How to prepare a Thanksgiving feast with French and Californian twists

Cookbook author Georgeanne Brennan, shown in her Winters kitchen, will add to her Thanksgiving table “a fresh fennel soup with smoked trout served over a large crouton.”
Cookbook author Georgeanne Brennan, shown in her Winters kitchen, will add to her Thanksgiving table “a fresh fennel soup with smoked trout served over a large crouton.”

In her century-old Winters farmhouse, Georgeanne Brennan sat at her oak kitchen table, surrounded by French and California memories. Awards and antique prints dotted the sunshine yellow walls. French herbs and spices along with well-used tools sat ready on the butcher block island, itself a part of local history.

The acclaimed author and expert on all things Provençal took a break from her hectic pre-Thanksgiving schedule to reflect on her travels and talk about food, her favorite topic. She has been extra busy promoting her latest cookbook/memoir, “My Culinary Journey: Food and Fêtes of Provence” (Yellow Pear Press, $27.50, 208 pages), released Nov. 15. The following day, her next cookbook, “La Vie Rustic – Sustainable Living in the French Style” (Weldon Owen), was due to be printed and she rushed to finish proofing its 300-plus pages.

This Thursday comes the “easy” part: She’s making Thanksgiving dinner for 14. Of course, this California feast will have a French accent.

“I always like to do something new,” Brennan said. “There’s the center of the traditional (Thanksgiving), but with something a little different.”

This year, it will be a fresh fennel soup with smoked trout served over a large crouton, she said. “That’s my extravaganza.”

Her feast features a roast Branigan turkey, she said. “I always do a combination of cornbread and bread crumb stuffing with walnuts and dried fruit – apricots, raisins, pears – plus fresh herbs from the garden – thyme, rosemary and sage. I make cranberry relish with the recipe off the bag; boiled with sugar until jelled.”

Traditional mashed potatoes and giblet gravy will be joined by a leek gratin plus roasted Brussels sprouts (her daughter-in-law’s contribution), crispy broccoli and a big garden salad of home-grown greens. Dessert will be pumpkin cheesecake, apple pie and a walnut-almond tart.

“We always start with Champagne and appetizers,” she added. “The French always start with Champagne.”

The appetizers should be familiar to any boomer, Brennan said with a smile. “I make that old-time recipe for crab mold with celery and mushroom soup plus a clam dip with ruffled potato chips. Everybody expects it.”

Maybe not from Brennan. Author of 30-some cookbooks, Brennan has won both the James Beard Award and the International Association of Culinary Professionals’ Julia Child Cookbook Award for her writing. Like Child, she helped make French cuisine more accessible to American cooks.

“(‘My Culinary Journey’) is sort of an extension of my memoir, ‘A Pig in Provence,’ but with recipes and photos plus additional fêtes and festivals,” Brennan said. “It’s the French approach to the holidays, very experiential and very much about food.”

Seven regional festivals are featured in “My Culinary Journey,” ranging from the fishermen’s feast celebrating bouillabaisse to a winter fête for truffles.

Brennan, who grew up in Laguna Beach, first experienced France as a college student, living abroad her junior year. She returned in 1970 with her first husband, Donald Brennan, and then-toddler daughter, Ethel. They bought a farmhouse, goats and pigs with the dream of making small-batch goat cheese.

After two years and many lessons learned, they returned to Northern California to take teaching jobs. Each summer, the family went back to Provence. Georgeanne and Donald eventually divorced, but she kept up her French sojourns. “My Culinary Journey” is dedicated to Donald, who died in 2014.

As for her Provençal adventures, Brennan still owns a home in France. For several years, she taught cooking classes to vacationing Americans at a restored 17th-century convent in Haute Provence.

Her French experiences also inspired her lifestyle company, La Vie Rustic. Launched in 2014, the online marketplace specializes in food and gardening products with a decidedly French feel and sensibilities. Ranging from lavender-infused sea salt to heirloom flower seed mixes, they represent small pleasures with the taste and scent of Provence. Her White Bean and Winter Savory Soup Kit ($28) was selected for Sunset Magazine’s holiday gift guide.

Brennan still lives the life she writes about, splitting time between farmhouses in Winters and Provence. Both places flavor her food and work.

“I didn’t know anything about it until we met,” said Jim Schrupp, an agronomist and Brennan’s second husband. “It was all new to me.”

Fruit trees including a hedge of Meyer lemons surround their Winters farmhouse, built circa 1905. The homestead had been all but abandoned before they bought it 30 years ago and lovingly turned it into their country oasis. For several years, Brennan hosted French cooking classes in her kitchen.

The centerpiece of the kitchen is that butcher block island. Before it was salvaged by Schrupp, the much-used wooden countertop served as a meat counter at Chulick’s Market in Winters for more than 50 years.

Brennan and Schrupp met over seeds. Both of them owned seed businesses in Winters in the 1980s. (Credited for introducing such heirloom vegetables as lacinato kale and striped chioggia beets to American gardeners, Brennan’s pioneering Le Marché Seeds was sold to Renee Shepherd’s Garden Seeds in 1987.)

Brennan is still a gardener at heart. As part of her La Vie Rustic line, Brennan offers a gardening gift kit with 13 varieties of imported French heirloom vegetable seeds along with cute row markers, suggested garden layouts and more.

At the couple’s California home, a huge vegetable garden – the classic kitchen potager – brims with French favorites. Chard, leeks, radicchio, frisée, chicory, fennel and other cool-weather veggies grow in bright red and green ribbons.

“The fennel went crazy,” she said as she surveyed the garden. “So it’s definitely on the menu this Thanksgiving. That’s why I’m making the soup.”

Last Thanksgiving, she had an abundance of celery root, so it became the featured soup.

Brennan, who occasionally contributes stories to The Bee, likes soups and stews for winter entertaining, and includes several recipes for each in her new book. At past holiday gatherings, she served soup in shots – either in little cups or glassware. Lavender-spiked cauliflower soup or two-sip servings of vichyssoise were huge hits.

Although their inspiration came from France, these recipes use ingredients common to both California and Provence. Like her life, her books and cooking have one foot in each place.

Beef daube (rhymes with lobe) is a favorite for chilly nights and a crowd. In “My Culinary History,” Brennan offers food lore along with a fine recipe.

“In Provence, daubes were once prepared in terra-cotta dauberes, then set to braise in a bed of coals in the rear or to the side of the chimney hearth where they would cook slowly over eight or 10 hours,” she wrote. “Today’s daubes are prepared on the stovetop. The beef is marinated overnight, in local red wine and herbs, simmered the next day, and easily stored, its flavors ever deepening, to be served the day after.”

“It’s super easy and it’s great this time of year,” she added while reviewing her recipe in her kitchen. “It’s really a stew. You can make it ahead for a dinner party. You marinate it overnight in red wine. Any of our California red wines would be a good choice. You can serve it over pasta but it’s also good over polenta or served with boiled potatoes with a little parsley.”

For an easy appetizer, Brennan recommends walnut-olive tapenade.

“You put it all in a food processor; it takes just a few minutes,” she said of the ingredients. “Lately, I’ve been using Kalamata instead of black olives; it gives it a little bit more bite. But it makes a wonderful appetizer on a baguette.”

There’s always a little French – both food and conversation – at her dinner table, especially during family gatherings, she noted. Daughter Ethel became a teacher, too, and married a Frenchman, Laurent, whom she met in Berkeley – not Provence, Brennan said. They have twin sons, now 9 years old. Brennan’s son, Oliver, is a writer with a family of his own. (They’re all expected for Thanksgiving along with Schrupp’s children and grandchildren.)

Brennan loves how her grandchildren have embraced her joy of cooking and good food.

“The twins are asking for the celery root soup,” she said with a shrug. “I’m sure they’ll like the fennel, too.”

Debbie Arrington: 916-321-1075, @debarrington

Walnut, black olive and dried tomato tapenade

Makes about 1 cup

Georgeanne Brennan recommends this easy spread for holiday entertaining – or any time. Smear it on some bread or crackers. Or spread it over goat cheese on baguette or crostini for an easy appetizer.

Adapted from “My Culinary Journey: Foods and Fetes of Provence” by Georgeanne Brennan (Yellow Pear Press, $27.50, 208 pages).

1/3 cup pitted black olives

1/3 cup walnuts

1/4 cup oil-packed dried tomatoes

1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves

Extra virgin olive oil as needed

Start by chopping black olives. Do the same with an equal amount of walnuts. Coarsely chop oil-packed dried tomatoes. Put olives, walnuts and tomatoes in a food processor along with 1/2 teaspoon of olive from the tomatoes. Add thyme leaves and process until all is well mixed.

Slowly add extra-virgin olive oil, processing until the mixture reaches the desired consistency for spreading, about 2 to 4 tablespoons. (The amount of oil you will need depends upon how much oil is in the olives and tomatoes.) Serve with bread or crackers.

Beef daube with dried cèpes

Serves 6 to 8

Slow-simmering and full of rich flavor, the daube – a wine-based stew – is a classic dish that has many variations. Cèpes, also known as porcini mushrooms, add to the earthy richness. Roulade, which is like heavily peppered pancetta, is a traditional ingredient, although pancetta or bacon may substitute.

“The daube can be served directly from its pot, and its juices ladled over pasta,” author Georgeanne Brennan said. “A wedge of Parmesan or of Gruyère and a hand grater passed from person to person at the table adds to the simplicity and casual sharing of the dish.”

Adapted from “My Culinary Journey: Foods and Fetes of Provence” by Georgeanne Brennan (Yellow Pear Press)

4 pounds boneless beef chuck roast or a combination of boneless chuck and beef shank

2 yellow onions

3 carrots

8 fresh thyme branches, each about 6 inches long

2 dried bay leaves

1 fresh rosemary branch, about 6 inches long

2 teaspoons sea salt

1 1/2 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper (reduce to 1/2 tablespoon if using roulade)

4 cloves garlic

1 orange zest strip, 4 inches long by 1/2 inch wide

1 bottle (750 ml) dry red wine such as a Côtes du Rhône, zinfandel or syrah

1/3 cup minced roulade or pancetta, or 2 slices of bacon, minced

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

2 ounces dried cèpes or porcini mushrooms, some broken into 2 or 3 pieces, others left whole

1 cup water

Pappardelle pasta

3/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Cut the beef chuck into 2- to 2 1/2 -inch squares. Trim off and discard any large pieces of fat. If using beef shank, cut the meat from the bone in pieces as large as possible. Place the meat in a large enamel, glass, earthenware, or other nonreactive bowl. Quarter one of the onions and add the pieces to the meat along with the carrots, thyme, bay leaves, rosemary, 1 teaspoon of the salt, half the pepper (remember to adjust if using roulade), 2 cloves of the garlic, and the orange zest. Pour the wine over all and turn to mix and immerse the ingredients. Cover and marinate in the refrigerator overnight.

To cook the daube, put the roulade or bacon in a heavy-bottomed casserole or Dutch oven large enough to hold the marinating mixture. Place over medium-low heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until the fat is released, about 5 minutes. Discard the crisped bits of roulade or bacon.

Dice the remaining onion, mince the remaining 2 garlic cloves, and add to the fat. Sauté over medium heat until translucent, 3 to 5 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside.

Now drain the meat and reserve the marinade. Pat the meat as dry as possible. Do not be alarmed by its purplish color, as the wine is responsible. Add the meat to the pot a few pieces at a time and sauté for about 5 minutes, turning them once or twice. The meat will darken in color, but will not truly “brown.” Remove the pieces with a slotted spoon and continue until all the meat has been sautéed.

When the last of the meat pieces have been removed, add the flour and cook until it browns, stirring often. Raise the heat to high and slowly pour in the reserved marinade and all its ingredients. Deglaze the pan by scraping up any bits clinging to the bottom.

Return the sautéed onion, garlic, meat, and any collected juices to the casserole or Dutch oven. Add the remaining 1 teaspoon salt and the remaining pepper, and bring almost to a boil. Reduce the heat to very low, cover with a tight-fitting lid and simmer for one hour.

While the meat is cooking, soak the mushrooms in the cup of hot water to soften them. Any grit will drop to the bottom of the water. When soft, remove the mushrooms with a slotted spoon and set aside. Drain the water through a fine-mesh sieve. Add the drained soaking water and the mushrooms to the simmering meat, cover again, and cook until the meat can be cut through with the edge of a spoon and the liquid has thickened, 1  1/2 to 2 hours longer, for a total of 2  1/2 to 3 hours.

Remove from the heat. Discard the carrots, herb branches, and onion quarters. Skim off some, but not all, of the fat, as some is necessary to coat the pasta.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta, stir well, and cook until just tender, about 11 minutes. Drain. Put the pasta in a warmed serving bowl and ladle some of the sauce from the daube over it, adding more salt and pepper if desired, and topping with 1/4 cup of the Parmesan cheese and the parsley. Serve the daube directly from its cooking vessel, or from a serving bowl. Pass the remaining cheese at the table.