Accepting the invitation to Thanksgiving dinner at a relative’s home seemed weird—I always cook this meal—but, everyone would be there, so declining would have left us alone on a day we love to share. I soon, however, came up with a plan I grew more and more excited about—we could prepare the yearly feast at my Tuesday cooking class for disadvantaged youth and adults. Venice Community Housing agreed with the idea, and we sent invitations to the students, and suggested each bring a guest.
I decided we’d make everything I would have cooked for family and friends—an herb rubbed grilled turkey with a creamy mushroom sauce, cornbread stuffing dressed up with andouille sausage, olive oil mashed potatoes topped with pesto sauce, roasted yams with molasses butter, green bean salad with red bell peppers and fresh herbs, spiced cranberry sauce, and of course, pumpkin pie—2 versions, one sweetened with molasses the other with pure maple syrup.
The logistics were complex. I’d need to do some of the cooking at home, or the class would have been 2 days long. I’d need to transport a feast for 16 from my house up in the hills of Topanga down to the residence in Venice. I’d grill the 18-pund bird at home and then load it in my car, drive it down the mountain, then bring it and everything else up to the second-floor kitchen. And by everything else, I don’t just mean the turkey, cranberries, and green beans, but pots and pans large enough to cook for a crowd, beverages, every herb and spice, an electric mixer to whip cream, sprigs of bright red toyon berries I’d picked in my yard for decor….
Many lists and hours shopping and prepping and packing and transporting later, I was set up at the Rose residence kitchen, and we started cooking. As usual, people appeared slowly. First to show up was Edmond, equipped with carving tools and rubber gloves for safety. At the previous class, I’d asked if he would promise to come to this one and carve the turkey. I made this request because Edmond had been the cook on several ascents of Mount Everest, and on many occasions, he had jumped in and taken over cooking when I got distracted.
Reliable Kayden was next to appear. He’s the rock of these classes, always showing up, always cleaning up as we go along, always offering upbeat banter. Mame was next, she was not in the mood to cook—too distressed about something—but she went off to round up the others, who had slept in or forgotten. Handsome Phillippe, who’s hair is no longer blue, and his sweet natured girlfriend Angela, who had just returned from the elementary school after-school program she works at, wandered in just in time to taste the green bean dish and adjust the seasonings. Karim, who has a new job, sat up front and described every dish in progress over his phone to who—maybe his grandmother? He was assigned to bring mashed potatoes to the gathering at her house and recounted every step and ingredient over the phone as we added them to ours. He also had lots of questions to be certain he could reproduce the dish. Slender-as-a-ballet-dancer Alvin arrived shortly before serving time, worried about the calories in the food, but ended up enjoying seconds.
We all ate together, including guests the students invited and a few staff members. People chatted excitedly, gushing about how delicious the food we all had made was, and as always, were free to be themselves. No fussy clothing, no family bickering, no political agendas, only the pure joy and comradery of cooking good food together and then feasting on it. It was, indeed, the best Thanksgiving ever.
- 2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil
- ½ onion minced
- 2 teaspoons minced fresh rosemary
- 2 10-ounce packages sliced mushrooms
- Salt and black pepper
- 2 teaspoons tomato paste
- 2 cups chicken broth or vegetable broth
- 1 cup whipping cream
- Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a heavy large skillet over medium-low heat. Add the onion and rosemary and sauté until the onion starts to soften, about 5 minutes. Add the mushrooms and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Sauté until beginning to soften, adding more oil if needed, about 5 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste. Add half the broth and boil until almost evaporated. Add the remaining broth and boil until syrupy. Add the cream and boil until the sauce thickens. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Roast Sweet Potatoes with Maple-Molasses Butter
- 1 stick (½ cup) butter, at room temperature
- 2 tablespoons pure maple syrup
- 2 tablespoons molasses
- ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ¼ teaspoon ground cloves
- Pinch of cayenne pepper
- Salt to taste
- 8 small sweet potatoes
- olive oil
- Salt and black pepper
- For the butter: Place the butter in a small bowl and mix with a fork until light. If it's too cold to lighten, microwave for 10 seconds. Mix in the remaining ingredients.
- For the sweet potatoes: Preheat the oven to 425°F. Line a baking sheet with foil. Pierce each potato several times with a fork and place on the pan. Rub each potato with olive oil and then sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast until soft when pressed, 45 minutes to 1 hour, depending on the size of the potatoes. Cut a slit in the top of each and squeeze gently. Serve with the butter.
Spiced Cranberry Sauce
- 1 cup water
- ¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar, or more if desired
- 2 tablespoons minced peeled fresh ginger, divided
- ¼ teaspoon ground cloves
- ¼ teaspoon ground cardamom
- Black pepper
- 1 12-ounce bag cranberries
- Combine the water, sugar, 1 tablespoon of the ginger, cloves, cardamom and a big pinch of pepper in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Add the cranberries and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer until about half the cranberries have popped, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat. Mix in the remaining ginger. Taste and add more sugar if desired. Transfer to a bowl and cool. (Can be prepared 3 days ahead. Cover and refrigerate.) Serve chilled or at room temperature.