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Tuesday
Oct162012

Thanksgiving Deconstructed

There isn't a culinary magazine on the stands that isn't filled with sure fire recipes to take your Thanksgiving meal back to basics, up a notch, classic with a twist, or onto the list of good things.  Many of us actually dread cooking Thanksgiving.  Let's face it, it's one of the hardest, most expensive, time-consuming, and oven consuming meals out there.

Why?

Because everyone has their version of, "It's not Thanksgiving unless we have (insert from the list below)."

Turkey
Gravy
Gravy with giblets
Turkey Stuffing
Mashed Potatoes
Sweet Potato Casserole
Broccoli Au Gratin
Garlic Green Beans
Braised Brussel Sprouts
Creamed Onions
Cranberry Compote
Pear Chutney
Apple Pie
Pumpkin Pie
Pecan Pie

By the time you are done with the list of must haves, you are now cooking ten different dishes, juggling timing and oven space, and lists of ingredients a mile long.  You spend a fortune, a full week cooking, and in fifteen minutes everyone is finished eating.  There were so many choices your guests put one tablespoon of every dish on their plates and you have food enough left over to feed an army.

At least that was what happened the first time I cooked a Thanksgiving Dinner.

These days, I have a different approach, and I thought I would try to launch my How To Journal with some of my methods and short-cuts for Thanksgiving:

  1. Pick five dishes from your list and don't budge from that list.  If anyone of your guests insists on a dish, let them bring their own.  Yours will never match anyway.  So, something like Turkey, Turkey Gravy, Turkey Dressing, Potato, and Vegetable isn't so daunting.   If any of your guests offer to bring something, let them bring an appetizer, dessert or a garnish.  Tell them to bring the dish already cooked, in the dish they are going to serve it in, with serving utensils.  (I've gone so far as to tell them to bring their dish home dirty, to cut down on clean-up.)  If they want oven or cook top time, they are just going to get in your way.  And if you have guests that are chronically late, have them bring dessert, not appetizer.
  2. Don't stuff the turkey.  Make Turkey Dressing, cook it in a casserole dish.  Remember our mothers getting up at 4am to get the stuffing made, let it cool, get it into the bird, and get the bird in the oven for nearly six hours, and then race to get the stuffing out of the bird before the USDA police caught them?  Waste of time if you know one secret.  (Ok, maybe two).  Keep reading.
  3. Make Your Own Turkey Stock.  What comes out of can or a box, tastes like the can or the box.  I usually roast a turkey breast sometime in the fall, and save the carcass, but if not, buy a turkey breast in the deli/rotisserie section of the grocery store.  Enjoy the meat, and keep the bones.  Ask the butcher if he has any turkey wings or neck bones for sale, take them home and just roast them in the oven.  Then use any or all of this to make your stock.  Throw all the cooked bones into a stock pot, add a carrot, onion, stalk of celery, garlic clove, and bay leaf and boil it for about two hours.  Drain the solids out and discard them.  If you have made the turkey stock in advance, let it cool down, then skim the fat off the top. When you are ready to make your Turkey Dressing, using this stock for the liquid will make it taste like it came right out of the bird.  And use it for your turkey gravy as well.  It will taste like you took all day to make your gravy.
  4. Make your own bread stuffing.  What comes out of a box or a bag, tastes like the box or the bag.  I've made my own cornbread the week before, broke it up into chunks, and let it get stale on a jelly roll pan in the oven until I'm ready to use it.  Alternatively, buy a loaf of your favorite bread from the bakery and have them slice it.  When you get it home, you can cube it, or break it apart, let it get stale, and then throw it in the freezer until you are ready to use it.  Using your own bread stuffing will make all the difference in whatever recipe you use.  And if you butter the bottom of the dish you will get that nice crunch that comes from the outside crust of the stuffing that usually falls out of the bird.
  5. Roast your unstuffed turkey on a rack in a low sided roasting pan, in the oven at 325, use a meat thermometer that has a probe wired to a gauge outside of the oven, and don't open the oven until the turkey is done.  Don't baste it.  You don't need to.  Every time you open that oven, you lose at least 150 degrees, and now the oven has to get back up to temperature which only prolongs your cooking time.  Whatever recipe you are using will yield a tender, moist turkey with this method because it cooks more evenly, and in a shorter period of time than a traditionally stuffed turkey and basting.  I cook mine to 183 degrees.  I know that sounds like too much according to all of the gauges, but we like our turkey done.  I have never had a dry, tough, or worse, bloody turkey using this method.  As soon as your turkey is done, you can put the stuffing in the oven, and turn the oven up to about 375 for 45 minutes.  By the time you let your bird rest, make the gravy, and carve the bird, your dressing will be done.

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