In the final run up to Thanksgiving and Christmas, planning and practice make perfect
You can't step on stage opening night without having learned your lines, you can't show up to game one of the World Series without having trained during the off-season, and you certainly can't wake up Thanksgiving morning without having practiced (or at least planned) your culinary lineup. (Two baseball references in one sentence - that probably won't happen again.) While the old adage that says 'practice makes perfect' may be a tad on the optimistic side (I gave up on cooking white rice 'perfectly' years ago), there's certainly something to be said for stepping into the ring with the weight of some serious training in your gloves. (I'm not quite sure where this is coming from. but somewhere I hear my father sighing in relief.)
The meals prepared for Thanksgiving and Christmas (or any other major celebration, for that matter), are generally high-stress meals. Sure, in an ideal world and according to most of what comes out of Hollywood, we all stand around the stove, calmly and quietly stuffing turkeys, peeling potatoes and scratch-making pies worthy of some serious picture taking, while playfully pelting cranberries across the kitchen and sipping on cider stirred with cinnamon sticks and sobriety.
The last time I checked, however, the world wasn't ideal and mom and I stood sweaty-browed and hot-flashed in the kitchen, trying to time a turkey that cooked far faster than anticipated with six side dishes that all seemed to require the oven at the same time, while taking refuge in sips of cider so heavily laced with bourbon that if the tryptophan didn't get us, the brown stuff certainly would.
The idea that a meal with a year's worth of build up and anticipation behind it, should be anything less than nerve wracking, is overwhelmingly optimistic, to say the least.
That's why I'm a firm believer in rehearsal. I'm a firm believer in having your own back, and in giving yourself a leg up on the day. Game plans and strategies make you a much more agreeable host and much easier for your family to be around. (In my experience, turkeys, stuffings and gravies lend themselves to a whole host of expletives, otherwise absent from the average mealtime.)
While every year brings with it a series of standby's, without which the celebratory table would be incomplete, I try to introduce a few newcommers to the party, from time to time. Though you can't beat the classics, we'd still be eating canned pineapple ham, bathed in aspic, if people hadn't started sneaking in less gelatinous offerings, in acts of mild rebellion.
This year, I think I may add this squash and barley 'salad' to the mix, because aspic has no place on my table, and while it may be a Thursday, I'll only take #tbt so far.
Set your oven to 400*F.
On a lined baking sheet, toss together your squash and onion slices with the thyme spigs, garlic cloves, pepper flakes, olive oil, agave and salt to taste, and roast them for 20 minutes, tossing once, about half way through. Then allow them to cool to room temperature.
Meanwhile, cook your barley in salted water, according to the instructions on the packet. I used quick cooking pearl barley, which only took about 10 minutes. Spread the barley on a baking sheet or large plate, and allow it to cool to room temperature.
Discard the garlic cloves and thyme sprigs, and combine the barley and squash/onion mixture in a large bowl.
Melt the butter in a small pan until it starts to bubble, but be careful not to let it burn. Add the sage leaves and fry them until crisp – about 30 seconds. Place the sage leaves on a paper towel to drain off the excess butter.
Crumble the sage leaves into the barley mixture, add the crumbled goat cheese and season with salt and pepper. If you like, you can drizzle over a little extra olive oil and agave, and then toss everything to combine. Serve at room temperature.
In a sea of predictably heavy sides and scene stealers, this is a nod to a newer, lighter tradition. I've made it twice now, and I'm confident that it won't stress me out when the air conditioner fails, while four burners are on high, the oven's set to 400 and the bourbon, which was thought to be plentiful, runs out. This one, is in the bag.
*A Delicata squash is a long, almost tubular yellow squash, with green ridged lines running along it. You can eat the skin, which gives it a really lovely, almost chewy texture, so don't worry about peeling it.