Growing up I didn't like Thanksgiving. It had the scratchy feeling of a Sunday: there was a visit to church, wearing dress-up clothes, nothing to do except eat a big meal, and a certain tension hanging about the house which I now realize was my mother, a woman who doesn't really care for cooking, stressing over having to produce Thanksgiving dinner.
By the time I was in high school I had begun to ask why, if you were going to build a whole holiday around a meal, would it be turkey? I didn't dislike turkey, I just didn't feel turkey was exciting enough to be such a focal point.
I tried to talk my family into alternate Thanksgiving meals. Rib roast with Yorkshire pudding? Lobster? Lasagna?
I got nowhere.
Sometime after this I read about Calvin Trillin's campaign to make spaghetti carbonara the national dish for Thanksgiving. A man after my own heart.
Over time my periodic bouts of trying to convince my family to change their Thanksgiving customs became more modest.
Fifteen years ago when I met my best friend, a woman who grew up on a small tobacco farm in Lunenberg County, Virginia, and learned that her family's Thanksgiving menu always includes turkey with cornbread stuffing, potato salad, macaroni and cheese, and greens I lobbied to incorporate some of it in my family's Thanksgiving menu. I tried to talk Mike into potato salad instead of mashed potatoes and one year even made potato salad in addition to mashed potatoes. It was not an idea that caught on.
I'm still not excited by turkey but over the years I've come to feel differently about Thanksgiving.
I love the feeling of coming downstairs in the cold house by the thin light of early morning to be greeted by smells already wafting up from the warm and brightly lit kitchen thanks to my early-rising husband. I love seeing our house filled with people. I love the fact that across the country millions upon millions of people are cooking variations on the same meal. On religious holidays we go our own way, but Thanksgiving is something that we all have in common.
And of course, I love how centered Thanksgiving is around cooking a meal.
This year we are going to a friend’s house for Thanksgiving and are only responsible for a few side dishes. One of the things I’ll be bringing is Laurie Colwin’s Creamed Spinach with Jalapeno.
I'd never heard of Laurie Colwin when I picked up a copy of Home Cooking from a remainder table at a bookstore sometime in the early 90s, but I immediately loved the small book of essays and recipes. Her writing was straightforward and simple, her voice vivid, opinionated, friendly, and funny. If you’ve never read her before, I can not recommend Home Cooking and her second book of cooking recipes, More Home Cooking, enough.
This recipe is one I’ve cooked many, many times over the years. My version is somewhat changed and streamlined from the original. Instead of evaporated milk which is something I never have in the house I use a mixture of cream and milk or just cream or just milk. In the original recipe, the spinach and cheese sauce mixture is put in a casserole, covered with buttered breadcrumbs and baked for 45 minutes. I never thought that baking the spinach for that long did anything for it other than turn it olive green so I have stopped doing that. The original recipe also uses celery salt which is something I don't keep in the house so I never have. If you'd like to see the original recipe Bakerina has it here. (She also has a wonderful post about Laurie Colwin; Bakerina is a fabulously talented writer and this is a post well worth reading.)
Laurie Colwin’s Creamed Spinach with Jalapeno Peppers
3 10-oz boxes of chopped frozen spinach
2 tablespoons of finely minced onion
1 garlic clove, finely minced
4 tablespoons of butter
2 tablespoons of flour
1/2 cup heavy cream, or a mixture of milk and heavy cream
8 oz of pepperjack cheese, in small pieces
additional chopped pickled jalapenos (optional)
1. Cook the spinach according to the package directions. Drain the spinach well (I sometimes squeeze it dry in a tea towel - the drier you can get it, the better the cream sauce will coat the spinach) reserving 1 cup of the drained spinach liquid. (I emphasize this because more than once I haven’t remembered that I needed the spinach liquid until after I had dumped it down the drain.)
2. In a saucepan, melt the butter and sauté the garlic and onion until they are translucent. Whisk in the flour a little at a time and when it’s fully incorporated cook it just a little bit longer before you start adding the spinach liquid a little at a time while whisking. When you’ve added the spinach liquid, whisk in the cream or the cream and milk mixture, then the cheese. Whisk until it is melted and the sauce is smooth. Add salt and pepper to taste.
3. Add the drained spinach to the cheese sauce and cook long enough to heat the spinach. If you are adding additional peppers, add them now. (I usually don’t.) Taste for seasonings, then serve.
Serves 10 to 12
To borrow a phrase from Laurie Colwin, you now have “a side dish fit for a visiting dignitary from a country whose politics you admire.” Or for feeding your nearest and dearest at the Thanksgiving table.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!
P.S. If you're still looking for Thanksgiving recipes, here are a few from my archives: