A Cajun Christmas dinner in Tennessee
by Gay Lyons
I just ordered my first turducken. More precisely, CajunCreations.com describes my turducken as “the younger cousin” of the full-size turducken, created from a turkey, a duck and a chicken. The duck goes inside the chicken, which goes inside the turkey. The layers are surrounded by stuffing in one of two flavors: cornbread and creole pork rice dressing or shrimp and crawfish dressing. Since a full-size turducken feeds 15 to 20 people, I ordered a turducken roll, a boneless turkey breast stuffed with layers of duck, chicken and creole pork sausage, which serves six to 10.
Stuffing birds into birds is a fairly ancient technique, but no one knows who came up with this particular combination of fowl. Chef Paul Prudhomme claims to have invented it, a hotly disputed claim, but many give Prudhomme credit for popularizing the dish. John T. Edge, Director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, says turducken is “a fairly exotic meal that has gone mainstream,” pointing to the fact that his father recently bought a frozen one at a Sam’s Club in Macon, Ga.
I feel constrained by the traditional Thanksgiving menu, the same dishes year after year, but since I humor my family’s preferences at Thanksgiving, they return the favor at Christmas, allowing me some yuletide culinary fun. The Christmas tradition at our house is to do something different every year. This year’s it’s turducken.
We’ve had steak, fish, duck, pork loin and beef tenderloin with tons of different side dishes. I haven’t cooked a goose yet, but that possibility comes up periodically. I’d be happy with a vegetarian feast, but we have a couple of confirmed carnivores in the family, so I haven’t gone there. We’ve had a Greek meal, an Italian meal, an Asian meal and a Middle Eastern meal. For the Asian meal, I briefly entertained the notion of making fortune cookies, complete with my own witty fortunes for each guest, but my saner side prevailed. Note: If you’ve ever wondered how fortune cookies get into that distinctive shape, it involves draping the dough across a spoon at a crucial point in the process.
Last year we had comfort food. I made meatloaf using my favorite recipe, one that calls for lots of fresh parsley, dried tomatoes and shredded provolone cheese. The loaves are hand molded into oval loaves on baking sheets rather than pressed into a pan, and the result is actually elegant and Christmassy—lots of red and green with flecks of white. We had carrot soufflé, which was such a hit that it appeared at this year’s Thanksgiving dinner. And I made my famous stuffed potatoes. Scooped-out potato is mashed with milk, salt and pepper, blue cheese—lots of blue cheese—strips of fresh spinach and sliced scallions. The empty potato skins are re-stuffed, topped with more blue cheese and baked at 350 until the cheese is melted and a little browned.
Sometimes we play “Stump the Cook,” which means I take requests from the crowd, which is how we happened to choose turducken this year. Someone asked if I could make one—and maybe I could, but we’ll never know because I decided to rely on Cajun Creations, a company that specializes in authentic Louisiana cuisine and gifts. My turducken should be on a Fed Ex truck by tomorrow.
What do you serve with turducken? I consulted a couple of Cajun and Creole cookbooks—Alex Barker’s Cajun and Creole Cooking and Tony Chacheres’ Cajun Country Cookbook —and did some Googling in search of inspiration. After some consultation with the experts, here’s this year’s menu: barbecued shrimp with sweet pepper remoulade, gumbo, crusty bread, red beans and rice, slow-cooked collard or turnip greens and baked sweet potatoes and leeks. I might even fry up some hushpuppies. I’ll end with bananas foster and treat bags of pralines.
A local columnist recently told of her son’s request to have shrimp creole for Christmas dinner. Her response was that there are things you do and don’t serve at Christmas dinner, and shrimp creole was not going to be on the menu. Maybe I should add it to my menu and tell him to come on over to my house for some seasonal anarchy.
Whether you serve turkey, ham, turducken or shrimp creole, try Alex Barker’s recipe for baked sweet potatoes and leeks, a wonderfully savory vegetable dish:
Preheat oven to 350. Trim and wash two leeks and slice into rounds. Peel and slice two pounds of sweet potatoes. Layer leeks and potatoes in a well-buttered ovenproof dish. Beat three eggs, one and a fourth cups milk, four tablespoons heavy cream, two cloves crushed garlic and salt and pepper to taste. Pour evenly over sweet potatoes and dot with butter. Sprinkle with paprika and nutmeg. Scatter a handful of chopped scallions over the top. Bake uncovered for about an hour, until the potatoes are tender and the top golden brown. Check it occasionally. If the top starts getting too brown, cover the dish with foil.