Sunday afternoon, as we crested the top of the little mountain in whose shadow I grew up, I began to cry. Packed into the car with a box full of food, Jordan, SueBea (my lovely mother-in-law), and I began the descent into the valley I will always call home.
Thanksgiving will find us in Pennsylvania, feasting with our family there. So Sunday brought us to my grandmother's house and to a table surrounded by those I hold most dear. The absence of one person, though, was deeply, unshakably felt. This is our first holiday without Grandpa. My worthy grandmother has claimed her place at the head of the table. Perhaps it is a statement of her position as matriarch of the family. I think, though, that it is her way of being near to the man she spent nearly 70 years of her life with, the one she misses so much.
There are few days in the year I feel so deeply connected to the place I call home and to the people I call family. Something about Thanksgiving, though, always draws my awareness to the ties that nothing has ever been strong enough to sever. The blue mountains still rise up before us, casting over us a comforting shadow. Gusts of wind still tumble down their sides, through the woods, across the fields. And, year after year, my little family gathers together around the table and shares space and food and silence and laughter. And, though Grandpa will no longer be physically present, he lives on in our memories and longings and even in our flesh.
This year, I have the privilege of sharing that kind of space and entering into that connectedness with three groups of people. Friday night, I basked in the glow of candles and creatives at Renee's real-life Friendsgiving. Sunday, I feasted with my family. And, Thursday, Jordan and I will be in a home full of people who love us and whom we love and whom we see far too infrequently.
Ultimately, I believe deeply that the power of the day lies in the food itself, and in the gathering together to share and delight and be satisfied. I hope that, sometime this week, you find yourself sitting at a table, however large or small, with someone you love, with someone with whom you are connected. Happy Thanskgiving, lovely people.
A simple, decadent dish that begs for quality ingredients -- locally grown butternut squash and kale, butter churned from the milk of happy cows, pure cream, artisan salt.
Butternut Squash and Kale Gratin
5 tablespoons butter, room temperature and divided
1 yellow onion, diced
1 red onion, roughly chopped
5-6 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
8 sage leaves, 3 leaves finely chopped the remainder left whole
1 cup heavy cream
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 tablespoon lemon zest
1 medium butternut squash, peeled and very thinly sliced*
1 bunch Lacinato kale, stems removed and roughly chopped
2 cups grated Parmesan cheese
1 cup bread crumbs
JQ Dickinson salt, to taste (or another quality coarse salt)
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
*I highly recommend using a mandolin to slice the butternut squash.
1) Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a large cast iron skillet or a baking dish. Set aside.
2) Heat 3 tablespoons butter over medium heat. Add onions and sauté for 5-7 minutes, until translucent. Add garlic cloves and finely chopped sage leaves. Sprinkle lightly with salt and a dash of black pepper. Sauté for 3-5 minutes longer, until aromatics are soft and fragrant.
3) In a small, heavy-bottomed and non-reactive sauce pan, heat cream, 5 whole sage leaves, nutmeg, lemon zest, a generous pinch (or two) of salt and a hearty sprinkle of black pepper over medium heat. You'll want to warm the cream until it begins to foam a bit but does not boil. Reduce heat and allow to barely simmer for 5-10 minutes, until fragrant. Remove from heat and set aside.
4) In the prepared skillet or baking dish, lay down a layer of butternut squash. If you were able to get very thin slices, continue adding squash slices until there are two or three layers. Cover with kale and top with the onion and garlic mixture. Add a third of the cheese. Repeat three or four times, until you have used all of your squash and kale. Finish with a layer of butternut squash.
5) Remove the sage leaves from the cream and pour over the gratin. The amount you will need may vary depending on the size of your squash. You will want the cream to touch the bottom layer, but not submerge the whole gratin.
6) Cover with foil or a lid and bake for 25-30 minutes. Use a knife with a thin blade to check the squash for doneness toward the end of the time. Once it has softened, remove the covering and sprinkle with the remaining cheese, top with breadcrumbs, and dot with small pats of butter. Return to the oven for 15-20 minutes longer, until butternut squash is softened entirely and the bread crumb topping is crisp and golden brown.
7) Finish with an extra sprinkle of salt and black pepper. Allow to cool for 10 minutes before serving.
Some dishes, some occasions, some moments bring our attention to the power of those things we consider ordinary.
Salt. The marvelous seasoning we carelessly flick into dish after dish, missing entirely it's potential, it's unmatched ability to elevate and deepen the flavors of even the simplest foods.
I was recently introduced to J.Q. Dickinson salt. As a child of Appalachia, this salt, harvested from an ancient sea trapped below the mountains of West Virginia, is a source of pride and a means of connection to my place in the world. All natural, sun- and mountain breeze-dried, and utterly, breathtakingly rich, this is my home, manifested in salt.
I can't invite you to my table or take you for a walk in the mountains this Thanksgiving, but, thanks to the good folks at J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works, I can send you a little taste of mineral-rich, hand-harvested, Appalachia-sourced salt. Enter to win below.
My friend and inspiration, the lovely Renee of Will Frolic for Food, invited a coterie of food bloggers to a virtual table for a Friendsgiving potluck. We're all sharing recipes and giving away J.Q. Dickinson salt. See them and (enter to win more of this divine salt): The Faux Martha / The Bojon Gourmet / Bread and Barrow / Broad Appetite /Dolly and Oatmeal / Dunk & Crumble / Earthy Feast / Ginger and Toasted Sesame / Glazed and Confused / Hummingbird High / Lexi’s Clean Kitchen / London Bakes / One Part Plant (i.e. jessicamurnane.com) / The Pancake Princess / Food Loves Writing / Heartbeet Kitchen