I asked Traci Des Jardin to demonstrate one favorite Thanksgiving dish for this story, but when I walk into her home kitchen she's making four.
"You can't do one dish for Thanksgiving, for God's sake!" Des Jardins says, laughing. "You're lucky I didn't do ten dishes."
Not that I would have complained. Today, Des Jardins prepares a selection from her Thanksgiving menu: stuffing, Brussels sprouts, a salad of fall fruits and a Des Jardins family standard, consommé rice. The dishes both echo the Thanksgiving meals of her childhood and elevate them, as befits the two-time James Beard award winner.
First up, the stuffing.
"It's kind of a classic stuffing but with the addition of gizzards and chanterelles and roasted chestnuts," says Des Jardins as she chops the celery, onions and leeks for the mirepoix, or vegetable mixture which she slowly sweats in butter.
As she works, Des Jardins readily admits she's always been a bit over-the-top when it comes to food. She started baking at age three, and was soon micromanaging her cousins over cookie batter.
"I was always yelling at everybody about folding the flour in gently, otherwise you'd make the cookies tough," she laughs. "They just thought I was insane. I was really particular about the way it was done. I had it in me from the beginning."
She comes to that obsession honestly. Growing up in a family of rice farmers in the Central Valley town of Firebaugh, Des Jardins learned to cook from all four grandparents, who lived nearby.
Her mother's side hailed from Mexico, and her maternal grandfather made menudo (though the tripe's smell got him relegated to the garage), and her grandmother made fresh flour tortillas every day.
On her father's side, Des Jardins's Scandinavian grandmother baked breads and sweets. Her grandfather, originally from Lake Charles, Louisiana, led the family in collecting crawdads in the Central Valley's canal systems.
"In September and October, we'd go out and harvest huge trash cans full of crawdads and do a big crawdad boil," Des Jardins recalls.
The Des Jardins family hunted wild ducks drawn to the rice paddies they farmed.
"I can remember always walking into the kitchen and the smell of wild ducks cooking in red wine sauce," she says.
Cooking was just part of the fabric of the family. So, Thanksgiving was — and is — a big deal.
"Traditionally my family made a four or five day affair out of Thanksgiving," Des Jardins says.
Relatives traveling to the Central Valley from around the state were greeted Wednesday night with shrimp creole. Thursday morning, the men would hunt, and the family cooked whole animals outdoors, leaving the indoor kitchen for everything else.
"It was a big collective effort," she says. "Everyone had a specialty they brought to the table."
These days Des Jardins still puts turkey on the grill as friends and family gather in Sonoma County. Side dishes from her childhood reappear, though some have evolved.
Certainly, this was my first taste of stuffing made with duck gizzards, but I was delighted. They added a soft texture and a mild - but lingering - flavor that really just tasted like duck fat.
"Nothing wrong with that," says Des Jardins.
Also more refined than the traditional preparation are her Brussels sprouts: pan-roasted, finished in browned butter with whole-grain mustard and sherry.
"I wasn't very fond of Brussels sprouts when I was a kid," Des Jardins admits, "but I absolutely adore them now."
Des Jardins started college at age 16. By 17, she decided to drop out and cook professionally, moving between Los Angeles and New York and doing two "tours of duty" in notoriously tough French kitchens before establishing herself in San Francisco.
Intimidated home cooks, take comfort: Des Jardins says she always burns bread, and passes gravy-making duty on to her mom.
"When she's not with me on Thanksgiving, I have to make the gravy," she says. "I hate it. [Thanksgiving] is an insane matrix of different dishes. I really don't know how civilians pull Thanksgiving off. I feel for you all out there."
A Des Jardins family staple that doesn't change at all is her grandmother's consommé rice. She starts with the short grain Japanese style white rice her family grew, browning it in the butter until it gives off a nutty smell. Then, she adds combination of water and Campbell's beef consommé, bringing the ingredients to a boil before lowering the temperature, covering the pot and letting it cook for twenty undisturbed minutes.
Des Jardins says she knows Thanksgiving menus have plenty of starch.
"[But] this is just one of those things we couldn't do without," she says.
As we sit at a little table in her kitchen eating the stuffing, Brussels sprouts, consommé rice and a bright salad of fall fruits, frisee and watercress, one thing is clear, Des Jardins made four dishes not just because she's an overachiever, but because of the way all these flavors work together on the plate.
She says her country Thanksgivings in Sonoma County have the same spirit as those she grew up with in the Central Valley.
"You eat leftovers and go for long walks. Last year we foraged for mushrooms the day after. It's that quality of time that you spend together, four days of hanging out and eating. What's better than that?" she asks. "For me that's what Thanksgiving is about."
Traci Des Jardins' Fuyu Persimmon, Fennel, Pomegranate and Apple Salad
3 Fuyu Persimmons, peeled, core removed
3 tart Apples, peeled
2 bulbs of Fennel, outer layers and core removed
1 Pomegranate, remove the arils (kernels), discard the rest
2 cups frisee, yellow leaves only, picked and washed (Belgian endive may be substituted)
2 cups arugula or watercress
2 shallots, peeled and finely minced
4 tablespoons sherry vinegar
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
Slice the Fuyus and apples into little half moons or julienne them or cut into any desired shape. Place into a mixing bowl. Shave the fennel and add to it.
Place the shallots into a mixing bowl and add the vinegar, slowly whisk in the oil, season well with salt and pepper.
Add the vinaigrette to the fruits and fennel; mix well and season with salt and pepper. Add the lettuces and toss and then add the pomegranate.
Traci Des Jardins' Brussels Sprouts with Brown Butter and Grain Mustard (serves 8)
This recipe is a favorite of mine for Thanksgiving, but we have also used it at times in my restaurants for a side of vegetables. The sweet and bitter of the Brussels sprouts combine with the earthy mustard, toasty butter and the acid, making quite a magical flavor combination.
2 pounds Brussels sprouts
¼ cup butter
3 heaping tablespoons of whole grain mustard
2 tablespoons banyuls vinegar, red wine vinegar can substitute
¼ cup roughly chopped flat leaf parsley
Remove the rough exterior leaves of the Brussels sprouts along with any of the stem and discard. Remove a few layers of the greenish leaves until the yellow starts to show, keep the green leaves separate from the centers Quarter the centers. Blanch the centers in salted boiling water until just al dente, about 4-5 minutes, and then spread on a large surface pan to cool. Very briefly plunge the green leaves into the water, remove and spread out to cool.
To finish the dish, use a fairly large non-reactive and not black-bottomed pan, place the butter in pan and put on a medium to medium-high heat. Cook the butter until golden brown and giving off a nutty aroma, add the grain mustard to the pan and toast slightly for just a moment. Add the Brussels sprouts and cook for about two minutes or just until the sprouts are hot throughout, add the vinegar and taste for seasoning. Add salt and pepper as necessary and finish with the parsley.
Grilled Brined Turkey (serves 8-10)
2 gallons water
1 ¼ cups kosher salt
¾ cup sugar
3 carrots, peeled and diced
1 large onion, peeled and diced
1 bunch celery, diced
2 leeks, cleaned and diced
2 bay leaves
1 Tablespoon black peppercorns
1 Tablespoon coriander seeds
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
¼ teaspoon fennel seeds
2 star anise
1 bunch fresh thyme
1 bunch fresh sage
½ bunch Italian parsley
4 Tablespoons olive oil or butter
1 8-10 pound whole turkey
Bring 2 gallons of water, salt, sugar, vegetables and spices to boil in a large stockpot.
Cool completely. If you want to speed up the process, use half the water initially and then add ice to equal the 2 gallons.
Remove the giblets from the turkey. Add the turkey to the stockpot and place a plate on top to weigh the turkey down to insure full immersion. Refrigerate the whole turkey for 24-36 hours. Remove from brine and place the turkey in a large, disposable, aluminum-roasting pan. Allow the turkey to come to room temperature.
Meanwhile, start the grill. When the coals are white hot, bank them up high along the perimeter of the grill so they form a circle. Place the roasting pan on the grill rack and cover with the lid. Control the temperature of the grill by opening and closing the vents. If the grill is too hot, close the vents slightly, but not all of the way. If the grill is too cold, open the vents. While the turkey is cooking, baste frequently with olive oil or butter and pan juices. It may be necessary to add more coals during the cooking process. If so, fire the coals in a cone separately and add them when they are hot.
It's important to know that brined turkeys cook more rapidly than un-brined turkeys. So you should check the internal temperature of the turkey after 1½ hours grilling time. Remove the turkey from the grill when the deepest part of the thigh reaches 160F. Let the turkey rest for 20 minutes before carving.
Traci Des Jardins' Gesier, Chestnut and Chanterelles Stuffing
3 quarts Batard bread, crust removed, cut into 1.5 inch cubes
2 cups celery, cut into ¾ inch squares
2 cups onion, cut into ¾ inch squares
2 cups leeks, cut into ¾ inch squares
4 lbs chanterelles, cleaned and sliced
3 tablespoons butter
3 pounds chestnuts, roasted and peeled
½ cup chopped parsley
1 cup chicken or turkey stock
Place the bread into a large mixing bowl and toss with a few tablespoons of duck fat. Place into a 400-degree oven on a cookie sheet and cook until browned, remove and place back into the mixing bowl.
In a large sauté pan, sauté the chanterelles in the butter until golden brown, season with salt and pepper and add to the bread. Place the vegetables into the same pan and cook until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes, season with salt and pepper and add to the bread mixture. Roughly chop the chestnuts and add to the mixture.
Chop the gesiers and add to the mixture with a few tablespoons of duck fat.
Add the Italian parsley. Mix everything together very well and taste for seasoning, add salt and pepper as necessary. Beat the egg well and add to the mixture, mix together very well.
Place into a casserole dish and bake in a 350-degree oven for 25 minutes until golden brown on the top.
2 pound gizzards (duck, chicken or turkey)
3 cups rendered duck fat
3 sprigs of thyme
4 cloves garlic, lightly crushed
Heavily salt the gizzards, combine with the thyme and garlic and allow to sit overnight, or for at least a few hours. Place the melted fat and the gizzards into a hotel pan or deep casserole dish and place into a preheated oven at 225 degrees. Cook for 2 to 3 hours or until completely tender, remove from the fat and refrigerate.
Traci Des Jardins' Consommé Rice
3 cups short grain, Japanese Style California Rice (Calrose or Kokoho Rose)
2 can Campbell's Beef Consommé
15 ounces Water
3 tablespoons butter
Place the butter in a saucepan and melt, add the rice and cook over medium heat, stirring frequently until browned, about 5 minutes. Measure 4 and ½ cups of liquid starting with the consommé and adding water as necessary. When the rice is browned add the liquid and bring to a boil. Turn down to lowest temperature, which should be simmer and cover. Cook for 20 minutes exactly without lifting the lid.
Serve hot as a side dish.