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Foraging for a Feast: Lauren Chattman’s Thanksgiving Dinner

Posted on 24 November 2009

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For folks in most parts of the country, shopping for Thanksgiving dinner means a trip to a mega supermarket where everything from soup to nuts can be found in endless aisles, loaded into a giant cart and trundled out to an oversized SUV in an oversized parking lot.

Convenient, perhaps… but inspiring? Hardly.

Luckily, here on the East End, nature’s bounty provides a good deal of sustenance that doesn’t come pre-packaged and shipped cross-country to a shelf near you. And last Thursday, Sag Harbor’s Lauren Chattman set out to collect some of that bounty for her own Thanksgiving table.

A pastry chef by training, Chattman has authored several cookbooks, including “Mom’s Big Book of Baking.” She also writes a blog, “Sag Harbor Days,” in which she documents the objects, events and food stuffs she comes across during her daily forays in and around her favorite hometown. Chattman’s husband, Jack Bishop, is the executive editor of Cooks Illustrated magazine and a cast member on the PBS series “America’s Test Kitchen.” He has also written several cookbooks.

As you can imagine, food is a big deal in this household. There are 12 guests scheduled to show up for Thanksgiving dinner, and Chattman sets out — list in hand — with some definite ideas about what she’s after.

When it comes to Thanksgiving, a certain amount of family tradition can’t help but wander its way onto plates of the next generation. For Chattman, it’s the Jewish specialties her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother excelled at, including kishka (a.k.a. stuffed chicken necks), which were a cherished favorite. Chattman recalls that her grandmother saved chicken necks for a year so everyone in the family could have one — and only one — kishka (no outsiders need apply).

“We never had any vegetables — other than a tray of pickles,” says Chattman. “Jack was like, ‘What is this?’ He does the veggies and can’t understand it. We didn’t have stuffing either.”

Times change and so do family traditions. There are now lots of vegetables (and stuffing) on Chattman and Bishop’s Thanksgiving table, and while there won’t be kishka, there will be a savory noodle kugel. Another change in tradition is men in the kitchen on Thanksgiving.

“Jack is in there with me,” says Chattman. “He’s into it and he does a lot. He’s good at it. It’s a lot of work, but he’s been working with Cooks Illustrated recipes so long, he has his favorites.”

“One of the nice things about my Thanksgiving day is it’s mostly girls in my family,” adds Chattman, who has two daughters. “There’s no football. Jack surreptitiously goes upstairs to check the score. My dad was always yelling from the living room, ‘five more minutes.’”

Chattman’s list of Thanksgiving ingredients includes butternut squash, granny smith apples, celery root, fennel, sweet potatoes, green beans and Brussels sprouts, cheddar cheese, blue cheese and olives. Stops will be made at several of Chattman’s favorite purveyors, all within a few minutes drive of Sag Harbor  — Bette and Dale’s “Under the Willow” farmstand on the Sag Harbor Turnpike, Falkowski’s “Country Gardens” on Scuttle Hole Road, Cavaniola’s Cheese Shop and Channing Daughter’s Winery, where she’s decided on the Ramato, a coppery-colored Pinot Grigio that is purportedly well matched with turkey.

“I also want to stop at Bayburger. My daughter has this idea to make an ice cream pie with their pumpkin ice cream,” says Chattman, who likes the notion, mainly because she doesn’t care for the genuine article. “I never liked pumpkin pie. I think it’s spongy and gross. But pumpkin ice cream is like a custard. We thought we could make a graham cracker crust. Maybe she’ll add some caramel sauce on top.”

Of course, the key ingredient of this week’s meal is turkey. Though wild turkey is in season locally for hunters this week for the first time in living memory, Chattman is not about to go out and shoot her own, thank you very much. Local’s great, but there are limits.

“I’ve never had one, but Jack said they are more gamey — like geese — and with much more dark meat,” says Chattman, an unabashed fan of white meat.

Instead, a quick call to Cromer’s Market to place a turkey order (organic, fresh) does the trick. Perhaps not raised exactly on the East End, but close enough.

“I’m not a local fanatic, because it’s hard to do, but I do try,” says Chattman, who also has a trip to the big supermarket scheduled for later in the week. “People expect it of me. What I really try to do is go where I like to shop. I love Cromer’s and think it’s the most unlikely place to love. It’s so strange. But the butchers have never failed me there, I’ve ordered a turkey there every year.”

And when it comes to prepping that turkey, that’s where her husband comes in.

“Jack’s thing is the turkey,” says Chattman. “He always brines the turkey — Cook’s Illustrated has a Thanksgiving day protocol we must follow. A cooler with salt water — we pick up the turkey on Wednesday so it can soak.”

“That’s what makes the commercial turkey good looking,” she says. “It’s shot up with saline solution. The salt makes the turkey absorb some of the water. So it’s juicy.”

Also looking good are the vegetables at Country Gardens. It’s hard to believe winter’s just around the corner and buying local has been particularly easy to do this year. The warm fall means there is still a bountiful selection — squash and Brussels sprouts, apples, green beans and beautiful purple and white cauliflower, so Chattman peruses the options to round out her menu.

Ultimately, it’s apparent that the true beauty of shopping local is the intimacy of the experience. At the farmstand, Chattman asks what she should buy now, because it’s the last of the season, and what she can likely still pick up in a few more days. At “Under the Willow” Bette talks about this year’s growing and selling season, and notes that while there are still greenhouse lettuces, in another week or so, she and Dale will head west to Arizona for winter. At Cavaniola’s, Chattman gets recommendations from Michael, the owner, while she samples the Stilton and shares the fact that one of her Thanksgiving guest’s doesn’t eat cheese — hard for anyone who loves that store to imagine. And at Channing Daughters, winemaker Chris Tracy sends her home with two loaves of bread made with yeast from the winery’s fermented grapes. In many ways, like those Thanksgiving traditions we cling to, shopping local is a throwback to an earlier time and something people who only frequent supermarkets don’t even realize they miss.

But times have changed, and Chattman is a working mother with a major deadline fast approaching. And though she’s stressed out about it, like generations of mothers before her, she is going the extra mile to make Thanksgiving special for her family.

“I enjoy it and I want to make it nice for the kids,” says Chattman.

Luckily, she has a husband who loves food as much as she does. On Sunday, Chattman updated her blog to read,  “I’m working, so my husband took the long list and went to King Kullen….”

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