As you're thinking about this year's Thanksgiving menu, you might be feeling a bit bored. Green bean casserole? Been there. Turkey and stuffing? Meh. Pumpkin pie? Cliché.
We were looking for a little Thanksgiving inspiration, so we reached out to culinary legend Patricia Wells. The veteran restaurant critic and cookbook author has been teaching French cooking for nearly two decades in Paris and Provence.
Wells gave NPR's Rachel Martin some suggestions on how to put a French twist on this very American holiday. These dishes are from The French Kitchen Cookbook, Wells' latest collection of recipes and chef's tips.
Spicy Thai Pumpkin Soup with Crab And Cilantro
In lieu of pumpkin pie, try this soup, ripe with flavors of citrus, ginger and coconut.
Equipment: A blender or a food processor; 8 warmed, shallow soup bowls.
3 shallots, peeled and finely minced
2 tablespoons Thai yellow curry paste, preferably organic
3 tablespoons grated fresh ginger
1 pound (500 g) pumpkin or butternut squash, cubed (or 2 cups; 500 ml canned pumpkin puree)
One 28-ounce (765 g) can peeled Italian plum tomatoes in juice
3 cups (750 ml) Homemade Vegetable Stock or Homemade Chicken Stock
1 cup (250 ml) coconut juice, preferably organic
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime or lemon juice
1 tablespoon Vietnamese fish sauce, preferably Red Boat brand
7 ounces (200 g) fresh crabmeat
Fresh cilantro leaves, for garnish
- In a large saucepan, combine the shallots, curry paste, and ginger and cook over low heat until the shallots are soft and the mixture is well combined, 2 to 3 minutes. Set aside 1 tablespoon of the mixture for garnish.
- Add the pumpkin, tomatoes (with juices), and vegetable or chicken stock and simmer, covered, for 15 minutes or until the pumpkin is tender. Transfer to the blender or food processor and puree.
- Return the mixture to the saucepan and add the coconut juice. Stir to blend. Bring back to a simmer. Stir in the lime juice and fish sauce.
- Place several tablespoons of the crabmeat in the center of each soup bowl. Pour the soup all around the crabmeat. Garnish with the reserved curry-ginger mixture and a sprinkle of cilantro leaves.
Make-ahead note: Complete the recipe through step 2. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. Complete at serving time.
Seared Duck Breast with Fresh Figs and Black Currant Sauce
Duck makes a rich, juicy alternative to turkey.
Equipment: A warmed platter; 4 warmed dinner plates.
16 fresh figs
2 fatted duck breasts (magret), each about 1 pound (500 g)
Fine sea salt
Coarse, freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup (125 ml) best-quality balsamic vinegar
1 cup (250 ml) crème de cassis (black currant liqueur) or black currant juice
- Stand each fig, stem end up, on a cutting board. Trim off and discard the stem end of the fig. Make an X-shaped incision into each fig, cutting about one-third of the way down through the fruit.
- Remove the duck from the refrigerator 10 minutes in advance before cooking. With a sharp knife, make about 10 diagonal incisions in the skin of each duck breast. Make about 10 additional diagonal incisions to create a crisscross pattern. The cuts should be deep but should not go all the way through to the flesh. (The scoring will help the fat melt while cooking and will stop the duck breast from shrinking up as it cooks.) Season the breasts all over with salt and pepper.
- Heat a dry skillet over medium heat. When the pan is warm, place the breasts, skin side down, in the pan. Reduce the heat to low and cook gently until the skin is a uniform, deep golden brown, about 3 minutes. Carefully remove and discard the fat in the pan. Cook the breasts skin side up for 10 minutes more for medium-rare duck, or cook to desired doneness.
- Remove the duck from the skillet and place the breasts side by side on the warmed platter. Season generously with salt and pepper. Tent loosely with foil and let the duck rest for at least 10 minutes, to allow the juices to retreat back into the meat.
- In a small saucepan, combine the vinegar andcrème de cassis and warm over low heat.
- In a saucepan that will hold the figs snugly, arrange them tightly in a single layer, cut end up. Pour the warm vinegar mixture over the figs and cook over low heat, basting the figs with the liquid, for about 3 minutes.
- Cut the duck breasts on the diagonal into thick slices, and arrange on the warmed dinner plates. Spoon the sauce over the duck slices, and arrange the figs alongside. Serve.
Wine suggestion: Almost any good southern Rhône red would be perfect here. Cassis is an overriding flavor in the wines of the region; try the Côtes-du-Rhône-Villages Cairanne from the Domaine de l'Oratoire Saint Martin, the Réserve des Seigneurs, loaded with the spice of red and black currants as well as kirsch.
Variation: Substitute cherries for the figs and cherry eau-de-vie for the crème de cassis.
This cross between mashed potatoes and potato pancakes is particularly appropriate this year, as Thanksgiving coincides with the first day of Hanukkah.
Equipment: A steamer.
1 pound (500 g) firm, yellow-fleshed potatoes, such Yukon Gold (each about 4 ounces; 125 g), scrubbed but not peeled, halved lengthwise
5 plump, moist garlic cloves, peeled, halved, and green germ removed
4 large fresh summer savory or thyme sprigs
2 fennel frond sprigs
2 tablespoons duck fat or unsalted butter
Fleur de sel
Coarse, freshly ground black pepper
- Pour 1 quart (1 l) of water into the bottom of the steamer. Add the garlic, summer savory, and fennel sprigs and bring to a simmer over moderate heat. Place the potatoes, cut side down, on the steaming rack. Place the rack over the simmering water, cover, and steam just until the potatoes are fully cooked and can easily be pierced with the tip of a knife, 12 to 15 minutes.
- Place a clean dish towel on a work surface, cover it with plastic wrap, and set the cooked potatoes on top of the plastic wrap. Spread another piece of plastic wrap over the potatoes. Smash each potato gently with the palm of your hand to burst it open. Each potato should still maintain its shape.
- In a large skillet, heat the duck fat or butter over medium heat. Brown the potatoes until firm and golden, 3 to 4 minutes per side. Season with fleur de sel and pepper. Serve warm.
Intense Chocolate Custards with Nibs
Chocolate isn't a traditional flavor for Thanksgiving desserts, and that's a real shame. This dessert is so deeply chocolatey, a very small serving will satisfy even the most committed chocoholic.
Equipment: A double boiler; a baster; eight 1/4-cup (65 ml) vodka or shot glasses.
5 ounces (150 g) bittersweet chocolate, such as Valrhona Guanaja 70 percent
3/4 cup (185 ml) light cream or half-and-half
2 tablespoons (30 g) unsalted butter
Fleur de sel
About 1 tablespoon chocolate nibs (see Note)
- Break the chocolate into small pieces.
- In the top of the double boiler set over, but not touching, boiling water, heat the cream and 1/4 cup (60 ml) of water just until warm. Add the chocolate pieces, stirring until the chocolate is melted. Add the butter and stir to melt and combine. Spoon the mixture into the glasses. (I have found that if you use a baster to "pipe" the chocolate into the glasses, it is less messy.) Refrigerate until firm, about 20 minutes.
- At serving time, sprinkle with fleur de sel and chocolate nibs.
Make-ahead note: The custards can be prepared up to 3 days in advance, covered, and refrigerated.
Note: What are nibs? Chocolate nibs are pieces of cacao beans that have been roasted and hulled. Nibs taste faintly similar to roasted coffee beans. They have a great crunch, a slightly nutty flavor, and a pleasant touch of bitterness.
Wine suggestion: I love to serve this treat with the chocolate-friendly, sweet Banyuls reserve wine from Domaine La Tour Vieille in the Languedoc. With its touch of spice, hint of chocolate, and overtones of raspberry, what could be a finer partner for a chocolate dessert?
Recipes from The French Kitchen Cookbook: Recipes and Lessons from Paris and Provence by Patricia Wells. Copyright 2013 by Patricia Wells Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Harper Collins.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
As you're thinking about the particulars of your Thanksgiving table, maybe you're feeling a bit bored - green bean casserole, eh; turkey and stuffing, been there; pumpkin pie, well, the whipped cream always tastes really good. We were looking for a little bit of inspiration, as you could tell, so we brought in culinary legend Patricia Wells. The onetime restaurant critic has been teaching French cooking for nearly two decades in Paris and Provence. She's with us to put a French twist on this very American holiday, with suggestions from her latest book. It is called "The French Kitchen Cookbook." Patricia Wells joins us from our studios at NPR West. Thanks so much for being with us.
PATRICIA WELLS: Thank you.
MARTIN: So, we mentioned pumpkin pie right off the pie.
WELLS: Of course.
MARTIN: But in your cookbook, you are taking on pumpkin and taking it in a different direction. The recipe for something called spicy Thai pumpkin soup with crab and cilantro, which sounds fabulous.
WELLS: It is so good. I can't tell you.
MARTIN: How does this come together? Is this complicated?
WELLS: It's very, very easy. You can either start with fresh pumpkin or you can use canned pumpkin. It has Thai curry in it, some coconut water, lots of spices. And just with that touch of crab, it gives you a little protein in there. It would be a perfect soup for Thanksgiving.
MARTIN: So, moving forward with our Thanksgiving menu, you've got another recipe that would work really well as a turkey alternative. There's a lovely recipe in here for seared duck breast with fresh figs and black currant sauce.
WELLS: Yes. In fact, that's a great autumn dish, especially if you can get the fresh figs. It helps if you have those. But you just sear the duck breast, sliced very thin, and then you make a sauce with balsamic vinegar and a creme de cassis, or black currant liqueur. And it's really pretty and it's delicious.
MARTIN: Duck has always sounded a little intimidating to me to cook. But there's just...
WELLS: Duck breast is so easy. It's really quick and it's delicious. And plus, what I often do, is I cook it without the fat and I render the fat so you can use that...
MARTIN: You cut the fat off, or you have the butcher do it?
WELLS: Cut it off and then - no, you can just really kind of pull it off. It's very easy. And then you chop it up and you just put a little bit of water and then you render it. And you come up with this really wonderful duck fat that you can use to make smashed potatoes. That's another wonderful dish that you can do for Thanksgiving. You just steam potatoes, cut them in half and then smash them and sear then in a little duck fat.
MARTIN: I mean, that is a fabulous idea. I like mashed potatoes, even if sans duck fat. But basically, you're taking a traditional favorite and you're elevating them and making them into something really special.
MARTIN: Turkey is often the centerpiece of - the turkey is the centerpiece of a Thanksgiving dinner. We talked about this seared duck that could be used. Is there something you need to do in the presentation of a dish like this to elevate it, to really make it something that people could look at it and say, oh, OK, it's not a turkey but this works?
WELLS: Well, first of all, it's beautiful on its own, you know, with the figs. And you could probably use other fruits as well. You could you - I think it would be really nice with raspberries. You could do a raspberry liqueur. But my suggestion for presentation is use a white plate. I find that people sometimes their dishes are too complicated and fussy. And if you put anything on a white background, it looks beautiful.
MARTIN: Now, you don't see a lot of chocolate on Thanksgiving, which I think is a major oversight, so I was pleased that there was a chocolate recipe in this book - intense chocolate custard. It sounds really indulgent but the directions look kind of easy, right? Can you tell us what you do to make this?
WELLS: It's just bittersweet chocolate, a little bit of light cream and a tiny bit of butter. And you melt the chocolate, you add a little bit of water and you just stir it in until it's melted. And then you pour it into little glasses. I like to use shot glasses. I call it intense chocolate custard because it is very intense and you don't need a whole lot to be satisfied. And then you put little chocolate nibs on top.
MARTIN: Plus it's kind of nice. You've just had this big meal and Thanksgiving is kind of all about excess, so it's nice to think about streamlining your dessert to make it small, intense special.
WELLS: One thing about Thanksgiving - so much of our pleasure of food is taste memory. So, let's not go too wacky on Thanksgiving. We have to have a few of those favorite taste memories and then add a few new dishes so you can have a new taste memory.
MARTIN: Do you celebrate Thanksgiving every year in Paris?
WELLS: Yes, we do. Either in Paris or Provence. It's a lot of fun. And it's fun to invite French people because they just only know the hearsay of the day. The French are really funny. They, you know, they really pay attention to our Thanksgiving. And they make sure we have turkey for Thanksgiving in the markets and fresh cranberries shipped over from the U.S., pumpkins. The other nice thing is that this is the beginning of the black truffle period. So, although...
MARTIN: I love how your voice kind of gets a little mystical when you talk about the black truffles.
WELLS: 'Cause black truffles kind of start right at the end of November. And so does the first pressing of olive oil. So, those are two good things to look forward to, even though the days are short and dark.
MARTIN: Patricia Wells. She is the author of "The French Kitchen Cookbook." She joined us from our studios at NPR West. Thank you so much for talking with us.
WELLS: Thank you.
MARTIN: Happy Thanksgiving, Patricia.
WELLS: Same to you.
MARTIN: You can see the recipes from Patricia Wells' French take on Thanksgiving at our website, npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.