Every newspaper in America runs a column on Thanksgiving wine. Understandable. It’s generally a meal with six to ten guests for which people plan at least a week in advance. Moreover it’s largely the same meal in 50 million American homes and restaurants. Pinot Noir, Gewürztraminer, Beaujolais Nouveau, White Zinfandel ~ all the usual suspects get trotted out for one more turn in the spotlight. I mean really… How hard can it be? We are talking about turkey. Not the most challenging match on the planet.
I’ve probably written 30 of those columns. So you’ll forgive me if I choose here to go in a somewhat different direction.
1. Serve a seasonal crab hors d’oeurve. One of the unique highlights of any culinary year in San Francisco is opening of local Dungeness crab season. It occurs in mid-November, usually after some period of financial wrangling between the fishermen and the distributors; thus very close to Thanksgiving. There is no local season during the summer, although frozen crabs still arrive at high prices from Alaska. So Thanksgiving is the first chance in six months to get live crab for about one-third the summer price. Live crab, incidentally, makes a huge difference. Frozen crab meat is mushy. If strands of Dungeness crab muscle get caught in your teeth, such that you need a toothpick after the meal, you know the crab was fresh. Nothing could be more logical in Northern California than to make fresh, live crab part of your family’s traditional Thanksgiving appetizer.
Explore supermarkets in the Asian district of large towns. They will have live Dungeness crabs in aquaria. You can steam the crabs, just as you might a lobster. Then you clean them, and serve chilled at your convenience. I find it easiest for guests to eat if I cut a zipper up each leg with poultry shears. The legs can then be set out by themselves (or with a little melted butter) for guests to sample as they arrive. I take the meat out of the bodies myself. I stir that meat with a small amount of mayonnaise and lemon juice. I spread that mixture on finger-food-sized wedges of sourdough, and heat them under the broiler in the oven.
The perfect wine match with these Thanksgiving crab appetizers is an aged, cold-climate Riesling. An eight- to fifteen-year-old Kabinett or Spätlese from the Mosel Valley in Germany would be my first choice. That might take a little shopping. Query Corti Bros in Sacramento or K&L in San Francisco if you get hung up. Certain California producers have good candidate Rieslings, but you’ll probably have to lay a few bottles away yourself to end up with the aged examples I recommend. Try Madroña in El Dorado County or Greenwood Ridge in Mendocino’s Anderson Valley. What we’re looking for is taut acid balancing a couple percent residual sugar. The acid is refreshing, and the sugar reaches out to the perceived sweetness of the crab. The age factor confers a slight dried fruit character to the aroma of the Riesling. It’s somewhere between apricot and nectarine, but faintly nutty; a good match with the melted butter or the heated bread.
2. Small adjustment to make a luscious Chardonnay work well. If you do jewel yams (the dark orange ones) with your turkey meal, I suggest serving them on a grilled slice of pineapple. That single maneuver will make them sing with a modestly priced Chardonnay from California’s Central Coast. This is such a good combination that even canned pineapple works, but fresh is better. If grilling on a BBQ seems a bother, just sauté the pineapple with a little butter in a skillet. When you plate the dish, put a generous serving-spoon-load of yams on top of each pineapple slice. Find a Chardonnay from Monterey or from Santa Barbara in the $20 to $25 range. Don’t serve it too cold. What you’re looking for is that rich regional fruitiness. Twenty minutes in the door of the refrigerator will be more than enough chill.
3. Dessert can be very special. Pecan pie with an Australian Liqueur Muscat is a match made in heaven. That doesn’t mean pumpkin pie is disqualified. People will still eat a big piece of pumpkin pie. But 2 oz. of Liqueur Muscat with a square inch or two of pecan pie will be the jewel in your dessert crown. A single half-bottle of Liqueur Muscat is all you will need. Look for brands like Bullers, Chambers, Campbell’s, or even Yalumba. Half-bottle should cost around $15 to $18.
The wine is made in the hot Rutherglen region of northern Victoria, along the Murray River. Muscat de Frontignan grapes get fully ripe, then are slightly fortified in the manner of Port. The wine is aged for many years in wood casks kept in hot warehouses. Water evaporates, concentrating the wine to a caramel or toffee flavor with just a hint of Muscat’s floral fragrance. A tiny amount of treacle-like old wine will have a distinct effect on the nose even when blended with a large quantity of young wine. The result is sweet, but with complexity so intense that residual sugar shrinks into the background. A small serving lasts a long time in one’s glass. And pour it into big glasses, or even into snifters. It really is all about the smell.
4. What are you serving for the rest of the Weekend? Turkey sandwiches can be dramatically invigorated with a little Hoisin sauce. This dark brown paste (Asian food section of any chain supermarket) is made from fermented beans. It has a very high umami taste component, which is a glutamate reaction. That makes your sandwich much more flavorful and savory ~ perfect to match up with a hearty, although not overly alcoholic, red wine. I’m going to suggest a moderately aged Barbaresco. Melt a couple pieces of Gruyere cheese on a slice of light rye bread. Put a little mayo and Hoisin on another slice of light rye. Maybe a little sweet onion, like Walla Walla or Vidalia. Turkey between the two dressed pieces of bread, lettuce as desired, and away you go.
It’s not that you sneer at tradition. You are merely open-minded.