We live just on the edge of a forested wetland comprised of several little lakes and ponds that extend out from the main river like leaves from a branch. I like to start my day there in that quiet oasis, walking among the trees and along the shores of the lakes. For me it’s a form of “Forest Bathing” which, if you’re not familiar with traditional Japanese medicine, is a therapy based on the principle that the beneficial organic compounds released by the trees and vegetation are absorbed into our bodies when we walk through the forest. The benefits of literally “taking in the forest” include boosting the immune system, decreasing stress and blood pressure, improving mood and sleep, increasing creativity and energy, and so much more.
I’ve been walking the same paths for years now and continue to be inspired by how the forest around me changes with the seasons. In spring the trees are filled with the cacophony of baby animals. Peeping birds in their nests, tiny geese bobbing along in a line behind their mother on the pond, baby rabbits and squirrels and fawns that leave the safety of the tall marshy grasses to dart across my path. In summer, when the newness has worn off, it seems the excitement has settled into the gentle, easy rhythm of calm days and warm nights and the hum of insects in the trees. But it’s in fall that I really love these morning walks. These little creatures that were just babies a few months ago are now plump and round as they store up fat in preparation for the long, cold months ahead. As I walk by I hear them digging for nuts buried months earlier or searching through the nearly frozen blades of grass for the last hearty bugs.
The busy animals of the autumn forest always reminds me of the joy there is in a simple fall feast. And while I have no intention of storing up fat for the winter (hence the daily walks), I do love to indulge a little during these cool autumn months. Fall is, after all, harvest-time and has been the season of feasting throughout the ages. Oh course, here in the U.S. we have Thanksgiving to look forward to, but perhaps I’m a little greedy because one big feast doesn’t seem to satisfy me. Don’t get me wrong. I love everything about Thanksgiving – from having a house full of family and friends, to the anticipation of days spent creating the menu, mapping out the game-plan like one would lay out a vacation itinerary, to the leftovers that last for days and days. There’s a buzz of excitement in the air as the holiday season fast approaches, and I always feel a little more energized in the days leading up to that Thanksgiving Thursday. We decorate the house with things foraged from the forest and the garden. There are still a few pumpkins hiding away in the corners, and candles with fresh fruit and pine cones which the kids like to bring home make the most inviting centerpieces when arranged with the spruce boughs from the fall pruning. There’s no Christmas tree yet, nor is there the pressure of presents and stockings. There isn’t any tinsel littering the floor, and there are no expectations of gifts. Thanksgiving is, above all, about simple pleasures – family and friends, hearth and home, and of course good food and exceptional wine.
When I lived in Europe, I always felt a little homesick starting around mid-November. We would try recreate the Thanksgiving tradition with local ingredients – a large chicken or fresh duck instead of a turkey. Spiced Hubbard squash to replace the pumpkin in pie. One year, friends who had recently been back to the United States brought over several cans of OceanSpray cranberry sauce, the jellied kind, which we sliced and placed on an elaborate platter, decorate with fresh laurel leaves, nuts, and orange slices. It was the star of that year’s feast, and I can tell you, jellied cranberry sauce has never tasted as good. It’s funny the things we never expect to miss once they’re unavailable. I look back on those Thanksgivings with the best feelings of nostalgia.
Because I’m never satisfied with just one Thanksgiving meal, I like to make several “little” mini-feasts in the weeks leading up to the big day. The dishes are always traditional American fall favourites infused with, and inspired by, the flavors and techniques that I came to love in Europe.
Last week was unseasonably cool and damp, and as walked through the mist that had settled on the forest floor, my thoughts naturally wandered toward food. I began dreaming of another fall feast, creating the menu in my mind. It would be something simple, inspired by rich and satisfying French flavours. Fresh citrus, bright herbs, creamy butter, decadent liqueurs. Instead of a whole turkey, I bought a bone-in breast roast which is so much more manageable and easier to cook than the whole bird. It’s perfect for a small gathering or for guests who only like white meat. I slathered it in butter, seasoned with Provençal flavors like lemon, thyme, orange and fennel. Also on the menu was a rustic, savoury pain perdu. I took my favourite stuffing recipe and turned it into a bread pudding that’s so hearty it could be a meal in and of itself. Of course, there had to be cranberry sauce. An ode to that Thanksgiving in Europe years ago. I borrowed flavors from the turkey to compliment the sauce. After all, when it comes to cranberry sauce, it’s not the cranberries that I want, but all the goodies that are added in. My favourites are candied oranges and ginger and fresh pomegranate seeds for crunch. I served it along with a green salad at the end of the meal, and of course a bottle of Bourgogne Blanc. These recipes are perfect for a simple fall “feast” or for a cozy French-inspired Thanksgiving dinner.
Cranberry Sauce with Candied Orange and Pomegranate
I always make this a day or two in advance, as it only gets better with age.
1 organic orange
1 inch-long slice of ginger, peeled
1 cup white sugar (divided)
1 1/2 cups water (divided)
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1 1/2 TBSP Cointreau
1 tsp lemon juice
1 cinnamon stick
pinch of ground cloves
2 cups fresh cranberries, washed
1/4 cup pomegranate seeds
Prepare the orange: Wash the orange and slice into 1/4 inch thick slices, discarding both ends. Place the sliced oranges in a medium sauce pan and cover with cold water, bring to a boil and simmer for 10 minutes. Drain and rinse the oranges and then repeat this step using fresh water. Boil for 10 more minutes, drain and rinse.
Rinse out the pan. Add 3/4 cup water and 1/2 cup white sugar to the pan. Place over medium heat and stir to dissolve the sugar. Carefully add the oranges and the slice of ginger. Simmer, turning the oranges occasionally until the liquid has reduced to a thick syrup. Place the candied oranges and ginger in a bowl and let cool.
Meanwhile, add the remaining 3/4 cup water to the pan. Stir in the remaining 1/2 cup white sugar, the brown sugar, lemon juice, and spices. Bring to a boil and add the cranberries. Simmer until the cranberries begin to pop, then continue cooking for 5 – 10 minutes longer. Remove from the heat and stir in the Cointreau. The sauce will seem very watery but will thicken as it cools.
Chop the oranges and mince the ginger. Stir into the sauce. Once cooled, stir in the pomegranate seeds. Chill and serve.
Provençal Roast Turkey Breast
1 bone-in turkey breast roast
4 TBSP melted butter
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 TBSP herbes de Provence
1 tsp lemon zest
1 tsp orange zest
2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
1 tsp lemon juice
1 bay leaf
1/2 cup white wine (Chardonnay or Bourgogne Blanc)
1/4 cup chicken broth
Preheat the oven to 375 F (190 C). Place a rack in a roasting pan just large enough to hold the turkey. (If you don’t have a rack for your roasting pan, lay 3 or 4 table knives in the bottom of the pan to elevate the turkey breast.)
In a small bowl, mix the butter, garlic, herbs, zests, lemon juice, salt and pepper.
Rinse the turkey and pat dry. Gently loosen the skin from the meat without tearing it. Rub half of the butter mixture between the skin and the flesh. Rub the remaining butter all over the skin. (The turkey can be prepared in advance up to this point, and refrigerated until ready to cook.)
Place the turkey in the roasting pan and pour in the wine and broth. Add the bay leaf to the liquid in the pan. Place the turkey in the oven and roast for 20 minutes. Turn the heat to 325 F (165 C) and continue roasting, basting with the pan juices occasionally, for 1 hour to 1.5 hours, until the turkey reaches an internal temperature of 160 F (72 C).
Place the turkey on a carving board and cover with a sheet of aluminum foil and a kitchen towel to keep warm. Skim the fat from the pan juices and strain into a sauce boat. Keep warm. Let the turkey rest at least 20 minutes before carving. Pour the strained pan juices over the meat before serving.
Savoury Pain Perdu (Bread Pudding)
When determining the order in which you bake your Thanksgiving dishes, the Pain Perdu should be one of the last things that goes into the oven, as it should be served almost immediately once baked. It can be started at 325 F (165 C) while the turkey is still in the oven. Once the turkey is out and resting increase the oven temperature to finish baking the bread pudding
1 loaf of Artisan bread (approx. 1 lb.)
3 TBSP extra virgin olive oil
3 sprigs of fresh thyme
4 TBSP butter
1 onion, chopped
2 ribs of celery, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, minced
2 TBSP fresh sage, chopped
1 tsp herbes de Provence
2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
1 cup chicken stock
1 1/2 cups whole milk
Preheat the oven to 325 F (165 C). Butter a 2 qt (1.9 L) baking dish.
Cut the bread into 1-inch cubes. Place the bread and the thyme sprigs on a rimmed cookie sheet. Drizzle with the olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place the bread in the oven and toast for 30 minutes, turning occasionally, until crisp and lightly browned.
While the bread is toasting, melt the butter in a skillet over medium heat. Add the onions, celery and garlic and sauté until soft, about 10 minutes.
Place the bread in a large bowl. Increase the oven temperature to 350 F (180 C).
To the bread in the bowl, add the vegetables, sage, herbes de Provence, salt and pepper. Toss until well combined. Pour the stock over the bread and toss again.
Whisk the eggs and milk until smooth. Pour over the bread and toss. Transfer the bread to the buttered baking dish and bake for 45 minutes, until the top is browned and the centre is set.
Round out the menu with cocktails and dessert. Here are some of my favourites:
Banana Bread Hot Buttered Rum
Brown Butter Carrot Cupcakes
Cardamom Orange Cake
Pots de Crème au Chocolat