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A turn in the culinary road — destination unknown

“Don’t you dare bring goat cheese into this house.”

Kathy has her serious face on; she means business.

Ivy and I are discussing the menu for Thanksgiving dinner. We will feed 12 1/4 people, and we are making plans. We love to innovate, make unexpected turns in the culinary road, take taste trips – destination unknown.

Kathy doesn’t.

“If you bring goat cheese into the house, I will smell it. And it will ruin my life.”

Let’s see: disasters that can ruin your life: Nuclear holocaust, heart attack, tsunami, deadly wildland fire, airplane crash. Goat cheese.

Hmmm.

I made the mistake of telling Kathy to expect some interesting changes to the Thanksgiving menu this year.

What was I thinking?

“Oh no, you have to be kidding! I want the traditional Thanksgiving dinner. I want you to roast a turkey, make mashed potatoes, plain stuffing, regular turkey gravy. I’m a woman of simple tastes; I want simple food, like my mom and sister used to make.”

Au contraire, ma petite oiseau. If that is the benchmark, your disappointment is guaranteed. Our grandson, Banzai, has simple tastes. He’s not quite 2 years old, and yet Bonz will eat just about anything. If Bonz can take it and you can’t … you are cruisin’ for a bruisin’.

I have decided there is no way we will cleave closely to the common this Thanksgiving. Of course, I say this every year and, every year, I make a feeble attempt to add one odd item to what I consider the most boring meal imaginable.

This year will be different. We are going to escape the trad turkey trap, free ourselves from our ties to the past, to the mundane menu. Or, at the very least, we’ll use many of the elements of the boring, traditional fare and create something interesting, something worth the time spent in the kitchen and at the table.

Kathy is in a dither as she ponders the possibility that goat cheese will gain entry to the house. She can’t bear to stay in the same room with us as we make our plans; she hustles off to play piano.

This is a good thing.

“I was watching Ina Garten on the tube the other day,” says Ive. “No one knows the right moves better than Ina. She’s a peppy, overweight gal, you know, so she’s an ideal source for ideas about food. Plus, she has a mousy little husband who seems to do whatever she wants. She leads a perfect life.

“The other day, Ina made an incredible rolled turkey breast. A turkey roulade, if you prefer things en francais (and I do – my pretense knows no bounds). The stuffing is slathered on a seasoned, butterflied turkey breast, then the breast is rolled up, tied, buttered and roasted. Looks fantastic. Let’s do it.”

Check.

“And I found this Brussels sprouts gratin that looked great. It’s a snap.”

Check.

It’s time for me to toss in my two-cents worth.

“I know this sounds a bit odd, but what about a high-grade mac and cheese? Can you imagine a great mac and cheese with turkey gravy?”

“Five or six cheeses, and a panko topping.”

“Locked and loaded.”

Check.

“Sauteed green beans with pancetta and shallots.”

Check.

“Extra stuffing.”

“And a bit of oyster stuffing.”

Check.

Do we need a salad?

“It’ll only get in the way. Thanksgiving is about carbs, Dad. We’re talking about inducing a carb coma, aren’t we?”

Indeed, we are. No salad.

We decide we’ll produce some regular garlic mashers for Kathy, and we’ll stick close to the vest with the gravy.

My brother, Kurt, is coming to town with his wife, Kathy, daughter Kelsey, and son Carter. My sister’s kids, Jake and Erica, are coming as well, and Jake is bringing his girlfriend, Molly. Kurt and company will provide a wealth of delightful appetizer items — cheeses, crackers, olives, crudités, fruits, etc. And they will bring a case of assorted wines. Should do the trick.

Lisa is coming over and she’ll add to the carb count with a sweet potato casserole.

So, all that’s left are the desserts. We call Kathy back into the huddle. She makes spectacular desserts. Keep her at arm’s length when it comes to entrees, etc., but when the sweet itch must be scratched … she’s the one for the job.

“You’re making the desserts, aren’t you?”

“Not if there’s any goat cheese in the house.”

“OK, no goat cheese. What are you going to make?”

I want something traditional, so I’ll make a pumpkin pie and a pecan pie.”

“We need one more.”

Ivy has an idea. “I saw a recipe in a cooking mag for a cranberry and blueberry pie. Looked great.”

It takes some arm twisting, but Kathy agrees to the third option. She sets her sights on baking pies the day before Thanksgiving, giving us maximum room for the main event on the big day.

“But I’m baking these only if you don’t do anything weird with the dinner. Promise?”

You betcha.

We crank things up early on Thanksgiving day. The family includes some great cooks, so there is no shortage of hands. We target 6 p.m. for dinner, and we leave the starting blocks with a head of steam.

Step one: Bone and butterfly two large turkey breasts and make the stuffing.

With the stuffing, we cheat. If Ina Garten can use Pepperidge Farm herb stuffing mix, so can we. We sauté finely chopped white onion and celery until the veggies are soft, but not brown. We remove the veggies from the pan and cook two packs of hot Italian sausage, crumbled. When the meat is done, we add the meat to the veggies and allow everything to cool. When the time is right, we blend the veggies, meat and stuffing mix, and moisten with chicken broth.

Then, to the turkey.

There are reasons civilization requires butchers and butcher shops.

One of those reasons: boning large turkey breasts. You need a very sharp boning knife, a large cutting board and a lot of nerve. It takes me nearly an hour but, at last, the beasts are boneless; the trimmings are in a stock pot with chicken broth, crudely chopped onion, carrot and celery, on their way to producing the base for our gravy.

I gently flatten the boned breasts and put them skin side down on the roasting pan. Ivy seasons the meat with salt and fresh-ground black pepper. We spread a thick layer of stuffing on the breasts, leaving a margin to avoid a blowout. Kelsey and I roll the breasts, then tie them with butcher’s twine. She does a much better job than I. It is a good thing I am not a surgeon.

Ivy and Kelsey take the breasts to Ivy’s house where the rolls will be kept cool until they are smeared with butter, seasoned and roasted skin side up at 325 to an internal temp of 165 — about two hours. They’ll continue to cook a bit when they rest after leaving the oven.

Potatoes? No problemo. Whole russets, started in cold salted water, the water brought to a boil, temperature turned down to a simmer, tubers cooked until they can be pierced with a sharp knife. Spuds cooled, peeled. Spuds whipped with tons of soft butter and warm half and half (with a smashed clove of garlic added while the liquid warms, then removed prior to its addition to the potatoes). Salt, pepper, finito. Cover pot with towel.

Brussels sprouts gratin? No problemo. Sprouts cleaned and trimmed, parcooked in lightly salted water until barely tender, drained and thinly sliced. Slices go in a buttered baking dish. Salt, pepper, a major amount of shredded Irish sharp cheddar. A splash or twelve of heavy cream. Top coated with panko that has been moistened with olive oil. Forty-five minutes at 375 and, voila, le gratin.

Mac and cheese. I cook a bunch of elbow pasta to al dente. I grate a brick of the Irish cheddar, a brick of sharp American cheddar, a brick of mild cheddar, a brick of jack. I open a tub of shaved Parmesan.

Kathy spots the pasta cooking.

“What is this? Is this pasta?”

“I believe it is.”

“Why are you cooking pasta?”

“Mac and cheese.”

“What? Mac and cheese? On Thanksgiving?”

“Yep. I was going to add goat cheese, but …”

She leaves the kitchen, hands gripping the sides of her head. “I can’t believe it. Pasta, on Thanksgiving. I can’t believe it.”

I make a roux, then add half and half for a loose béchamel. I toss in some salt, pepper, ground nutmeg and a smashed garlic clove. I let the sauce cook over very low heat for a few minutes, then fish out the clove. I toss in the shredded cheeses a bit at a time and stir, allowing each batch to melt. I put the drained pasta in a giant bowl and add the cheesy béchamel, and thoroughly mix the mess. I spoon the blend into a couple of buttered casseroles and sprinkle the tops with the panko mix. Forty-five minutes or so at 375 and, kazaam, mac and cheese.

A gravy? Easy biz. I strain the stock and let it sit for a while before skimming off the fat and glunk that rises to the surface. A brown roux, hot stock added a little at a time, salt, pepper and the goodies from the pan in which the breasts are roasted and, Houston, we have gravy.

Green beans are steamed until just tender. Pancetta and shallots are sautéed until just this side of crisp. Beans go in. A bit of salt and pepper and,the beans are done.

Kathy whips up some of her fantastic cranberry relish. The turkey breasts arrive and are sliced. A pan of regular stuffing and some oyster stuffing have been baked.

Voila, we’ve got Thanksgiving dinner.

Kathy offers thanks and, as the meal begins, everyone at the table is given a chance to note what they are thankful for.

We get the usual: family, friends, good food. Jake reminds us of our fellow Americans who put themselves in harm’s way in service to the nation. Kathy mentions our grandchildren, Forest and Bonz.

When it comes my turn, I add I am thankful to wake up each morning.

I leave it at that.

I don’t mention the slab of goat cheese with green chile on the plate next to Kathy’s wine glass.