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NEW YORK, Nov. 2 (JTA)--"My sister-in-law stuffs Thanksgiving turkeys with a matzah ball mixture," says Faye Levy, food columnist and author of 14 cookbooks. "Instead of making patties and poaching them, she cooks this tasty mixture inside the turkey."
This never struck Levy as odd, because her mother used to make noodle pudding on Thanksgiving. "Her Thanksgiving dinners were almost like Shabbat meals," she says.
One of Levy's all-time favorite dishes is Thanksgiving potato kugel with asparagus. "I first tried it at the home of a friend from Colorado," she says, explaining that it was his grandmother's recipe. "In his family, that dish was the essence of Thanksgiving."
Just as Jewish cooking experienced a revolution in America when brisket discovered ketchup, and noodle kugel met Kellogg's Corn Flakes, Jews have reinvented their recipes, giving Thanksgiving fare a Jewish accent.
Levy, author of 1,000 Jewish Recipes, has sprinkled Thanksgiving dishes throughout this enormous international compendium. Why did she feel the necessity to include American harvest fare in a Jewish cookbook?
"Because most Jews I know, whether they're Orthodox or not, celebrate Thanksgiving," says Levy. "If you think about it, Thanksgiving food is basically kosher. It's turkey, plus a lot of vegetables and bread."
Honoring the feast shared by Native Americans and English settlers in the Massachusetts colony so long ago, Jews are naturally drawn to a holiday that revolves around a meal.
While Levy grew up in home that was both Ashkenazi and kosher, like other Americans her family always ate turkey and cranberries on Thanksgiving.
"We just skipped the creamed onions," she says, referring to the Jewish dietary restriction that prohibits serving dairy with meat.
A child of the 50s, Levy has memories of her mother's candied sweet potatoes, dripping with brown sugar syrup and topped with melted marshmallows. Popular back then, this dish is still on the Thanksgiving menu in many American homes.
"I hated the marshmallows," says Levy, laughing. "They're too cloyingly sweet, even as dessert."
Recalling Thanksgivings past, Levy describes an aunt who used to mash sweet potatoes, form them into patties and fry them. Just before serving, she'd melt a marshmallow on top of each patty. Proud of this recipe, her aunt also bestowed it with a name: "Thanksgiving Latkes."
Today, Levy--a graduate of the famed La Varenne Cooking School in Paris--prefers mixing sweet potatoes with savory spices. "You can really taste the flavor of sweet potatoes through ginger and hot peppers, as opposed to mixing them with sugary foods."
With her culinary training, Levy avoids roasting really large turkeys, say over 18 pounds. She's discovered that while you're waiting for the inside to cook through, the outside often burns or dries out. You're also more likely to have problems with bacteria. For large crowds, she recommends roasting two smaller turkeys weighing about 12 pounds each.
Levy says her spiced roasted turkey recipe was inspired by her husband's Sephardi background. "This aromatic turkey is seasoned with his Yemenite family's favorite spice mixture--cumin, turmeric and black pepper," she says. This seasoning yields sensational aroma and flavor.
For extra kick, Levy serves this turkey with hot cumin sauce, which is tomato based and accented with spices. She feels exposure to her husband's Sephardi palate has given her an appreciation of piquant flavor.
As a chef, Levy is drawn to the fruits of the season's final harvest. She seeks Thanksgiving fare wherever she goes. In compiling her book Feast from the Middle East: 250 Sun-Drenched Dishes from the Lands of the Bible, she included recipes such as Iranian sweet and savory rice stuffing with cranberry toasted almonds.
When it comes to Thanksgiving food, there's no end to the possibilities one can cull from the canons of Jewish cuisine. Surprisingly, many Jewish foods are easily adapted to compliment the holiday's traditional fare.
If you have leftover challah in the freezer, try making challah stuffing, a light but savory surprise. Levy follows her mother's custom of creating contrast by introducing peppers, mushrooms and zucchini to slices of sweet challah.
Thanksgiving tzimmes augments the taste of turkey, no matter how it's prepared. Instead of the usual prunes, dried cranberries lend a colorful note to this saucy combination of carrots and pineapple.
With a crunchy crumb topping, pecan streusel pears are an easy-to-make dessert that is both sensational and pareve.
These days, Levy and her husband usually celebrate Thanksgiving with friends. Even when she's invited as a guest, she roasts a turkey to have at home. Turkeys are economical to buy in late November, and it's fun to have one to nibble on and use as an ingredient in other recipes, such as a robust vegetable soup.
"We're kind of casual about holidays," says Levy. "Whenever we get together with family and friends--even on Thanksgiving--we do a lot of pot luck. This way, one person isn't stuck cooking for a lot of people."
Sometimes this group coordinates who will prepare which dishes; sometimes they don't. Of course one person is always designated as the turkey roaster.
"After that, you can't serve too many side dishes, salads, and desserts," says Levy.
While abundance is a Thanksgiving theme, Jews were already entertaining lavishly centuries before the Pilgrims discovered Plymouth Rock.
Recipes from 1,000 Jewish Recipes, by Faye Levy:
4 cups canned pineapple chunks
2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 pounds carrots, sliced 1/2 inch thick
3-4 tablespoons honey
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
Pinch of ground cloves
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1. Drain pineapple and reserve 1/4 cup juice. Mix reserved juice with the cornstarch in a cup.
2. Combine carrots with 2 cups water and a pinch of salt in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil. Cover and cook over low heat about 12 minutes, or until just tender. Remove carrots with slotted spoon.
3. Add honey to carrot cooking liquid and bring to a simmer, stirring.
4. Mix juice-cornstarch mixture to blend. Add to simmering liquid, stirring. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring, until sauce comes to a simmer and thickens.
5. Stir in carrots, cranberries, pineapple, ginger and cloves. Heat until bubbling.
6. Season with salt and pepper. Serve hot.
Yield: 4 servings
SPICED ROASTED TURKEY
5 teaspoons ground cumin
1 1/2 teaspoons ground turmeric
1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
Salt to taste, optional
One 10-12 pound fresh or thawed turkey
About 2-4 tablespoons olive oil
About 3/4 cup chicken or turkey stock or dry white wine
1. Preheat oven to 425 F. Remove top rack.
2. Mix cumin, turmeric, pepper and salt in a small bowl. Rub turkey with olive oil. Rub it inside and out with spice mixture. Truss turkey, if desired, or close it with skewers.
3. Put turkey on a rack in a large roasting pan. Pour 1/2 cup stock into pan.
4. Roast turkey 30 minutes.
5. Reduce oven temperature to 350 F. Roast turkey 1 1/2 hours, basting with additional olive oil or with pan juices every 30 minutes. If pan becomes dry, add 1/4 cup stock.
6. Cover turkey loosely with foil and continue roasting 20 to 30 minutes, or until meat thermometer inserted into thickest part of thigh registers 180 F, or until juices run clear when thickest part of thigh is pricked.
7. Transfer turkey carefully to a large board. Discard trussing strings or skewers. Baste turkey once with pan juices and cover it. Reserve juices to add to Hot Cumin-Tomato Sauce (below).
8. Let turkey sit for approx. 20 minutes
9. Carve turkey and arrange on a platter. Serve hot, with hot cumin-tomato sauce.
Yield: 6-8 servings
HOT CUMIN-TOMATO SAUCE
3-4 tablespoons olive oil
l large onion, minced
4 large cloves garlic, chopped
2 or 3 jalapeno peppers, ribs and seeds removed and minced (See note at bottom)
Three 28-oz. cans tomatoes, drained and chopped
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/2-1 cup pan juices from turkey (optional)
2 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper, plus more to taste
1/4 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes (optional)
Salt to taste
1. Heat oil in a large saucepan. Add onion and saute over medium heat about 7 minutes, or until beginning to brown. Add garlic and jalapeno peppers and saute 30 seconds.
2. Add tomatoes, tomato paste and turkey pan juices. Bring to a boil, stirring. Add cumin, turmeric, black pepper, pepper flakes, and salt. Cook uncovered over medium-low heat 20 minutes, or until thickened to taste. Season with salt and pepper.
NOTE: Wear rubber gloves when handling hot peppers. If not using gloves, wash hands well after touching hot peppers.
12 slices stale challah
6 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 medium onions, chopped
2 red or green bell peppers, chopped
8 ounces mushrooms, chopped
4 medium carrots, coarsely grated
4 medium zucchini, coarsely grated
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
2 large eggs, beaten
1. Soak challah in water. Squeeze out water. Mash challah in a bowl.
2. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large skillet. Add onion, pepper and mushrooms and saute. Stir occasionally for about 7 minutes, or until onion begins to turn golden.
3. Add vegetable mixture to bowl of challah and mix well. Add carrots, zucchini, salt and pepper. Adjust seasonings. Add egg and mix well. Cool completely before spooning into turkey. NOTE: For safety reasons, if cooking stuffing in turkey it's important to make sure stuffing reaches an internal temperature of 165 F by testing the center of the stuffing with thermometer.
4. To bake stuffing separately, preheat oven to 350 F. Grease a 9-inch square baking dish. Spoon stuffing into dish. Drizzle with remaining oil. Bake about 30 minutes, or until firm.
Yield: 8-10 cups, about 8 servings
PECAN STRUESEL PEARS
2 pounds pears
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1/2 cup light brown sugar, divided
1 tablespoon strained fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons margarine, chilled and cut into bits
1/4 cup chopped pecans
1/2 cup rolled or quick-cooking oatmeal (not instant)--uncooked
1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
2. Peel and slice pears. Put them in a bowl. Mix cornstarch and 1/4 cup of the brown sugar in a small bowl. Add to pears. Add lemon juice and toss to combine.
3. Grease a shallow, square 9-inch baking dish. Spoon mixture inside.
4. Mix remaining 1/4 cup brown sugar with flour in a small bowl. With 2 knives, cut margarine into mixture until coarse crumbs form. Add pecans and oats. Stir lightly with a fork. Sprinkle mixture evenly over fruit.
5. Bake about 30 minutes, or until topping is golden and pears are tender. Serve warm or cool in bowls.
Yield: 6 servings