RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
As you're thinking about the particulars of your Thanksgiving table, maybe you're feeling a bit bored - green bean casserole, eh; turkey and stuffing, been there; pumpkin pie, well, the whipped cream always tastes really good. We were looking for a little bit of inspiration, as you could tell, so we brought in culinary legend Patricia Wells. The onetime restaurant critic has been teaching French cooking for nearly two decades in Paris and Provence. She's with us to put a French twist on this very American holiday, with suggestions from her latest book. It is called "The French Kitchen Cookbook." Patricia Wells joins us from our studios at NPR West. Thanks so much for being with us.
PATRICIA WELLS: Thank you.
MARTIN: So, we mentioned pumpkin pie right off the pie.
WELLS: Of course.
MARTIN: But in your cookbook, you are taking on pumpkin and taking it in a different direction. The recipe for something called spicy Thai pumpkin soup with crab and cilantro, which sounds fabulous.
WELLS: It is so good. I can't tell you.
MARTIN: How does this come together? Is this complicated?
WELLS: It's very, very easy. You can either start with fresh pumpkin or you can use canned pumpkin. It has Thai curry in it, some coconut water, lots of spices. And just with that touch of crab, it gives you a little protein in there. It would be a perfect soup for Thanksgiving.
MARTIN: So, moving forward with our Thanksgiving menu, you've got another recipe that would work really well as a turkey alternative. There's a lovely recipe in here for seared duck breast with fresh figs and black currant sauce.
WELLS: Yes. In fact, that's a great autumn dish, especially if you can get the fresh figs. It helps if you have those. But you just sear the duck breast, sliced very thin, and then you make a sauce with balsamic vinegar and a creme de cassis, or black currant liqueur. And it's really pretty and it's delicious.
MARTIN: Duck has always sounded a little intimidating to me to cook. But there's just...
WELLS: Duck breast is so easy. It's really quick and it's delicious. And plus, what I often do, is I cook it without the fat and I render the fat so you can use that...
MARTIN: You cut the fat off, or you have the butcher do it?
WELLS: Cut it off and then - no, you can just really kind of pull it off. It's very easy. And then you chop it up and you just put a little bit of water and then you render it. And you come up with this really wonderful duck fat that you can use to make smashed potatoes. That's another wonderful dish that you can do for Thanksgiving. You just steam potatoes, cut them in half and then smash them and sear then in a little duck fat.
MARTIN: I mean, that is a fabulous idea. I like mashed potatoes, even if sans duck fat. But basically, you're taking a traditional favorite and you're elevating them and making them into something really special.
MARTIN: Turkey is often the centerpiece of - the turkey is the centerpiece of a Thanksgiving dinner. We talked about this seared duck that could be used. Is there something you need to do in the presentation of a dish like this to elevate it, to really make it something that people could look at it and say, oh, OK, it's not a turkey but this works?
WELLS: Well, first of all, it's beautiful on its own, you know, with the figs. And you could probably use other fruits as well. You could you - I think it would be really nice with raspberries. You could do a raspberry liqueur. But my suggestion for presentation is use a white plate. I find that people sometimes their dishes are too complicated and fussy. And if you put anything on a white background, it looks beautiful.
MARTIN: Now, you don't see a lot of chocolate on Thanksgiving, which I think is a major oversight, so I was pleased that there was a chocolate recipe in this book - intense chocolate custard. It sounds really indulgent but the directions look kind of easy, right? Can you tell us what you do to make this?
WELLS: It's just bittersweet chocolate, a little bit of light cream and a tiny bit of butter. And you melt the chocolate, you add a little bit of water and you just stir it in until it's melted. And then you pour it into little glasses. I like to use shot glasses. I call it intense chocolate custard because it is very intense and you don't need a whole lot to be satisfied. And then you put little chocolate nibs on top.
MARTIN: Plus it's kind of nice. You've just had this big meal and Thanksgiving is kind of all about excess, so it's nice to think about streamlining your dessert to make it small, intense special.
WELLS: One thing about Thanksgiving - so much of our pleasure of food is taste memory. So, let's not go too wacky on Thanksgiving. We have to have a few of those favorite taste memories and then add a few new dishes so you can have a new taste memory.
MARTIN: Do you celebrate Thanksgiving every year in Paris?
WELLS: Yes, we do. Either in Paris or Provence. It's a lot of fun. And it's fun to invite French people because they just only know the hearsay of the day. The French are really funny. They, you know, they really pay attention to our Thanksgiving. And they make sure we have turkey for Thanksgiving in the markets and fresh cranberries shipped over from the U.S., pumpkins. The other nice thing is that this is the beginning of the black truffle period. So, although...
MARTIN: I love how your voice kind of gets a little mystical when you talk about the black truffles.
WELLS: 'Cause black truffles kind of start right at the end of November. And so does the first pressing of olive oil. So, those are two good things to look forward to, even though the days are short and dark.
MARTIN: Patricia Wells. She is the author of "The French Kitchen Cookbook." She joined us from our studios at NPR West. Thank you so much for talking with us.
WELLS: Thank you.
MARTIN: Happy Thanksgiving, Patricia.
WELLS: Same to you.
MARTIN: You can see the recipes from Patricia Wells' French take on Thanksgiving at our website, npr.org.