By Nancy Harmon Jenkins
I will confess right from the start that I’ve never been a big fan of Thanksgiving. Call me Scrooge if you will, but I’ve never seen the point of eating oneself silly one day of the year.
And I hate to call attention to it, but the food isn’t even all that interesting. An unnaturally plumped out bird, its interior filled with sundry pastes made from stale bread, roasted for hours until the meat is dry and stringy; a traditional sauce that is too tart to eat on its own and requires massive quantities of mashed potatoes to make it go down; a selection of vegetables cooked to death then beaten to a uniform pap; and finally a selection of desserts about which the less said the better – pumpkin pie (another pap), mincemeat (like Christmas fruitcake, nobody actually likes it but we all pretend to) and pecan pie so sweet it makes my teeth ache just to write the words.
That was Thanksgiving when I was growing up, before my mother saw the light and began serving lobster instead, which she did only after her children had left home and she no longer had to maintain the Rockwellesque illusion of the holiday. You can see why my memories are not exactly nostalgic for Thanksgivings past. The only things I really liked were the silver bowls of nuts and mints (each one hiding a spot of jelly inside) and the peculiar divided crystal tray that was brought out once or maybe twice a year in which to serve celery sticks stuffed with Philadelphia cream cheese.
But truth be told, the real reason I didn’t like Thanksgiving – which has remained a secret until the present day – is that there are no presents! We had gifts at Christmas, gifts at Easter, gifts at birthdays and fireworks on the Fourth of July, but nothing at Thanksgiving – and no overstuffed, over-roasted bird could make up for that. Not even the exciting presence of my uncle from Boston, who always brought a collection of guns and taught me to shoot them at targets on the river below our house, could overcome my disappointment in the holiday.
The pleasures of Thanksgiving
So to ask me to think about the pleasures of Thanksgiving, as the Zester Daily editors have done, is to ask pretty much the impossible. I could tell you about the best turkey I ever made, one deep fried in extra virgin olive oil from a 4-year-old stash I found hiding in the back of our Tuscan pantry. OK, so it was only a quarter of a very large Tuscan turkey, but it was memorable nonetheless. Or I could tell you about the chestnut soup, potage de marrons, with which we began the meal one year. Made from a recipe in an old Elizabeth David cookbook, it required skinning and peeling the chestnuts (not a task for pikers, requiring as it does a hot oven and a very sharp knife), making a vegetable stock, cooking the peeled chestnuts in the stock until soft, pureeing them and finally thinning the puree with milk or cream. “Although all this may sound a lot of fuss to make a chestnut soup,” David comments, “it is well worth the trouble.” And so it is, especially when made with the marrone (chestnuts) gathered from the line of trees that extends below our house.
After all, isn’t Thanksgiving supposed to be about giving thanks for an abundant harvest? A harvest of chestnuts, a harvest of olive oil, a harvest of squash and pumpkins? Moreover, to celebrate the harvest, to celebrate the goodness of what has been safely gathered in, even if you’ve gathered it from only your local supermarket, is a way of honoring and paying respect to all the people who made the harvest possible, especially the farmers. It’s a good time to remember that without farms, we have no good food, and without good food, in my reckoning, we have no real happiness.
So presents or not, I plan to celebrate Thanksgiving in my own quiet way. But not with turkey and not with squashed squash. Instead, I’m going to make a very special pasta dish developed by my daughter, who often serves it at her restaurant, Porsena, in New York. We’re featuring it in our almost completed book, “The Four Seasons of Pasta,” which we hope will be out in time for Christmas 2015.
Here it is, and if you’re as tired as I am of squashed squash, pureed turnips, boiled onions and mashed sweet potatoes with marshmallow sauce, just try this and see if it doesn’t bring some seasonal delights and maybe even a little applause for daring to step outside the envelope.
Pasta With Crumbled Garlic Sausage, Sage and Winter Squash
For this pasta, we use pennette, but any small, shaped pasta will do – try orecchiette, creste di galli (cock’s combs), Pasta Faella’s lumacchine (small snails), Benedetto Cavalieri’s ruote pazze (crazy wheels) or any similar quirky shape. This is a particularly good treatment for whole-wheat pasta, with the flavors of squash, sausage and wheat all marrying together nicely.
For the squash, use any hard winter squash, such as Hubbard, butternut or buttercup; sugar pumpkins will be too sweet, but one of the pumpkins grown for eating (and not for Halloween), such as Long Island cheese pumpkin with its pale skin and flattened shape, would do very well. The squash should be about 2 pounds when trimmed. Chop the squash coarsely, and don’t worry if the pieces are not equal. Part of the charm of the dish comes from some pieces disintegrating almost into a puree while others stay a little firm to the bite.
For the sausages, look for pure pork sausages with nothing but salt and aromatics (and garlic) added. We use sweet Italian sausages for this, and when we can find them, fennel-flavored ones. If you like spicy food, however, use the hot kind. If you use sweet sausages, consider adding a pinch of ground or flaked red chili peppers or a teaspoon of wild fennel pollen or crushed fennel seeds to perk things up a bit. And if you cannot get garlic-flavored sausages, by all means add more garlic to the sauce.
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cook Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: 40 minutes
Yield: Makes 6 servings
10 to 12 sage leaves
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
1/2 cup finely chopped onion, red or yellow
2 garlic cloves, crushed and chopped
2 Italian-style sausages, sweet, fennel or spicy (about Â½ pound)
2 teaspoons wild fennel pollen or ground fennel seed (optional)
Pinch of ground or flaked red chili pepper (optional)
About 1 pound (500 grams) pasta (see headnote for suggestions)
4 1/2 to 5 cups coarsely chopped firm, orange-fleshed squash (see headnote for suggestions)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/3 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano, plus more to pass at the table
1/2 cup chopped flat leaf Italian parsley
1. Set aside 4 or 5 of the largest sage leaves to crisp in oil and use for a garnish. Chop the rest to make 1 to 2 tablespoons chopped sage.
2. In a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan, heat 2 tablespoons of the oil over medium heat then add the chopped onion and garlic. Remove the sausage meat from its casings. As soon as the vegetables start to sizzle, crumble the ground sausage in. Let the sausage meat cook briefly, tossing, stirring and breaking it up until it has rendered out its fat, then, when it just stops being pink, add the chopped sage along with the fennel and chili pepper (if using) and stir it in.
3. Set a large pot of abundantly salted water on to boil.
4. Heat the remaining tablespoon of oil in a small saucepan over high heat and add the reserved whole sage leaves. Saute, turning, until the leaves are crisp, then remove to a paper towel to drain.
5. When the pasta water is boiling vigorously, add the pasta and stir with a long-handled spoon. Pennette will take about 10 minutes to become al dente, but start testing at 8 minutes.
6. While the pasta water returns to a boil and the pasta cooks, add the grated squash to the sausage in the saucepan and turn up the heat to medium high. Cook briskly until the squash is soft, cooked through and some pieces are beginning to disintegrate. Add a ladleful of pasta water to the sauce and stir it in. Keep the sauce warm over low heat while the pasta cooks.
7. Have ready a warmed serving bowl.
8. When the pasta is al dente, drain it and transfer to the warm bowl.
9. Season the sausage-squash sauce with salt and pepper, along with the grated Parmigiano, and toss. Garnish with chopped parsley and finally with the crisp-fried sage leaves.
10. Serve immediately, passing more grated cheese at the table.
Note to cooks: Use this as a master recipe for all sorts of sausage-and-vegetable pasta sauces. Once Thanksgiving is past, try it with broccoli rabe or turnip greens, or chop a bunch of leeks into smaller pieces, rinse them thoroughly and add in place of the squash.