I asked my very good friend Clay to write a guest post. He and I are of a mind as far as getting organized/achieving contentedness and such. I thought I’d introduce him to you. And as I read this, it’s with no small amount of greedy anticipation that I express my thankfulness that he’s hosting my family for Thanksgiving day, and I can’t wait.
You can read more about Clay at the blog written by his dogs, The Buck-White Boys. Enjoy!
My heart skipped a beat the other day when a friend said, “Black Friday is less than a week away!” The fact that she was more excited about the shopping than the holiday notwithstanding, I realized that Thanksgiving, therefore, is right around the corner. Which means, at least at our house, it’s time to begin some of our annual traditions.
Every family has holiday traditions, of course – Christmas Eve services, the traditional stuffing recipe, Hanukkah rituals – but there are a whole slew of other annual activities that, for us, really signify the special time of year. Such as – the annual “pre-Thanksgiving cleaning of the oven.” Yep, the weekend before the weekend before Thanksgiving, every year, I deep clean the oven from a year’s worth of frozen pizza drips and last-minute casserole spills.
The other big signifier of the impending holidays is the annual sharpening of the knives. The best culinary advice I ever got – or listened to – was to invest in at least one really good kitchen knife. Sure you can buy the block sets or cheap ones at a big box store, but a really good quality, well-made kitchen knife is the most important kitchen tool you can have.
And just like any investment, you want to take good care of it. A well-made knife that is properly cared for will last forever, just about. After much research I bought the Victorinox (yes, the Swiss Army Knife people) 8-inch chef’s knife. It has a good balance, a sharp edge and is very well made. Cook’s Illustrated and several other reviewers named it one of the best knives made.
I also have several other knives – a “junk” set that I use for very general day-to-day stuff, another 10” chef’s knife, an 8” Santoku, etc. Over time, a knife blade will start to bend and dull. Regular use of a sharpening steel will help to keep the blade inline but at least once a year, a knife needs to be sharpened.
For years I listened to my mother complain about Thanksgiving, “I don’t want to do all that cooking. Who enjoys that? It’s never that good. And then you have to clean up.” I have very few memories of Thanksgiving at home but wonderful memories of the day at friends’ and relative’s houses. And I loved everything about it – the hustle and bustle, the smells, the mess, the cooking, the noise. It’s probably my favorite holiday and I love to do all the cooking. So since I’m going to be doing a lot of chopping and cutting, it just makes sense that this is the time of year to sharpen all the knives. Kind of like replacing the batteries in a smoke detector at Daylight Saving Time, this way, too, I remember when all the knives were last sharpened. You can have it professionally done, but good, electric sharpeners that produce great results are not terribly expensive.
My knives live in a very organized drawer because, once sharpened, I want to protect them as much as possible. My pots and pans, not so much. Every Thanksgiving there is always at least one day of my sitting on the floor by the cabinet, banging pans together trying to find all the right ones. There’s usually a dismantling, too, of whatever organizational system I tried last year – I’m still throwing out wadded up coffee filters from the year I thought using those to protect the pans would be a good idea.
There’s one pan I really only use once a year – my great grandmother’s cast iron skillet. This thing is a treasure. I’ve said it’s the first thing I’d grab in case of a fire (after the dogs) but it would probably be the last man standing should the house burn down. Grandma Buck’s cast-iron skillet has been used by generations of Bucks and it just makes me tremendously happy to use it every Thanksgiving.
As a Yankee, however, she would probably shudder to know that I’m using it to make Southern cornbread, but it’s how I honor both sides of the family. My paternal great grandmother’s pan making my maternal grandmother’s cornbread.
Now, here’s the trick. Monday or Tuesday before Thanksgiving, make the cornbread for the stuffing. It’s a very simple recipe – corn meal, flour, milk, eggs, baking soda (this is not the time to use a mix). But the first thing to do is to make the sausage for the stuffing, too. So, in Grandma Buck’s skillet I brown a pound of sausage – full fat, full flavor, don’t skimp here. Sometimes I use the sage-flavored sausage, but just a good quality sausage will work fine.
While the sausage is browning, mix together the cornbread batter and pre-heat the oven. Line a Tupperware container with a paper towel and when the sausage is done, remove it from the pan with a slotted spoon or strainer. Yes, you’re trying to leave as much rendered fat in the pan as possible. DO NOT turn off the burner – you want that iron skillet screaming hot. And, if you do it right, once you’ve removed the sausage and pour the batter into the skillet it will “seize” and essentially cook the edges of the cornbread.
Oh, and when that cornbread comes out of the oven . . . I can’t tell you how many pre-Thanksgiving mornings I’ve spent over the sink eating that hot cornbread with butter dripping down my fingers and chin. And that’s the moment, for me, the holidays begin. The oven is clean, the knives sharpened, we’re ready for the holiday stretch from Thanksgiving to New Year’s and that taste, that smell, that moment of tasting that fresh cornbread with my grandmother’s traditions combined with our new ones is a time I look forward to all year.