As a passionate home cook, Thanksgiving is my grail, my marathon, the ability to pull it off is a source of pride, and no moments of my year are as purely pleasurable as those brief moments of silence around the table when everyone tucks into their plates, followed by gradual exclamations of rapturous delight. And while there is always something a little bit new or different every year, the basics stay the same, and I’ve gotten a lot of it down to a science.
But science doesn’t mean clenched perfectionism.
With all due respect to Martha, you don’t need twenty four matching turkey shaped bowls for the soup to taste good, you don’t have to grow your own cranberries, or even make your own pie crust (or pie for that matter) for this day to be wonderful. Good food, prepared with love, and served with a smile is all anyone needs for the holiday to be sublime…to each at the level of their own ability.
For those of you who are thinking of tackling the big day, I’ve got some tips to help you out. The most important thing about Thanksgiving is right there in the name, be thankful. If you burn the turkey, make PB&J and laugh it off. And if at all possible, set yourself up for success with some simple advice and simpler recipes.
I am feeling especially blessed this year since Charming Suitor’s parents, Reverend and Mrs. Charming are joining us for my favorite holiday. It is their first visit since Charming Suitor and I found each other, and I am so excited to have them here to celebrate our first Thanksgiving with us, since one of the things I am most thankful for is their dreamy son.
Plus it means that this year, I have the best co-chef ever, since Charming Suitor's knife skills are just as good as his boyfriend skills, so I am so excited to make this meal for our families together. He is going to teach me his famous cornbread stuffing and yeast rolls, and says that I can share both recipes with you when we are done. Yippee! Seriously? This holiday gives me the all-over joy wiggles, and the fact that it is our first Thanksgiving together is making it so over the top fabulous that I am amazed my feet are even touching the ground.
But I know that some of you do not look forward to this day with the same level of insane enthusiasm.
Whether you are having a huge event with five generations, a gathering of your best pals who aren’t able to be with their own families, or just a small dinner with you and your sweetie, there are ways to make this day less stressful, and more joyous.
Firstly, know thyself. Do you regularly make your own puff pastry, serve towering flaming Baked Alaskas, and finish your sauces with homemade demi-glace? Then find any challenging menu that inspires you and have at it. But if you burn the toast four days out of ten, this isn’t the time to try anything complicated. Keep things simple, and don’t be afraid to get help with the hard stuff or fiddly bits. People love to participate, so let guests bring something to take some of the pressure off you. If you’ve never made pie crust, buy a good quality frozen crust. Look at local prepared foods sections of grocery stores and see who is offering side dishes and do a tasting the week before. If Whole Foods is making a killer stuffing, there’s no shame in serving it. Does gravy make you nervous? Add five or six whole peeled shallots to the turkey roasting pan along with your bird, and simply blend them into the de-fatted pan juices to thicken it easily without all that tricky flour business.
Secondly, know thy audience. You might be a major foodie, but is Aunt Marge? No point in fussing over individual pumpkin soufflés cooked in hollowed out oranges unless the rest of your guests will think it as cool as you do, and not wonder where the Entenmann’s Pumpkin Pie with Cool Whip is this year. You can take the basics and just make them with the best ingredients you can get, and know that you have improved, even if you haven’t monumentally altered. Or think of it as a retro meal, all the rage these days, and revel in the kitschy quality of making the recipes the old way.
Thanksgiving is also a great time to connect with Mom, Grandma, or your favorite Fairy Godmother (or father)…call and ask for advice and recipes, they’ll be flattered and you’ll be amazed how many great tips they can give you.
So, if you’re getting ready for the big day, here are Stacey’s Thanksgiving Commandments:
1. Thou shalt buy a fresh turkey from a butcher, and brine before roasting.
I know Butterball seems like a good idea, but they are so filled with preservatives and salt and other unnatural stuff, they don’t really taste like turkey. Call before the holiday and have your local butcher order you a fresh turkey for pick up the Tuesday or Wednesday before Thanksgiving. Take it home and brine for 24 hours using the brine recipe of your choice…mine is below. You’ll be delighted with the results. Many stores like Whole Foods also carry fresh turkey these days, splurge. It is the centerpiece of the meal, and your sandwiches will be elevated all weekend!
2. Thou shalt discover how easy it is to make awesome cranberry sauce.
Cranberry sauce is not just the easiest part of the meal; it can be made up to a week in advance. It’s the perfect thing for even a reluctant cook to offer to bring to someone else’s meal, or an easy addition to your own. (and yes, I know some of you love that shimmering jiggling tube with all the ridges, and if you must, have some on hand…but do at least TRY homemade…you can always serve both)
3. Thou shalt not be ashamed to make the green bean casserole with the Campbell’s Condensed Soup.
Sure, I’m a foodie-slash-crazy person, so I make my cream of mushroom soup from scratch before assembling the ubiquitous casserole…but honestly, it’s a tradition for a reason, the original recipe is pretty comforting and delicious in its own nursery food way, and easy to make, so even if you consider yourself a major gourmet, pull out the processed food version and serve with a smile. Ditto sweet potatoes with marshmallows.
4. Thou shalt not overdo the appetizers.
You’re going to spend at least two days cooking for this meal. Let your guests be hungry when they get to the table. Keep your pre-dinner nibbles to small bowls of nuts or olives or pretzels or the like, think basic bar snacks…you just want your guests to have something to nosh on with their pre-dinner drinks, but if they fill up on hors d’oeuvres you’ll all be sad when you get to the table and can’t manage seconds. (this is good advice for any dinner party…either plan heavy hors d’ouevres and a light supper, or vice versa)
5. Thou shalt not bother with salad.
I know it always seems like such a good idea to make a fresh green salad. But frankly, it takes up valuable space on a plate that should be devoted to fourteen different starches, and you’re just going to throw most of it away, since it will be all wilty and depressed by the time you go to put the leftovers away. No one will miss it. Seriously. Stop even thinking about it.
6. Thou shalt not count calories, skimp on ingredients, measure portions, or whine and pout about how bad the food is for you.
We are all very sensitive to healthy eating these days, and more than a few of us are dealing with the need to lose a couple of pounds. Or a couple of dozen. THIS IS NOT THE DAY TO DO IT. Thanksgiving is, at its very core, a celebration of food and the memories that food invokes and the new memories created at the table. You do yourself, your host, and the day a disservice if you think of it as anything else, or deprive yourself of the sheer joy of this meal. If you’re the cook, don’t alter recipes with low fat/low salt/low taste versions of things unless you have a guest with medically prescribed dietary restrictions. Don’t skip meals before, so that you aren’t blindly starving by the time you get to the buffet, and if you’re really concerned, fill your plate anyway you like, but either don’t go back for seconds, or on your second round, stick to the less gloopy veggies and white meat turkey and the cranberry sauce. Any nutritionist worth their salt will tell you that one meal cannot derail your overall progress, especially if you get back to your program the next day and maybe add a workout that week. And any counselor will tell you that the surest way to be cranky is to deprive yourself while all around you are celebrating. Give yourself a break…you’ll be amazed that if you give yourself permission to have everything you want, how easy it is not to overdo it.
7. Thou shalt not stuff your bird.
I can hear you crying about it now….you are used to the bird packed with stuffing, you dream about the really crispy good part in the front over the neck, why can’t we stuff our turkeys? Here’s why….one, a stuffed bird is the best possible way to get food borne illness on the agenda. If the stuffing doesn’t get up to at least 180 degrees internally, it can breed bacteria, not fun. Two, in order to get the stuffing to 180, you are going to overcook the crap out of the turkey itself, especially the breast meat. Three, all that moistness you love in the in-the-bird stuffing? That is all the juices from the meat that are getting sucked out by the huge stuffing sponge, and you not only dry out your bird, you have many fewer juices with which to make gravy. Make your stuffing and bake in a separate dish, and if you really miss that dense moistness, buy a couple of extra turkey wings and lay them on top of the casserole as it bakes, and/or melt a stick of butter in a cup of chicken stock and pour it over the stuffing ten minutes before taking it out of the oven. And get over it. Stuffing that wasn’t actually stuffed is always going to be better than food poisoning.
8. Thou shalt not test more than one new recipe for this meal.
Thanksgiving is a wonderful meal to add to, but don’t do everything at once. I know that the cooking mags have all sorts of new-fangled versions of things, but they have to reinvent the holiday menu every year. Experimentation is good, but if you change the whole thing up at once, people are going to miss their old standby favorites. Pick one dish that you think is ready for a revamp, and throw in that curveball. If you love it, add it to the repertoire. But don’t do the chipotle rubbed turkey, sweet potato tofu bake, barley stuffing, green beans with fresh ricotta, and sherried fig cranberry coulis all in one meal. Someone will weep openly, and everyone will have to run out the next day and make a few traditional items to get them through to next year.
9. Thou shalt not be a Thanksgiving Dictator.
If people want to help in the kitchen, let them. And don’t criticize the quality of their small dice, or the way they wash the pots. Ditto assigning specific foods to guests who want to bring something…if someone offers to bring a dish, ask them what they love to make or what they crave most about Thanksgiving and let them bring that. Who cares if you have two kinds of sweet potatoes, or both cornbread and regular stuffing? On Thanksgiving, more is more, and abundance rules. Besides, you have a three day weekend that needs quality leftovers.
10. Thou shalt be thankful.
We are all very blessed in our own ways. Even if you are going through a rough time, there are those who have it rougher. Take a few moments to think about all of the gifts you have in your life, the family and friends who surround you, all of the wonderful things you may take for granted in the hustle and bustle of your day to day. Close your eyes, be joyful, and in all sincerity and humbleness thank the universe for your life.
And because I am so truly and deeply thankful for each and every one of you who reads this blog, FABULOUS PRIZES!
This amazing company called Lekue sent me a box full of totally cool cooking gadgets all made out of silicone. Everything from a lemon squeezer to a collapseable steamer. And I want to share the booty!
SO, post any of the following in the comments section: most hilarious Thanksgiving disaster, best Thanksgiving recipe, or best Thanksgiving tip. The best one will get a signed copy of my new book Good Enough to Eat which I will personalize to whoever you like (holiday gift anyone?), a Lekue Silicone pumpkin shaped cake mold a Lekue silicone cupcake set (including silicone cupcake cups, a spatula, and a decorating pod), and a really fantastic stretchy lid that allows you to flexibly top cans or jars for fridge storage.
|Perfect pumpkin shaped cakes, all season long. Think of the Jack O Lantern opportunities!|
|Such a great kit to play with-rainy day activities with the kids...|
|Perfect for those holiday cookies, even a decorating idiot like me can do it.|
|These things really seal well!|
And because I love you, the six runners-up will get either a decorating pod or a stretchy lid (please allow me to choose for you). Seven lucky winners in all! Post those comments between now and 11:59 Sunday night November 28, the winner will be announced Monday November 29. That way anything that happens this coming holiday weekend can be included in the running.
Yours in Good Taste,
Here are some of my go-to turkey day recipes. Follow to the letter or use as a springboard for your own touches… All recipes are designed to accommodate 12-14 people with leftovers.
1 16 lb. fresh turkey, fully thawed
9 Q water
1 gallon apple cider
1 bottle Riesling or other fruity white wine
2 ½ c kosher salt
2 c brown sugar
8 bay leaves
2 ½ T coriander
1 ½ T juniper berries
2 T peppercorns
1 ½ T fennel seed
1 T mustard seed
1 bunch thyme
Boil 1 Q water with salt, sugar and all spices. Cool. Put in brining bag. Remove giblets from turkey, and rinse bird under cold water inside and out.Add rest of ingredients and turkey. Brine minimum 12 hours, 24 is better.
Dry with clean dishcloths and set on large sheet pan. Season cavity well with salt and pepper, then add 1 quartered apple and a quartered onion to the cavity, along with a bunch of thyme. Put compund butter under skin and let sit on counter uncovered to tighten and dry skin, at least an hour.
Preheat oven to 500 degrees.
Make rack on the bottom of the roasting pan with celery, carrot, onion, 4-5 whole shallots, thyme. Melt remaining compound butter and brush the outside of the turkey. Put turkey on vegetables breast side down, and put in oven. Reduce immediately to 400 degrees. Cook 30 minutes. Reduce heat to 325, cook 90 minutes.
Flip breast side up, insert probe thermometer, and cook to 155 internal temp, 45-120 minutes depending on size of bird, rest 40 minutes.
Discard carrots, celery, onion and thyme sticks. Set aside shallots. Pour juices into fat separator or tall glass. Put roasting pan on one burner and add 1 c white wine, cooking over high heat to get any brown bits dissolved, and till reduced by half. Defat pan juices, add roasted shallots and wine and blend with immersion blender. Taste for seasoning. If not liquid enough, add turkey or chicken stock.
2 sticks butter at room temp
1 minced shallot
2 T fresh thyme leaves
2 T fresh rosemary
2 T Dijon mustard
Zest of 1 lemon
1 T salt
Blend by hand or in a food processor. Can be stored up to five days, or frozen for up to three months. Bring to room temp before using it on your turkey, I use half as is under the skin, and then melt the other half and brush the outside of the bird.
2 bags cranberries
1 ½ c port (or pomegranate juice if you are worried about alcohol)
1 c sugar
1 t salt
5 T orange juice
1 ½ t cornstarch
1 t ground mustard
1 t lemon juice
Zest of 1 orange
Pinch ground clove
Pinch fresh ginger
Zest of 1 lemon
½ c dried cherries-rehydrate by heating gently for 10 minutes in ¼ c port or water
Cook cranberries and port in a saucepan over med-high heat 10 minutes, until cranberries burst. Add sugar and salt. Whisk OJ, cornstarch, mustard, lemon juice in a bowl and add to berries. Stir to combine. Add rest of ingredients, cook 5-6 minutes more, cool.
Killer Mashed Potatoes
10 lb. Yukon Gold potatoes (peeled, cubed)
2 sticks butter, cubed
1 pt. whole milk, warmed (or half and half or cream, depending on how rich you like it)
1 pt. sour cream
1 8 oz tub whipped cream cheese with chives (or plain) at room temp
1 bunch chives, chopped fine
S&P to taste
Boil peeled cubed potatoes till soft in well salted water. Drain completely. Put potatoes through ricer, or just use hand masher to mash. Then switch to hand mixer, blending only just as long as you need to mix in each ingredient. Don't overmix! Add butter first, then cream cheese, and then milk to just shy of your preferred texture. Once the potatoes are almost there, add in the sour cream and chives and season well. Hold in double boiler to keep warm…this is the dish I make while the turkey is resting, best when fresh.
Stacey’s Green Bean Casserole
3 lbs fresh green beans, trimmed, blanched 90 seconds in boiling water, dried thoroughly (I often buy the microwave in bag pre-washed beans, and follow cooking directions, setting time for the lowest time listed (4 min per bag), then dry)
1 lb asst. sliced exotic mushrooms (I use 4 oz each oyster, crimini, chantrelle, and either morels or shitake, but use any combination of mushrooms that are available and you love)
2 shallots minced (or one small onion minced fine)
4 T butter
8 T flour
2 c chicken stock (homemade if possible)
2 c heavy cream
16 oz mascarpone cheese, room temp (can substitute cream cheese or soft goat cheese)
½ cup buttered breadcrumbs (1/2 c breadcrumbs sautéed in 2 T butter)-optional
1 large can French’s fried onions
In a large wide saucepan with high sides, sauté shallots and mushrooms in butter until moisture is released and evaporates completely. Sprinkle flour over mixture, stir in, and cook 2 minutes. Add stock and simmer 2 minutes. Add cream and simmer about 15-18 minutes until very thickened and reduced. Take off heat and stir in mascarpone, taste for seasoning, add salt and pepper. Mix beans with sauce and pour into buttered pan 9x13.
Mix buttered breadcrumbs and fried onions in bowl and set aside.
If serving right away: Cook 425 degrees 15 minutes, top with onion breadcrumb mixture, cook 10-15 minutes till top is lightly browned and crispy.
Can be made up to two days in advance…take out of fridge to come to room temp 90 minutes before cooking. Put in 350 degree oven for 30-40 minutes until bubbling around the edges. Top with onion mixture and cook additional 15 minutes.
1 XL loaf country bread or French bread cubed and toasted till totally dry (2 lbs.) (or 2 lbs of the plain crouton cubes from the store)
1 pkg soft egg rolls or hot dog buns torn coarsely
2 ½ sticks butter
1 ½ c finely chopped onion
1 ½ c finely chopped celery
Celery leaves from 2 heads, chopped
¼ c chopped flat leaf parsley
Dried sage, thyme, marjoram (1 T each)
S/P to taste
4 lg eggs, beaten
1 32 oz box chicken stock…add as necessary to moisten
½ c toasted bread crumbs
Saute veggies and herbs in 1 ½ sticks butter. Toss with bread. Add stock slowly till moist but not overly soggy. Taste for seasoning. Stir in eggs and mix well. Put in deep foil pan. Drizzle with melted stick of butter and sprinkle of breadcrumbs.
400 degrees for 25 minutes covered, then 20 uncovered. If you want extra turkey flavor, lay the pieces of 2-3 turkey wings on top of the casserole for all but the last 10 minutes, and for extra moistness, melt another 4-8 T butter in 1 c chicken or turkey stock and pour over top when you uncover the stuffing, then continue cooking.
Can be made up to two days in advance, and reheated in a 350 degree oven for 30 minutes before serving. Add in whatever you like to make it yours, cooked sausage meat, nuts or dried fruits, other herbs, mushrooms or water chestnuts, swap out some of the croutons for dried crumbled cornbread...
Sweet Potato Casserole
8 large sweet potatoes
1 stick butter
½ c brown sugar
Cinnamon, nutmeg, s/p
1 bag mini marshmallows
Roast potatoes in a 400 degree oven for about 45 minutes to an hour till ery soft. Mash with butter, sugar, and cinnamon, s/p, nutmeg. Mix in eggs.
Bake 350 for 25 minutes, add marshmallows to top in one layer, put back in oven for 10-15 more minutes until the marshmallows are golden brown.
Pumpkin/Butternut Squash Soup
If you want this soup all pumpkin, replace the butternut squash with fresh or frozen cubed pumpkin. If you want it all squash, eliminate the canned pumpkin and add another 2 lbs of cubed squash. I love this served at the table, but it also is great in little espresso cups as a pre-dinner amuse bouche.
3 lbs fresh butternut squash cubes(about 3 large squash, peeled and de-seeded and cubed)
2 large cans pumpkin (29.5 oz organic…not pumpkin pie filling!)
3 quarts chicken stock (or veggie stock if you have vegetarians coming)
1 pt. heavy cream
2 med. (or one large) yellow onions
1 stick butter
Fresh ground nutmeg
Prep squash if necessary by peeling, de-seeding and cubing in large chunks. Sauté onions in butter till soft but not browned, add squash and pumpkin. Pour in enough chicken stock to cover the vegetables by about 1 ½ - 2 inches. Cook over medium heat till very soft, about 35-45 minutes. Blend with immersion blender or in batches in regular blender till very smooth, for extra velvety soup strain thru Chinois or fine mesh strainer. Add cream and season to taste with salt and pepper and fresh nutmeg.
Freezes beautifully pre-cream, I often make a double batch and freeze half without the cream in it. Is also delish without the cream if you want to be healthier.
½ c heavy cream, whipped to soft peaks
8-10 amaretti cookies, crumbled but not powdered
Blend together right before serving and garnish each bowl or cup with a generous spoon.
Have also topped with:
Crushed gingersnaps and mini marshmallows
Crème fraiche mixed with crystallized ginger
Candied orange zest and toasted pine nuts
Toasted gingerbread croutons
Whipped cream blended with cranberry sauce
Crouton with melted asiago cheese
Fried sage leaves
Curried nuts (pumpkin seeds, pecans, walnuts)
Balsamic Cipollini Onions
A great savory/sweet side dish, and amazing on leftover sandwiches!
2 lbs cipollini onions, peeled (blanch in boiling water one minute, shock in ice water, skins should slip right off)
3 T olive oil
3 T butter
1 ½ T brown sugar
6 T balsamic vinegar
1 T chopped fresh parsley
Preheat oven to 500°F.
Place onions in medium bowl; toss with oil. Arrange onions on baking sheet or in roasting pan. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast until onions are brown and tender, rotating pan in oven and turn onions once, about 35 minutes (they will caramelize and be quite dark in parts but, if you have coated them well with olive oil, will not have a 'burnt' taste). Meanwhile, melt butter in heavy small saucepan over medium-high heat. Add sugar and stir until sugar dissolves. Remove from heat. Add vinegar. Return to heat. Simmer until mixture thickens slightly, about 2 minutes. Pour over onions and continue to cook in oven 10 more minutes. Sprinkle with parsley before serving.
Great pre-dinner nibble! A bowl of these and a bowl of nuts are really all you need.
1 large bag baby carrots (2 1bs)
1 bottle apple cider vinegar
1 large jar honey
4 T mustard seed
1 bunch dill
Combine vinegar, honey and mustard seed in saucepan. Add carrots and cook over med-high heat till carrots are cooked but still crisp, 5-8 minutes. Store in pickling liquid in fridge. Before serving, drain liquid, add chopped fresh dill.
Thanksgiving Time and Action Plan
Here is how I manage the week so that I don’t have a nervous breakdown. All recipes are above. I like to serve dinner at dinner time, but you can alter by changing the end time to the time you want to serve, and adjust backwards.
Monday: Cranberry sauce, pickled carrots, herb butter, make amaretti crumbs, prep veg for stuffing.
Tuesday: Make stuffing, sweet potatoes, onions, green bean casserole, soup, make brine for turkey and chill.
Wednesday: Brine turkey, set table, get house organized, make any desserts or breads you want to have, these are things I tend to let others bring for ease, but this would be the day to do it if it is on your agenda.
10:00 remove herb butter from fridge, take Turkey out of fridge and let sit in brine at room temp
10:30 make turkey stock from neck, wing tips, carrot, celery, onion, one bay leaf and a quart of water. Simmer for 30 minutes, strain and reserve.
11:00 remove turkey from brine, pat dry, put ½ herb butter under skin, leave uncovered to dry on counter (away from dog’s reach, cat access, or curious children) If you can’t leave it on the counter in the open kitchen, on top of the washer or dryer in the laundry room is another good place as long as it isn’t near any cleaning products.
12:30 melt remaining herb butter, brush on skin
1:00 Heat oven to 500. Make vegetable rack in roasting pan.
1:30 Put Turkey in oven Breast side down. Immediately reduce heat to 400
2:00 Reduce heat to 325
3:30 Turn Turkey breast side up. Take stuffing, sweet potato casserole, green beans, soup, cranberries out of fridge to come to room temp
4:30 peel and chunk potatoes, put in cold well-salted water in pot on stove
5:00 Turn soup on medium-low, make amaretti whipped cream
5:15 Turn on potatoes, chop chives, heat milk and cream for mash
5:30 Turkey out of oven, tent with foil, rest minimum 40 minutes. Put sweet potato casserole, stuffing, green beans in oven. Make gravy/jus.
5:45 Mash potatoes
5:55 Put marshmallows on sweet potato casserole, add broth with butter to stuffing if needed
6:15 Have someone serve soup while you carve turkey