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Thanksgiving Table

Side dishes from the chefs

EUGENIA UHL PHOTOGRAPH

Turkey is a given for Thanksgiving everywhere, but New Orleanians have a special trinity for the holiday: mirlitons, sweet potatoes and oysters.

Yes, I know the trinity in our cooking means onions, bell pepper and celery, but what would Thanksgiving dinner be without that second trio on the table? Lacking some major ingredients from our own vines, earth and waters, I’d say.

I have heard cooks talk about buying their oysters a week early to be on the safe side. Some begin chopping onions and celery on Monday. I am more of a last-minute person than that, but I do manage to chop great mounds of trinity to go into dressings, gravy and sides.

And I do love something different now and then – a new take on sweet potatoes or a creative side. So you can imagine how my ears perked up when an employee of Ruth’s Chris Steak House called, offering me the recipe for their sweet potato casserole. For years I’ve cherished Ruth’s potatoes au gratin and creamed spinach recipes, and used them both on special occasions.

That got me to thinking. What is cooking for Thanksgiving at some of our other great chefs’ houses? I am always ready to try a new slant.

I didn’t have to look far, being the owner of two great cookbooks that together weigh about 30 pounds and have enough good recipes to take me through the rest of my life. Those are from Donald Link and John Besh, two of our premier chefs. Link owns Herbsaint and Cochon in New Orleans, and Besh owns a family of local restaurants with Restaurant August as the flagship.

“I cook everything,” Link said of his family’s Thanksgiving dinner. “I want to do new stuff, but everybody comes expecting those (same) dishes.”

Those are mashed potatoes and giblet gravy, the favorites of his children, roast turkey with oyster-cornbread stuffing, green beans with bacon and onion and homemade rolls.

And he wastes no time getting it on the table.

“I still don’t understand what my mom was doing all that time,” he says of his childhood days. Link does it all in four hours, including deboning the turkey.

The Links usually dine at home and sometimes at his dad’s in Lake Charles.

“It’s the easiest meal I cook all year. I have it pretty wired,” he says.

The oyster-cornbread stuffing recipe actually came from his mother-in-law Cathy. He said hers was better than his, so he adopted her recipe years ago. The recipe can be found in his cookbook, Real Cajun, published by Clarkson Potter.

In his cookbook, My New Orleans, from Andrews McMeel Publishing, Besh writes about how his Thanksgiving sticks to the traditions of his in-laws, but invites his shrimp and mirliton dressing to the table each year. The Besh and Berrigan (his wife’s) families usually dine at the Besh home with an ever-growing family of 40 or more people. He is also known to make dirty rice dressing, pecan sautéed green beans and turkey gumbo the next day.

“In New Orleans, folks live to eat; they don’t just eat to live,” Besh says. “And the day after matters just as much as Turkey Day.”
 

Ruth’s Chris Sweet Potato Casserole*
Crust:
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup flour
3/4 cup chopped nuts (pecans preferred)
1/4 cup melted butter

Sweet potato mixture:
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups mashed sweet potatoes
1 egg, well-beaten
1/4 cup butter
 
Combine crust ingredients in mixing bowl and set aside.

Combine sweet potato ingredients in a mixing bowl in the order listed. Combine thoroughly.

Pour sweet potato mixture into buttered baking dish.

 Sprinkle crust mixture evenly onto surface of sweet potato mixture.

 Bake for 30 minutes at 350 degrees. Allow to set for at least 30 minutes before serving.

 Serves 4.

*This sweet potato casserole was taken from a family recipe of a former vice president of Ruth’s Chris Steak House, and developed in-house at the restaurant’s corporate kitchen. It is a regular side dish on the Ruth’s Chris menu.

John Besh’s Mirliton and Shrimp Dressing
4 mirlitons, halved and seeded
3 tablespoons olive oil
8 tablespoons butter
1 medium onion, diced
1 stalk celery, diced
1 green bell pepper, seeded and diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
Leaves from 1 sprig fresh thyme
Leaves from 1 sprig fresh rosemary, chopped
Leaves from 1 sprig fresh sage, chopped
1 pound medium Louisiana or wild American shrimp, peeled, deveined and finely chopped
1/2 cup crabmeat, picked over
4 cups diced day-old French bread
2 cups chicken stock
1/2 teaspoon Creole seasoning
1 -2 dashes Tabasco
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
 
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Rub mirlitons with oil. Place them on a baking sheet cut side down and bake until they are fork-tender and easily peeled, about 45 minutes. Set the mirlitons aside to let rest until they are cool enough to handle, then peel and cut them into 1-inch pieces.

Melt the butter in a large skillet over moderate heat. Add the onions, celery and bell peppers and cook until the onions are translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for another minute. Increase heat to medium-high, add the fresh herbs and shrimp and stir frequently, until shrimp are just cooked, 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in the crabmeat. Transfer to a large mixing bowl. Add the diced mirlitons and the remaining ingredients and stir until well-combined.

Spoon the dressing into a large buttered baking dish and bake until golden brown, 20 to 30 minutes.

Serves 10.

Donald Link’s Oyster and Cornbread Stuffing
Turkey stock:
1 turkey neck, cut into 2-inch pieces
1 cup turkey or chicken gizzards or livers
5 bay leaves
4 cups chicken broth or water

2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
3 celery stalks, finely chopped
1 medium green bell pepper, cored, seeded and finely chopped
1/2 cornbread, crumbled finely
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 cups shucked oysters, cut into thirds
1 bunch scallions (green and white parts), coarsely chopped
1/2 bunch flat-leaf parsley, coarsely chopped (about 1/2 cup)
2 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 teaspoons ground black pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons poultry seasoning
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
 
Place the turkey neck pieces, gizzards, bay leaves, chicken broth or water and any vegetable scraps in a large pot. Bring the mixture to a boil, reduce the heat to low and simmer for 2 hours, until the neck pieces are very tender. Strain the stock; you should have about 3 cups. Set aside. Using your fingers, pick the meat from the neck, combine with the gizzards and chop coarsely. Set aside.

Heat the vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add onion, celery and green pepper and cook, stirring for 5 to 8 minutes, until the vegetables begin to soften. Remove from heat and set aside.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9-by-12-inch baking dish with vegetable shortening.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the cornbread with the stock, the chopped turkey meat, the sautéed vegetables, the eggs, oysters, scallions, parsley, salt, pepper, poultry seasoning and thyme. Using your hands, mix well. Transfer the mixture to the prepared baking dish, cover with foil and bake for 1 hour. Uncover the dish and bake an additional 20 minutes, until the top is golden brown and crusty. Let the stuffing sit at least 15 minutes before serving.

Crusty Cornbread
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups white cornmeal
2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 tablespoon salt
1⁄2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 cup well-shaken buttermilk
1 1⁄2 cups milk
1 large egg
6 tablespoons butter, melted, plus 2 tablespoons for finishing cornbread
1 tablespoon rendered bacon fat, or butter, shortening or vegetable oil
 
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
 
Place a 12-inch cast-iron skillet in the oven and heat for at least 30 minutes. Meanwhile, make the batter.
 
Whisk together the flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder, salt and pepper in a large bowl. In a separate medium bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, milk, egg and the 6 tablespoons melted butter.
 
Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and pour the wet ingredients into the well. Use a fork or rubber spatula to stir together until evenly combined.
 
Remove the skillet from oven, add the bacon fat to the skillet, and swirl to coat. Pour the batter into the hot skillet, spread the batter evenly and bake for 25 to 35 minutes, until lightly golden and firm and springy to the touch. Serve immediately or cool the cornbread in the skillet and serve at room temperature.
 

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