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Thanksgiving Dinner Deja Vu? Try French Food This Year

As you're thinking about this year's Thanksgiving menu, you might be feeling a bit bored. Green bean casserole? Been there. Turkey and stuffing? Meh. Pumpkin pie? Cliché.

We were looking for a little Thanksgiving inspiration, so we reached out to culinary legend Patricia Wells. The veteran restaurant critic and cookbook author has been teaching French cooking for nearly two decades in Paris and Provence.

Wells gave NPR's Rachel Martin some suggestions on how to put a French twist on this very American holiday. These dishes are from The French Kitchen Cookbook, Wells' latest collection of recipes and chef's tips.

Spicy Thai Pumpkin Soup with Crab And Cilantro

In lieu of pumpkin pie, try this soup, ripe with flavors of citrus, ginger and coconut.

8 servings

Equipment: A blender or a food processor; 8 warmed, shallow soup bowls.

3 shallots, peeled and finely minced

2 tablespoons Thai yellow curry paste, preferably organic

3 tablespoons grated fresh ginger

1 pound (500 g) pumpkin or butternut squash, cubed (or 2 cups; 500 ml canned pumpkin puree)

One 28-ounce (765 g) can peeled Italian plum tomatoes in juice

3 cups (750 ml) Homemade Vegetable Stock or Homemade Chicken Stock

1 cup (250 ml) coconut juice, preferably organic

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime or lemon juice

1 tablespoon Vietnamese fish sauce, preferably Red Boat brand

7 ounces (200 g) fresh crabmeat

Fresh cilantro leaves, for garnish

  1. In a large saucepan, combine the shallots, curry paste, and ginger and cook over low heat until the shallots are soft and the mixture is well combined, 2 to 3 minutes. Set aside 1 tablespoon of the mixture for garnish.
  2. Add the pumpkin, tomatoes (with juices), and vegetable or chicken stock and simmer, covered, for 15 minutes or until the pumpkin is tender. Transfer to the blender or food processor and puree.
  3. Return the mixture to the saucepan and add the coconut juice. Stir to blend. Bring back to a simmer. Stir in the lime juice and fish sauce.
  4. Place several tablespoons of the crabmeat in the center of each soup bowl. Pour the soup all around the crabmeat. Garnish with the reserved curry-ginger mixture and a sprinkle of cilantro leaves.

Make-ahead note: Complete the recipe through step 2. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. Complete at serving time.

Patricia Wells was a restaurant critic at the <em>International Herald Tribune</em> for 27 years. Her other works include <em>The Food Lover's Guide to Paris</em>, <em>Patricia Wells at Home in Provence</em> and <em>Simply French</em>.
Jeff Kauck / Courtesy of HarperCollins
Courtesy of HarperCollins
Patricia Wells was a restaurant critic at the International Herald Tribune for 27 years. Her other works include The Food Lover's Guide to Paris, Patricia Wells at Home in Provence and Simply French.

Seared Duck Breast with Fresh Figs and Black Currant Sauce

Duck makes a rich, juicy alternative to turkey.

4 servings

Equipment: A warmed platter; 4 warmed dinner plates.

16 fresh figs

2 fatted duck breasts (magret), each about 1 pound (500 g)

Fine sea salt

Coarse, freshly ground black pepper

1/2 cup (125 ml) best-quality balsamic vinegar

1 cup (250 ml) crème de cassis (black currant liqueur) or black currant juice

  1. Stand each fig, stem end up, on a cutting board. Trim off and discard the stem end of the fig. Make an X-shaped incision into each fig, cutting about one-third of the way down through the fruit.
  2. Remove the duck from the refrigerator 10 minutes in advance before cooking. With a sharp knife, make about 10 diagonal incisions in the skin of each duck breast. Make about 10 additional diagonal incisions to create a crisscross pattern. The cuts should be deep but should not go all the way through to the flesh. (The scoring will help the fat melt while cooking and will stop the duck breast from shrinking up as it cooks.) Season the breasts all over with salt and pepper.
  3. Heat a dry skillet over medium heat. When the pan is warm, place the breasts, skin side down, in the pan. Reduce the heat to low and cook gently until the skin is a uniform, deep golden brown, about 3 minutes. Carefully remove and discard the fat in the pan. Cook the breasts skin side up for 10 minutes more for medium-rare duck, or cook to desired doneness.
  4. Remove the duck from the skillet and place the breasts side by side on the warmed platter. Season generously with salt and pepper. Tent loosely with foil and let the duck rest for at least 10 minutes, to allow the juices to retreat back into the meat.
  5. In a small saucepan, combine the vinegar andcrème de cassis and warm over low heat.
  6. In a saucepan that will hold the figs snugly, arrange them tightly in a single layer, cut end up. Pour the warm vinegar mixture over the figs and cook over low heat, basting the figs with the liquid, for about 3 minutes.
  7. Cut the duck breasts on the diagonal into thick slices, and arrange on the warmed dinner plates. Spoon the sauce over the duck slices, and arrange the figs alongside. Serve.

Wine suggestion: Almost any good southern Rhône red would be perfect here. Cassis is an overriding flavor in the wines of the region; try the Côtes-du-Rhône-Villages Cairanne from the Domaine de l'Oratoire Saint Martin, the Réserve des Seigneurs, loaded with the spice of red and black currants as well as kirsch.

Variation: Substitute cherries for the figs and cherry eau-de-vie for the crème de cassis.

Smashed Potatoes

This cross between mashed potatoes and potato pancakes is particularly appropriate this year, as Thanksgiving coincides with the first day of Hanukkah.

4 servings

Equipment: A steamer.

1 pound (500 g) firm, yellow-fleshed potatoes, such Yukon Gold (each about 4 ounces; 125 g), scrubbed but not peeled, halved lengthwise

5 plump, moist garlic cloves, peeled, halved, and green germ removed

4 large fresh summer savory or thyme sprigs

2 fennel frond sprigs

2 tablespoons duck fat or unsalted butter

Fleur de sel

Coarse, freshly ground black pepper

  1. Pour 1 quart (1 l) of water into the bottom of the steamer. Add the garlic, summer savory, and fennel sprigs and bring to a simmer over moderate heat. Place the potatoes, cut side down, on the steaming rack. Place the rack over the simmering water, cover, and steam just until the potatoes are fully cooked and can easily be pierced with the tip of a knife, 12 to 15 minutes.
  2. Place a clean dish towel on a work surface, cover it with plastic wrap, and set the cooked potatoes on top of the plastic wrap. Spread another piece of plastic wrap over the potatoes. Smash each potato gently with the palm of your hand to burst it open. Each potato should still maintain its shape.
  3. In a large skillet, heat the duck fat or butter over medium heat. Brown the potatoes until firm and golden, 3 to 4 minutes per side. Season with fleur de sel and pepper. Serve warm.

Intense Chocolate Custards with Nibs

Chocolate isn't a traditional flavor for Thanksgiving desserts, and that's a real shame. This dessert is so deeply chocolatey, a very small serving will satisfy even the most committed chocoholic.

8 servings

Equipment: A double boiler; a baster; eight 1/4-cup (65 ml) vodka or shot glasses.

5 ounces (150 g) bittersweet chocolate, such as Valrhona Guanaja 70 percent

3/4 cup (185 ml) light cream or half-and-half

2 tablespoons (30 g) unsalted butter

Fleur de sel

About 1 tablespoon chocolate nibs (see Note)

  1. Break the chocolate into small pieces.
  2. In the top of the double boiler set over, but not touching, boiling water, heat the cream and 1/4 cup (60 ml) of water just until warm. Add the chocolate pieces, stirring until the chocolate is melted. Add the butter and stir to melt and combine. Spoon the mixture into the glasses. (I have found that if you use a baster to "pipe" the chocolate into the glasses, it is less messy.) Refrigerate until firm, about 20 minutes.
  3. At serving time, sprinkle with fleur de sel and chocolate nibs.

Make-ahead note: The custards can be prepared up to 3 days in advance, covered, and refrigerated.

Note: What are nibs? Chocolate nibs are pieces of cacao beans that have been roasted and hulled. Nibs taste faintly similar to roasted coffee beans. They have a great crunch, a slightly nutty flavor, and a pleasant touch of bitterness.

Wine suggestion: I love to serve this treat with the chocolate-friendly, sweet Banyuls reserve wine from Domaine La Tour Vieille in the Languedoc. With its touch of spice, hint of chocolate, and overtones of raspberry, what could be a finer partner for a chocolate dessert?

Recipes from The French Kitchen Cookbook: Recipes and Lessons from Paris and Provence by Patricia Wells. Copyright 2013 by Patricia Wells Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Harper Collins.

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