Family and food; games and rest. Despite tensions around intensifying political differences, Thanksgiving remains my favorite holiday. I am looking forward to next week.
Last year we hosted Thanksgiving with everyone bearing food to our house, save the Palo Alto contingent. This year we will not bring our households together because of COVID-19. Instead, we have shared recipes on Google Docs, held a Zoom call to discuss food prep, will make these dishes in our separate homes, and then Zoom again on Thanksgiving Day over common dishes.
On a recent Zoom call I volunteered the famous mushroom rice casserole that I developed as a bachelor: canned cream of mushroom soup warmed up and poured over rice. This is a variation on the green bean casserole often served at Thanksgiving tables: just substitute rice for canned green beans and leave out the fried onion pieces. I also mentioned the easy version of this dish: omit the rice. Everyone loved the memory of my recipe, but still bid me to suggest something else. We all have our own way of roasting vegetables, so that didn’t pass. We decided I would share my maple pecan pie, which went over very well last year.
In truth, good food doesn’t require numerous ingredients or complex processes. When I enjoy well-prepared sushi, there are two main ingredients (fish and rice), one cooking method (for the rice), one preparation method (slicing), and one immediately apparent utensil (knife). A good sushi meal is a delight because of the restaurant environment, food presentation, and most of all the skill of the chef, who selects quality ingredients and knows how to serve them.
Sushi takes scant time to make, and yet it is expensive. When we watch a consummate professional at work — whether plumber or professor, professional athlete or venture capitalist — we might bear witness only to a single masterful performance. Nevertheless, behind the moment, there are months and years of training, fraught with struggles and stumbles.
When teaching the children how to cook in the kitchen, I emphasized being safe, always using your senses, and developing a sense of timing so that everything is ready when it needs to be. Experiment with recipes, be attentive to details, and iterate so that you are satisfied with what you have made.
As I planned to type up my maple pecan recipe, I realized that it was only a slight modification from one I had pulled from the Internet years ago. Except for the fact that I like the way that it tastes, and that it elevates some of my personal favorite foods into an even grander dish, I felt there was very little that represented “me” about the dish. So I changed course and wrote this instead:
frutos secos y frutas secas
This dish is a completely customizable platform. — you tailor it according to your personal taste and the availability of ingredients. The fundamental idea is to create and enjoy a colorful and delicious display of nuts and dried fruit (frutos secos y frutas secas).
Here are some guiding principles:
- Build your dish on a small plate. This is your personal dish and you shouldn’t overload it — it should be just large enough to whet your appetite.. The plate itself should ideally be fairly plain — preferably white and without adornment. The idea here is to have a blank canvas upon which you will create your masterpiece — the canvas shouldn’t distract from what you are building.
- Buy the best single ingredients available to you. This is ultimately a simple dish, so the quality of ingredients is very important. This doesn’t have to be an expensive endeavor: I buy just about everything for this from Costco. Try to avoid adding any items to the plate that have more than one ingredient (!). Dried fruits should be fruits (no sugar if possible), roasted nuts should be nuts (no salt or other coatings if possible), cheese should be milk (plus a tiny amount of cheese cultures and salt).
- Use nuts that are roasted (not raw) but unsalted. I like cashews, almonds, pecans, and walnuts here. While I enjoy peanuts, they might be a little strong for this dish, at least for me. I also don’t think macadamias would work well, but maybe I’m wrong about that for you. Try to find nuts that are processed as simply as possible and that are not stale.
- Use dried fruits from a freshly opened or well-sealed package. I use plums and apricots here. Maybe I’ll try dates next time or maybe raisins, just because they’re in the house, even though I’m not terribly fond of either. Dried cherries would be good, at least for me, and maybe dried cranberries. Because the nuts are all different shades of brown, try to find dried fruits with brighter colors. Try to locate fruits that are not sweetened (this is difficult for cherries and especially cranberries). You want to be able to taste the natural unadorned flavor.
- I like to use a mild cheese as a centerpiece. Costco has tiny mozzarella balls that come in packets of three — these are a perfect size. Cheese is optional.
- I add a very light wisp of extra virgin olive oil to the cheese and a tiny pinch of salt.
You want to create something that looks appealing to your eyes, in terms of a variety of colors, shapes, and textures. You also want to have a variety of foods with different mouth feels — soft vs. crunchy — and that represent enough fundamental tastes. You should have some items that are primarily sweet (dried fruits), others that are oily/fatty (roasted nuts, EVOO), and some salt.
Use a small amount of each ingredient (three plums is definitely enough, and the rest of the ingredients should be sized equivalently or smaller). Arrange them around the circumference (or perimeter) of the plate so they are not touching each other. Try distributing the most colorful
Ingredients around the plate instead of all clumped together. Do keep the ingredients separate — it’s like you’re a painter creating a palette of paints — you don’t want to mush them together right now: that can be for later, when you’re eating with your mouth.
When you have finished plating this variety of small amounts of food, do not eat it immediately. Set it aside in a safe place, covered if necessary, but it’s better if it’s in your eyesight for a while. You want to savor the way it looks with your eyes, think about how it will taste, maybe allow the scents to reach your nose. Allow everything to reach room temperature (this is most relevant if you have decided to include some cheese).
When it is time to eat what you have created, reflect upon the Vulcan IDIC philosophy (Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations). Now it’s up to you. Do you eat each ingredient entirely on its own (Mookie style)? Or do you take an almond and eat it with a dried apricot? How about swiping a dried plum with a bit of olive oil and salt? This is a great time to be reflecting on the various parts of the world where everything came from, appreciating and being thankful for this simple bounty, this bite-sized, personalized mini-cornucopia.
Our family is being represented by a plate of nuts and dried fruit? exclaimed my wife yesterday. Well, yes. If you really attend to this dish with care, I don’t know that it’s all that different from other dishes we typically serve at Thanksgiving.
And I really do enjoy it.