Tradition means a lot of things to a lot of people. To me, sometimes it just means a lot of work.
Take the traditional Thanksgiving meal. Don't get me wrong, I love to cook holiday meals and enjoy the company of our children, grandchildren, brothers and sisters. But I need to find some shortcuts for preparing my Thanksgiving Day dinner, so I can carve out some more time to spend with our family.
I already use some shortcuts.
One to two days prior I make the desserts.
I make the gravy a week before (the recipe is below), then I pour the gravy into a freezer bag and place it in the freezer.
The day before I make mashed potatoes using frozen cubed potatoes instead of fresh. A few hours before dinner I place the potatoes in a slow cooker.
But last year, I still spent seven hours of Thanksgiving day in the kitchen. Most of our 24 family members arrived around 3 p.m. for the 4 p.m. dinner. I still was putting the finishing touches on dinner at 3:45, so it was a little difficult to talk to everyone. Fortunately my family really helps with cleanup. Still, when the last family member left around 10:30 p.m. I was exhausted. Almost too tired for a much-needed glass of wine as I reviewed the day in my mind.
My first thought was there must be an easier way.
We only see my step son, Chris, and his family about three times a year. He's in the Marine Corps, stationed at Quantico, Va., after three tours of duty in Iraq. His two kids, Zaara, 6, and Abe, 3, are becoming more comfortable with us but I would have liked to hug them a little more. There are seven other grandchildren and a niece to enjoy. And this year we have a new granddaughter, six-month-old Reese.
Part of our Thanksgiving tradition is to provide care packages of leftovers for our grown children and our brothers and sisters. As I sipped my wine I kept wondering if I gave everyone enough. Did they like the food? Do they want to take food home or do they just humor me?
My husband assured me everything was great and suggested I had better get some sleep because Christmas was only a month away and I would have to do this all over again.
With that thought I had another glass of wine.
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MAKE-AHEAD TURKEY GRAVY
I found this recipe in the new "Women's Day Happy Thanksgiving Magazine." I made the gravy a few days after Halloween, then popped it in the freezer. We had the turkey and vegetables for dinner that day. The gravy can be made up to 1 month in advance, then frozen, or 2 to 3 days before Thanksgiving. I used about 3 pounds of turkey legs instead of turkey wings and I replaced the wine with chicken broth.
In large roasting pan toss together:
3½ pounds turkey wings or chicken parts
1 onion, 2 carrots and 2 stalks celery, all roughly chopped
8 sprigs fresh thyme
3 tablespoons olive oil
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
Roast at 400 degrees until the turkey is golden brown and cooked through, about 11/4 hours (about 165 degrees on a meat thermometer).
Remove turkey and vegetables from the pan. Use the drippings to make the gravy.
1 cup dry white wine or hard cider
2 to 3 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1/4 cup (½ stick) butter
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
Kosher salt and pepper to taste
Remove vegetables from roasting pan. Strain the pan drippings into a fat separator (or let the pan drippings cool a bit then pour into a heavy-duty storage bag. Seal the bag, wait for the fat to rise to the surface of the liquid. Let the liquid drain from the snipped corner leaving the fat behind.) Place in a 4-cup measuring cup.
Place the empty roasting pan across 2 stove burners over medium-high heat. Add wine or cider and cook, stirring and scraping up any brown bits, for several minutes. Pour wine mixture into measuring cup with the pan juices and add enough chicken broth to make 4 cups liquid total.
In a large saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter. Sprinkle the flour over the top and cook, whisking, until deep brown in color, 4 to 5 minutes
Gradually whisk in the 4 cups liquid; bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until thickened, 8 to 12 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
Store in an airtight container and freeze up to 1 month. Thaw in the refrigerator overnight. Reheat in a medium saucepan, covered, adding up to ½ cup chicken broth if the gravy seems too thick.
-- Women's Day Happy Thanksgiving Magazine, 2013
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ROASTED GREEN VEGETABLE MEDLEY
Save yourself time and stress by preparing the vegetables 1 day ahead; Toss vegetables in a bowl and refrigerate. The parmesan cheese, basil, parsley and the lemon juice and peel can be prepared a day in advance and refrigerated.
2 cups fresh broccoli florets
1 pound fresh green beans, trimmed and cut into 2-inch pieces
10 small fresh mushrooms, halved
8 brussels sprouts, halved
2 medium carrots, cut into ¼-inch slices
1 medium onion, sliced
3 to 5 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
3 tablespoons julienned fresh basil leaves, optional
2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon grated lemon peel
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Place first 7 ingredients in a bowl; drizzle with 2 tablespoons oil and toss to coat. Divide between two 15-by-10-by-1-inch baking pans coated with cooking spray. Roast 20 to 25 minutes or until tender, stirring occasionally. Transfer to a larger serving bowl.
Mix remaining oil with remaining ingredients, add to vegetables. Toss to combine.
-- Taste of Home Magazine, 2013
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SQUASH AND RICOTTA TART
We love winter squashes in our household and have had it prepared many different ways. But this is the first time I knew you could tuck it, Italian style, into a tart with creamy ricotta cheese. Can I just say, it's terrific!
This dish is great for busy Thanksgiving cooks because once you've done the assembling, it's basically done -- just bake and serve it. You also can make it ahead and serve it at room temperature.
If you can't find butternut squash, substitute sweet potato.
-- Gretchen McKay
1 pound butternut squash grated on the coarse holes of a box grater
1 cup milk
2 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
1/4 cup dried breadcrumbs (I used fresh, slightly toasted)
2 large eggs
1½ pounds fresh ricotta, drained
1 cup grated Grana Padano or Parmigiana-Reggiano
2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Put squash in medium saucepan with milk and sugar. Simmer until squash is tender, about 15 minutes. Let cool, then wrap squash in kitchen towel and wring out any excess. Grease a 9-inch glass pie plate with 1 tablespoon butter. (I used an oval ceramic baking dish.) Sprinkle with 2 tablespoons of the breadcrumbs and tap around to line the pie plate with the crumbs, tapping out any excess. (My crumbs were fairly large, so I didn't worry about tapping out the excess.)
In large bowl, whisk together eggs and ricotta. Stir in grated cheese, mint, salt and nutmeg. Add squash, breaking up any lumps with your fingers, and stir to incorporate into the ricotta mixture.
Spread mixture into pie plate, and smooth the top with a spatula. Cut the remaining butter into small pieces and scatter on top. Sprinkle with the remaining breadcrumbs, and bake until set, about 40 to 45 minutes. Allow tart to cool and set on a rack for at least 1/2 hour before cutting into wedges to serve. Serve warm or at room temperature.
-- "Lidia's Commonsense Italian Cooking" by Lidia Matticchi Bastianich and Tanya Bastianich Manuali (Alfred A. Knopf, Oct. 16, 2013, $35)
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SIMPLE MASHED SWEET POTATOES
Some of our family like sweet potatoes, some don't. This recipe makes just enough to satisfy our sweet-potato lovers. A few minutes before serving, I toss some miniature marshmallows over the potatoes. Use a 3- to 4½-quart round cooker for this recipe.
3 pounds sweet potatoes, peeled, cut crosswise into ½-inch slices
1/3 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/3 cup unsweetened apple juice
In the slow cooker, make a layer of half the sweet potatoes. Sprinkle with half each of the brown sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Repeat. Pour the apple juice over all. Don't stir. Cook, covered on low, 6 to 8 hours.
Just before serving, use the back of a large spoon to mash potatoes against side of cooker until the desired consistency.
Serves 6 or more depending on serving size.
-- "Healthy Slow Cooker Cookbook," by The American Heart Association (Clarkson Potter, 2012)
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MAKE-AHEAD LAYERED SALAD
This is a real crowd-pleaser and it can be assembled up to 1 day in advance.
4 cups pre-chopped romaine lettuce
4 cups baby arugula
1/2 cup pre-chopped red onion
2 cup grape tomatoes, halved
4 precooked hard-cooked eggs, chopped
4 precooked bacon slices, finely chopped
2 cups frozen petite green peas, thawed
½ cup canola mayonnaise
1/2 cup plain fat-free Greek yogurt
1/4 cup nonfat buttermilk
1 teaspoon cider vinegar
1/2 teaspoon onion powder
1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon dried dill
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
1 garlic clove, finely grated
3 ounces shredded sharp cheddar cheese (about ¾ cup)
1 tablespoon minced fresh chives
Combine lettuce and arugula in a large glass serving bowl. Arrange onion over greens in an even layer; top with tomatoes. Sprinkle eggs over tomatoes; sprinkle bacon over eggs. Spread peas evenly over bacon.
Combine mayo and next 10 ingredients (through garlic) in a medium bowl. Spread mayo mixture over peas; top with cheese and chives.
Serves 10 (serving size about ¾ cup).
-- Cooking Light Magazine Annual Holiday Cookbook, 2013
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SOUSED CINNAMON AND CIDER APPLES
I was paging through my old cookbooks searching for an easy Thanksgiving dessert and found this. I made a few changes: I doubled the recipe (to serve 8 instead of 4) and, because I have grandchildren who will love this, I replaced the brandy with cider. The recipe can be made up to 3 days ahead and then reheated before serving. Based on a tip from "Cook's Illustrated: 834 Kitchen Quick Tips," I used an ice cream scoop to make ice cream balls: Line a cupcake pan (12-cup pan with cups 23/4 inches in diameter) with foil liners. Use an ice cream scoop to form balls of ice cream and place the balls into each lined cup. Freeze the entire pan and when the ice balls are frozen place them in freezer bags. To serve, place ice cream balls in bowls, place apples around ice cream, and drizzle with some of the apple juice from the pan.
2 pounds tart apples, peeled, cored and cut into rough ¾-inch chunks (I used Granny Smith)
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cups apple cider or apple juice
1/2 cup apple brandy, such as Calvados or applejack, or cider
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3/4 tablespoons cinnamon
In a large heavy saucepan, combine apples, brown sugar, cider, brandy (or additional cider), butter and cinnamon. Cover and cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until the apples are very tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Uncover and simmer until the liquid is lightly reduced, about 10 minutes. Use the back of a wooden spoon to mash some of the apples, while leaving other chunky.
To serve: Divide warm apples among 4 dessert dishes. Top each serving with a small scoop of ice cream.
Make 4 servings.
-- "Short & Sweet: Sophisticated Desserts in 30 Minutes or Less" by Melanie Barnard (Houghton Mifflin, 1999)
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MINI PUMPKIN CHEESECAKES
I make several desserts because I love to bake! These are easy to make and can be made up to 3 days ahead, and they're really good.
20 gingersnap cookies
2 tablespoons butter, melted
8-ounce package cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup canned pumpkin (not pumpkin pie mix)
1 tablespoon sour cream
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
Whipped cream, optional
Caramel sauce, optional
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray mini cheesecake pan with cooking spray or use a cupcake pan (12 cups, 23/4 inches in diameter) lined with paper baking cups.
In food processor, process gingersnap cookies with on/off pulses until finely ground (about 1 cup). Add melted butter; pulse until mixed. Press crumb mixture firmly into each cup to form a crust. Bake 8 minutes.
Meanwhile, beat cream cheese and brown sugar with electric mixer on medium speed until light and fluffy. Beat in pumpkin, sour cream and salt, scraping bowl frequently. Add egg, vanilla, cinnamon and nutmeg; beat until well blended.
Divide mixture evenly into crust-lined cups.
Bake 20 to 25 minutes or until set. Cool completely in pan, about 30 minutes. Refrigerate at least 2 hours or overnight.
Serve topped with whipped cream and drizzled with caramel sauce. Store in refrigerator.
Makes 12 cheesecakes.
Arlene Burnett writes the Kitchen Mailbox column: firstname.lastname@example.org.