On my way north from New York, my brother and I hit bad traffic on the Merritt Parkway, which somehow ended in a discussion about where we should eat. I usually don't stop at all on the four hour drive to Massachusetts, but I also usually drive alone. This time, with night approaching and my stomach forging a convincing argument about stopping for dinner, I took my brother's advice and took at detour in New Haven.
Now, he claims that he didn't really know how to get to Frank Pepe's, home of Connecticut's best pizza. I remember the details differently. Regardless, we drove around on New Haven's convoluted one way streets for 45 minutes before we found the Italian district. By then, we were famished and slightly opposed to waiting in line behind yuppies buying pizza. We made a decision to take ours to go, convinced in part by the cankle-y and cantankerous waitress who barked at us to wait outside. Twenty minutes later, a pierced pizza attendant slashed our pie (half-mushroom, half-pepperoni) into odd-sized slices and we hit the road again. With no napkins.
Let it be known that I have driven without a seatbelt, have texted while driving, and have, in my youth, made other unsafe driving decisions, but deciding to drive three hours while eating a hot pizza--pizza that dripped down my shirt and onto my expensive jeans--may have been my most hazardous driving decision yet. Imagine negotiating the road, a manual transmission, and a drippy mushroom slice simultaneously. Not good. But what was good, and well worth the hazard, was the dough, giving slightly at the tooth. And my brother and I, perhaps inspired by all good American road trips, ate all but two small pieces of our large pie, furiously fighting the resultant food coma. It was the all-American lead in to the all-American holiday.
As for the holiday itself, I reigned in my over-preparatory impulses this year, sticking to basics. Appetizers may have still been over-the-top (I judge this by the amount of leftovers amassed), but no harm, no foul. My six-cheese American artisanal platter from Murray's went over well enough, even if I did find myself with too much Rogue River Blue afterwards.
Our first-course spread included sauteed jumbo shrimp with a parsley pesto (nuts omitted), a giant pickle plate (made from New York greenmarket veggies: Tokyo turnips, red ball radishes, carrots, fennel, celery, shitake mushrooms, Asian pears, pumpkin, and cucumbers), Broadbent ham with red-eye gravy and whole-grain bread, pork dumplings with a soy-ginger dipping sauce, miniature muffins from my mother, pate from Stinky Brooklyn, and a concord grape compote and fennel-pumpkin grain mustard to accompany the cheeses.
I brined a 25-pound turkey in brown sugar, salt, water, green peppercorns, rosemary, thyme, oranges and lemons. We basted with butter and the result was a brown and moist bird, one of the prettiest I've seen. Our roasted Brussels sprouts were not as charred as we would have liked, but they went over well enough. We always make too much cranberry sauce (an old family recipe), but my brother can eat it by the bucket. Caramelized onions were a modest hit. My mother made mashed sweet potatoes with sauteed apples. Pureed butternut squash and mashed potatoes came from the homes of others. Stuffing was our greatest accomplishment: three loaves of bread disappeared in minutes. The secret: Two and a half pounds of mushrooms, fresh sage/rosemary/thyme, and four or five ounces of rendered chicken fat. Even cooked outside of the bird, it tasted poultried enough.
For dessert, I used a Martha Stewart recipe for a pumpkin pudding, but the recipe, I later discovered, was wrong, requiring too much salt. The end product was a savory custard, so to cut the saltiness, I made a cocoa bourbon whipped cream and layered three inches of it atop the pudding in a trifle bowl. Family members brought chocolate farm cakes, a blueberry pie, a fruit tart, a winter fruit pie with walnut crumb topping, a cheesecake, and brownies, in addition to the butterscotch blondies baked by my mother. We're swimming in dessert here. I'm ready to go home to escape the sugar shock.
And so, I'll be dragging home some leftovers this afternoon, in addition to a lovely gift given me by a farmer friend who works at Russell Orchards: pickled dilly beans, summer squash with turmeric, blueberry jam, and apple butter. Not to mention three dozen farm cakes. So much for dieting through the holidays.
Frank Pepe's Pizzeria
157 Wooster Street
New Haven, CT 06501
143 Argilla Road
Ipswich, MA 01938