Saturday, November 27, 2010

Tried Something New For Thanksgiving (and some thoughts on the holiday itself)

I just returned from a trip to Chicago for Thanksgiving. Kevin and I decided my side of the family gets way too much of our time on the holidays and it was time to inflict ourselves on his family for a change. He hadn't spent Thanksgiving with his brother since before he met me.

It was definitely a different experience this year as we spent it at a restaurant rather than at home - something my family never does. I am slightly hesitant to post about this.

You see, I never think people read my blog because it doesn't get much in the way of comments. I never know who is reading and not commenting. If I were to list the people I don't think would ever read my blog I would include Sandra Lee, The Queen of England, Morimoto, Michelle Obama, and my brother-in-law. I was mistaken. Now thanks to him reading a particular post, I worry about what I say here because because, according to him, the last time I went to Chicago I "trashed every restaurant in Chicago." I'm not sure how saying that the RL Grill is kitschy (it is) was "trashing every restaurant in Chicago." It's not as if I said the food was bad. I said the opposite in fact. It also turns out I'm not supposed to take photos of people's lamb chops - even if my dining companion holds his lamb chops up for me to take a photo of.

Then again, this is my blog after all. It wouldn't be a good blog if it weren't honest. I think my blog is rather kind compared to many. Anything negative I have to say about a restaurant while visiting relatives is by no means meant to reflect a lack of appreciation for the extreme generosity of Kevin's family who really put themselves out when we come to visit. So I will say :-P thhllppppt to BIL and continue posting about my Thanksgiving.

What does Thanksgiving mean to you? Before you start in with the required rhetoric about family and being grateful for for all of those things you're supposed to be grateful every day, let me say that I want you to be a bit less introspective and say what Thanksgiving dinner means to you. How does what we eat shape our holiday? What is it supposed to be?

Would Thanksgiving be the same without traditional foods? Do we need to eat turkey and root vegetables? How far will someone go to procure such a meal? If you're not a good cook, does it make sense to cook a frozen turkey, a box of Stove Top, a jar of gravy, some instant mashed potato flakes, a can of sliceable cranberry sauce, and a frozen pumpkin pie just so you can have a traditional dinner? If it's more about family and gratitude, why not just make a big taco bar or burgers or some easy spaghetti or whatever else it is your family loves best and save the big effort over a meal that will be mediocre anyway?

How much work should Thanksgiving be? Is the amount of food you cook and how you cook it an indication of how much you love and appreciate your family? I'm not being facetious here. It's just that some people do have strong feelings that Thanksgiving dinner should take some effort, some loving attention, some big chunk of time. Thanksgiving should be the meal where you go all out and cook everything from scratch.

The counter to the "you must make everything homemade" crowd is the barrage from the food media concerning easy Thanksgiving meals. Sandra Lee will show you how to do it with microwaved potatoes and barbecue seasoning packets. Rachael Ray will tell you how to do the whole schlemiel in an hour. Even the cover of last month's Food and Wine magazine advertised "Thanksgiving Made Easy."

Make it easy. Make an effort. Just make certain foods no matter how you get them to the table. My own Thanksgiving dinners were never complicated in terms of the foods I made. What made the dinners complicated was simply the time involved. You can't cook a turkey, four side dishes, and a pie in a short amount of time and it always took two or three days to have it all done.

Some just scrap the whole thing and go out to eat.

That's what we did for Thanksgiving this year. I actually offered earlier this year to cook the dinner for them when we visited this fall. I had a fairly long discussion about it with Kevin's sister-in-law. They have a dream kitchen, three times the size of mine, which just begs for a big Thanksgiving dinner to be prepared within it. She said she could be my sous-chef. Imagine a big kitchen and help! Kevin even thought it was a good idea. I could fly in a couple of days early and start making preparations. I wouldn't have to cook for 17 people either. I could keep it small, keeping my stress levels smaller. The idea, although not impossible to carry out, was impractical on many levels (the least of which is that not everyone in Kevin's family likes my cooking).

It was both a relief and quite strange to not have to cook ANYTHING for Thanksgiving. For at least 20 years every Thanksgiving I have at the very least baked a pie. Last year I made bread, pie, and turkey even though I didn't host the dinner. I wanted to bake something just because I felt weird not baking anything.

So how was dinner?

We went to Lovell's of Lake Forest, a restaurant owned by Apollo 13 astronaut Jim Lovell. I was looking forward to this as I had eaten there once before during a visit and it was quite good.

It's a lovely restaurant on the outside.

Above the bar is the symbolic mural Steeds of Apollo.

We were seated in this very cozy fireside dining room - perfect for a November day. It was almost like eating at the Iron Forge.

The dinner had several options with some being more traditional than others. I started with a mushroom and hazelnut soup. I forgot to take a photo until I was halfway finished. Oops!

A turkey dinner with all of the traditional fixings was on the menu, and there are several reasons why I didn't choose it.

One reason was that I just enjoy throwing off tradition. It's not something I am able to do very often. I can thumb my nose at everyone who tells me a holiday dinner has to consist of certain foods. It's sort of like how I enjoy being an adult and no longer have to eat fish on Christmas Eve.

The other reason goes a bit deeper. My family isn't one of those families that has recipes that are totally traditional and handed down from many generations. Still, everyone in my family who has ever made Thanksgiving dinner has certain recipes that he or she likes to make. For my mother it's roasted root vegetables, sweet potato pudding, and port-ginger cranberry sauce. For me it's pecan sweet potatoes, cornbread, apple and sausage stuffing, chocolate pie - and Mom's port-ginger cranberry sauce. My grandfather loved turnips. For most of my life Thanksgiving dinner has always been prepared by one of my parents or grandparents. I have certain expectations about Thanksgiving dinner (which I don't have about Christmas since there is no consistency in what we eat for that meal in my family). I just wasn't sure how far afield I was willing to go. What can a restaurant make that my family can't? I felt that traditional turkey dinners need to be made at home.

I opted for lamb chops. These were crusted with goat cheese and dijon mustard. The crust was not too strong and overpowering as goat cheese can be and added a tasty layer of flavor to the perfectly cooked chops beneath it.

The green beans here were especially good. I know it's odd to be excited about green beans, but these were so perfectly cooked to the right level of crispness with a gentle hint of garlic about them. Kevin had the turkey dinner, which also came with the green beans and he agreed they were especially well prepared.

Dessert was a tossup for me. The apple tart with cinnamon ice cream looked good, but so did the warm chocolate cake. (The pumpkin pie was immediately dismissed as an option) Chocolate, as you can imagine, won out.

It was my husband, who is not a lover of apples, and is a lover of chocolate, who decided to go for the apple dessert.

So I'm not trashing any restaurants here. Lovell's is an excellent restaurant all around.

For a post-Thanksgiving brunch we went to the Eggshell Cafe, which I mentioned in my last Chicago post. I still love this place and I still could stare at the menu all day and still be conflicted about what to order. Since I didn't take photos on my last trip, I thought I'd share the place with you today.

The owner is a soccer fanatic and it shows in the decor.

There was a mixup in the reservation so it took a while for us to be seated. They decided to make it up to us by giving us a complementary baked apple pancake. I had been considering ordering one of these, but I'm glad I didn't as they were huge and even with the entire family sharing it we couldn't finish it.

Yum yum yum. This was the apple pie I didn't eat on Thanksgiving Day.

For my main meal I wanted to keep things light and opted for the eggs florentine. Of course my intentions to keep things light after Thanksgiving were pretty ruined by the apple pancake, but who cares? In any case, my breakfast was well prepared and was exactly what I was looking for that morning (at least in my head as my heart will always crave bacon).

But the best thing of all about the weekend was spending time with our far-flung family. I know how much it means to Kevin to be with his family and we enjoy being all together so much that we hope we can do it more often in the future.

I'm home now and ready to detox from all of the wonderful food I had this weekend. Hope everyone had a happy Thanksgiving no matter what and where they ate!


Donna-FFW said...

I appreciate the honesty in your blog.. Bet you are glad your BIL doesnt read some of the past comments you have made on my blog.. some might have made him blush.

The Blonde Duck said...

Ok, I can say this here b/c I don't think my relatives read my comments on blogs! (Hopefully) My dad's family is coming for Christmas, and we're hosting it. The past 3 months have been non-stop negotiations about eating out vs. cooking in. I pitched a fit and am cooking Christmas Eve dinner and Christmas day dinner, even though they wanted to go to a restaurant. To me, holidays are about home, traditions, family, not going to a restuarant and paying $50 a head for an overpriced steak. But to make them happy, I made reservations for a Christmas brunch and Christmas Eve breakfast and lunch.

Sue said...

You are such a rebel!!! Lamb chops?!! That should have been on your excellent list of thoughtful questions - If you couldn't have a homemade traditional Thanksgiving meal, would you just go with something completely different? We obviously know your answer.

It's so interesting. You (or I) could write a thesis on Thanksgiving food choices and what they mean. I really have to think about the question of homemade versus packaged stuff.

I guess if I were in the rainforest in the middle of the Amazon and the only thing I had was Stovetop stuffing and a Butterball turkey then, yes, I'd go for that over fried lizards and frond salad (just for Thanksgiving). But I would NEVER under any circumstances, eat mashed potatoes from a box. THAT'S going way too far.

To me, Thanksgiving IS about making stuff from scratch. That's where you show you care, although I know many people don't have the time or interest to do that and that's fine too. But just let me know and you can come to my house.

The Short (dis)Order Cook said...

Thanks everyone for your insightful comments! It's so interesting to see how everyone views T-day dinner. I can't wait till we get to Christmas!

Donna - I'd almost enjoy that! I still like to hum my version of "My Favorite Things" that I penned in honor of you.

Sue - If you have to resort to instant food, I say it's time to make something else, something you're more comfortable making - or just go out! I never realized quite how much cooking or having someone cook for me, meant until I didn't have a home-cooked Thanksgiving.

Then agian, those lamb chops were REALLY GOOD and there is something to be said for taking it easy and not having to cook a thing - or clean up!

Proud Italian Cook said...

I don't get to Deerfield that often, but next time I do I'm getting that apple pancake at eggshell! My daughter wanted us all to go out to an overpriced place in the city, fortunatly we talked her out of it!

Emily said...

Ohhh so jealous! I want to go to Chicago! Your Thanksgiving sounds wonderful. I think it would be relaxing not to have to cook anything.

I want your eggs florentine.