Most people would describe me as someone who is more likely to break the rules than follow them; life sure seems to be more interesting that way. Surprisingly though, I do tend to be conventional, except when I am not. Thanksgiving is one of those exceptions.
Growing up, Thanksgiving was an extravagant holiday in our house, as I’m sure it was in the homes of most around me. They are memories that I will always cherish. My Mom got up at the crack of dawn to make m sure we had a fully glutenous meal. In the evening, she wore her hair in an up-do that made her look like a movie star. We dressed up in long skirts of velvet and lace, with the men in proper suits of leisure. As I grew older though and went off on my own, I never really took to cooking Thanksgiving dinner, although I still held the holiday to be special. My first turkey was a disaster, despite desperate calls for intervention from “the Moms.” Tom happily snacked away on the shrimp dip served with Nabisco Wheat Thins while I flailed around in the tiny kitchen. The recipe was passed down from my Mom and immortalized in the pages of my first, and only, cookbook effort, Junior Achievers Cook.
As the years passed and I became more obsessed with food and cooking, Thanksgiving came to feel more like a chore than a celebration. I know it seems that I would embrace this kind of cooking, but I became less and less impressed with the effort-to-result-ratio (not to mention the ratio of food to plate). My sister-in-law Christine and I use to joke that we were just going to fly in Lucky Wishbone fried chicken the following year and skip all the fuss. We never did though, and each year it would take place all over again.
Tom and I decided to take tradition into our own hands and move the holiday south, and off the Mainland. We have abandoned turkey (except in a sandwich on the beach the day after) and replaced it with fresh-caught fish instead. This year it was opah, which was so fresh it felt as if we had pulled it from the sea ourselves (luckily not, visions of Tom flailing about in sea is not a good thought). But, cooked under the stars with the waves crashing to shore just 20 feet away, smells of salt and sand mixed happily with the smokey perfume of the fire. If you have never cooked over coals on the beach, this is something not to be missed.
(All that dark behind the flash is ocean, honest)
I made a simple stuffing earlier in the day along with fresh green beans, cooked just-barely, then tossed with olive oil, lemon and almonds. I admit, I bought the fresh cranberry sauce this year as I usually make my own while the stuffing cooks (in between sips of Prosecco and bites of breakfast). The whole dinner, plates, utensils, food and all, fit perfectly into a small plastic file tub that also acts as a great side table in the sand.
The sun had been so orange and solid tonight that as it set, it felt as if a whole universe had disappeared before our eyes, right into the sea. The sky lit up colors of purple and red, casting light well into the evening.
Up and down the shore, families were walking back from dinner at the neighboring hotels. We settled into our usual spot, surrounded by all the comforts we could ask for, poured a cocktail and enjoyed an array of vegetables so fresh that nothing else was needed to kick-off our dinner; no nut-crusted cheese-balls, cheese cubes, crackers, shrimp dip, or parades and football on TV.
As the colored sky faded, we began to notice rhythmic lights as more families streamed by (or was it just clumsy walking in the sand?).
Cocktails turned to wine and the charcoal went from cold to hot.
Sparks spat up like fireworks as if to acknowledge both Thanksgiving and Tom’s birthday all at once. I filled our plates, just enough, sat back and enjoyed a most exceptional meal. It is not the turkey that makes Thanksgiving, it’s the moments and relationships that we are thankful for.
Beach stuffing (for two, as long as critters don’t show up, but that’s another story from another time)
3 French brioche rolls, torn into bite size pieces
1/4 lb bulk hot Italian sausage
1 very small leek, stems removed, cleaned and sliced
3 crimini mushrooms, stems removed, diced
1 celery stick, diced
3 baby carrots, diced (1/8 cup)
1 egg (fresh from the island), whisked
Fresh thyme (3-4 twigs worth, twig removed)
Sea salt (duh) and fresh pepper to taste
Tomato juice or chicken stock to moisten
1 cup sliced kale
In a low oven, dry the brioche – but don’t burn
Brown the sausage in a sauté pan, no oil needed, set aside.
Sauté, in the same pan with olive oil over medium low heat, the leeks, mushrooms, celery and carrots (approximately 5 minutes). Remove from heat and add the sausage back; then the whisked egg, salt/pepper and liquid (just enough to moisten).
Transfer the whole deal to a buttered casserole dish (notice how I found a sweet one in Gramps’ Hawaiian cabinets dating back to my youth (so classic Mom)! Add the kale and gently mix.
Cook in a 350 degree oven for about 10 minutes. This will cook through all the contaminates (health dept. warning) allowing the finishing touch to occur on the beach grill.
Once at the beach, with fire heating up, but not yet Rocket hot, put the dish on the grill covered with foil. It will be hot enough, left covered sitting in a shallow bit of sand for the duration needed to sear the fish, whilst heating the beans (in foil pack),
Finish the night with a shot of espresso (in those l’il metal old school Italian stovetop makers), boiled on the hot coals and a bite of dark chocolate; no pie required.
(Published from the beach. Ahhhhh, technology.)