A Very Expat Thanksgiving

Technically, I am not an expatriate.  But I thought it was a catchy title.  I wasn’t really planning to write about this adventure as the food is rather traditional and there are a bajillion and one recipes out there.  Also, I was too damn busy cooking to bother to take pictures.  But my friend Victoria requested a play-by-play of some of the hiccups that I ran into,  so this is for her.

This Thanksgiving was important to me.  It was my very first Thanksgiving pretending to be an adult – as I live many thousands of miles away from all of my family, I could not simply show up to my mother’s house and throw together a pie, then repeat the same process at my father’s place.  Also, I don’t have my beautiful, beautiful Emile Henri matchy matchy ceramic pie pans here.  Though I was so grief-stricken at the thought of leaving them that I almost shoved one into my carry-on.  Then I picked up the carry-on and opted for tin. I still have recurring pangs of loss. At least I can visit with my family through webcam.  A pie plate has very little to say.

Anyways.  I love Thanksgiving, and I wasn’t going to let my emotional pie pan baggage or complete lack of turkey experience stop me from making something happen.  My group of friends here has met many different Americans through a conversation exchange program (including me), but they have never celebrated a Thanksgiving, most likely because students living with a host-family don’t have free reign of the kitchen, and American movies and TV are always telling us that we will fail.  Hilariously, but we will fail.  I did save a Domino’s coupon for this very reason.  I at least have the upper hand in that I have prepared every dish at least once, minus having full command of the turkey.  I was feeling great, until I recalculated the guest list.  We would be twelve.  And nine of those would be a group of men with black holes for stomachs.  And the challenge was set.

In the end, I set Día de Acción de Gracias for the Saturday before, because one of our roommates is moving to Argentina and had no time during the actual Thanksgiving weekend.  I picked a Saturday because you don’t get a federal American holiday off when you are living in Spain, so I gave myself the lead time to prep the feast properly, especially since I don’t have classes on Friday.

Our planned Thanksgiving menu:

4 chickens

Green beans with onion, bacon, and chopped almonds,

Oven-roasted carrots

Stuffing

Cranberry sauce

Mashed potatoes with parmesan

Gravy

2 apple pies

Pumpkin pie

Whipped cream

We started by shopping on Thursday night, feeling very smug because we had seen full turkeys in Carrefour, the mega-supermarket just outside of town. We cut strips of baby blue ribbon the height and width of the oven to double-check that the turkey would actually fit after lugging it home.  After ditzing around, buying a Christmas tree, and drooling over the Christmas sweets, we ambled over to the meat section to be greeted by a turkey-free butcher.  They had sold out and wouldn’t be getting any more for several weeks.  D’oh.  we decided on four chickens, instead, and soldiered on.  However, because our refrigerator isn’t the size of Texas, we thought it may be a good idea to wait until the next day to dodge the chance of giving everyone salmonella to be thankful for.

So we went home, stowed all paper plates and napkins, kilos of sugar and flour, onions, bread, and other Thanksgiving detritus and settled in to watch some Star Wars.  The next morning was a long marathon of prep work.  My roommate Rosa and I went for the chickens, mounds of vegetables, and whatever else we needed.  We almost spent a hundred euro on the fresh bread that just smelled soooo goood.   In a stroke of luck, I found evaporated milk for the pumpkin pie.  We had been arguing over what exactly I meant – evaporated must mean dried out powder! –  in Carrefour, but it was a moot point, because there was neither powdered nor evaporated milk there.  Rosa pointed out the powdered milk to me in Mercadona (store #2), and sure enough, there was evaporated milk on the neighboring shelf (leche Ideal – what a name!) and we did a happy dance for Thanksgiving pie miracles.  Emile Henri was trying to comfort me from afar.

Though I found the evaporated milk, there are a few things I have learned never to take for granted ever again: bags of dried bread cubes, cans of pumpkin puree, cranberries, and sage.  Every one of these things I either had to make from scratch, substitute, or comb the city.

A quick side trip to the Saga of Sage.  People here know what sage is – it’s a very popular herbal remedy.  For what, I don’t really remember.  But if you want to cook with sage, good frickin luck.  I have visited at least seven stores.  Grocery stores, gourmet food shops, olive oil stores, and herbal remedy shops. I almost broke down and bought some pills of granulated sage in the hopes that I could grind it up and make it magically taste right.  In the end, after two weeks of mixed-intensity searching I did find a huge bag of dried sage in a nearby health store for about a euro and babbled my thanks and garbled story of the Saga of Sage.  Why sage?  The following recipe.  I refuse to have Thanksgiving without it.  My mother actually mailed me sage, but unfortunately it didn’t arrive until the day before real Thanksgiving. The recipe is my stepfather’s grandma’s dish.

Grandma Beecher’s Sage Dressing

4 c dried bread cubes

1 tsp baking powder

1 large egg

3/4 tsp ground sage (with the dried sage, I doubled this)

1 tsp salt

1 c boiling water

1 onion, dice

1/2 c sliced celery

1/2 c butter

Sautee celery and onion in butter. In a separate bowl, combine the baking powder, egg, sage, and salt.  Put the bread cubes in a large pot, pour the sage mixture over the top, pour the boiling water over this, then mix in the butter, celery, and onion.  Toss until well mixed and uniform. Stuff the chicken or turkey, or pour into a baking pan and bake for 1 hour at 350 F.

If you are not going to use the dressing to stuff a turkey or chicken, substitute chicken stock for water, or dissolve some bouillon cubes into the water before hand.

For 12 people, I tripled the recipe and had a little left over.

So, we had to slice up little baguettes until we had 12 cups of bread cubettes. Yep.  Thanks, Rosa.

Other prep work we managed to clean up was peeling and cutting the carrots, peeling and cutting the potatoes, dicing all the vegetables for the stuffing, making the pies, preparing the chickens, and making cranberry sauce. The carrots and the stuffing mix went straight into the fridge, but the rest would be going outside to spend the  night on the terrace, since the weather had turned chilly and again, we did not exactly have a refrigerator the size of Texas.

The exiled.

Pictured here are the three pies, the potatoes, one of the tubs of chicken, and the stuffing mix I moved outside the next morning because it was smelling up the fridge.  For the potatoes, I put them in a pot with very very salty, freezing cold water.  This prevents them from turning brown.  When you are ready to actually cook them, rinse them and put them in fresh water.  They will not be too salty, I promise.  It’s just chemistry.  The chickens got a similar treatment.  They went through what has now been dubbed Chicken Guantanamo.   First they were received an icy cold overnight brine – just lots of kosher salt, water, and ice.  You have to make sure the chicken is entirely submerged.  We put them in our laundry tubs, inside a garbage bag to make clean-up tidy.  Then they went outside to think about what they had done.

Never stuff a chicken or turkey the night before.  That’s gross and potentially sick-making.

Unable to find cranberries, I invented a cranberry sauce out of cranberry juice, orange juice, and a little bit of fresh ginger.  I reduced the juices a little then added a packet of gelatin.  I ended up with cranberry jello.  At least it tasted good and Thanksgivingy.

The apple pie was straightforward.  See here for instructions. I made two, in aluminum cake tins I had found in Carrefour, as I have a whole single pie tin here.  I was irked.  The pumpkin pie was not so straightforward.  For this, I had to scoop out the seeds from two small pumpkins, then pare off the skin (I had my roommate Marina help me with this as she does it all the time), boil them until tender, drain of the water, puree them with an immersion blender, then put it back on the heat at a simmer to get rid of most of the water.  Yep.  Then, I finally put together the pie, following this recipe which is disastrously good. Though I had to grind my cloves and cardamom with a spoon in a bowl because I only had whole spices and we don’t have a mortar and pestle.  And I had to smush fresh ginger because I didn’t have that either in powder form.  Basically I reinvented the wheel.

Then we went to sleep.

Next day:

While I was busy continuing the chicken torture, my roommate Rosa went to her father’s house to pick up the chairs we would need for 12 people in an apartment.  Rescate means rescue, and it refers to the sad chair that had to be fished out from the bottom of the pool.  Jeje = he he.  That is your Spanish lesson for the day.

For the chickens, I prepared two with a Spanish chicken rub and olive oil, and stuffed them with half a lemon, some onion, and celery.  Two chickens at 350 F took just short of an hour and a half to get where they needed.  My mother taught me an awesome trick for cooking chicken and turkey when you don’t have a meat thermometer. Shake hands with the chicken.  If you wiggle the drumstick and it only moves an inch or so and kind of fights you, the chicken needs more cooking.  But if it moves freely and seems genuinely glad to meet your acquaintance, go ahead and pull it out – you’ve broken its spirit and it’s ready for eating.

Chickens 3 and 4 got olive oil, Johnny’s Seasoning Salt that I brought with me, black pepper, and the sage dressing.  We had to get inventive with space at that moment.

The cover for our stovetop became a tiny prep table for me.

The carrots got olive oil, salt, pepper, and a long long time in the oven.  The green beans were boiled just a little while, then tossed with sauteed onion and bacon and topped with almonds.  The potatoes were boiled, drained, set out to steam off some of the water, then mashed with my pastry cutter with milk, butter, and Parmesan cheese.  I made gravy from a recipe from Taste of Home that my mother scanned and sent to me. I found the woman’s name very appropriate.

Gravy from Taste of Spain from Edie DeSpain

Drippings from 1 roasted turkey (or chicken!)

1/2 c to 1 c turkey or chicken broth

1/4 c plus 1 Tbsp flour

1/2 c milk

1 tsp chicken bouillon

1/4 tsp poultry seasoning (Johnny’s, for me)

1/6 tsp white pepper (black for me)

Pour drippings into a 2-cup measuring cup.  Skim and discard fat.  Add enough broth to the drippings to measure 2 cups; transfer to a small saucepan and bring to a boil (Note: I found it best to set the drippings aside for an hour or so – this gives the fat time to rise and cool).  In a small bowl, combine the flour and milk until smooth.  Gradually stir this into the drippings mixture.  Stir in the crumbled bouillon, poultry seasoning, and pepper.  Bring to a boil; cook and stir for 2 minutes or until thickened.

This gravy is awesome.  I have habitually made tasteless lumpy gravy, and this is the opposite in every way.

So yes.  That was my Thanksgiving.  Two Americans and ten Spaniards confessed what they were thankful for and ate so much they didn’t want to move.  All in all, a success.  Against the combined ‘wisdom’ of movies and television, everything came out perfectly and I didn’t even burn myself.  I’m thankful for that.

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1 Response to “A Very Expat Thanksgiving”


  1. 1 Susan Allison December 4, 2010 at 3:12 am

    I loved this post; it was both instructive and hysterical. I applaud your diligence in facing the challenge of shopping for this uber-traditional American meal in Europe. The chicken (much more delicious, in my opinion, than turkey anyway) looked both delicious and properly chastened. I look forward to reading your blog regularly (now that I can find it).


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Hey, I'm Desa. I've been bouncing between the Pacific Northwest and Sevilla, Spain in the last few years and from tiny apartment to tiny apartment. I cook mainly for one, which means some potentially boring meals, but here I'll be sharing the food that excites me. Feel free to offer suggestions, commiseration, or desires. And thanks for coming by!

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