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Thanksgiving First Courses

Although turkey may take center stage this holiday, celebrity chef Rocco DiSpirito believes Thanksgiving deserves spectacular first-course dishes.

Ideas for them can be found in DiSpirito's new cookbook entitled, "Flavor." He visits The Early Show to demonstrate how to make: Yellow Pepper Soup and Radishes with Cranberries and Goat Cheese.

"Flavor" is DiSpirito's homage to the foods of his past, present and future. He writes that flavor has always been a part of his life. He says he owes his adventurous spirit in the kitchen, not to the French techniques he knows, but to the way his mother and grandmothers taught him to cook from his gut.

The cornerstone of "Flavor" - and DiSpirito's cuisine - is the balancing of flavors. DiSpirito says, "Flavor is what elevates cooking from a craft to an art."

In all his recipes DiSpirito is said to aim for "forthright, expressive flavors that flank a balanced juxtaposition of sweet, sour, salty and bitter tastes without letting one taste dominate over the others. Each recipe in the book is perfectly balanced for all four. Still, because our genetics dictate how individual taste buds respond to flavor, DiSpirito encourages cooks to adjust seasonings to reflect personal taste.

The following are his recipes:

Calamari with Pumpkin Seeds and a Butternut Squash

Quick-cooking in a hot pan or deep-fryer has been the tried-and-true method for years. I've found that the texture of calamari varies a lot, so to accommodate tougher squid, I've had to adjust my cooking method. Try cooking calamari the "long" way: after a prolonged, gentle sweat, the flesh is buttery soft and sweet.

Ingredients
1/2 cup plus 4 tablespoons grapeseed or olive oil
1 cup peeled, diced butternut squash (about 1/4 medium squash)
1 small cucumber, peeled and diced
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon honey
Salt and ground pepper to taste
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
1/4 teaspoon minced fresh garlic
1 pound squid, cleaned and cut into rings about ½ inch thick, tentacles separated
3 shallots, minced
1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley
1/4 cup salted pumpkin seeds (also called "pepitas")

  1. In a sauté pan over medium heat, warm 2 tablespoons of the oil. Add squash to pan and sauté 3 minutes. Add cucumber and sauté another 3 to 5 minutes, until squash is firm but no longer crunchy. Add 1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar and cook 2 minutes, stirring. Add honey and cook until liquid has thickened and squash is tender. Separate the relish from its cooking liquid by straining the pan's contents into a saucepan. Taste relish and season with salt and pepper.
  2. Place the saucepan with the cooking liquid over medium heat, add ginger, and cook for 2 minutes, stirring frequently, until liquid is reduced to a syrup glaze. Transfer mixture to a blender, add garlic and remaining 1 tablespoon vinegar, and blend until smooth. With motor running, pour 1/2 cup oil through the blender's feed hole in a slow, steady stream to produce an emulsified vinaigrette. Add salt and pepper to taste.
  3. Lay the calamari rings on a flat surface and salt on both sides. In a sauté pan over low heat, warm the remaining 2 tablespoons oil. Add the calamari and cook just until rings have turned from milky white to bright, opaque white, about 10 minutes, being careful not to overcook. Remove calamari from pan, leaving oil in pan. Increase heat to medium, add shallots, season with salt and pepper, cover pan and sweat for 2 minutes. Remove pan from heat and add calamari, squash relish, parsley, and the vinaigrette. Toss gently to coat all ingredients. Center one-quarter of the mixture on each of 4 small plates. Finish by garnishing with pumpkin seeds.

Chicken Wings with Apricot-Truffle Vinaigrette

Chicken wings shouldn't be confined to Buffalo wing preparations (although, I must confess, I have been an aficionado of wings ever since a trip to the Anchor Bar in Buffalo with my CIA roommate Tim Maher). What I love about chicken wings is that each has a little bit of white meat, and a little bit of dark meat, and just the right amount of fat to keep them juicy.

Ingredients
1/4 cup chopped dried apricots, preferably Turkish
2 heads Belgian endive, halved lengthwise, cored, and sliced widthwise into 1/2 -inch strips
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
Salt and ground pepper to taste
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
1/2 cup black truffle juice
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup corn oil
16 to 20 chicken wings, preferably boneless
Fresh tarragon leaves to yield 1 teaspoon when chopped, held whole

  1. Place apricots in a medium saucepan and add 2 cups water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer until liquid is a thick syrup, 30 to 40 minutes. Proceed with step 2 while apricot syrup cooks.
  2. In a mixing bowl, toss together endive, lemon juice, and salt and pepper. Hold aside.
  3. Stir vinegar into the apricot syrup and heat just until mixture is warmed through. Remove pan from heat and stir in truffle juice and olive oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
  4. In a high-sided sauté pan, heat corn oil until very hot. Season chicken wings on one side with salt and pepper. Working in batches, pan-fry wings until deep golden brown, 3 to 5 minutes for first side. Season just before flipping, then cook 3 to 5 minutes on second side. Drain on paper towels.
  5. Chop the tarragon. In a large bowl, toss together the endive salad, apricot-truffle vinaigrette, tarragon, and chicken wings. Transfer to individual bowls. Serve immediately, while wings are still hot but endive is still raw and crunchy.

Yellow Pepper Soup

I got tired of cutting up yellow peppers for salads. They're so much more than that! When I want to feature a large quantity of a single vegetable, soup is where I start. The end result? A vivid yellow, velvety, sweet-sour, smoky soup.

Ingredients
4 yellow bell peppers
1/2 cup of pear juice
1/4 teaspoon mustard powder
2 teaspoons rice wine vinegar
Salt and ground pepper to taste.
Sour cream or crème fraiche to garnish (optional)

Roast peppers over a flame or in an oven for 45 minutes at 375 degrees F. Cool in a paper bag. When completely cool, peel, seed, and chop peppers coarsely. Puree peppers in a blender until smooth. Pass puree through a wide mesh sieve into a pan over medium-low heat. Add 1 1/2 cups water, pear juice, mustard powder, vinegar, and salt and pepper to taste. Heat, stirring, until warmed through. Garnish servings, if desired, with a dollop of sour cream or crème fraiche.

Radishes with Cranberries and Goat Cheese

I made a faux pas the first time I ordered radis beurre at a Paris bistro. I remember sitting for a short eternity, staring at the plate of breakfast radishes with tiny ramekins of butter and salt, before finally being assured that, yes, the whole dish had been delivered to the table. I've gone a step or two beyond the bistro classic by folding sour and sweet flavors into the mix.

Ingredients
1/3 cup dried cranberries
1 1/2 cups radishes, trimmed and quartered (about 15 radishes or 1 average bunch)
2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and ground pepper to taste
1/3 cup crumbled goat cheese

  1. Place the cranberries in a small bowl and cover with hot water. Let stand 30 minutes. Drain.
  2. Toss together radishes and plumped cranberries. Add olive oil, toss, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Fold in crumbled goat cheese, being careful not to crush the cheese into a paste. Serve at room temperature or chilled.

Plum Tartlettes

Buy the sweetest plums available for these tarts. I recommend you shop at a farmers' market, where sampling is rarely discouraged. Almonds are related to and partner effortlessly with stone fruits like peaches, apricots, and plums.

Ingredients
1/4 cup confectioners' sugar
1 cup all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, 1/2 stick cold and cut into chunks and 1 stick at room temperature
3 eggs
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 1/2 cup almond flour, purchased or made by finely grinding blanched almonds in food processor
4 1/2 cups pitted plums cut into sixths (from about 8 medium black plums)

  1. In a mixing bowl or bowl of a stand mixer, combine confectioners' sugar and 1 cup all-purpose flour. Using a manual pastry cutter or stand mixer, work in cold butter pieces. Process until mixture resembles sand. If using a stand mixer, change beater to dough hook. Add 1 egg and vanilla, and continue to mix just until the dough is cohesive, adding cold water a tablespoon at a time if dough is dry. Shape into a ball, wrap in wax paper or plastic wrap, and refrigerate at least one hour.
  2. In a mixing bowl or bowl of stand mixer, beat together 1 stick room temperature butter and granulated sugar. Beat in 3/4 cup almond flour, then the 2 remaining eggs, one at a time. Add remaining 3/4 cup almond flour and stir until the filling comes together.
  3. Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.
  4. Butter six 4-inch tart molds and dust with flour.
  5. On a lightly floured surface, roll out chilled dough into a circle about 1/8-inch thick. Use a 5-inch cookie cutter or ring mold to make six dough rounds. If you come up short, wad the scraps into a ball and re-roll. Place a dough round in each tart mold and gently press so that the lip of the dough just meets the top of each mold. Fill each shell with enough almond filling to come two-thirds of the way up the sides-about 1/4 cup filling per tart. Arrange plum slices over filling to completely cover. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, or until dough is golden and firm.
  6. Unmold tartlettes and serve warm with Fromage Blanc Sorbet.