When I worked at Angelica Kitchen these middle weeks in November were always the busiest and most productive time. Although we began planning our annual 5-course Thanksgiving menu way back in August, as the days counted down, the reservations streamed in and the deliveries piled up—taking every bit of space available in the restaurant, it was around now that the various pieces began to come into focus.
Since the planning began in late summer, we’d be able to talk to farmers about what vegetables we wanted to use so they could plant for us accordingly. On any given year we might need enough radicchio for 300 salads or multiple cases of Japanese turnips to pickle for the famous pickle plate. The bottom line was that the menu had to be finalized by October 31st so that our customers could see it and book their tables.
Deciding on the two mains that would be offered on the menu was the first step and always the most involved. Being a farm to table vegan restaurant, we looked at all that was available from our vast number of purveyors: mushrooms, heirloom beans, herbs, dried chilies, wine and traditionally harvested corn products before deciding on a direction for each main course. Then the next challenge was to create one gluten-free, one mushroom free, one prepared without wine, one without nuts, one without corn and one without squash. We also wanted each Thanksgiving menu to be different, and hopefully better than the one the year before…all while keeping in mind we had to be able to produce enough of these meals to serve the hundreds of customers who came to celebrate Thanksgiving with us every year.
I would spend hours preparing an array of different dishes for the initial tastings, and then we’d narrow it down from there. Once the two mains were decided we could move on to deciding the soups, an appetizer, a salad and the three desserts, and lastly what would be served as guests were seated.
Although certain components of some courses like pickles and infused oils needed to be made well in advance, in order to prepare the actual meal, a team of us would work from 6 am up until 10 or 11 pm at night for 3 days before the Thursday of Thanksgiving. We’d then begin well before dawn on the day, after the overnight prep chefs had left our long lists completed. Along with all the prep for the Thanksgiving meal, we also continued to cook the 2 daily specials, soups and desserts plus the regular menu right up until Thanksgiving.
It was an intense week (to say the least!) and a steady build up to the 11 am staff tasting where we presented the 5-course meal. The tasting was the first time we’d see all the dishes together. And, it was a big hurdle to get over, as it was many weeks since we’d seen some dishes plated. It’s near impossible to taste anything after so many days sampling dozens of flavors, hours standing over 20 gallon pots of rich bubbling stocks and checking the balance of pie spices in 200 pounds of roasted pureed squash for the 30 plus pumpkin pies we needed to bake and cool in time for service, but you try!
After the tasting we’d get strait back to the kitchen with many more things added to our lists and only moments to tweak any of the menu items. As the first seating approached, wait staff got busy in the dining room organizing reservations and setting tables with linen napkins and fresh flowers. In the kitchen, we got ready for the first rush of orders beginning precisely at noon—the telephone ringing off the hook with take out orders, requests for last minute reservations and questions about the menu.
On one particular Thanksgiving, I recall someone calling in the midst of the morning rush to ask about a recipe in The Angelica Home Kitchen cookbook that they were preparing for their own Thanksgiving dinner. I could feel my mind go numb as I scrambled to find space in it to process what the distraught person was explaining. Somehow I managed to clear my thoughts enough to answer their questions before returning to the task at hand, fretting about the amount of each main we’d made and whether or not they would last the day. Predicting what people would be in the mood for eating was always a test on our physic abilities. In the end, it was just safer to make extra….our worst fear was running out of one choice and disappointing customers who had planned a month (some even a year) in advance to share Thanksgiving with us.
Ultimately, once things got going it felt like a dance, with everyone moving in time and any potential stumbles miraculously prevented. I would stand back periodically and although exhausted, enjoy the flow of activity and all those months of planning and preparation paying off.
I worked Thanksgiving for 5 years in a row at Angelica and will never forget the mood in the kitchen these weeks building up to and of course the crazy-busy morning of Thanksgiving. Even now, I love to stop in a couple of days before the big day to see the kitchen alive and full of the enticing and unmistakable aromas of the delectable meal to come.
I hope this gets you in the mood to cook!
Beautiful photography is courtesy of Stephen Johnson.
Roasted acorn squash with beluga lentil, mushrooms and chestnut filling.
This dish is inspired by a combination of my favorite main courses that we prepared when I worked at Angelica Kitchen. If you are still looking for a rich and tasty plant inspired (vegan) Thanksgiving dish, I thoroughly recommend this. The filling can be made up to two days in advance and heated on the stovetop while the squash roasts. It can also be served as a side by cutting the squash into quarters and ladling the filling over them. Either way it’s a lovely celebration of warming fall flavors.
Here I roasted enough squash to serve 6 people but the filling will be enough for up 8 to 10 squash. I used scarlet runner heirloom beans in the filling; if you can’t find them you can replace them with any creamy large bean. Also feel free to replace the beluga lentils with French lentils—for some reason mine looked the same brown color after being cooked.
1 cup beluga lentils, soaked overnight for 12 to 24 hours
2 inch piece kombu
8 bay leaves
Extra virgin olive oil
1 rounded cup peeled pearl onions or small shallots
8 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon chopped thyme, plus more sprigs to garnish
1 tablespoon chopped sage, plus more whole leaves to garnish
1 tablespoon chopped oregano
1 tablespoon chopped rosemary
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons red wine
3 tablespoons mirin
2 teaspoons tamari
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 ½ cups cooked heirloom beans, I used scarlet runner
1 cup cooked chestnuts, halved
1 pound crimini mushrooms, quartered
½ pound shitake mushrooms, sliced
1 tablespoon kuzu
Freshly ground black pepper
3 small acorn squash
Extra virgin olive oil
Make the filling:
Drain and rinse lentils. Place in a medium pot and cover with 1 inch of filtered water. Add kombu and bay leaves and bring to a boil, cover pot lower heat and simmer 30 minutes or until soft. Remove from heat and set aside.
Warm 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add pearl onions and a pinch of salt and sauté for a couple of minutes. Cover pot, reduce heat to low and cook 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Once onions are cooked through and browning, add garlic and all the herbs; sauté for a few minutes or until garlic is golden.
Strain lentils, reserving cooking liquid and add to the pot along with 1 ½ cups of the reserved lentil cooking liquid. Add wine, mirin, tamari and balsamic vinegar. Bring up to a simmer, add cooked beans and chestnuts and allow to cook while you sauté the mushrooms.
Warm a wide skillet over medium heat, add enough olive oil to generously cover the pan and add half of the crimini mushrooms and a pinch of salt. Allow the mushrooms to brown before stirring; this takes a minute or two. Remove from heat and add to lentil mixture. Repeat with remaining crimini, before removing from heat. Add some thyme leaves and sage leaves. Stir until herbs are wilted, then remove from heat and set aside. Cook shitakes in two batches the same way; adding half to the lentil mixture and cooking the other half with herbs and adding to the reserved criminis.
Taste the lentils and season with salt and pepper. Cover pot and continue simmering for 20 to 30 minutes or until ready to serve.
Roast the squash:
Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.
Cut each squash in half lengthways. Scoop out seeds and some flesh if the cavity is small. Slice a little off the side of each squash so that they can sit flat when serving. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Rub squash with oil and turn over to face cavity down. Roast for 30 to 35 minutes or until cooked through and squash is browning. Remove from oven and place on a platter. Fill with lentil mixture and scatter reserved sautéed mushrooms over the top, sprinkle with black pepper and serve warm.
Print recipe here.