Thanksgiving Dinner



Thanksgiving Turkey Dinner

Don't panic. This is probably the best advice. Just don't panic. And have another turkey waiting in the kitchen. One of the good things about Thanksgiving dinner is that after it is over your relationship with your guests is likely to be pretty much the same as it was before, provided you just don't panic. They are family, after all. I've done five or ten Thanksgivings and I really look forward to them. The secrets are:

  1. Keep it simple - people expect turkey, stuffing, gravy.
  2. Plan meticulously - make a timeline & post it on the refrigerator.
  3. Prepare ahead - prep everything you can two days ahead.
  4. Delegate - people love to bring stuff; let them. Even if you think it is terrible, maybe they like it.
  5. Enjoy - that's why we get together.

Unless you have a vegetarian family, the expectation for the dinner will be that there is a bird. Normally the bird is a turkey. And normally the turkey is cooked whole. The good news is that cooking a turkey, though it can seem complicated and can be made so, does not have to be intimidating. Nor does it necessarily take much time. Fortunately, most of the preparation is done at least a day ahead, so this is not one of the 'crunch time' items.

The other ingredients of the Thanksgiving Dinner are up for discussion. One idea to consider is retaining a focus on new world foods: turkey, corn, squash and pumpkin, peppers, potatoes, cranberries, pecans, maple syrup, chocolate, and so on. It is a little difficult to limit the meal to these because there 's not much green to choose from. Nor does one need to exhaust the list. Still, one can certainly provide a balanced and delicious meal that focuses on New World ingredients.

Outside of foods made from these ingredients are things like creamed pearl onions and that old standard, a casserole of green beans topped with batter-fried onions. As hackneyed as it is, thinking about it makes my mouth water.

The Menu

The first thing to decide is the menu.

  1. Turkey or Goose. Normally it will be roasted. Sometimes a turkey is deep fried, but this is an undertaking for the brave requiring special equipment. Along with the bird, think of gravy. Gravy is expected. It is hard to define, harder to pull of. But gravy is high on the list of expected things: Turkey, stuffing, gravy.
  2. Starchy Veggie - riced potatoes or mashed potatoes, or sweet potato casserole. There are many more fancy things one can do with potatoes than these, but most of them will simply seem too twee in a normal Thanksgiving setting. Remember that the goal is more to please than it is to impress. This is especially true of a woman cooking for her mother-in-law. Good relations require you not make her look like a lousy or lazy cook. So heeling to tradition is a safe bet.
  3. Green Veggie - green beans, possibly peas. probably not spinach. One may do things to green veggies on Thanksgiving one would not dream of doing on other occasions, so maybe the green vegetable needs to be in a creamy sauce, possibly with bits of bacon or gruyere or crumbly onions. In very health conscious families, a nice salad with mixed greens, gorgonzola, pears, and pecans would really wow. But it would be a lot of work, too. Make sure you delagate this to a trustworthy relative who lives nearby and who has good taste.
  4. Cranberry something or other. One can buy cranberry jelly and it is tasty. Or one can make homemade cranberry jelly or cranberry chutney a week or two ahead of time. For some years one could hear told a recipe involving horseradish if one listened regularly to NPR. But as much as I like horseradish, I cannot imagine using it on thanksgiving.
  5. Corn can make an appearance in several ways. I favor cornbread stuffing; this is an ideal way to sneak corn in under the radar. And in cornbread stuffing, I add bell peppers, often. Another way to use corn is to make a roasted corn soup. Or, one can simply serve kernels heated up with a bit of butter.
  6. The normal way to use pumpkin is in pumpkin pie. And this is a good way. One can also choose to make squash soup. No pumpkin here, but one still clears the squash hurdle.
  7. Pecans and chocolate do not have a very strong connection with Thanksgiving in many minds. One might serve pecan pie. I like to decorate my sweet potato casserole with maple syrup-drizzled pecans. Those with adventuresome palates will drizzle some chipotle pepper on them as well. Chocolate, one will assume is not high on the priority list, halloween candy having only recently been exhausted by Thanksgiving.

After having chosen one thing from each of the first six categories above, It's time to think about how to bring all of these many dishes hot to the table and still be a relaxed and engaging host. The easiest way is to have someone else actually cook everything. With a bit of delegation, one can easily get others to bring:

Delegate wisely and you will reduce your work load to preparing the fowl, the gravy, the stuffing, and coordinating everything else.

Most of the work for the stuffing and the gravy can be done two or three days in advance.

Turkey Gravy
  1. Clean two carrots, two ribs of celery, and one onion. Cut into slices just less than 1/4 inch thick.
  2. Place in a single layer in the bottom of a 4 quart dutch oven and heat over medium in 2 T olive oil until mid golden.
  3. While these are heating, prepare a bouquet garni by tying
  4. When the veggies are golden/ slightly brown add 2 can of chicken stock (24 oz) and 24 oz of water. Add the neck, the gizzard, and two wings to the pot to intensify the flavor. And add the herb bundle.
  5. Reduce volume by half under medlow heat, about 45 min.
  6. Discard the neck, gizzard, vegetables.
  7. At the end of 45 minutes, make the roux.
  8. Melt 4 T. butter in a 10 inch pan. whisk in 4 T. pastry flour or barley flour .
  9. Stir the roux continuously over medium heat for 3-5 minutes. It will begin to darken and smell just a tad nutty. At this point, add it to the reduced stock, stirring constantly. Be sure to add the roux to the stock slowly, whisking vigorously. Add the juice of 1/2 lemon.
  10. Seal in a glass container and refrigerate for up to 3 days.
  11. After roasting the turkey, heat the base (above) and mix with the non-fat part of the turkey drippings; up to a 3 cups of the luscious fluid that collects in the bottom of the roasting pan. One can also puree some of the roasted onion, celery, or carrot, up to 1/2 cup, put it through a sieve, and add to the gravy.
  12. Correct the flavor with no more than two or three of the following;
    • turkey base - up to 1 tbs.( Penzeys)
    • butter - up to 1 tbs.
    • chardonnay wine - up to 3T
    • apple juice - up to 2T
    • tamari soy sauce- up to 2 tsp
    • balsamic vinegar - a few drops
    • worcestershire sauce - a few drops
    • sweet paprika - 1/2 tsp
    • dried thyme - pinch
    • oolong tea - pinch
    • pureed roasted carrot, celery, onion from pan - up to 1/4 cup

Comments - there are lots of different sensibilities about gravy. One is that it should be a simple, straighforward echo of browned meat with a smooth, slightly unctious mouth feel. Another is that is should bring a touch of sweetness or some herbal or vegetal flavor to complement the meat. This recipe will allow one some expressive freedom in any of these directions. If one is going for brown meat flavor, one can add mushrooms to the list of vegetables and soy sauce to the list of flavor corrections. If one is going for herbal, use thyme and a bit of chardonnay at the end. Bear in mind that the sauce's flavor will be strongly influenced by what you add last, so add sparingly and taste carefully.

About The Turkey

The good news about the turkey is that if it is fully cooked and the gravy is good, what you do to get there is not of great importance. Turkey, even well cooked turkey, is not necessarily full of flavor; its flavor is delicate and subtle. Since the rest of the meal is full of other rich flavors, the turkey just needs to look golden, smell golden, and be cooked adequately to please.

The monstrous challenge with turkey is that the breast cooks much faster than the thighs. But the drumsticks and wings cook very much faster than either. There are some clever things one can do to mitigate the problem, but it never goes away completely. If one is feeding more than 12 people, one ought to consider abandoning the idea of cooking a whole bird, but rather, cook its parts. If one does this, one can cook each part in a way most suited to its dimensions and qualities. In so doing one will minimize waste. Another alternative is simply to remove the wings and drumsticks and cook them separately. They will probably cook in as little as 40 minutes if separated from the turkey. One might consider using them to make gravy.

Buying the Turkey

The first step in cooking a turkey comes in buying one. The range of alternatives is mind-numbing; but there are two factors that will potentially effect the outcome in a major way: fresh or frozen, kosher or not.

There are great arguments about whether fresh or frozen is better, and to a significant degree it depends on the brand and the cooking practice and so on. If you buy a week ahead to lower the pressure, you may wish to buy a frozen one. Be sure the bird has enough time to thaw. Last year I bought a frozen one, followed the thawing directions, and had to send my wife out to get a fresh turkey. That was at 9:00 Thanksgiving morning after an hour and a half of soaking had failed to complete the 5 day thawing ritual. This is not a relaxing way to spend early Thanksgiving morning.

Brining the Turkey

If you buy a koshered bird then you don't have to think about brining it. It has been brined. Similarly, a number of major national brands will have been injected with saltwater, meaning that brining is not a good idea. Real gourmets will wish to buy an untreated bird, make brining baths with salt, brown sugar, peppercorns, allspice, cloves, and so on, and brine the bird overnight before roasting. This adds flavor to the bird and helps to keep it moist.

  1. To make the brine, heat 2 quarts of water to boiling. Add
  2. Let this cool to room temperature add 2 cups kosher salt. Store sealed in a glass container in the refrigerator until ready for use.
  3. Get a cooler that is just a bit bigger than the turkey. A simple styrofoam cooler will work.
  4. To the brine concentrate, add 1 1/2gallon of water. and a pound of ice.
  5. Place the turkey in the styrofoam cooler, add the brine solution. Close, and leave in a cool place for 8 to 12 hours on the night before roasting. This, BTW, is a way to make sure that a bird is completely thawed.

Brining can be started 24 hours in advance of cooking, if one wishes for an extra crispy skin. The bird is then dried with clean paper towels, and placed on a half rack uncovered to air dry in a refrigerator overnight. Otherwise, brine for twelve hours starting the evening before the big meal.

Roasting the Turkey

There is much controversy over stuffing. What we can say is that we have done it both ways. When cooked inside the turkey, it should be pre-heated to about 115F to start. This is not impossible to do if one has a microwave. Another problem is that stuffing generally falls out of the turkey, when it is turned in the oven and makes a mess in the bottom of the roasting pan. So we do not do in-fowl stuffing anymore.

The secret to an evenly done bird is to protect the tender spots from too much heat and to rotate the bird. Mostly, we work by the rules in Craig Clayborne's New York Times Cookbook.

  1. Slice 2 large onions. Clean 4 large carrots, and 4 large ribs of celery and cut into large chunks.
  2. Place these, along with a tablespoon of olive oil in the bottom of a large roasting pan. (These may never be eaten, but without adequate vegetable coverage, the drippings will burn in the roasting pan. This can, among other things, cause the turkey to catch fire or cause a false alarm that brings out the fire department. These vegetables will add flavor to the gravy.)
  3. Carefully pat the turkey dry. If you covet crispy skin, and you don't mind looking silly, you can blow-dry it for two minutes or so.
  4. Rub the turkey with butter or olive oil. You might also apply a bit of pepper or lemon pepper, or Florida seasoning pepper, depending on your tastes.
  5. Wrap the drumsticks and wings in aluminum foil being careful not to cover the thighs or breast.
  6. Place the turkey breast side down on a v-shaped roasting rack. And place the rack in the pan.
  7. Halve three Granny Smith apples, heat in the microwave for three minutes, and place in the cavity of the bird.
  8. Place the turkey in an oven preheated to 425 F.
  9. Cook for 60 minutes for a bird 16 lb. or less, 90 minutes for a larger bird.
  10. Turn the turkey 180 degrees, so it is breast-side up.
  11. Cook for 60 minutes.
  12. Fold a triangular section of foil, and cover the turkey breast. Try to fit it carefully to cover the whole breast tightly.
  13. Reduce the roasting temperature to 325F. Begin testing the bird at least 15 to 30 minutes before indicated below. The turkey is done when the breast reaches 170F and the thigh reaches 180F and the juices run clear.
  14. Roast the remaining time until done:
    • 8 to 12 lb -> .25 to 1.0 hr. more - 2.25 - 3.0 hrs.
    • 12 to 16 lb -> 1.0 hr to 2.0 hrs. more - 3.0 - 4.0 hrs.
    • 16 to 20 lb -> 1.5 to 2.0 hrs. more - 4.0 - 4.5 hrs.
    • 20 to 24 lb -> 2.0 to 2.5 hrs. more - 4.5-5.0 hrs.
  15. Remove, tent with foil, and rest for 15 minutes.

Use the yummy liquid that collects in the bottom of the pan in gravy.

The Stuffing

There must be ten million ways to make stuffing; but fundamentally it comes down to a few kinds of items. There is the bread-like stuff - usually cornbread or a mix of cornbread and white bread. There is the binder, egg. There is the moistener, stock. There are the veggie additives - sauteed onion, celery, red bell pepper. There are the herbal additives - sage, parsley, thyme. There are the basic deliciosity additives - butter, salt, pepper. And, the "bonus" additives. Bonus additives can be meats - usually some sort of sausage or bacon, or they can be nuts - chestnuts, cashews,or pecans can work, or they can be mushrooms, or they can be fruits such as raisins or currants, or they can be hard-boiled eggs.

In my own opinion it is vital that the stuffing deliver a good serving of sage and onion in order to balance the richness of other dishes. I don't relish sweet stuff in my stuffing, but I am happy to encounter some bits of sausage or nuts. That said, I can also imagine less sage and more of a fruit and nut sensibility. In terms of texture, I want it to have some 'crispy fried bread' texture on the surface, yet be moist, almost custardy in the center. I expect that such an animal can only be had by steaming first, then finishing in the oven at a high temperature; but here is my first guess at a simpler method.

  1. Chop 5 ribs of celery and one large onion
  2. Seed, core, chop two red bell peppers
  3. If using button mushrooms, chop them. Picky chefs will saute these separately under high heat to develop their browned meat flavor.
  4. Saute vegetables in 3 tbs butter over med heat until onion is transparent and pepper is soft, about ten minutes stirring frequently.
  5. During the last 3 minutes add
  6. Make a batch of corn bread.
  7. This mix can be stored in the refrigerator for up to three days.
  8. One hour before the meal, Heat 12 oz chicken stock in a microwave to roughly 16oF .
  9. Heat the vegetables in the microwave for two minutes.
  10. Mix 3 eggs with 1 1/2 cup of milk, thoroughly.
  11. Chop any nuts that will be used, and cook any sausage or bacon. In this recipe we will assume 4 breakfast sausage patties, browned and crumbled, and 1 cup of chopped pecans.
  12. Crumble the cornbread over the bottom of a 9x13 pyrex baking pan. Drizzle the sausage fat over the bread, add and mix in the hot sauteed vegetables and the sausage.
  13. Sprinkle 2 T all-purpose flour over the mixture
  14. Pour the heated stock into the milk and egg mixture, mixing vigorously. Pour the mixture over the bread and vegetable mixture, mix.
  15. Bake 20 min at 350F.
Cornbread for Stuffing
  1. Preheat oven to 425 F. Heat a 10 inch cast iron pan over med heat, with 2 T. butter and melt, about 3-4 minutes.
  2. As it is warming, mix
    • 1 1/2 cups cornmeal
    • 1/4 cup all purpose flour or barley flour
    • 2 tsp. baking powder
    • 1 tsp baking soda
    • 1 tsp salt
    • 1 egg
    • 1 1/2 cups buttermilk, microwaved 20 sec.
  3. Pour the batter into the warm skillet and place in oven.
  4. Bake for 15 minutes, check by inserting toothpick in the center, bake until a toothpick comes out dry.

This cornbread makes for pretty good eating, too; so I make two batches. Those who really want to simplify the meal may cook corn bread instead of stuffing. Some guests may not notice, but it will simplify your own life tremendously. You may want get buy-in on this from your spouse or other cooks who are bringing major dishes.

Other Thanksviving Recipes

Cranberry Walnut Chutney
  1. Chop 1 cup walnuts, . Measure separately
    • 1 cup water ,
    • 3/4 cup brown sugar,
    • 1/4 cup white sugar.
    • 1 cup golden raisins.
  2. In a 3 quart nonreactive saucepan (stainless or enamel) heat one 16 oz package of cranberries over high heat stirring constantly, for a minute or two, reduce heat to medium, add the white sugar, and stir another minute or two.
  3. Add the water, brown sugar, raisins, and chopped walnuts.
  4. As these cook, core, peel, and chop 2 Granny Smith apples . Add.
  5. Reduce heat and cook for 15 minutes on low.
  6. Meanwhile, make 1 T. of fresh orange zest. And defrost 1/2 cup orange juice concentrate in the microwave, about 1 min.
  7. When 15 minutes are up, add the orange ingredients and
  8. Raise heat to med, stirring, until it reaches a boil, then decant to a pyrex conainer, seal and refrigerate for up to a week
Sweet Potato Casserole

I love those sticky sweet candied sweet potatoes of Thanksgivings long ago. And I suppose that every person under the age of 25 has a kind of right to expect these for this meal. But if one is feeding a group of adults, something a bit less overpowering is a refreshing change.

  1. Bake 8 med. sweet potatoes at 350 F for 60 minutes or until the skins can be removed without any scraping.
  2. Remove the skins & and mash the sweet potatoes.
  3. Defrost 1/2 cup orange juice concentrate.
  4. Set 1 cup pecan halves on a cookie sheet. Drizzle with maple syrup. Roast in oven at 300 F for 6-8 minutes, sprinkle lightly with salt, and, if desired, chipotle pepper. cool.
  5. Add orange juice, 1 tsp. salt, 1/2 tsp. nutmeg, 1/2 cup brown sugar to the mashed sweet potatoes.
  6. These ingredients can be stored, sealed and refrigerated for up to three days.
  7. In a microwave, heat the mashed sweet potatoes until just warm to touch, 115F.
  8. Melt 4 T. butter, mix with sweet potatoes
  9. Beat 2 eggs and add.
  10. Place in a 9 x 9 in casserole.
  11. Arrange the pecan halves on the top of the casserole.
  12. Bake at 350 for 25 min.

Those who cannot get enough of cranberries ought to consider soaking a cup of craisins ( dried cranberries ) in hot water and adding these. It would bring a whole different dimension to the dish.


Copyright S.R. Brubaker 2002 - 2006.