Year after year, the glossy food magazines scream that you have to tart up your turkey and pimp out your pumpkin pie. But the truth is, when it comes to Thanksgiving, most of us don’t want exciting, new-fangled dishes. We want classic, comforting food, the stuff of Norman Rockwell.
“All that malarkey gets in the way of making a good Thanksgiving,” says Sam Sifton, author of “Thanksgiving: How to Cook it Well” (Random House, 2012). “Just make a good bird. How about we start with excellence on the basics and move beyond there? You can probably improve on a classic Thanksgiving, but why?”
Thanksgiving exists as much in our minds as our stomachs, say cookbook authors and food experts, and it’s not the day to mess with people’s expectations. Remember the year you departed from family tradition by putting walnuts in the stuffing? Or the time you skipped Grandma’s Jell-O mold? Didn’t go so well, did it?
But traditional doesn’t have to mean boring. As with any good meal, experts say start with excellent ingredients and treat them well. Vary flavors, textures and colors. And perhaps most important, know your limits.
“I suggest to people that they need to be honest with themselves about what they can really accomplish,” says Jack Bishop, editorial director of America’s Test Kitchen, publisher of Cook’s Illustrated magazine. “You can have this fantasy, but if the reality does not line up, then you’ve just created a nightmare moment rather than a comforting moment.”
If you’ve only got a day to shop and prepare, Bishop offers, don’t make pies. Buy them, or have a guest bring them. If you’ve got one oven, do your mashed sweet potatoes in the slow cooker, and maybe grill or deep fry the turkey to free up the oven for other things. Do as much as you can — the soup, the cranberry sauce — beforehand.
Use your time — and your money — wisely by investing in the best possible ingredients. If you buy a pie, buy a good pie. If you make one, use European butter and the crispest apples you can find. Make your cornbread stuffing with real eggs and butter and get the andouille from the local specialty shop. And remember that the absolute last place to cut back is the turkey.
“The turkey has to be the star of the show,” says Rick Rodgers, author of “Thanksgiving 101” (William Morrow, 2007) and most recently the editor of “The Essential James Beard Cookbook” (St. Martin’s Press, 2012). “That means choose it carefully. That means a fresh turkey. I never use a frozen turkey. The cost of a fresh turkey has come way down. Once a year you’re going to roast a turkey. Would it kill you to buy a nice one?”
And remember that little things — things that take no time at all — can make the meal exciting and special.
“Fresh out of the oven rolls. Really good local butter. A wine that you would never serve unless it’s a holiday,” Rodgers says. “Homemade cranberry sauce. I repeat, homemade. It’s so easy to make and it’s delicious. One day out of the year, why open a can when it takes you 5 minutes to make it? It’s just little things like that that make it a special meal.”
Plan the menu well, anticipating how all the dishes go together so that the meal doesn’t run together into one bland sensation. “You don’t want to make three potato dishes,” Bishop says. “You need to think about how the flavors and colors and textures are going to work on the plate. You don’t want four starchy, creamy, buttery things, as delicious as that sounds.”
But don’t skip the starchy, creamy, buttery things, they all agree. Thanksgiving is a day of indulgence, a national day of dietary absolution. So use real cream and real butter. Forget about Uncle Morty’s high blood pressure and salt the food until it tastes good. Use real sugar in the desserts.
“It’s Thanksgiving,” Sifton says. “You can have a salad tomorrow.”
If you are going to go to the (admittedly little) trouble of brining your Thanksgiving turkey, be sure to set the bar higher than simply adding moisture. Granted, this is the primary goal of a brine. Soaking the bird in a salty solution prior to roasting, does help plump the meat and keep it moist during cooking.
But this also is a great opportunity to add plenty of flavor to the turkey. To make the most of that opportunity, we decided to brine our turkey in apple cider, brown sugar, sage and black pepper. The flavor ends up being at once subtly sweet, but also boldly savory. And that is a combination that makes the meat a perfect partner for all the classic Thanksgiving sides.
Start to finish: 2½ to 3 hours (plus brining)
Makes a 12- to 14-pound turkey with gravy
For the turkey:
12- to 14-pound turkey
½ gallon apple cider
½ cup kosher salt
½ cup packed brown sugar
½ cup minced fresh sage
1 tablespoon crushed black peppercorns
For the gravy:
¼ cup white wine
2 cups low-sodium chicken or turkey broth
3 tablespoons instant flour, such as Wondra
3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh sage
Salt and ground black pepper
Place a 2½-gallon zip-close plastic bag upright in a large bowl. Place the turkey in the bowl, then pour in the cider, salt, brown sugar, sage and peppercorns. Seal the bag, squeezing out as much as possible as you do so. Massage the bag to mix the ingredients in the liquid. Refrigerate and let brine for a minimum of 8 hours, turning the turkey now and again.
When ready to roast, heat the oven to 350 degrees. Fit a roasting pan with a rack.
Remove the turkey from the brine and discard the brine. Pat the turkey dry with paper towels, then set it onto the roasting rack. Roast for 2 to 2½ hours, or until the temperature of the breast reaches 160 degrees and the thighs reach 170 degrees. If the turkey begins to darken too much, over it loosely with foil.
Transfer the turkey to a serving platter, wrap with foil, then set a couple layer of bath towels over it to keep it warm.
Remove the rack from the roasting pan. Place the roasting pan over medium heat on the stovetop (you may need two burners) and bring the juices to a simmer. Add the wine and scrape up any browned bits on the bottom of the pan. Pour the broth into the pan, whisking continuously. Then add the flour and whisk to combine. Simmer for 5 minutes, while continuing to stir. Season with sage, salt and black pepper.
To stand out in a Thanksgiving spread, a salad must be bold and flavorful. Yet it should not compete with the other flavors on the table. To strike this delicate balance, we created this easy arugula salad that is topped with spiced and sauteed pears and goat cheese, then drizzled with a pomegranate-Dijon vinaigrette.
Start to finish: 15 minutes
1 tablespoon butter
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
3 large pears, cored and sliced
½ cup dried cranberries
½ cup sliced dried apricots
½ cup pomegranate juice
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
Pinch of ground allspice
¼ cup olive oil
10-ounce container baby arugula
4 ounces soft goat cheese, crumbled
In a large skillet over medium-high heat, combine the butter and cinnamon. When the butter has melted, add the pears and saute until they are softened, about 5 minutes. Add the cranberries and apricots, then cook for another minute. Set aside off the heat.
In a blender, combine the pomegranate juice, red wine vinegar, sugar, Dijon mustard, salt, pepper, allspice and olive oil. Blend until well combined.
In a large bowl, arrange the arugula. Top the greens with the sauteed pear mixture, then the crumbled goat cheese. Serve the vinaigrette on the side.
A classic Thanksgiving dinner is only complete with the classic finish — an aromatic pumpkin pie rich with cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg, and topped with pillowy soft mounds of whipped cream. To sweeten both the pie and the cream, we turned to maple syrup, which complements the other ingredients with a rich, but still subtle sweetness.
Start to finish: 1 hour 15 minutes
For the pie:
9-inch prepared deep-dish pie crust in a pan
15-ounce can pumpkin puree
1 cup grade B maple syrup
1 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon dried ground ginger
½ teaspoon nutmeg
For the whipped cream:
1 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon cinnamon
¼ cup sugar
Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Place the pie crust on a baking sheet.
To make the pie filling, in a medium bowl, whisk together the pumpkin puree, maple syrup, heavy cream, eggs, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and salt. Pour into the prepared pie crust. Bake for 50 to 60 minutes, or until the center is just barely set. Set on a rack to cool completely.
When ready to serve, make the whipped cream. In a medium bowl, whisk together the heavy cream, cinnamon and maple sugar until the cream forms soft peaks. Serve alongside the pie.
Copyright 2012 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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