Thanksgiving 2016

I have been hosting Thanksgiving dinner ever since I moved to Chicago. In the beginning my roommates and I all chipped in with preparing the annual dinner (why did the oven always seem to break on Thanksgiving morning?) Once I moved out I started hosting for the other folks, like me, whose job or other commitments prevented them from taking any more time off than just the holiday. After a few years those commitments went away and I was able to take that time off and concentrate more time on planning the annual dinner. My guest list was now filled with friends and it wasn’t long before I started to think beyond the traditional dinner of turkey, dressing and mashed potatoes … and while I do love that tradition and that traditional food, I tend to think non-traditional even if I do serve turkey. Instead of a whole bird I might do something like Braised Turkey Thighs, a nice option especially when all of my guests prefer dark meat. I start by thinking of a theme, like “Modern Scandinavian” or “Pub Crawl”, and build my menu around that. I serve my dinners restaurant style, as opposed to buffet or family-style and take on almost all of the cooking. Friends are typically tasked with ordering the flowers or bringing the booze. I don’t typically reveal the theme, instead I hope that my friends feel the warmth and appreciation of the gathering and love the food for what it is: a reflection of my affection for cooking and for them.

Vintner & vintage of Champagne and wines yet to be determined

Welcome
Champagne toast
Duck breast rumaki, uncured wild Cherrywood bacon

Amuse bouche
Caesar salad, Parmesan tuile, garlic-butter crouton
Continue Champagne

Soup
Prawn bisque, spicy oyster crackers

Main & sides
Prime rib au jus, 3 sauces
Gratin of spinach
Thrice-baked potatoes
Fried onion ‘cake’ with spicy barbecue aioli
Duck fat popovers, butter

Dessert
Fallen chocolate cake, glazing sugar, pomegranate redux
Coffee: Peet’s Italian roast

“Cigar”
Trio of handmade Martha Washington candies
Cognac: Grand Marnier 100 year old cuvee

Clam & fennel chowder

Mother Nature must like Chicago in the world of winter, so the idea of a big bowl of chowder remains a great weeknight option even as we approach the middle of April

The foundation of any good soup is a mire poix (onions, carrots and celery) that is well-cooked to bring out the flavors which in turn flavors the soup

In my version of Clam Chowder, fennel bulb replaces the celery, but less you think “Mr. Celery” has gone mad, fresh celery leaves are included in the saute and the chowder is garnished with the same

If you don’t have rendered bacon fat on hand, cook 3 slices to get 4 tablespoons of fat; then, if desired, garnish the chowder with the diced bacon

Ingredients
4 tablespoons rendered bacon fat
2 cups diced onion
2 cups diced fennel bulb
1/2 cup diced carrot
2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
2 teaspoons House salt
Black peppercorns in a pepper mill
1/3 cup fresh celery leaves, plus additional for garnishing
4 cups peeled and diced boiling potatoes
1 quart clam juice, warmed in a saucepan
8 tablespoons butter
1/3 cup flour
2 cups Half & Half
3 cups cleaned and trimmed chowder clams, about the same dice as the potatoes
Pinch of cayenne, optional

Method
Heat the bacon fat in a large Dutch oven until shimmering. Add the onion and a pinch of salt and cook, stirring occasionally until the onions are translucent. Add the fennel, carrot, thyme, salt and freshly ground black pepper. Add the simmering clam juice and celery leaves and stir to incorporate. Bring to the boil, reduce to a simmer and cook until the carrots are tender, 10 to 12 minutes

Meanwhile, melt the butter in a saucepan, sprinkle in the flour and whisk to combine and cook for 3 minutes. Add a ladle-full of the stock to the roux (the butter-flour mixture) and whisk to incorporate. Add the roux to the soup and stir to incorporate and simmer until the chowder has thickened, 2 minutes

Add the Half & Half and the clams (and cayenne if using), stir to incorporate and simmer for 2 minutes. Taste for salt, freshly ground black pepper and cayenne

Ladle chowder into bowls and garnish with fresh celery leaves