Friday, November 27, 2009

Much Mahalos: Part II - 3 Generations Full

While my wife's family always brought Thanksgiving dinner home from Kenny's Restaurant, Thanksgiving dinner for my family was always about cooking at home.   When I was very little, we would actually have 2 Thanksgiving meals.   We would go over to my mom's family for a Thanksgiving lunch, which would be a full turkey meal in and of itself.  Then at dinner time, we would go down to my dad's family for a second, entirely complete turkey meal.   It was a little bit excessive, and when my sister was born, after a many years of having 2 Thanksgiving dinners and being stuffed beyond the capability for free movement, my mom decided to host Thanksgiving dinner, and have everyone come over to our house.   Everyone was a little reluctant at first, but eventually everyone conceded (mainly for the sake of my sister and I).   Eventually, having both of my Po Po's together at the same meal, became one of those really rare and cherished memories that I truly truly treasure.  It was like one of those crazy TV crossovers, like the Jetsons meet the Flintstones, where 2 entirely separate but wonderful universes collide and you're left with a thrilling, dizzying, all kapakahi good feeling.  Those were some of my warmest memories of my youth. 

Even though everyone began coming over to our house for Thanksgiving dinner, everyone still wanted to bring their classic dishes to the meal.   This lead to our most prominent of family traditions, having each one of us cooks one dish for our meal.   It's kind of like a pot luck, except that we're all in one family, and we are kind of aware of each person's niche.   Even when I was very, very little, I tried to create some sort of dish to bring to the table.   Unfortunately, this lead to my most noxious and infamous creation, my attempt at making "weenie gelatin", something that I had discovered Jon making in a 1984 Garfield comic.  While later in life I would discover pates, headcheeses, and other terrines, my concoction was barely edible, and one of those humbling failures that your family never ever lets you forget.   Luckily, I have since then made up for it with some very satisfying dishes.  My first ever successful dish in fact was at Thanksgiving, when I learned to chop carrots, celery, onions, a little chinese parsely, and simmer it with chicken stock and bread crumbs to make some decent turkey dressing.  These days my contributions have been a little more seasoned and practiced, but I still like to use holidays like Thanksgiving to innovate new dishes for my family to try, sometimes more successfully than others.

Thanksgiving Dinner 2009
When my Po Po's passed away, our family dinners seemed to get considerably smaller, and it always felt like something was missing at the dining table.  But since I've been married, and had babies, they have been breathing new life into our old traditions.  It seems like the magic number is to have at least 3 generations at the table, to make it feel like a true family dinner.  This year was my youngest son's first Thanksgiving, so it made the occasion extra special for us. 

Mom's Turkey 2009
Although when I was very little, I remember my Po Po cooking the turkey, for the majority of my life, it has been my mom who made the star bird.  As much as I loved my Po Po's cooking, somehow my mom's turkey tastes even better than my Po Po's did.   My mom's seasoning is just a simple salt and pepper base, but it is always perfectly seasoned to bring out the natural taste of the turkey.  What makes her bird so supreme, is the flawless execution, with even the white meat being extremely juicy and tender.  Turkey is not easy to do right, as it can very easily become dry, but my mom's is unbelievably succulent.  The best part of course is that crispy, salty, delicious skin where all of the flavor is intensely packed.   I am not sure what her secret is, although I do know that she insists upon using the Honeysuckle White brand, as she claims it leads to a moister turkey. 

Turkey Tail, The Best Part!
Even though we've having the same main course as across the country, my favorite part of the bird is something that is generally a Hawaii thing.   My favorite part (which was always my Goong Goong's favorite part too) is the turkey tail.  The turkey skin itself is already a crispy golden, highly seasoned intense goodie alone.  But on the turkey tail, this is concentrated and made even than any other part.   The meat in the tail is supremely tender, as it is probably the fattiest part of the turkey. Inside the very center of this uber tender, juicy meat, are small deposits of fat, which makes eating the tail equivalent to siu yuk (roast pork) or kau yuk, where you have a layer of skin followed by alternating layers of fat and meat.  It's not exactly healthy for you, but it tastes like heaven, and this is Thanksgiving so you might as well enjoy yourself.  While renaissance fairs across the country feature huge turkey drumsticks to enjoy, in Hawaii it is the turkey tail that reigns supreme.   I have seen it sold all over Kalihi, where it is served fried, and all over Chinatown, where it is served char siu style.   However, buying turkey tails from any store is never very good, because they somehow make it very tough and chewy.   What should be the moistest, most tender part of the turkey is almost like jerky, and the fat inside becomes unappetizingly crunchy and congealed.  I don't know why no one else seems to be able to get this delicacy right, but Thanksgiving night is the only night I know I am able to enjoy it.   This piece is just the pinnacle of Thanksgiving to me.

My Cajun Seafood Etouffee with Basmati Rice
For my contribution this year, I opted to dip into my training in cajun cuisine and simmer a buttery seafood etouffee.  I ususally make a side dish like a stuffing or fried rice that goes well with the Turkey.  Being a Chinese family, I often involve some sort of seafood.   Many of the Chinese families I know don't consider a Thanksgiving dinner complete without some big succulent prawns.  This year, I wanted something spicy, buttery, and yummy to add to the meal.  Wanting to pass on our family's Thanksgiving, I decided to have my eldest son help me cook.   So this year, I guided him in washing and cooking his first pot of rice, entirely on his own.   I must say, just knowing that he did it made it taste all that much better to me.

My Wife's Chinese Style Green Beans with 4 Mushroom Vegetable Medley
My wife usually contributes a vegetable dish to the mix.  Her favorite is a mixed vegetable creamy casserole, but this year she decided on green beans, done Chinese style, with a beautiful blend of 4 mushrooms, and topped with crunchy French onions.   It sounds complicated, but really it took her 15 minutes to execute.  She did it absolutely perfectly too, with the green beans being perfectly crisp.   Usually when green beans are too underdone, they have a squeaky quality between your teeth, and when overdone they become limp and soggy.  Hers were the ideal texture, and the little bit of oils and sauces that she used did nothing to mask the full green bean flavor.

My Aunty's Mashed Potatoes
My aunty usually makes the mashed potatoes as well as some kind of vegetable dish as well.  This year, she stuck with just the potatoes, which she was intending to brown on top as a last minute touch, but didn't have time.   Her potatoes need no augmentation however, as they are awesome in and of themselves.   As I've mentioned before, I simply cannot stand mashed potatoes in restaurants because they taste like reconsituted powder from a box.   I absoutely must have real potatoes, simply because Aunty has spoiled us all these years.   Additionaly, just as some people like creamy peanut butter and some people like crunchy, Aunty makes her mashed potoates leaving some good sized chunks of potato in there to let you know they're real potatoes.   Upon my insistence, she also leaves in all of those tasty potato skins.  These homestyle potatoes retain all the potato flavor, or as my wife calls it, the "potatoey goodness".  

My mom also makes simply the best turkey gravy in the world.   This gravy is so spectacular, that when I was growing up, I would be satisfied with just the gravy and rice, and nothing else.   It doesn't taste anything like your standard brown gravy from a can.   She starts with all of the dripping from the turkey itself.   Therefore, as spectacular as her turkey is, her gravy will imbibe all of that awesomeness.  She uses all of the discarded parts of every vegetable she has used in all of her dishes to make a stock which she adds to the gravy.  So every year the gravy is made from the totality of whatever it is she's cooking.  The gravy takes on the personality of the enitre Thanksgiving feast.   It is awesome atop my Aunty's mashed potatoes.

My Mom's Yams
Our feast also has a few other trimmings my mom likes to add.   My Po Po used to always open a can of cranberry sauce, as well as a can of olives, and a few stalks of chilled celery.  While cranberry sauce is traditional Thanksgiving fare, I'm not really sure why she insisted upon having celery stalks and black olives, but this day, Thanksgiving is never complete without them.   She would also bake yummy whole yams along with the turkey.  To me, growing up, my favorite memory of Thanksgiving is waking up to a crisp cool morning, with the smell of the turkey and the yams wafting through the house, and my mom watching the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade in the kitchen while she cooks.  The savory smell of turkey baking in the oven is for most people one of the most poignant memories of Thanksgiving.   Ironically, when I was travelling through China, in one of the most rural little villages that we visited, I remember seeing a scrawny underfed little boy in dirty clothes sitting outside his house eating a whole yam.   As far as we were from America, and as poor as the little boy seemed, the smell of yam instantly triggered memories of Thanksgiving to me, and I knew that the yam was filing his body not just with nourishment, but warmth and his family's love as well. Quite powerful for such a nondescript little tuber.

My Uncle's Sweet Potato Pie
As full as everyone always is after eating Thanksgiving dinner, we somehow always make room for dessert.  When my Po Po was around, she used to make the most awesome pumpkin pie with her signature layer of cream cheese at the bottom.   The cream cheese just seemed to break up the thickness of the pumpkin, adding a creamy sweet contrast to it.  Since her passing, my uncle has been the dessert master in the family.   He's mastered some very beautiful fruit tartlets and pies.   This year was no exception, with a sweet potato pie that was so yummy despite being so full.   In order to lessen the heaviness of the sweet potato, he mixed in a meringue of egg whites, which made the whole filling much lighter and creamier.

Baby's First Thanksgiving
Being my youngest son's first Thanksgiving, he was given as special treat of trying "table food" for the first time in his life.   While Gerber has been good to him, I think he really enjoyed tasting the "real" thing at last.  Being still too young for most of the dishes on the table, his Thanksgiving dinner consisted of my mom's yams (mashed with a little water), and some of Hanalei poi.   He gobbled both down with an appetite worthy of his father, and the promise of many memorable Thanksgivings to come.

To me, food certianly isn't all about nourishment.   It is about culture, memories, and of course pleasure.   Thanksgiving dinner pretty much embodies and exemplifies all of these treasured ideals, and this year was no exception.

1 comment:

  1. My baby is SOOOOOO CUUUUUUUUUUUUUUTTTTEEE =) he looks quite happy. and i'm proud of my little boy too for making his first pot of rice. where is the picture of his apple pie?

    and since when did you wake up to the smell of mom cooking the turkey??? it doesn't go into the oven until 2 pm. =p and i know the secret ingredients to mom's turkey. you would too if you stayed up to help mommy marinate it the night before.