Peace & Pleasure: A Holiday Menu to End Tryptophan Overload

Cornish Game Hens by David Leite

Holidays exhaust me. It’s not that I wilt at the stove as I make enough cookies, preserves, and candies to keep Domino Sugar in the black for the next decade. It’s not that I lose steam while obsessively arranging and rearranging more than 800 lights on the Christmas tree so that no limb is left naked. And certainly it’s not that I grow fatigued opening presents. Puh-lease. My energy remain boundless as I race outside to look for the red Jaguar XKR Portfolio Convertible my friends keep forgetting to chip in and buy me.

No, it’s the food that wears me out.

How many times can I cook and eat the same tired fodder between Thanksgiving and New Year’s before I’m strangled by boredom? And it’s not just the food at big holiday events that does me in. The pickings at small, innocuous affairs—office parties, neighborhood potluck dinners, festive get-togethers at the hair stylist’s salon—get to me, too. By January 2nd, I’ve usually eaten so much turkey, I can fall into a narcoleptic stupor in the shower because of tryptophan overload.

Then, of course, there are the fights that break out at the holiday table, which drain everyone. You know the ones I’m talking about: the surreptitious battle for crispy skin, the fracas over pawning off leftovers onto guests, and, perhaps, worst of all, the barely veiled derision because there’s always something in the stuffing someone can’t eat.

This year I decided to perform a little holiday-meal CPR by contacting Maria Helm Sinskey, author of The Vineyard Kitchen. Sinskey and her husband, Robert, are the owners of Robert Sinskey Vineyards, in Napa, and she’s known for creating soul-satisfying menus with a twist. When we spoke, I explained my dilemma, which she could identify with completely. Then I sent her away with the noble tasks of resuscitating flat-lining holiday food and bringing peace to dinner tables across the land.

Within a few days she got back to me with a novel suggestion: Rock Cornish game hens. I hesitated. I always associated game hens with dainty affairs like the award banquets or wedding luncheons I had to attend. More often than not, after chowing down I loosened my tie and headed straight for the nearest burger joint because I was never full. And my biggest fear has always been my guests won’t have enough to eat. That’s why every year I buy a turkey the size or a Volkswagen Beetle or a ham that takes a battalion of bag boys to carry it. Sinskey assured me that Rock Cornish game hens are plumper than most and, because they can tip the scale at 2 1/2 pounds, accomplish the job nicely. What won me over, though, was her pomegranate-and-black-pepper glaze—Christmas-y but with just enough bad-boy attitude. It has the spot-on balance of sweetness and acidity, so it’s not cloying. Plus it lends the hens a deep mahogany blush worthy of a magazine cover.

Individual game hens also end the battle over crispy-skin allotment, which, frankly, I’m thrilled about. I’m tired of guests slipping into the kitchen ostensibly to offer me a hand, when their real agenda is to strip off as much of the skin as possible before I serve the bird. With a significantly higher skin-to-meat ratio than the average turkey serving, game hens offer everyone more than his fair share. And that means I can relax knowing no one is going to point to the pile of crackling skin, which I assiduously accumulate on the rim of my plate to enjoy as a coda to my meal, and ask, “By any chance, are you going to eat that?”

Leftovers, too, are an open-and-shut case because there are none. So I don’t have to keep trying to foist my turkey-shaped foil packages onto guests who steadfastly refuse to take them because they’ve had their fill for the year. Best of all, I don’t have to stare down a week of everything turkey.

Without a doubt, though, stuffing has always been a no-win situation at my house. In order for me to make one recipe to satisfy a.) an evangelical vegan, b.) a reformed Jew who won’t eat pork, c.) a hypochondriacal relative with a phantom nut allergy, and d.) a lactose-intolerant friend, I’d have to serve Stove Top Stuffing right out of the box. Sinskey took care of that problem, too, by creating a master recipe that can be customized for each guest. So someone hates pine nuts but loves pecans? Swap them. Another prefers turkey sausage to good old Jimmy Dean? No problem. Dried cranberries are more your style? Tweak your portion to your liking. Because the hens take less than an hour to cook, you can go so far as to lay out a mini buffet of nuts, dried fruit, and meats and let your guests create designer fillings. Then just stuff the hens, pop them in the oven, and by the time you’re done with hors d’oeuvres and appetizers, your one-of-a-kind dinners are ready.

Last, it didn’t take any urging on my part to convince Sinskey to retire ho-hum pies, cobblers, and puddings. She instead chose gingerbread with softly whipped cream. Unlike ordinary gingerbread, which can often double as a doorstop, hers is moist and light, thanks in part to her spiking it with nearly a quarter of a cup of freshly grated ginger. Another benefit of using the fresh stuff is the one-two punch of fire and flavor, compared to the powdered variety which offers one-dimensional heat and nothing more.

Finally, armed with a new menu, I’m looking forward to the holiday season for the first time in ages—as well as to my brand-new Jaguar, which I’m sure will be in the driveway this year.

Pomegranate-Glazed Game Hens with Pine-Nut-and-Currant Bread Stuffing
Roasted Caramelized Root Vegetables
Fresh Ginger Gingerbread With Soft Cream

Photo © 2009 Emily Sandor. All rights reserved.

The Beauty of the Ugly Celery Root

Celery Root and Potato Gratin Recipe

It looks like something from the prop room of Star Trek. It could easily double for a whorled alien brain, a hairless Tribble, or an E.T. with one hell of an ugly mug. As if its low score in the looks department weren’t enough, it goes by several aliases: celeriac, turnip-rooted celery, knob celery. I even saw it christened celery globes at my local supermarket. To confuse matters even more, it isn’t the root of the popular stalk celery we all buy to add to a crudité platter, but rather the root of the less common variety, rapaceum. So it’s no wonder that for nearly 200 years people have been reaching past celery root to choose other vegetables for dinner. Read more »

How to Buy a Thanksgiving Turkey

Turkey Labels

This month, millions of us will find ourselves standing, dazed and confused, at butcher shops, supermarkets, hoity-toity gourmet stores, and farmers markets, once again confronted, as we are each November, with every conceivable type of turkey, each whispering its name: fresh, frozen, free-range, organic, kosher, natural, heritage, self-basting, wild. With such a cacophony of ill-defined information bombarding us, the task of choosing a bird for that holiest of holy food days can range from haphazard to hand-wringing. So I decided to find out once and for all what these dagnabbit terms mean—and which will cause spontaneous choruses of “We’re having Thanksgiving at your house again next year, [insert your name here]!” from your guests.


“Natural” is a very loosely regulated term for a bird that, technically, contains no “artificial ingredients” or “added color.” This doesn’t mean, however, that the turkey hasn’t been treated with antibiotics or growth hormones. In reality, this term doesn’t mean much of anything. (Sigh.) Buyer beware.


A turkey that’s labeled ‘organic’ has been certified by a USDA-accredited certifying agency. Very official sounding, right? The term assures that the bird wasn’t treated with antibiotics, given growth hormones, or raised on a diet containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs). It also assures that the price will be several dollars more a pound than that of most processed birds, though usually worth it.


A frozen bird is, by law, one that’s stored below 0°F. That’s right. Not the temperature empirically associated with freezing, but well below that. (You’ll find more harrumphing about this below, under “Fresh.”) Bear in mind that thawing a “frozen” bird takes some planning. Working backward from Thanksgiving, allow one day in the refrigerator for every four to five pounds of turkey. That means a 16-pound turkey will require four days or so to thaw completely. If you find that you still have a bird-cicle come Thanksgiving morn, no need to call for takeout. Just rely on the fast-working water bath trick. The USDA also offers suggestions for microwave defrosting, but unless you have a nuke box the size of a Fiat 500L, stick with the fridge method. And never, ever refreeze a thawed turkey.

Not Previously Frozen

Technically, any turkey that’s been held between 26°F and 0°F can be labeled “not previously frozen.” I don’t know about you, but my Portuguese ass would be more than frozen at 0°F. What do the folks over at the USDA think these turkeys have running through their not-previously-frozen veins? Plutonium?


The simple word “fresh” takes on a complex definition in terms of turkeys. According to the USDA, a fresh turkey is one that’s never been kept below 26°F. I’m not the only one to find this definition evasive. So does Todd Wickstrom, who cofounded Heritage Foods USA as a way of preserving and promoting heirloom foods in America. “Most [Broad-Breasted White, the bird most commonly found in grocers’ freezers] Thanksgiving birds are processed in September and October but are still labeled ‘fresh’ in November, which means they’ve been kept just above 26 degrees for months,” says Wickstrom. Hmmm. Makes you wonder how “fresh” the turkeys at your local supermarket truly are. Conversely, when most heritage or free-range turkey purveyors use the term “fresh,” they’re referring to a bird that’s been processed within days of your buying it.

Basted or Self-Basting Turkeys

These birds—many whose labels you’d recognize, though we’re not going to name names (okay, Butterball)—have been injected with a solution containing butter or other edible fats, broth, water, spices, flavor enhancers, and/or the vaguely described “other approved substances.” (Do you know that medical marijuana is a governmentally “approved substance” in Washington, DC? Perhaps that’s what the guys who write these laws have been toking.) The resulting texture can often be mushy. And the taste? Well…


A kosher bird is one that’s been processed according to kosher laws under rabbinical supervision. The turkey is first soaked in water for half an hour, then packed in kosher salt and set aside to allow the blood to drain, then rinsed and rinsed and rinsed to remove all trace of salt. Okay, almost all trace of salt.


If pulling buckshot from your dinner is your style, then sure, go for a wild turkey. Just be warned that it’s going to be gamier and drier than what you’re accustomed to eating.


A turkey labeled “free-range” has had access to the outdoors. That doesn’t mean its living conditions weren’t deplorable. It simply means the bird had an egress. And just because a bird has access to the outside doesn’t mean it will take it. According to Wickstrom, turkeys tend to stay inside if given a choice, regardless of the conditions. To put this in context, many industrial facilities jam tens of thousands of birds together, which is detrimental not only to the birds’ health, often requiring the need for antibiotics, but also to the quality of their shapely legs and luscious breasts. You’d never guess that from the term “free-range,” though, would you?


A pasture-raised turkey is reared in pastures full-time, which gives it free reign to amble as it pleases and to rummage for grubs and bugs and other other real nourishment, as opposed to GMO-tainted grains. Turkeys allowed to roam freely and forage for food are healthier and happier (okay, so I’m playing turkey whisperer here) and, as a result, better-tasting. Period.

This is the type of turkey Dave Zier, owner of Zier’s Prime Meats & Poultry in Wilmette, Illinois, sells most often during the holidays. One of the local farmers they’ve chosen to do business with is particularly careful in how he treats his pasture-raised birds—so careful he even goes so far as to slowly walk them a mile and a half to slaughter, a process that’s less stressful on the bird than typical practices and, consequently, turns out a far more tender, tastier turkey.


Heritage turkeys are the Rolls-Royce of gobblers and my pick for best bird. Once teetering on the edge of extinction, these birds are descendants of the first domesticated turkeys in this country, says Wickstrom. While he notes they have excellent genes, he’s emphatic in his belief that the conditions under which a turkey is raised are as important as pedigree. That’s why heritage birds tend to be pastured-raised. Perhaps just as important is the fact that they’re allowed 26 to 28 weeks to mature, twice as long as it takes factory-farmed birds to reach the same size.

All this genetic preservation and catering-to assures a deeper, more intense, more distinctive flavor and a firmer texture compared to industrial-grown, chemical-tasting, self-basting birds. “Heritage turkeys are delicious,” says Zier. “They’re like a wild turkey, but not gamey or dry. We have more and more people asking for them every Thanksgiving.”

At up to $10 a pound, heritage turkeys trump the industrially raised Broad-Breasted White variety not just in taste but in price. If you’re a turkey connoisseur and can swing the cost, it’s worth it. White-meat lovers take note: Heritage birds don’t have the generously endowed breasts that supermarkets turkeys do (which, by the way, is waaaay out of proportion to reality—yet another example of our culture’s obsession with big breasts). Granted, you’ll have less white meat, but it’ll be better-tasting white meat. Just eat more mashed potatoes.

A Few More Words On The Bird

Most cookbooks suggest allowing about a pound of turkey per person, although Zier advises a whopping two pounds. “If you want leftovers, that is,” he adds. Should that mathematical turn of events mean you’d end up cramming a 24-pounder into your oven, first consider what we have to say on the topic before doing anything so drastic. No matter the size of your bird, bear in mind that those pop-up timers often found on industrially processed turkeys are notoriously unreliable. Not only do they pierce the skin and let flavorful juices escape, but they can malfunction, leaving you to carve an under- or overcooked bird.

Got other questions? Relax. We’ve got answers in our Thanksgiving Disasters Averted slideshow.

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Sources For The Bird

All of these resources provide freshly butchered turkeys.

Fresh Heritage Turkeys
Heritage Foods USA
402 Graham Ave.
Brooklyn, NY 11211
(718) 389-0985

Mary’s Free-Range Turkey
6567 N. Tamera Ave.
Fresno, CA 93711-0924

Fresh Pasture-Raised Turkey
Diestel Turkey Ranch
22200 Lyons Bald Mountain Rd.
Sonora, CA 95370
(888) 666-8244

Ekonk Hill Turkey Farm
227 Ekonk Hill Rd.
Moosup, CT 06354-2215
(860) 564-0248

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