From Parties

Barcelona: Thanksgiving Dinner for 46

Every year since who knows when, our friend Frank Plant has hosted Franksgiving in his fantastically cool digs in Barcelona. By the time we got around to attending, it had already grown from a cozy meeting of close friends into an insane, overcrowded phenomenon, and shrunk back to a more manageable size. If you can’t be ahead of the curve, it’s a lot better to be well behind it.

Turns out that “more manageable” now means 46 people. That’s 46 people expecting Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings, even if they’re Spanish and don’t really get the whole deal and wonder why we insist on eating the exact same thing every year, and without even any pork in it.

When Peter and I told Frank we’d finally be able to come, Frank drafted us for kitchen duty. Which is no surprise–I think every time we’ve visited Frank, we’ve wound up cooking dinner. Though usually only for about 20.

So, uh, this time it would be 46. Did I mention that already? Last time I cooked for that many people, for a friend’s wedding in 2002, I nearly had a breakdown I was so exhausted.

Peter did the turkey. Two Dutch friends, the Statler and Waldorf of the whole event, were complaining about previous years’ turkeys, so Peter took the bait–he’d brine those birds and smoke them.

This also freed up Frank’s rather tetchy oven for other work. Honestly, I have no idea how he’s pulled it off in years past.

But he’s done it. He has a vision, and he has shopping lists. And he has a crew of people at the nearby Hostafrancs market who were delighted to help. We picked up three turkeys from the poultry stand, where the sturdy ladies use a set of counter-mounted shears to ka-chunk carcasses into pieces. We loaded up on snacky things and sherry vinegar. We snagged some rare radicchio for this bean salad thing Frank wanted to try.

Then we got down to business. Or tried to. Peter went up to the terrace to assess the grill for smoking. As he was poking around, the whole bottom of it dissolved in a shower of rust.

I learned in 2003, when Peter and I had to build the rigging for a lamb roast, that if you’re going to embark on an improbable dinner scheme, then someone involved should be a welder.

Handily, Frank is one.

Safety first!

He patched up the grill, and even added a little smoke chimney and built Peter a rake for the coals.

Good as new! Nothing a little aluminum foil can't fix...

Once the birds were squared away, we could get down to kitchen business.

Here’s where the story gets boring. Thanks to a small army of volunteers chopping onions, peeling potatoes and running out to the store, everything went so smoothly I thought I was forgetting something.

That left me time to concentrate on my favorite thing: gravy. I made about half a gallon. My capacity for portion assessment ends at about 20 people–after that, I just imagine the Mongol Horde.

Periodically Frank would pop by the kitchen and ask how everything was going. And he would say exactly what I was thinking: “Shit! 46 people!”

One time Frank rolled through, I put him to work slicing the radicchio. Ah. Turned out it was red cabbage. Classic grocery-shopping-in-a-second-language issue. We rolled with it.

At this point, I have to give credit to Spain as a whole, despite their lack of radicchio. Were it not for its customary insanely late dinner hour, we would’ve been screwed. But with guests arriving at 9pm, and aiming for a sit-down time of 10pm, not only was everything done well ahead, but I even had time to take a shower and change into turkey-fat-free clothes. I hereby propose American Thanksgiving be forthwith considered a late-night affair. That traditional afternoon start is a bitch. No wonder everyone falls asleep.

Anyway, meanwhile, upstairs, the heavy lifters and Anna’s thorough vacuuming (which sounds better in its Spanish-cognate form, ‘aspiration’) had transformed Frank’s workshop into a banquet hall.

The stage is set.

Peter pulled the by-now-gorgeous birds off the fire.

And Jim got to carving.

I'm impressed that Frank's kitchen even has an electric meat slicer!

We gave everything a little reheat, tossed the candied walnuts in the now-red-cabbage-and-green-bean salad and ladled out the gravy. There was plenty to go around.

And, magnificently, room around the table for all 46 people.

Places, everyone.

The photo of Jim carving comes courtesy of Jan, the Dutch Statler, who at least admitted the turkey was better than it was in years past. And all agreed the red cabbage was far better than the radicchio would’ve been–happy accidents.

Another way we should tweak American Thanksgiving: have dancing after. Thanks Drew, Jim and Kris for rocking it till the break of dawn.

Dude. That boom box blinks in time with the music. Frank is a genius.

The next day, which was surprisingly un-fuzzy, considering the dancing till dawn, we rolled out on the train to Verona.

Guess what vegetable they just love in Verona and seemed to be selling at every corner market? Radicchio. Whatever. Over it!

I could end on this note, but it seems a little dishonest–it sounds like I just whip up this kind of party all the time, no prob. In fact, over the past five or six years I’ve gotten burned out on these heroic-cooking events (yes, after publishing a cookbook that’s very much in favor of such events). I got sick of being frantic and never getting to talk to anyone properly, or even enjoy the food, and now Peter and I are happy to have six or four or even just two people over for dinner. But Franksgiving was a great example of how these events are so inspiring when they go right, when the prep is really just a pre-party, a great chance to chat while prepping mounds of vegetables, and to solve problems on the fly. Thanks to Frank for reminding me.

*********

Here’s the rough logistics, should you be up against a similar killer situation:

For 46 people:

  • 3 turkeys, about 18 kilos. We had two of them cut into quarters, for easier maneuvering/faster cooking on the smoker. We used the backs to make stock.
  • 9 or 10 kilos potatoes; boiled them ahead in the morning, then ran most of them through a ricer about an hour before serving. 20 minutes before serving, mashed up with melted butter, hot milk.
  • 6 kilos sweet potatoes; parboiled in the morning. Made syrup of brown sugar, tangerine juice, Cointreau and poured over sweets in baking dishes. Dabbed with butter, topped with toasted hazelnuts and baked in last 20 minutes before serving.
  • 2 kilos green beans, 4 small heads of (ahem) red cabbage, about 500g feta cheese and 500g walnuts. (It was this recipe to start with. Oh well.) The night before, candy the walnuts. Dressing was a standard vinaigrette: garlic, mustard, sherry vinegar, olive oil, a squeeze of honey.
  • 2 kinds of cranberry sauce: Mama Stamberg’s crazy business with horseradish (really! have never eaten this–turns out it’s actually good), and a cooked sauce with orange peel, 2 bags of cranberries each. Made both of these the night before.
  • Stuffing…I couldn’t tell you. A bit of a blur. Reheated it for about 20 minutes, about 40 minutes before sit-down. If you have an oven with two racks (likely), you could do it at the same time as the sweets.
  • Half a gallon of gravy is, it turns out, definitely too much.

Syrian Fourth of July

I could claim that I read the newspaper on July 4 and saw the heartwarming story about Bashar al-Asad sending Obama a 4th of July telegram inviting him to Syria, but really, I was plotting the Syrian dinner a couple of days earlier.

During my May trip, I loaded up my suitcase with pomegranate molasses and Aleppo red pepper paste. I started to get nervous about the pepper paste when I saw Peter wantonly smearing it on his sandwiches. At this rate, it would never make it to its intended purpose, muhammara. (Muhammara is a pepper-walnut-pomegranate-molasses paste that is insanely rich and delicious.)

And after getting zucchini-stuffing instruction on that May trip, I was also itching to break out my weird zucchini-coring gadget, bought on the street in Aleppo in 2007.

Miracle Corer!

I’ll just cut to the chase: it worked like a charm!

First, you pick your firm, evenly shaped koosa (wee zucchini):
Step 1

Then you set the pointy end in the center:
Step 2

Then you set to coring:
Step 3

Twist and push evenly:
Step 4

Voila!
Step 5

You can fry up with the insides with garlic and olive oil to make another nice mezze:
Byproduct

The end result, stuffed with rice, currants and pine nuts. Yes, meat is more traditional, but we were already having lamb chops marinated in Aleppo pepper. Yeah, they look a little obscene. That makes them taste better.
Stuffed koosa

We had some grilled eggplant, topped with chopped garlic, basil and pomegranate molasses–a trick I learned on my first trip, in 1999, at a Christian social club in Hama. Though now it seems odd to me that basil was involved. Could I be imagining this part? Anyway, I like peeling the eggplant in the Turkish, zebra style:
Tower of power

Dinner got going before I thought to take real pics of anything else. We had beet greens with garlic yogurt, the aforementioned muhammara, the zucch innards and some boiled peanuts. Not Syrian, but I’d seen the fresh peanuts in Chinatown the day before, and hey, why not? I also made some potato salad, following an admittedly Americanized recipe in the Hippocrene book, A Taste of Syria. Ironically, it’s the first time I’ve ever made a boiled mayonnaise dressing. (Allspice is what made it Syrian.) And there was a big bowl of fattoush, the salad with purslane, mint, sumac and pita bits.
Tablescape

And lest anyone think we were unpatriotic: the ‘Merican flag was flying off the front deck, and we ate off my collection of state plates.

Greek Easter Lamb Roast

We had one at Peter’s godmother’s place in Chicago for “real” Easter. Photos are here.

Man, we’ve been operating in the bush leagues. We still turn our crank by hand. Out in the Chicago suburbs, though, you just sit back and watch the spit turn itself, giving you more time to muse on man’s eternal connection with fire and meat.

Really, the most illuminating thing to see was the fire: they build it on the ground, off to the side of the meat, in two separate piles of wood (no charcoal). This way you can control how much heat the shoulder and the leg are getting separately, and the center, with the loin, doesn’t get too cooked through.

Anyway, go see the pics. More illuminating than anything I can describe here.