My Uncle's Kitchen

I stepped onto the blonde hardwood floor in they foyer of my Uncle’s townhouse on a fall day in 2010 and the past met the future. I was hit with a rush of nostalgia from the seemingly familiar warm smell — home? — and yet it was all so foreign. I hadn’t been in his company for more than 20 years and now here I was, moving into his house.

Voices and the clang of pots and pans emanated from the kitchen straight ahead of me. Pensively, I walked forward. As soon as I crossed the threshold into the kitchen’s golden light, they greeted me with loud boisterous hello’s. Uncle Ed, my father’s youngest brother, and Annie, their cousin on their mother’s side.

Annie was making tzatziki. Ed was putting the organic roaster chicken, whole, on a bed of carrots and onion in the Dutch oven, a recipe I’ve since made many times — Uncle Ed’s Easy One Pot Chicken and Stock. I collected a lot of those recipes from him in that first four months I crashed at his house in Rockville, Maryland, while I looked for my first apartment in DC.

My uncle and I had last seen each other when I was three years old. Families do funny things. In my family, the funny thing is not talking to each other. In my early 20s, after college and divorce took me away from the nuclear family I’d grown up with, I started looking for family members I hadn’t seen since I was pounding around barefoot in diapers. Ed was one of the last connections I made. I must have been saving the best for last.

We rebuilt our bond right in that kitchen, scooting behind each other across the yellow tile floor, dodging hot pans and sharp knives, and laughing over dropped vegetables and smoking turkeys. The first Thanksgiving I spent with him and the rest of my father’s siblings was formative, to say the least. It formed a new tradition, and a big chunk of the new me. It taught me that traditions can be born at any time in life, and when old traditions are lost, you might just be creating space for something so wonderful you couldn’t have even imagined.

***

We have some ground rules at my family’s Thanksgiving. Come one, come all, but leave the condensed cream of mushroom soup at home. Please.

There must be antipasti — we are Italian. At least some quick-pickled mushrooms, beet salad and roasted red peppers. Absolutely NO marshmallows on the sweet potatoes, but there must be sweet potatoes. What IS green bean casserole anyway — we’re pretty sure it’s not real food and there’s no way we’re making it. You can bring cranberry jelly but I’m making fresh cranberry sauce and I’m putting brandy in it. And despite any forethought or planning, the stuffing is made with whatever we feel like throwing in, likely some apples and parsley — but it must be curly parsley — all at the last minute, in the heat of the mad dash to finish all the dishes.

And somehow, as if it is a rule in itself and despite the promises made ahead of time, I always find myself alone in the kitchen hollering for help when the turkey is just about to finish. Someone has gone to take a shower, others are chatting and catching up, all the rest of the side dishes are waiting in the warming drawer and I’m trying to whisk gravy with one hand and sauté off the brussels sprouts with the other. And I could not be happier.

By the end of it, when we’re ready to serve, I look to my Uncle Mike and say — without words — that I am ready for a big glass of wine. When I relax into the deep pleasure of watching everyone eat I get a divine, soul-stirring shiver and remember the things I am truly most grateful for.

***

As much as I love feeding people, I can’t in good conscience feed them crap, for lack of a better word. In reconnecting with my family I also gained entry to a new world, the world of eating well. That’s yet another way it was a formative experience for me, the food and wellness blogger who will all to gladly remind you to eat your organic vegetables.

Every year since then, I make a few things that are not part of the traditional Thanksgiving menu in every house. They’re vegan. I sneak them in and no one knows any better until someone pipes up about how good the gravy is and I shout, IT’S VEGAN. I’m like that mom who hides broccoli in brownies. Just kidding. No really, how do you do that?


R E C I P E S //

Traditional Recipe: Mashed Potatoes

New Tradition Edition: Mashed Cauliflower

Why it’s better: Cauliflower is lower on the glycemic index. It’s also a cruciferous veggie, so it has all the benefits of something like broccoli. Not hating on potatoes, but why not get more — maximize your nutrients. Mashed cauliflower is also acceptable for folks on paleo, GAPS and specific carbohydrate diets. Bonus, you can freezerhack it (for more on freezerhacks, visit my blog).

Mashed Cauliflower

Serves 8 (let’s be real, it’s Thanksgiving, double it)

Ingredients

  • 2 heads of cauliflower, trimmed and chopped into florets
  • 4 Tbsp coconut oil
  • 1 t salt (truffle salt if you’re fancy)

Instructions:
Steam or boil the cauliflower until soft. Drain well. Puree in the food processor or blender with coconut oil and salt until smooth. Can be made ahead and reheated.
 


Traditional Recipe: Gravy with Pan Drippings

New Tradition Edition: 2-Ingredient Mushroom Gravy

Why it’s better: It only has 2 ingredients… There’s no roux, no timing the whisking right, no worrying about if the sheen is glossy or too gloopy. Just simmer, puree, and it’s done. And it’s vegan, gluten-free and dairy-free. Mic drop.

2-ingredient Mushroom Gravy

Serves 10-12

Ingredients

  • 1 box mushroom stock
  • 1 onion, quartered

Instructions:
Bring the onion and mushroom stock to a simmer in a saucepan. Simmer until onion is soft. Blend until smooth. Can be made ahead and reheated. Optional add-ins include sauteed fresh mushrooms and white wine.


Traditional Recipe: Sweet Potato Casserole

New Tradition Edition: Smashed Sweet Potatoes with Citrus Zest

Why it’s better: Um, because no marshmallows? Because you can actually taste the potatoes. Because orange and cinnamon are the absolute perfect combination. I could go on, but just make them.

Smashed Sweet Potatoes with Citrus Zest

Serves 8

Ingredients

  • 6 large sweet potatoes
  • 2 Tbsp coconut oil
  • 1 Tsp cinnamon
  • 1 orange, zested

Instructions:

Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Line a baking sheet with foil. Optionally, slice the potatoes Hasselback-style-ish. Rub with coconut oil. Bake for 40 minutes to an hour, until soft enough to smash but still stay relatively intact. Sprinkle with cinnamon and orange zest to serve.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Laura D'Alessandro is a food blogger, journalist and editor who recently relocated from DC to LA to soak up the sunshine and all those wellness vibes.