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Holiday Feature Basting with Wine or Vermouth? Why Not? It’s Better Than Buttah!

November 21, 2001
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

I have a guilty pleasure that is both fat-free and legal.

Every November, I gobble up cooking magazines, especially photos of seasoned turkeys surrounded by glistening vegetables and antique breakfronts displaying fruit fantasy desserts. Imagining the feast I’ll prepare for Thanksgiving, this year I am mesmerized by magazine cover story come-ons, such as “Turkey & Trimmings”

Although Thanksgiving is the quintessential American holiday, the one that unites people of all faiths, traditional Thanksgiving fare is not user friendly to Jews who follow the laws of kashrut. Butter is the biggest culprit, the ingredient found in the majority of recipes, the one that clashes with the large dome of a turkey on the harvest table.

Most recipes suggest basting the bird with butter, bathing yams in butter and whipping mashed potatoes with butter – – and milk. The flakiest pie crusts depend on butter, too.

I first realized that observant Jews are sometimes leery of Thanksgiving through Kurt, the darling gentleman whose jewelry store my husband, David, and I once frequented. On Jewish holidays David, a liquor importer, gave him bottles of kosher wine from Israel. Kurt was forever grateful, and as we chatted I often noticed warmth in his eyes and cold blue numbers tattooed on his forearm. Auschwitz had claimed two years of his youth.

One November in the 1980s, I brought Kurt a broken watch to fix. He said it would be ready on Thursday.

“But that’s Thanksgiving,” I explained.

“I forgot,” he said smiling. “My family doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving.”

I asked what he had against America’s favorite holiday.

“The food,” he said. “It’s not how we eat.”

I wondered if he was referring to the sugar overkill, to soft mounds of melted marshmallows sweetening candied yams, but I suspected he was talking about butterfat flanking the turkey. It saddened me that he missed the pumpkin fest that I looked forward to all year.

While Kurt comes from a Polish village, I am a fourth-generation American who had grown up during the fifties in a wooded suburb of Manhattan.

There were no synagogues in town. My parents worked hard at shedding their Jewish identity and assimilating with their neighbors. Yet they raised me to treat older people — especially Holocaust survivors — with respect, which is why I hesitated to challenge a man as old as my father. Without sharing my feelings about the holiday, I did as Kurt suggested and picked up my watch the day after Thanksgiving. The following fall, he suffered a stroke and I never saw him again.

Looking back, I wonder why I didn’t offer him the Thanksgiving recipes I’d been honing for years.

These recipes are not simply margarine knockoffs of buttery dishes featured on glossy magazine pages, but call for ingredients finer than oleo. Although I did not grow up in a kosher home, my mother favored margarine, which as a child I viewed with suspicion because of its shiny plastic appearance. I was not surprised decades later when news broke that hydrogenated vegetable oil is an artery clogger equal to butter. It was time to seek substitutes for fat.

In my quest I began basting turkeys with white wine, or better still, with the complex essences of dry vermouth. This yields a bird that is crisp on the outside yet moist and tender on the inside. It goes without saying that kosher turkeys are the freshest tasting birds on the market. Their skin is sufficiently fatty and doesn’t require additional greasing. Should the skin brown too quickly, simply tent it with aluminum foil. But I have to admit that whenever I tackle a turkey, its roasting time varies as greatly as the arrival of Jewish holidays — either late or early, never on time. I’ve learned to hurry up or slow down side dish preparation.

I find the simple bouillon cube to be a lifesaver. When it comes to stuffing, a marriage of broth and bread is superior to its oily competition. The best stuffing arises from homemade or bakery-bought bread. Stuffing composed of challah is lighter than air. Check your freezer for stray slices because a conglomeration of different breads spawns prize-winning results.

Broth plus the creamy texture of roasted garlic creates fluffy, deeply flavored mashed potatoes. Be careful though to avoid over beating potatoes; their starch quickly turns gluey.

My candied yams are a dish that is truly inspired. Their rich syrup derives from a medley of fat-free ingredients. People continually request the recipe. My cranberry pear cake is both sweet and tart. The secret to this moist cake is safflower oil, which is light and nearly transparent. A dash of brandy brings out the best of its seasonal fruit.

Thanksgiving dinner is the ultimate line up of comfort foods, and a bit of comfort is badly needed after the horrific events of this fall. Gathering with family and friends for this late autumn festivity is an opportunity to appreciate this country’s bounty, honor our American heritage, and share a fabulous meal, all Jewish sentiments at heart.

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