Cravings: How to survive Thanksgiving and even laugh

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Thanksgiving, with all its traditions of feasting and merrymaking, might be the most intimidating holiday of all for a cook. Easter, after all, is a reheated ham and a few side dishes. Fourth of July, potato salad and barbecued chicken. Christmas, while one of the holiday heavy hitters, at least allows some flexibility in most families. Maybe you'll make brunch instead of a six-course, sit-down dinner. Or maybe host a pot-luck open house. Or maybe, if your kids are mostly grown-up, throw a tiny but festive cocktail party for your favorite 12 people.

Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette photos
Conquering Thanksgiving takes advance planning, a sharp knife and a willingness to laugh at yourself. Food Editor Amy McConnell Schaarsmith, with a turkey leg from this year's bird.
Click photo for larger image.

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But, for most people, Thanksgiving is a Pilgrim-hatted trip down memory lane, and any departure from tradition might well be met with rebukes, consternation, tears and, worst of all, icy rejection of your innovative culinary creations so complete that you might wish you'd been sentenced to the Plymouth Plantation stocks instead.

Veteran cooks know better; they stick to the basics and earn the admiration of their families and friends, year after predictable year. After the gorge, their family members toddle off to the living room, satisfied to collapse into a food coma in front of whatever football game happens to be playing and daydream about doing the exact same thing the following November.

But newbie cooks -- or at least newbie Thanksgiving cooks -- sometimes have to learn their lesson the hard way. They are ambitious dreamers, their culinary hopes not yet trampled by the harsh reality of their family members' nostalgia, and they tamper with a foolproof formula at their peril. They also try to do too much, too soon, for too many people.

Consider, for instance, the first Thanksgiving I ever hosted, the fall after I graduated from college. I was teaching English as a Second Language at a Hungarian high school in Budapest and decided to make a Thanksgiving dinner for about a dozen of the American ex-pats and Hungarian teachers who had become my friends. It would be fun, I thought, to host one of my favorite holidays, ease some of my American friends' homesickness and introduce my Hungarian friends to a true-blue slice of American culture that didn't involve rap music, expensive tennis shoes or high-fructose corn syrup.

So a colleague from school and I borrowed two large tables from the school and dragged them across the street and up the stairs to my tiny apartment to serve as a dining table.

I bought loaves of bread to turn into stuffing, and went to the expensive German grocery store to buy celery and carrots and bacon and peas and sage and all the other necessary ingredients I knew I wouldn't find at the outdoor markets or at the Hungarian grocery stores in late November, when the supply of produce had pretty much slowed to a trickle of onions, potatoes and withered gypsy peppers.

In a splurge, I bought some champagne -- well, sparkling wine, at least -- and a few bottles of spicy local table wine.

And fatefully, I sent a friend to the city's biggest open-air market to buy the largest turkey he could find so that I could feed all the guests who were coming later that evening.

A few hours and two bus connections later, he dutifully returned with the largest turkey I had ever seen, a Colossus among domestic fowl. It must have topped 40 pounds, and overflowed my only roasting pan, its legs and wings hanging over the sides like a fat man in a toy boat. I preheated the oven and hoped for the best, thinking that maybe the juices would run obediently down the sides of the bird and into the pan below.

But when I tried to put the turkey in the oven, I realized my plan had an even deeper, and potentially fatal, flaw: The bird was bigger than the oven.

Appliances in Hungary were designed to save energy and to fit into the small homes and apartments in which most people lived. My washing machine held only a few shirts at a time, and my refrigerator was just large enough for butter, milk, eggs and a few leftovers.


Thanksgiving turkey with all the trimmings can be back to basics, and your family will love it.
Click photo for larger image.   
The good word on your bird

Butterball L.L.C.'s annual Turkey Talk-line is open. Call 1-800-BUTTERBALL.

   

My oven was no different -- large enough to hold a roasting chicken or a pan of stuffed cabbage, but too small for an oversized, American-style turkey and my overambitious Thanksgiving plans.

Panic-stricken, thinking of the guests who were going to be showing up in a few hours, I pushed and pushed on the big bird, trying to compress its huge, meaty legs and gladiator-sized breast into a package compact enough to fit into what suddenly seemed like a child's Easy-Bake Oven. I grunted and shoved, finally wedging the turkey far enough inside to get the oven door almost closed.

Eight hours later, my friends started to arrive, excited about the Thanksgiving dinner they had been so looking forward to enjoying. The borrowed schoolroom tables -- dressed in white tablecloths, mismatched china borrowed from friends, and candlelight -- looked nice, and no one seemed to mind that the turkey wasn't quite ready.

They ate the stuffed mushrooms and the deviled eggs and the crackers and dip. I opened the champagne with a pop, and we toasted to Thanksgiving. Then, while I sweated in the kitchen over finishing the mashed potatoes and other side dishes, they opened up the rest of the wine and continued the party.

Two hours later, though, the turkey was still cooking, midnight was approaching, the side dishes had grown cold and my guests' patience had worn thin. During one of my guilt-stricken visits to the living room/dining room/bedroom where I had set up for dinner, I distinctly remember seeing one of my friends with his head on the table, waiting for his turkey and trying not to fall asleep.

I decided it was now or never. The bird had browned and no longer ran with blood when I pricked the thigh meat, so I maneuvered him onto a too-small serving plate and then to the table to begin the feast for real.

What followed wasn't pretty. For my giant turkey, doneness was only skin-deep, or nearly so. I cut off the pieces that seemed most cooked -- trying not to slice too deeply into rawer territory as I carved -- passed the reheated side dishes and prayed for my guests' mercy. Maybe it was the wine they'd been drinking, but they were kind to me, luckily, and my only punishment was my crushed dream of Thanksgiving greatness and a hacked-up turkey that looked as if it had been attacked by street dogs in a back alley of Calcutta.

None of the Thanksgiving dinners I have made since then ever reached that level of disaster, although one left me with a burn mark on the back of my left hand that still turns purple and pulsates when my hands are cold. Another year's efforts led my husband to comment that the food was very good, but it wasn't really the kind of food you'd want to eat for Thanksgiving.

Also, I'm pretty sure I have cut myself badly at least once -- usually at the beginning of preparations, to give the wound ample opportunity to soak up salt and lemon juice -- each time I have prepared the meal. This is usually the time of year I discover that we've used up all the Band-Aids in the house, and I end up wrapping a paper towel around my finger and continuing one-handed until the bleeding stops.

All of which has taught me that there is a better way to do Thanksgiving: the easy way.

First, dare to be predictable. You do not have to reinvent the wheel each year. Your family, believe it or not, really does want to eat the same normal, unexciting, comforting dishes, each and every Thanksgiving. They do not want you to experiment with newfangled dishes such as a whole roasted cauliflower covered in cheese sauce, or strange combinations of fruit and nuts in their stuffing, unless that's the way you've been making the holiday meal since your children were still in the womb. They will think you are weird, they will not eat your creation, and they will wonder why you are trying to ruin their Thanksgiving.

Second, make a plan and prepare as much as possible in advance. Studies have found that the average American starts planning Thanksgiving dinner about five days before the holiday, but much of the shopping can be done weeks in advance, and pies and many side dishes can be made a day or two ahead. The more you spread out the planning, shopping and preparing, the more chance you'll have to actually enjoy the holiday itself with your family and friends. (See our Turkey Timetable for suggestions.)

Third, don't be too proud to ask for help and look for shortcuts. Nothing in the Thanksgiving by-laws states that the host or hostess of the dinner must make everything him or herself. There's no shame in asking guests to bring a side dish or dessert, especially if you're the only one in the family who gets pegged with Thanksgiving duty, and everyone comes to your house every single year.

Similarly, I'm betting you never signed a contract pledging that every Thanksgiving dish would be lovingly crafted by hand. If your family loves boxed stuffing, canned yams and frozen pies, indulge them and be glad.

Fourth (and following that train of thought), pour yourself a glass of wine as someone else is mashing the potatoes and carving the turkey. Lots of people drink a glass of wine with lunch, and you've earned a glass and then some. Even if you are stressed, exhausted and spattered with pureed sweet potatoes, it will make you feel better.

Fifth, accept offers to do the dishes after dinner, and even consider signing up a rotating dish crew in advance so nobody has to feel guilty (or, if no one else volunteers, you don't have to feel grumpy and put-upon) after dinner.

You're already a hero for making a lovely Thanksgiving feast that has fulfilled your family's greatest hopes and desires and laid the foundation for fond memories of hearth and home for years to come.

Someone else can scrub the pots.


THE SIMPLEST ROAST TURKEY

PG TESTED

For a no-fuss, no-muss, delicious turkey, this is your bird. You do not have to tent foil, baste or hover, and you will produce a golden-brown, evenly golden bird with crispy skin and moist breast and dark meat that your family will love. It is also the fastest cooking method, yielding a finished bird in just over 2 hours.

This is a high-heat cooking method, so a clean oven helps, but the tester (who doesn't think her oven has been cleaned in several years, if ever) had no problems with spattering grease or smoking (although the oven exhaust fan did come on for a while).

This roasting method is not recommended for turkeys weighing more than 16 pounds. However, for turkeys weighing less than 14 pounds, start checking the temperature earlier.

If you only have a dark-colored metal roasting pan, add 1 cup water to the roasting pan before putting the turkey in the oven.

For bigger, heavier birds, set the temperature on 350 degrees and allow 12 minutes per pound, plus an additional 30 minutes to let the turkey rest, covered, before carving.

  • 1 (14- to 16-lb) turkey, neck and giblets (excluding liver) reserved for turkey giblet stock
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons salt (2 teaspoons if using a kosher bird)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons black pepper
  • Special equipment: pliers (preferably needlenose); a small metal skewer (optional); kitchen string; a flat metal rack; an instant-read thermometer

Remove any feathers and quills with pliers (kosher turkeys tend to require this more than others).

Put oven rack in lower third of oven and preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Rinse turkey inside and out and pat dry. Mix salt and pepper in a small bowl and sprinkle it evenly in turkey cavities and all over skin. Fold neck skin under body and, if desired, secure with metal skewer, then tuck wing tips under breast and tie drumsticks together with kitchen string.

Put turkey on rack in a large, flameproof roasting pan. Roast, rotating pan 180 degrees halfway through roasting, until thermometer inserted into fleshy part of each thigh (close to but not touching bone) registers 170 degrees, 1 3/4 to 2 1/2 hours.

Carefully tilt turkey so juices from inside large cavity run into roasting pan.

Transfer turkey to a platter (do not clean roasting pan) and let stand 30 minutes (temperature of thigh meat will rise to 180 degrees).

Cut off and discard string from turkey. Let rest, covered, for 30 minutes before carving.

Makes 8 to 10 servings.

Variation, stuffed turkey: Twelve cups of stuffing will fill both cavities and leave you extra to bake separately.

Just before roasting, spoon room-temperature stuffing loosely (stuffing expands as it cooks) into the neck (smaller) cavity. Fold the neck skin underneath the body and secure with a small metal skewer. Then loosely fill the body (larger) cavity, and tie drumsticks together. If you don't want any stuffing to spill out, cover the opening with a slice of fresh bread, tucking it inside the cavity before tying the drumsticks.

Follow roasting directions above. (Timing for a stuffed bird may be slightly longer, but start checking the temperature at 1 3/4 hours.)

Immediately transfer stuffing from body cavity to a shallow baking dish (separate from one for stuffing baked outside the turkey).

Take temperature of stuffing in neck cavity and, if less than 165 degrees, add it to the baking dish. Bake (covered for a moist stuffing or uncovered for a crisp top) until it reaches a minimum of 165 degrees. This can take 20 to 45 minutes, depending on the temperature of the oven, which you may have lowered to reheat side dishes.

-- Gourmet


FAVORITE BASIC BREAD STUFFING, THREE WAYS

PG TESTED

These stuffings can be made a day in advance, covered and refrigerated overnight in a buttered casserole dish to cut down on preparations on Thanksgiving morning.

  • 1 pound sliced firm white sandwich, French or Italian bread, including crusts, cut into 1/2-inch cubes (about 10 cups, lightly packed)
  • 1/4 to 1/2 cup (1/2 to 1 stick) unsalted butter
  • 2 cups chopped onions
  • 1 cup finely chopped celery
  • 1/4 to 1/2 cup minced parsley
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh sage or 1 teaspoon dried sage
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme or 1 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon grated or ground nutmeg
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/2 to 1 cup chicken stock
  • 2 large eggs, well beaten (if making dressing in a casserole dish, not stuffing the turkey)

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Toast on a large baking sheet, stirring several times, until golden brown, 5 to 10 minutes. (This step can be done in advance.)

Turn into a large bowl. Heat butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat, then add onions and celery. Remove from heat and stir in parsley, sage, thyme, salt, pepper, nutmeg and cloves.

Add to bread crumbs and toss until well combined. Stir in stock a little at a time until stuffing is lightly moist and begins to stick together but is not packed tightly. Adjust seasonings. If you like a firm dressing and are baking in casserole dish, stir in 2 beaten eggs.

Spoon stuffing into the bird or moisten with additional stock and bake separately in a buttered baking dish. Stuffing (inside the bird) is done when it reaches an internal temperature of 165 degrees.

Makes 8 to 10 cups, or enough to stuff a 14- to 17-pound turkey and make a small side casserole.

Variations

Oyster stuffing: Add 24 shucked, 1 pint raw or 2 8-ounce containers canned oysters, drained and juices reserved. Toss bread with seasonings, then add oysters and reserved juices to moisten. Add additional chicken stock if necessary to achieve desired consistency.

Jalapeno and sausage corn bread stuffing: Replace 1/2 pound (about 5 cups) of toasted white bread cubes in original recipe with stale or lightly toasted corn bread cubes. Replace celery in original recipe with 3 jalapeno peppers, cored, seeded and finely chopped, and add 1 pound bulk sausage when cooking onion and peppers and before adding seasonings.

-- Adapted from "Joy of Cooking," by Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker and Ethan Becker


MAKE-AHEAD TURKEY GRAVY

When Turkey Day comes, we guarantee you'll be thankful you made this great gravy in advance. It can be made up to 3 months ahead and frozen in an airtight container. Just thaw two days before using and reheat in a saucepan, whisking often to prevent scorching.

  • 3 pounds turkey wings (about 4)
  • 2 medium onions, peeled and quartered
  • 1 cup water
  • 8 cups chicken broth
  • 3/4 cup chopped carrots
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 3/4 cup flour
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1/2 teaspoon pepper

Heat oven to 400 degrees.

Arrange wings in a single layer in a large roasting pan. Scatter onions over top. Roast 1 1/4 hours until wings are browned.

Put wings and onions in a 5- to 6-quart pot. Add water to roasting pan and stir to scrape up any brown bits on the bottom. Add the brown bits to the pot.

Add 6 cups broth (refrigerate the remaining 2 cups), and add carrots and thyme.

Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer uncovered 1 1/2 hours.

Remove wings to cutting board. Save wing meat for another use if you wish, or discard.

Strain broth into a 3-quart saucepan, pressing vegetables to extract as much liquid as possible. Discard vegetables. Skim fat off broth and discard. (If time permits, refrigerate broth overnight to make fat skimming easier.)

Whisk flour into remaining 2 cups broth until well blended.

Bring broth in pot to a gentle boil.

Whisk in broth-flavored mixture and boil 3 to 4 minutes to thicken gravy and cook flour.

Stir in butter and pepper.

Serves 6.

-- Women's Day Magazine


ROASTED GARLIC AND SOUR CREAM-MASHED POTATOES

PG TESTED

If you've got some down time during Thanksgiving Day preparations, the potatoes can be peeled, cut and covered with salted water in a large saucepan. This will keep them from turning black until you are ready for them.

  • 5 pounds russet potatoes (about 10), peeled and cut into cubes
  • 1 whole head garlic, papery husk left on
  • 1 cup sour cream, or to taste
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Wrap garlic in aluminum foil and bake for about 1 hour, until cloves have softened.

Meanwhile, boil potatoes until tender, about 20 minutes. Drain and return to pan. Unwrap garlic and squeeze cloves to release roasted, softened garlic onto potatoes. Mash thoroughly until fluffy, then add sour cream and stir to combine well. Season with salt and pepper and serve.

Serves 6 to 8.

-- Amy McConnell Schaarsmith


QUICK AND TASTY CRANBERRY SAUCE

PG TESTED

  • 1 12-ounce bag fresh cranberries
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 tablespoon orange zest (optional)

Wash and sort cranberries, pulling out any that have softened and removing stray twigs.

Heat water and sugar in medium saucepan, stirring occasionally, until sugar dissolves. Bring to a boil and add cranberries. Reduce heat to medium and cook, boiling gently, until cranberries have popped open and softened and mixture begins to thicken, about 20 minutes.

Remove from heat, pour into small mixing bowl and let come to room temperature. Chill in refrigerator for several hours until firm.

Serves 6 to 8.

-- Adapted from Ocean Spray Cranberries, Inc.


Food editor Amy McConnell Schaarsmith can be reached at aschaarsmith@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1760.


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