Thanksgiving Casserole

Due to a variety of travel plans, we had our family Thanksgiving dinner on Tuesday night this year at our apartment in Des Moines. It was just me, Marcia, Katelin and John, and since it was a small gathering (and since we all had a grand full Thanksgiving dinner the Sunday before at John’s mother’s house), I decided to roll out the most magical of holiday dishes again this year: Thanksgiving Casserole!

As much as I do appreciate (especially when somebody else serves it) the traditional conspicuous consumption dinner that takes hours to make, minutes to eat, and then leaves days worth of leftovers behind, when it’s just two, three or four of us together for the holiday, I’ve decided that it’s really not worth the time, effort, and calories. I’ve written here before about the wonders of casseroles (which are known as Hot Dish where Marcia’s from), and (without patting myself on the back too much), I do consider this one to be the end-all and be-all of the idiom.

I embraced Beverly Mills’ and Alicia Ross’ Desperation Dinners rubric in its construction, noting that not everything has to be made completely from scratch to be delicious, and that well-deployed packaged foods can be just fine, so long as they aren’t the sole anchors of a family’s diet all the time. I also, of course, ensured that there were no grease group violations here, by eschewing any water group foods that might be perceived as Thanksgiving staples belonging in such a casserole, e.g. the jiggling log of canned cranberry sauce that sits on the table and serves as comic relief for the dinner, much as fruit cake does at Christmastime. Do not want! No no no!

I mentioned the great success of this year’s Thanksgiving Casserole on a web forum I frequent and was asked for the recipe by one of the few other Americans there. I hadn’t really ever written it down before, so while it’s still fresh in my mind, I record it now for posterity’s sake, and so I don’t have to recreate it the next time I have need for it. Here’s how it goes, for the permanent record:

1. Make the stuffing first: I used one standard bag of cubed Stouffer’s herb stuffing, and prepped it per the directions: melting four tablespoons of butter in a big pot, adding two cups of chicken broth, bringing it all to a boil, then folding in the stuffing cubes and tossing until they are all moist. I then added one bag of Jimmy Dean turkey sausage crumbles to the mix, and set it aside. (The sausage crumbles were a new product this year and worked well; in the past, I have browned and crumbled about 12 ounces of Jimmy Dean bulk sage sausage in a separate skillet and then folded it in).

2. Butter up a deep casserole tray. Ours is a 13″ x 9″ by 2.5″ ceramic one and the quantities described here filled it perfectly. Pour in and press down half of the stuffing mix to cover the bottom of the tray. Next layer: one 16-ounce container of Bob Evans’ traditional mashed potatoes. Heat per instructions, then layer atop the stuffing mix. I then put a little bit of gravy (I used low fat bottled turkey gravy) and a little bit of shredded cheese atop that, to melt into and flavor the potatoes. (Note: the shredded cheese must be orange, and of a variety that can found at a typical gas station convenience store; don’t try to foo-foo up the casserole with fancy pants products, in this or any other step).

3. Next layer: Turkey. I got a pound and a quarter of Boar’s Head hickory smoked honey turkey breast, sliced thin, from the deli. I then diced it into small pieces and spread it evenly atop the mashed potato layer.

4. Next layer: Mac and Cheese. I used a box of standard sized (not the family sized) Velveeta Queso Blanco Shells. Make it per the box instructions, and layer it all smoothly atop the turkey.

5. Final layer: Drain one 15 ounce can of white shoe peg corn and mix it in with the other half of the stuffing mix. Spread this evenly atop the mac and cheese layer. Then use a piece of parchment paper to cover the whole thing and press down to get the casserole dense and of consistent depth, so it will bake firmly and hold its shape when cut. With the parchment paper still in place to absorb moisture, I put the casserole tray cover on top of the whole thing and put it in the fridge to set for a couple of hours before baking.

6. Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees. Remove the parchment paper, and bake the casserole covered for about 45 minutes. Then remove the cover and bake for another 20-30 minutes, until it’s bubbling nicely around the edges and looks browned on top. Sprinkle more shredded cheese atop the casserole and broil it for a couple of minutes to melt/brown the cheese. Remove from oven and let it set/cool for about 5-10 minutes before serving so it firms up even further. Cut into squares and serve, with the remainder of the bottled gravy (warmed) as a side to be poured on top of each square.

Then eat! It is really tasty and hearty, and it seems to create manageable portions in ways that the giant table full of 10 different dishes never can. It fed four of us comfortably at dinner, with two good-sized squares leftover for lunch the next day. We served it with a side of green beans (not the casserole, just regular beans), and then Marcia made her wonderful pumpkin praline pie for desert. The casserole took me about an hour to assemble, plus baking time. Marcia’s pie took about the same amount of time investment. Clean-up for everything took less than 15 minutes. Everybody was happy and sated, rather than bloated and tryptophan-shocked. We still had great dinner conversations, we still were thankful for what we have, we just didn’t have to start a crash diet the next day. Perfect!

Here’s looking forward to the next time I get to trot it out. If you’re inclined to try it yourself, let me know. We can start a club! Or a movement! Or a cult!

Here’s the casserole as it came out of the oven, before being cut into squares.

And here it is cut into squares to serve, layers exposed. Delicious! Like a White Trash Lasagna! Yum!

Space Madness

Marcia had a work conference last week, and I had work in Charlotte Monday and Tuesday this week, so I decided to head down to Florida for a few days of warmth with her before returning to the dreary Midwestern weather last night. Rather than staying at her conference hotel when her meetings were done, we decided to head over for a couple of nights in Cocoa Beach, on the Atlantic Coast. For folks our age, if we know anything about that seaside community, it’s likely the fact that it was the fictional home of Major Anthony Nelson (an astronaut) and Jeannie, from the deliciously cheesy television program, I Dream of Jeannie.

As we were headed up to our room on Friday night, we noticed a schedule of events in the elevator, and there was a paper sticker on the very date of our arrival showing a cartoon rocket. I pulled out my phone and, hurrah, was pleased to discover that SpaceX was, in fact, launching a mission that very night, at 245am. When we arrived in our room on the seventh floor, I happily noted that our private balcony was aligned in such a way that we had almost a straight-shot view of the pad where the Falcon Heavy rocket carrying a Dragon supply ship to the International Space Station would be launching. Double hurrah!

We set alarms and went out on the balcony at the appointed hour, and like clockwork, got to watch (and hear) my first orbital launch ever:

If you know me well, you know I’m a hardcore space nerd, so this was a real treat, and a great appetizer to our already planned Saturday adventure to visit Kennedy Space Center, where I got to snap a selfie at the business end of the mighty Saturn V Rocket.

Marcia also snapped me with my second favorite of all possible rockets, the Titan-Gemini stack.

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Back-tracking a bit, Marcia had work meetings during the days in Orlando while I was there, and I also had a night alone there as she flew out on Sunday, and I didn’t head to Charlotte until Monday morning. So I spent the time making friends, as one does:

I also got to embrace my inner redneck with a visit to my favorite greasy spoon destination in the world, for some delicious carbs and fats.

The business part of my trip to Charlotte was great, too. A board meeting and a research workshop at the Bartlett Research Labs, a glorious location near the area where my Dad was born and raised. We had wonderful fellowship and got a ton of work done with good people in an amazing setting. Win, win, win, win and win, with thanks to Bartlett for hosting us.

In closing, if you don’t know the source of the title of this post, you need to watch the following video, perhaps the finest fifteen minutes of animation ever created for television. It was life-altering the first time I saw it, early one Sunday morning sitting in a hotel room with an infant Katelin, trying to find something amusing to do while Marcia was trying to sleep in. I do not think all of my tearful laughter helped the situation on that front, but Katelin and I did have a new favorite cartoon series for many years afterward, so a reasonable trade-off, I think.

Thanksgiving Rules of Decorum

The extended Smith-Duft clans will be gathering in Beaufort, South Carolina today to give thanks and then eat ourselves into food comas. It’s been quite some time since all of us have been together in the Low Country that spewed us forth, so I sent the following “Thanksgiving Rules of Decorum” out as a refresher to remind everyone how we roll at this most gluttonous of gatherings. Here’s hoping your family traditions result in similarly successful results.

1. Gristle may be sucked off bones at the table, but cracking bones to remove the marrow must be done in the kitchen.

2. If there are no pets in the room to blame, all flatulence must be held until such time as a particularly funny joke is told, and the accidental emission adds to the mirth.

3. The tube of cranberry sauce is a decoration, not a food. No touching!

4. You must clear your plate of all objects put upon it before beginning round two. Even stuffed tomatoes.

5. You may only hide peas within a roll if there enough rolls to ensure that everyone else gets as many as they want. If rolls run out, you must eat your pea filled roll before you leave the table.

6. No matter how you hold the fork, it is wrong. If anyone chooses to notice this fact, you must skip a round and look contrite while others eat.

7. Discussion of bodily functions should be reserved for the pause between main course and desert. Comparisons of bodily functions to objects on the table may result in a fork mishandling penalty and forfeiture of dessert rights.

8. If someone disappears for more than 90 seconds, everyone at the table must loudly enquire as to their whereabouts, and whether everything is okay in there.

9. No additional butter is required on the Stouffers Mac and Cheese, unless it touches anything green and you need to offset the effect of the vitamins and minerals.

10. You may not take the hambone out of the green beans and pass them on without taking at least six beans, and not hiding them in your roll. You may elect to butter them before eating.

Iowa Caucus Day 2016: Resource Guide

Marcia and I moved to Iowa a little over four years ago, at the peak of 2012’s caucus season. Within a month of our arrival, Marcia was interviewed and quoted in an internationally-syndicated Reuters article, after we attended a candidate rally on a whim. So we learned first hand that it’s easy to have your say in public when you live in a small state with a vast media enterprise descending upon you.

Marcia’s quote in the Reuters interview was thoughtful and balanced, but that’s not the norm, frankly, especially in hotly contested races like those unfolding now. A lot of the quotes coming out of Iowa lack balance as voters and campaign flacks attempt to sway others to their cause, and many other quotes coming out of Iowa lack thought because politics is primarily a gut sport in many areas of the State, like football, or deer hunting. Reaction and reflex matter more than deliberation and discourse, especially under the media’s unrelenting kleig lights — which many thoughtful voters are repelled by, even as they draw the most reactive voters into their beams.

By the time I left Iowa, I reached the conclusion that the caucuses are bad for America. That being said, were I still in the State, I would be participating tonight, because I consider voting to be a civic responsibility of all citizens, regardless of how I feel about the process. Marcia (who still works out of Iowa and has maintained residency there) and Katelin (who lives and works there full time) are planning to caucus tonight, so I hope they enjoy the evening and I look forward to hearing about it from them. The media army in Des Moines is largely based in the same building where Katelin works, so she’s getting to really see it all up close and personal. That’s an experience, if nothing else.

I wrote a lot about Iowa while I was there, with many of my pieces being tongue-in-cheek explorations into some of the State’s unique cultural habits and history. One of those articles — Iowa Geography: An Introduction — has recently gotten a bit of renewed online traction after Molly Ball of The Atlantic re-tweeted it a couple of time for her followers.

So in a spirit of helpfulness to those of you who may be either wondering a bit about, or wandering about a bit, of Iowa today, here are a few other articles that may help you get what’s going on, and why:

Iowa History 101

Why Iowa First?

Danny Allamakee’s Iowanfero (Cliff Notes Version)

Best Iowa Films

Universal Iowa Recipe

Des Moinsk, Iowaberia

Iowa Ranking Roundup

Popular Iowa Cocktails

Popular Iowa Wines

Great Iowa Novels

Great Iowa Music

The Iowa Decathlon

The Dinner

Alma rose at dawn to make the biscuits,
kneading lard into the baker’s flour,
rolling sheets and cutting discs for baking;
it took her just a bit more than an hour.

At which point, Alma turned to make the stuffing:
sausage, cornbread, broth and butter, nuts.
She pulled the neck and gizzard from the turkey,
(which, with the heart, she thought the sweetest cuts).

She filled the bird and stitched it tight for roasting,
then with a jar of cloves, she dressed the ham,
and pressed the honey from the comb she’d purchased,
to sweeten up her famous candied yams.

While collards stewed in bacon fat and bullion,
Alma snapped the beans and okra too,
then shucked the corn, (the Silver Queen she favored),
which, paired with shrimp, went in her Frogmore Stew.

By sunset, Alma’s work had been completed,
the family blessed their meal on bended knees.
An awkward silence followed, ‘til her son said
“How come there ain’t no Stouffer’s Mac an’ Cheese?”

*****

A poem I wrote in 2010, resuscitated on this day of feasting and thanks. It has an autobiographical slant: when my sister and I were young, Thanksgiving dinner at my grandparents’ house always featured a family-sized tray of Stouffer’s Macaroni and Cheese, which pleased us more than any of the “from scratch” things Grannies would make for us. It was such a food talisman for us that on the evening of our father’s funeral, as we struggled to find something to provide comfort, we made a tray of Stouffer’s and sat on the kitchen floor and ate the whole damned thing ourselves. Nothing else as comfortable as that.

These days, our Special Smith Family Thanksgiving Food Tradition is a sweeter one: Marcia’s Pumpkin Praline Pie, which combines the best features of both standard pumpkin and pecan pies in one deluxe pile of unmitigated goodness and joy. Om nom nom nom nom!! Katelin and my mother are in Chicago with Marcia and I for the holiday, and we’re currently in that digestive hiatus period between the main meal and the big wonderful pie-shaped food narcotic event to come. The Kool Whip is thawing . . . soon, oh soon!

We all have many things for which to be thankful, most especially the opportunity to spend time together as an extended three-generation family in our wonderful new home in Chicago. Here’s hoping that the holiday has delivered goodness to you and yours as well.

 

2016 Iowa State Fair Improvements

The State Fair is the largest gathering of human beings in Iowa each year (though we’re still out-numbered seven to one by the hogs), and it truly is one of those “you have to see it to believe it” types of experiences. That being said, you can always make a good thing better, so The State Fair Trust will be rolling out the following improvements to make the 2016 edition the biggest and the bestest and the Iowa-est-est edition ever:

  • Open Carry Night: first 10,000 admissions packing visible heat receive commemorative shoulder holsters, available in either Hawkeye or Cyclone colors.
  • Caucus Candidate Octagon Death Matches will be staged in the new Joni Ernst Castratorium.
  • Pole dancing is officially qualified for its own “Varied Industry” booth.
  • An animatronic Terry Branstad will greet visitors at the Iowa Craft Beer Tent.
  • The Sheep Barn will be replaced with the Rhino Barn.
  • The Des Moines Register’s Tattoo Pavilion will provide free tramp stamps with each validated Fairgrounds parking ticket; no henna here, but real, permanent ink!
  • Cannibal Corpse and Insane Clown Posse will headline at the Grandstand for East Side Night.
  • All food booths will offer cheese-wrapped, bacon-filled, batter-dipped, deep-fried Cavatelli de Burgo. On a stick.
  • There will be Big Boar rides at the Kid’s Activity Center.
  • A Lion’s Den Adult Entertainment Pavilion will be located adjacent to the Campgrounds.
  • The Sky Glider has been turned into a thrill ride by increasing its speed ten-fold and requiring running mounts and dismounts.
  • The Butter Cow has been replaced with an anatomically correct Butter Bull.
East Side Night in the Grandstand.

East Side Night in the Grandstand.