Thanks Be To Beige
by Jeff Lewis

One of my brothers prides himself in his ability to down multiple shots of melted butter.  Back in his waitering days, he’d brace himself for a tough customer by tossing back a few paper condiment holders full of the extra salted variety, usually reserved for the crab and lobster.  He’s got the stomach of a Norwegian cowhand; milk fat is as water to him.

That’s why I knew something was wrong with my turkey recipe, two Thanksgivings ago, when my brother slumped over in his chair midway through dinner, holding his face and mumbling, in what he later described as a “butter coma.”  Our friend Tim began sweating profusely and began to worry that he was developing hives.  Their conditions stabilized after some water and a rest, and even after the ordeal they praised the “moistness” of the meal, but it was clear that I needed to tinker with the recipe.

The next week, my poor results in a cholesterol test confirmed this notion.  I’m no lab technician and I’m not up-to-date on cholesterol theory, but extremely heavy doses of butter 72 hours before testing must have some demonstrable effect.  I don’t suppose eating fried mayonnaise-covered prawns 48 hours before the test helped much either.

The butter fiasco exposed a cooking weakness that I didn’t realize I had:  a poor grasp of hyperbole.  Let me explain.  My sister-in-law gave me excellent recipes for turkey and a rich, butter-and-cream-filled mashed potato casserole.  The instructions were very detailed, from the brining, to the hair drying, to the stock making, to the basting.  A key step was to separate the skin and the meat with a serving spoon and cram a salty, buttery, herby rub under the skin.  Before placing the bird in the oven, I covered it with a butter-caked cheesecloth, so that the turkey was virtually being fried, as well as roasted.

That was all great, except for my misinterpretation of her hyperbole.  Instead of the customary “ton”—easily understood by the dabbling Home Cook—she used the metric system.  Base ten measurement systems don’t make for good hyperbole; they are too precise.  I ask you this:  when a dish calls for “two kilos of butter,” how much do you use?  On that Thanksgiving Day, my answer was 1 ¾ pounds, which in hindsight was an odd choice.  That’s a lot of butter to jam into the skin of a fifteen-pound bird.  I compounded the problem by doubling the butter content of the mashed potato casserole, for no good reason.

Last year, I improved my technique dramatically and nobody broke out in a briny sweat.  I cooked conservatively and more or less stuck to the recipes, but I couldn’t resist adding at least one peculiar bonus dish to our menu.  My theory—and I think this is a good one—is that if you don’t have the cooking skill to present your guests with a bounty of visually pleasing dishes, you should astound them with a subtle mastery of gray, tan and beige.  I cooked the turkey to a rich tan; the gravy was greasy gray, the potatoes a soothing beige and I succeeded in turning the various ingredients of the stuffing to a nearly uniform russet shade.  To this, I added drab:

Jeff’s Drab Dish

2 cans cannellini beans
2 leeks or 1red onions, diced
3 tablespoons garlic, minced
1/3 cup chicken stock
1 teaspoon crushed dried red peppers
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup cashews
¼ cup freshly grated Romano cheese

  1. Sauté the leeks/onions in the olive oil until tender.  Add the garlic and crushed red pepper and sauté some more.  If it looks like it’s going to burn, add a little chicken stock.  If you forgot to get the chicken stock out and you happen to be drinking imported beer, pour a little beer in the pan and then look for some stock.  White wine will do, as well.  Red wine will turn the dish purple, altering the visual effect.
  2. Add the beans and cook until they’ve broken down into a starchy glue.  Salt to taste.
  3. Toast the cashews and add them with the cheese to finish the dish.  Stir it up so that it looks a little goopy.

This is a good dish that is sure to elicit a few, “Wow, that’s better than it looks!”  Try it!  It may keep the conversation off of any other dishes that you botch.

Copyright Jeff Lewis, 2004