 10 minutes; this is going to finish in the oven. Meanwhile, grate the cheese, all of it. Don’t eat too much! Drain the macaroni and place in an oiled baking dish (you can wash out and re-use the cranberry baking dish), put two cups of milk and a half stick of butter in the pot, add a handful of salt and a few pinches of pepper and paprika, and slowly stir in half the cheese. When it’s starting to get all bubbly, pour into the dish over the pasta. Spread the rest of the grated cheese on top, dust with pepper and paprika, and bake until golden but not brown. If you leave this in for 20 minutes, both the dressing and the macaroni should be done about the same time. Then you can put these both on a rack, cover with foil and brown them when the fish is about ready.

Roasted nutmeg carrots These are so good! Buy a bunch of weird looking organic carrots at the farmers market or fancy grocery. Mixed colors and varieties, or not, doesn’t matter. Wash them, don’t scrub. Leave some Vitamin D from the soil, you need it! Brush them with olive oil, then sprinkle with brown sugar, ground nutmeg and a little cinnamon and (bonus!) saffron. Bake alongside your other dishes, for about a half hour or until fork tender. People will go nuts because these are delicious and full of unexpected flavors, plus there was that thing in the New York Times recently, so everybody will be all, “Ohhhh carrots, I read about this.”

Plain old broccoli: When you have a lot of rich and strongly seasoned dishes, it’s nice to have something that’s just what it is. Consider a bowl of steamed broccoli to be a kind of sorbet course between these other heavy dishes. Nobody’s going to say, “Wow, broccoli,” but they will appreciate it, quietly. Good fresh not-mushy steamed broccoli is also a nice color and textural element to have alongside the pink salmon.

Grilled cedar-planked salmon: It’s all about the fish here. That slimy farmed corn-fed salmon has no place on your Thanksgiving table, if you are allowing a fish on your table at all. Get wild-caught Pacific salmon, sustainably caught fish from the Pacific Northwest. Whatever species is available is going to be fantastic, whether King or Chinook or Sockeye or even Koho if you can find it. Do almost nothing to this fish. Fire up your outdoor grill, dress the salmon skin-down with lemon and rosemary and very light olive oil and chunky kosher salt and even some dried bits of pine needle (First Nations style!), open the wine, set the table, get the other dishes ready to serve because the salmon is done very quickly, and go out into the cold to grill your fish, like a hero.

If you’re using a charcoal grill, let the coals get white and then place the planks directly on top of them, no “grill” necessary. The sodden planks will keep the fish from bursting into flame. With a gas grill, just place the planks in the center and set your fire to medium-high. Stay outside with your fish, have a cigarette or another glass of bourbon, and watch carefully after eight minutes or so — the timing is very much going to depend on the thickness of your salmon fillets, and whether you’re doing one or two or three, etc. When the edges are just getting charred and the top of the fish is beginning to blister, it’s time to take it off the grill. Let it sit on the planks for another five minutes, give thanks for each other and the fine food from the Earth, and begin your feast.

Photo by WoodleyWonderWorks via Flickr Creative Commons.