Thanksgiving in a foreign land…again

Well, here I am writing about my Thanksgiving while listening to Christmas music – and I have a stern rule about the order of my celebrations.  Yes, I finally made good on my warning that I’d be updating this blog rather sporadically this year.  My Master’s degree in translation and interpreting finally required me to show up for class and instantly all my free time converted into glossary building and research on free translation tools.  This weekend I get my last break, so I’m trying to take advantage of the gap and get everything done.  Including finally writing about Thanksgiving.  Just so you know?  The pictures have been moldering in draft status for three weeks.  So I’m only half lazy.

I talked last year about some of the challenges that I’ve run into trying to put together a traditional Thanksgiving meal here in Spain, especially in trying to find the ingredients.  This year the stickler was the pecan pie – no one has ever even heard of pecans here so in a fit of frustrated determination to make the damn pie no matter how I had to change the recipe (this is a recurring theme with me here in Spain) so I mixed walnuts and almonds.  Then I couldn’t find corn syrup so I mixed rice syrup with molasses and called it good.  It all turned out well, so who cares?

This year we were 17 people, all told, and I prepped it all, charging for admission, two weeks early.  It was the easiest way to wrangle it all, since it was the last free weekend I had before my Master’s and I didn’t have to push my papers aside to make room for the pie plate. Honestly it’s nice knowing that I can successfully cook alone for 17 people and have there be leftovers.  I’ve also learned I don’t really want to do it again.  I missed having my family and friends around me while the pies are baking and the chickens are sizzling.  It was a good lesson – Thanksgiving is about being together, from the first celery stalk chopped to the last plate washed. It was a beautiful meal, though, and everyone left with smiles on their faces.  Yet again it we had the miracle of everyone in the gang actually under one roof – which has only ever occurred once.  Last year, at Thanksgiving.  Three Americans, one Italian, and a whole mess of Spaniards make a great party.  So let’s talk food.

I wanted to make this a good, super traditional meal for my fellow Americans.  It was Erin’s first time away from her family for Thanksgiving, and Dan was homesick for potatoes au gratin.  So here’s the menu:

4 chickens – the turkey would have been too big to fit in the oven


Mashed potatoes


Potatoes au gratin

Roasted carrots

Green bean casserole

Cranberry sauce

Faux pecan pie

Pumpkin pie

Apple pie

Fresh whipped cream

The cranberry sauce was actually cranberry jam that I paid an arm and a leg for, mixed with dried cranberries that I re-hydrated in orange juice over night, along with some cinnamon and ginger. It actually was worth the effort, and turned out a lot better than my accidental cranberry jello from last year.  The recipes I’d like to share with you guys this time are actually for the green beans and the pumpkin pie.  Again, I was going super traditional, so I wanted to have the trite green bean casserole – mushroom soup and crunchy french onion bits.  But I hate the dried envelopes of cream of mushroom soup they sell here and the fried onion bits are excruciatingly rare.  I turned to Alton Brown for help.

Alton Brown’s Green Bean Casserole  from the Food Network website

I doubled this for my dinner.

Onion topping:

2 onions, thinly sliced

1/4 c flour

2 Tbsp bread crumbs

1 tsp salt


2 Tbsp butter

12 oz mushrooms washed, trimmed, and cut into 1/2 in pieces

1 tsp salt

1/2 tsp black pepper

2 cloves of garlic, minced

1/4 tsp nutmeg

2 Tbsp flour

1 c chicken broth

1 c half and half

1 lb fresh green beans, rinsed and trimmed

Preheat the oven to 475 F, i.e. all the way up.  Slice the onions very thinly.  I used a mandolin and worshipped my mother for sending it to me as I had been cooking for thirteen hours by the time I got to this stage.  Then I wept big fat onion-drama tears just in time for my roommate to get home and catch me.

Mix the onions, flour, panko, and salt in a large bowl and spread the onions on a greased baking sheet.

Bake for 30 minutes, tossing the onions at least every ten minutes to prevent burning.  This can be done at the beginning of your day and then set aside.

You need to blanch the green beans.  Alton suggests doing so while the onions are crisping up in the oven, but I completely rearranged the order.  Do it whenever you’d like.  Just bring a gallon of water to a boil, well salted, then cook the green beans for five minutes, drain, then cool with an ice bath or cold water to stop the cooking process.  Remember, they are going into the oven later.

Ok.  Soup.  I did it the week before and froze it, with no harm done.  That’s the tupperware container you see above.

This bowl got used a lot. And washed a lot. Then used again.

Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat.  Throw in the mushrooms, salt, and pepper and then stir and cook until the mushrooms give in and start releasing their liquid.  Add the garlic and nutmeg and cook for another minute or two.

Sprinkle the flour over the top and stir to make a roux. Cook for a minute to get rid of the raw flour taste, then add the broth.  Simmer for a minute or two until the flour has completely dissolved, then add the half and half.  Cook until the mixture thickens, about 6-8 minutes. Or more, if you get distracted by pie preparations needing attention, like what happened to me.

When you are ready to finish your casserole, mix the green beans, the soup, and 1/4 of the onions.  Sprinkle the rest of the onions on top and bake at 400 F for 15 minutes.  Serve hot.

To continue in a traditional vein, one must have pumpkin pie.  But that whole canned pumpkin thing?  Difficult if nigh on impossible.  So I confused the hell out of my neighborhood fruit and veggie stand by buying everything that went by the name of pumpkin/squash in the store.  After all, I needed to make one pie for my Thanksgiving, one pie for someone else’s Thanksgiving on the actual day, and have some left over to make pumpkin spice lattes. That’s right.

When you process pumpkin for pumpkin pie, you have to cook it down to chase out the water, so the amount that you initially have is going to shrink.  Better to overshoot and have pumpkin on hand in the freezer than have to do the process more than once.  Trust me. Because I ended up having to do it twice.  Rosa confused the veggie puree I made her with my reduced pumpkin and dished herself up a hearty bowl, knocking out one pie’s filling.  That was a horrifying moment, three hours into my prep.  Since they had more pumpkins at the store, it ended up being funny, but I learned not to make two identical soupy things at the same time. So.  Let’s start.

Peel your pumpkins and scrape out all the seeds and membrane.  This would be a great moment to make roasted pumpkin seeds, but since I was making fifty million other things at the same time, I didn’t have the patience left over.

To make the pie you are going to need 2 cups of puree.  To get that, use at least 4 cups of cubed pumpkin flesh.  You can also opt for roasting the pumpkin, but my oven is rather temperamental and I wasn’t in the mood for babysitting.  So, cube the pumpkin and cover with water in a large pot.  Boil until tender.

When done, drain off the water and return the cooked pumpkin to the pot.  Puree with an immersion blender, hand mixer, real blender, whatever you have on hand.

Cook the pumpkin on low for several hours, stirring from time to time.  This will chase out the excess water. It should take on a rich, orange color and get thicker.  Let cool, then freeze for later or make your pie right then and there.  I measured them out into two cup sections to have them on hand for pie baking in the next few weeks.

NOW we are ready to actually, you know, make the pie.

Pumpkin Pie – from Scratch!

From Simply Recipes

2 c cooked pumpkin puree

1 12 oz can evaporated milk (Leche Ideal here in Spain)

1/2 packed dark brown sugar (or 1/2 c white sugar with 1/2 Tbsp molasses)

1/3 c white sugar

1/2 tsp salt

2 eggs and 1 extra egg yolk

2 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp ground ginger

1/4 tsp ground nutmeg

1/4 tsp ground clovers

1/4 ground cardamom

1/2 tsp lemon zest

1 pie crust

Preheat your oven to 425 F.  Roll out your pie crust, line your pie shell, trim and shape the edges.  Save the scraps if you’d like for decorations. Put the pie shell in the fridge or freezer to firm up while you prep the filling.

These and the pie shell were my Thanksgiving presents last year. How well my father knows me.

Mix the dry ingredients together (sugars, spices, lemon zest). This would be the moment where I cursed myself for rejecting the gift of a mortar and pestle because my roommate has regular snitfits about the amount of accessories in our kitchen. My cardamom and cloves had to be crushed between my fingers.  At least I smelled good.

The cardamom resisted all attempts at assimilation.

Beat the eggs, add them to bowl, then the pumpkin, then finally the evaporated milk.  European cans have a little more than 12 ozs in them, but it tastes fabulous in coffee.

Ever so carefully pour the filling into the chilled pie shell.  Pumpkin pie is the sloshiest of them all, and is ever eager to decorate your oven.

Bake for 15 minutes, then reduce the temperature to 350 F.  Bake for 30 to 40 more minutes, rotating halfway through because almost all of us have ovens that bake unevenly.  When a knife inserted into the center comes out clean, your pie is done.

If you want to add little cutouts to your pie, the best time to do it is when you reduce the temperature on your pie.  The filling will have produced a skin, so they won’t sink, but most of your baking time is still available to crisp them up.  I used the extra egg white to put a nice gloss on them.

And that was my second expat Thanksgiving!  I hope yours was as good as mine, with fewer hiccups.  You know when you did it right when all the leftover pie fits nicely in the fridge.  And doesn’t stay there long.


3 Responses to “Thanksgiving in a foreign land…again”

  1. 1 Susan December 7, 2011 at 12:32 am

    Looks like a beautiful Thanksgiving dinner — against formidable odds! Another great post…

  2. 2 Alex Likes December 10, 2011 at 3:03 am

    wow all i can say wow, ok maybe you are dam good =)

  3. 3 desasdishes December 10, 2011 at 11:58 am

    Flattery will get you both everywhere. Thanks for still reading.

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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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