Anyone familiar with American sitcoms would know of Thanksgiving dinner – a time for family and friends to come together for a large meal with a well-brined, stuffed roast turkey as the centrepiece towards the end of November.
However, the celebration of ‘thanksgiving’ as autumn gives way to winter is not unique to North America, recently Japan, China and the Republic of Korea celebrated their versions that give respect to ancestors, the harvest and ancient legends.
The Food team at Gulf News decided to dig in and find out where the American Thanksgiving turkey tradition came from and eventually took on the role of precursor to the Christmas family feast.
The very first turkey
Initially a Thanksgiving meal didn’t feature a turkey at all.
It is an annual national holiday in the United States and Canada, celebrating the harvest and other blessings of the past year. The tradition apparently dates back to the Pilgrims or the first English settlers, who helped establish the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts during the 17th century. The Native Americans came in to teach struggling colonists how to survive in the “new world”, as they called it. This soon resulted in a three-day gathering where everyone got together to celebrate with a feast. However, the peace didn't last very long.
For meat, the people of Wampanoag brought in deer, whereas the pilgrims brought in ‘fowl’, which could easily have been turkeys, which were native to the area. However, historians believe that it could also have been either duck or geese. According to History.com, “…while no records exist of the exact bill of fare, the Pilgrim chronicler Edward Winslow noted in his journal that the colony’s governor, William Bradford, sent four men on a ‘fowling’ mission in preparation for the three-day event.”
Along with the fowl and venison, the feast included shellfish such as lobster, clams and mussels, nuts, corn, fruits and other vegetables as well.
The Dickens narrative
As years passed, roast Turkey became a popular dish, much to the liking of Americans, especially because a single bird has the serving size for a whole family. Moreover, turkeys were prepared with a traditional stuffing that included bread, butter, onion, celery, chicken broth, eggs and spices such as salt and pepper. It didn’t stop there.
If you’ve ever read Charles Dickens’ 1843 novel ‘A Christmas Carol’, you would know that the novelist and playwright had a major role in the turkey becoming a festive season regular. It paid a central role in transforming the character of Ebenezer Scrooge into a more cheerful person, rather than the grouchy miser he usually was. Moreover, readers thought, well, why not give turkey a shot at Christmas.
However, it was only in 1864 that US President Abraham Lincoln established Thanksgiving as a national holiday, after American author and activist Sarah Josepha Hale campaigned for a ‘national day of thanks’ for 40 years. While she is known for many literary works, Hale was the woman behind popular nursery rhyme ‘Mary had a little lamb’.
That is the tale of the bird on the table come Thanksgiving and later on Christmas….
Trimmings are more than just sides
While turkey is undoubtedly the centre of attention at a dinner table, the side dishes spread out on a Thanksgiving table are just as important. It is said that eating a turkey alone can make you feel drowsy, which is why sides or trimmings were introduced as accompaniments to go with it. Due to the turkey’s tryptophan (an amino acid) content, opting for a carbohydrate-rich set of sides along with dessert could help prevent that post-Thanksgiving feeling of fatigue.
Like the turkey, the trimmings evolved over time to include bread, potatoes, pumpkin pie, stews, soup and candied yams, along with cranberry sauce.
So, how would you set up a thanksgiving table in true UAE tradition? We took a little help from Specialty Outlet Chef Giovanni Lapid of Basilico restaurant at The Cove Rotana Resort in Ras Al Khaimah, to create an Italian influenced version for you, dear reader.
Why? Because the UAE is all about a blend of cultures, nationalities and traditions, especially when it comes to food.
1. Il Tacchino or Slow-Cooked Turkey Breast Roll with Sausage Stuffing
- 500 gms turkey breast, skin on
- 250 gms chicken thighs, skinless
- 250 gms butter
- 200 gms cooking cream
- 250 ml white bread, crust trimmed
- 10 pieces dried apricots, finely chopped
- 5 pieces chicken sausages, finely chopped
- Salt to taste
- ½ tsp white pepper powder
1. To make the stuffing, mix the ingredients together with seasoning. Lay the turkey breast on a flat surface lined with cling film. Soak the bread in cream, mash it and add to the stuffing.
2. Spoon over the stuffing on the breast side. Carefully roll the turkey breast with the help of the cling film. Secure the roll with a butcher’s twine by tying it around the roll. To make the roll firm, wrap it again with cling film.
3. If the roll becomes too long, cut them into smaller rolls.
4. Place each roll in a vacuum bag and seal it airtight. To cook the turkey breasts, set up a sous vide circulator to 65C. Submerge the turkey breast in the water and cook for 4 hours.
Note: Alternatively, if you don’t have a sous vide circulator, wrap the turkey rolls in aluminium foil after wrapping it in cling film. Arrange the turkey rolls on a tray and cover with aluminium foil. Preheat the oven to 170C at a ‘steam-roast’ mode. If you don’t have this cooking mode, add water into the same tray and cover with aluminium foil. Cook the turkey rolls for at least 25 to 30 minutes. Using a probe thermometer, check the core temperature and it should read 75C and above.
5. To prepare the dish, take out the turkey breasts from the vacuum bags and pat dry. Remove the cling film. On a hot pan with olive oil, sear the skin side of the roll until golden brown. Remove the butcher’s twine before carving the turkey roll.
2. La Zucca or Spiced Pumpkin Veloute
- 1000 gms butternut pumpkin, peeled and cubed (300 gms reserved for garnish)
- 3 pieces garlic cloves, peeled and minced
- 250 gms white leeks, washed and chopped
- 5 pieces carrots, peeled and chopped
- ½ tsp cinnamon powder
- 6 pieces star anise
- 9 cloves
- 4 bay leaves
- Salt to taste
- 2 tbsp Sugar
- Cold butter, diced
- 1 cup cream
- Mascarpone cheese, strained overnight
- Pumpkin seeds, roasted
For crystallised ginger:
- 3 inch fresh ginger, peeled and finely diced
- White sugar
- Focaccia bread, thinly sliced and baked at 180C for 8 minutes
1. On a hot pan, sauté all the vegetables. Let the vegetables simmer until soft with the dry spices and herbs tied in a sheer cloth.
2. Once soft, remove and discard the herbs and spices. Ladle into a blender jar and blend until smooth. Season it with salt and sugar and smoothen it with cold butter and cream while blending it hot.
3. When serving, thin the pumpkin veloute with vegetable stock and finish with salt and sugar if necessary.
4. For crystallising the ginger, place the ginger on a saucepan with 2 parts water and 1 part white sugar. Let it boil, until the ginger appears to be translucent. Once syrup is reduced, remove from heat and lay onto a wax paper-lined flat tray and keep in a dehydrator.
Note: As a substitute for a dehydrator, the same oven can be used. Reduce the temperature to at least 40C to 60C, keep the ginger bits inside for at least 2 to 4 hours or until the syrup has gone dry. It must not dry completely so the sugar could stick to the ginger bits.
5. Once the sugar syrup has dried, gather the ginger and mix it with granulated sugar until the ginger becomes crumbly. Store in a sealed container away from moisture and heat.
6. For pumpkin seed dust, use a high-speed blender; blitz the toasted pumpkin seeds in a blender after they have cooled down. Then, sift the dust and reserve.
7. For the crostini, line a baking sheet with wax paper, top and bottom. Place another flat tray on top of the focaccia with wax paper. Bake at 180C for 8 minutes or until golden brown and crisp.
3. Il Fico or Braised Figs with Prune Syrup and Raspberry Sorbet
For braised figs:
- 6 pieces fresh figs, tip trimmed
- 750 ml apple juice
- 100 gms white sugar
- 6 pieces cloves
- 12 pieces dried prunes
- 15 gms cinnamon powder
For prune syrup:
- 24 pieces dried prunes
- 1 litre apple juice
- 6 pieces cloves
- 200 gms white sugar
- 30 gms dried Roselle or Hibiscus petals
- Baby basil leaves
- Mint leaves
- Raspberry sorbet
1. Cut the figs three quarters to the base. Place them in a saucepan covered in apple juice. Add the figs in between the cloves, cinnamon powder and sugar. Cook over a low heat until the figs are soft but not mushy. Once cooked, remove from the liquid gently and keep aside.
2. To prepare the dish, warm the braised figs with the prune syrup. Arrange three figs in a shallow bowl and spoon the prune syrup over the figs. Top the figs with meringues, basil leaves and mint leaves.
3. For the prune syrup, cook the prunes in a saucepan with the apple juice and the rest of the ingredients until the liquid has reduced. Once reduced, remove all the ingredients and allow to reduce into a syrup that coats the back of a spoon.
As for pies, here’s the Editor’s recipe to making a traditionally warm, spiced and sweet homemade deep dish apple pie.
Know of any more holiday recipes? Tell us about them at email@example.com
- This story was first published in November, 2021.