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November 26, 2010 / joyful plate

Thanksgiving, in Paris (with day after risotto)

For the past two years, I flew to Paris to make an American Thanksgiving dinner for my friends in Europe. My friend’s husband treasured everything about the holiday-his dad was an American GI stationed in Austria during the Second World War. So when I offered to make a turkey dinner with his family recipes, I got a big green light to cash in my air miles and come over.

My first trip to Paris was in 1989 when I was studying abroad. But it was years later when I fell in love with the city – just about the same time that I fell in love with food and wine. I owe it all to my friend, my travel “fairy godmother” who had generously opened her Place des Vosges doors to me  whenever I was there for business. It was much more interesting to stay with friends to get an insider’s view of the city than stay in a sterile hotel. Over the years, I was unbelievably lucky to get to know the ins and outs of Le Marais, exploring the area near Hôtel Carnavalet by moonlight, and imagining life in the days of Louis XIII.

But this visit was different. This was not about going to Paris to live like the locals, this time I needed to bring a bit of America with me to Paris. Days before my trip, I shopped for the brands I thought I wouldn’t find there….a bag of Pepperidge Farm Herb Stuffing, Libby’s Pumpkin mix, a can of Carnation Condensed Milk and Ocean Spray cranberries. I’ve since discovered that you can get most iconic American brands at The Real McCoy on Rue de Grenelle (

The first thing I did after I settled in was to stop by the neighborhood boucherie to reserve la dinde (the turkey). Between my jet lag and broken French it all felt a bit like a scene from the film Lost in Translation – the butcher spoke no English, but my “enchantee” pleasantries got me far. Fortunately, I had a picture of a finished turkey to point to, so there was no confusion over what kind of bird I was looking for. I learned that it came from the southwest of France, an area famous for foiegras.

Relieved that the riskiest part of my job was now done, I took a break and set off for a lazy lunch at L’Escargot on Rue Montorgueil.  Turkeys are not easy to come by in the Marais, and there was no way I could go home to my friends without one, having come all the way from New York to make Thanksgiving dinner. Feeling satisfied with the day, I set my alarm that night for an early start on Thursday morning.

Thanksgiving of course is just an ordinary day in Paris. There was no need to get up at the crack of dawn for shopping, but my adrenalin rush overpowered my jetlag. With a quick espresso, I was out the door and ready for an adventure. In Paris, the fruit and vegetable stands pay tribute to a country that worships gastronomy-with dramatic displays of cascading oranges and massive mushrooms.

By late morning I realized it was time to get home and get cracking. I kept things pretty old school this year, with mashed potatoes, stuffing, corn and pumpkin pie to accessorize the turkey. I suggested a French inspired menu of potatoes dauphinoise , but my friend thought it was a bit over the top and just wanted to keep it simple. So I stuffed the bird with some thyme, parsley and chives from the garden and gave it a good massage of olive oil and seasoning. With some high math converting temperatures from Fahrenheit to Celsius, la dinde was ready to rest in the oven.

My friend’s guests arrived by 7 for their first Thanksgiving experience. They lived in Paris, but originally came from Düsseldorf, Naples, Lyon and Columbia. They gobbled it all up, and many helped themselves to seconds. They seemed to be enjoying it, but I think more than one French guest was horrified by the idea of piling all of that food onto one plate like we Americans are so accustomed to doing!

The next day when I woke up from my tryptophan induced coma I looked in the fridge to see what I could make for a “day after Thanksgiving” dinner. The thought of turkey salad was so unappealing. And then, in their Euro Tupperware, I realized we had turkey stock. Voila! Just the inspiration I needed to make risotto.

I have been having risotto parties for friends and family in New York for 10 years. I learned how to make it from the pros at La Foresteria Cooking School at Serego Alighieri, in Gargagnago (the Veneto) when I was in the Italian wine business.  It’s my favorite thing to make because it’s comforting and creative. The base risotto is like working with a blank canvass. Once you get this right, the possibilities are endless. For the best taste and texture, the rice must slowly absorb all of the stock. Many have said that “naked” risotto (with a little white wine and parmesan cheese) is flavorful enough, but I like to experiment with a few different types to make it more of an event.

So I found a giant pot, reduced the stock, and got my game going. I sautéed some shallots, browned the Nano Vialone rice in the mixture, and ladled the broth bit by bit.  We had some left over fresh asparagus and blue cheese from the endive salad the day before, so there were two types right there…. and my friend had some truffles in the cabinet to make a third. For some protein, I quickly sautéed some of those precious little Euro scallops on high heat (the ones with the orange roe on them). Our impromptu dinner was complete.

It was one of the best risottos ever . Maybe it was the glamour of being in Paris, or that I got the kinks out of my cooking the day before…or it could have been the turkey stock. Most likely it was the fact that it was I was able to cook free form, with no recipe and no pressure from the expectation of Thanksgiving Dinner. It was just a fun time, relaxing with dear old friends.  For me, the risotto was the best part of Thanksgiving (in Paris).


One Comment

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  1. Lisa / Nov 26 2010 7:05 pm

    Sounds heavenly! And what a wonderful friend you are to fly to Paris to cook a Thanksgiving meal!

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