Wednesday, November 19, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Taste of the Town / Nancy Leson

Restaurant critic Nancy Leson shares her savory Thanksgiving recipes

Thanksgiving is my idea of the perfect holiday: a daylong extravaganza of cooking, eating and entertaining, with no presents to buy, no expectations left unmet and lots of great leftovers.

My favorite holiday has become a no-muss, no-big-fuss annual event involving a rotating cast of "orphans": longtime friends, colleagues from work, neighbors alone for the holidays and anyone else orphaned by circumstance, geography or (hey, it happens all the time) family feud. They bring the sides and desserts, and with help from my husband, I do the rest.

This low-key affair, candlelit and conversation-friendly, takes place in the middle of our long skinny living room where, on years when things really get out of hand, a picnic table is dragged in to augment our scarred wooden dining table. Regardless of the number of guests, a count that waxes and wanes on any given year, wine is freely poured, dogs and children run amok and a good time is had by all.

A vision out of Norman Rockwell it ain't. Forget about the wedding china and crisp white linen. My table's set with a host of mismatched vintage tablecloths and Desert Rose Franciscan ware — half of which was bought for five bucks at a Ballard yard sale. My gravy boat is a cobalt-blue measuring cup that doubles as the dog-chow scoop the rest of the year. I'm still waiting for my mother-in-law to cough up the monogrammed family silver, and making do with my everyday stainless steel. But I'm glad she's already gifted me with the guy who carves the turkey, helps with the dishes and — here's why I married him — has zero interest in football.

There's no place we'd rather be than at home on Thanksgiving Day, doing the move-over boogie in our galley kitchen and indulging in Thanksgiving dining traditions that have come to include my husband's "famous" grilled andouille sausage (from CasCioppo Brothers) and my much-beloved cloverleaf rolls (hot from the oven and adapted from a buttermilk-biscuit recipe). It wouldn't be Thanksgiving without either of those culinary companions, or my homemade cranberry sauce.

That recipe comes courtesy of my pal Kathy, who cadged it from a Pasta & Co. cookbook and introduced me to its joys back when she was an orphan (read: before she hand a fancy-pants kitchen where she and her husband can cook in style for his gargantuan family). The first time I tasted that cranberry sauce — with its dried cherries and rum kick — I knew it would enter my canon of Thanksgiving staples. These days it's the first dish I prepare, on the Wednesday night before the Big Day, when the sight of those blushing cranberries bursting in a saucepan gives me the first of many Thanksgiving thrills.

On Thursday morning I'm up early, drinking coffee and planning the day's work: unearthing my seldom-used roasting pan, readying ingredients for the stuffing, and making sure the turkey — a fresh 16 to 18-pound bird collected from my local butcher the day before — is good to go.

About that stuffing, which you may well call "dressing" depending on where you (or your parents) grew up: We all have our favorites, and for years I had mine, co-opted and oft-reproduced from an elaborate Gourmet magazine recipe for "Roast Turkey with Sausage, Apple, Fig Stuffing and Madeira Cream Sauce."

That regal recipe still holds a hallowed place in my handwritten, little black recipe book. Unfortunately, my husband, way back before he was my husband, made it clear he didn't like my fig-infused stuffing or my Madeira cream sauce. As everybody knows, marriage is all about compromise, so for more than a few years now I've been delving into that modern classic, "The Silver Palate Cookbook," adopting his favorite recipe, "Cornbread-Sausage Stuffing with Apples," as my own.

Never one to leave well enough alone, I've adapted that (admittedly fabulous) recipe to better-suit my silver palate. Though it calls for three different fresh breads — cornbread, whole wheat and white — with due respect to cookbook authors Sheila Lukins and Julee Rosso, I substitute cornbread stuffing-mix for the cornbread, and rye for their whole wheat. I also cube rather than "coarsely crumble" the rye and white breads, then toast them in the oven, a process that greatly improves the stuffing's texture.

Talking turkey comes naturally to me. I've been roasting birds since I was 10. My mother had an aversion to poultry and I can still hear her shrieking, "It looks like a baby!" before passing the prepping and basting duties on to me. My turkeys, always stuffed, always moist, are among my proudest culinary accomplishments. That said, if you think I've never had a bad-turkey day, then you weren't among the orphans who suffered through last year's brining experience gone-to-hell — don't get me started!

As for high-end equipment, I can't live without my KitchenAid mixer, which makes whipping up my buttermilk biscuit-rolls quick and easy. And I'm a staunch advocate of investing in a quality roasting pan, having made do for far too many years with the disposable aluminum variety. I paid $60 at Linens & Things for mine, and its nonstick surface (plus some Wondra helps make gravy-making (yes, I use the giblets) a breeze.

I'm also a huge advocate of the butter-soaked cheesecloth school of turkey roasting — one dissed and dismissed by recipe-maven Rick Rodgers, author of "The Turkey Cookbook" and "Thanksgiving 101." I recently shared a roast duck — and its carcass — with Rogers in a hip New York restaurant, and, given his genial nature, hope to have the opportunity to do so again. While we agreed the duck was wonderful (and fought over the carcass), we also agreed to disagree on the merits of soaking a folded length of clean cheesecloth in a stick of melted butter and draping it over the breast and upper legs of a turkey before putting it into the oven. He says "Never." I say "Always."

He says (in "Thanksgiving 101"), "I have no idea what advantage it provides. The cheesecloth is pulled off during the last hour of roasting, but mine always seems to stick to the skin." I say, "You're obviously not basting enough. When I pull mine off — after removing the turkey from the oven to let it rest before carving — it peels away with ease, exposing the bird's bronzed and gorgeous skin, which I immediately tear off and stuff into my mouth when no one's looking."

The turkey remains the cultural centerpiece of the Thanksgiving holiday, acting as the focal point that allows us to give thanks for friends, family and abundance. I find it odd that, turkey-roasting notwithstanding, I have few recollections of my childhood Thanksgivings — save for an unfortunate basting incident and the one (disappointing) time my extended family decided to go the restaurant-buffet route. I do, however, have vivid memories of visiting my dad and stepmother as a young adult, taking part in their dinner, held each year at their home near San Francisco.

On one memorable occasion they had among their guests the former mayor of Sausalito, Sally Stanford (portrayed by Dyan Cannon in the made-for-TV movie, "Lady of the House," based on Sally's autobiography). An infamous San Francisco madam in her day, Sally was pushing 80 when we met, wore her hair in a stunning upsweep, and regularly nodded off, only to rise time and again to laugh at the punch lines of my father's racy jokes.

That night another less-illustrious guest brought a side dish called "Raspberry Salad," involving raspberry Jell-O, frozen berries, canned pineapple, fresh bananas and a pint of sour cream. Later, that recipe became, for many years, my contribution to the orphan's dinners I attended before I had the good fortune of moving into my own big house, where my husband, son and I provide a welcoming venue for friends in need of good company, good food and a place to give thanks.

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company


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