Even though I’ve cooked the Thanksgiving meal more times than I can count, every year I learn new things.
These lessons can involve anything from seating plans (always keep the two most politically extreme guests at extreme ends of the table – after all, Thanksgiving is about creamy onions, not crummy opinions) to planning your ingredient storage (buying four big bags of perishables a week in advance is not a good plan if you share a small fridge with two other people – you may find that it’s relations and not radishes that perish) and – of course, dealing with leftovers (see recipe below).
Most of these are practical, but some of them are more emotional. After all, that particular day is about giving thanks for something.
So here’s what I’ve learned this year:
LESSON 1. IF IT’S FROZEN, LET IT GO.
As God is my witness, I am never cooking a frozen turkey again. Budgetary constraints and the fact that frozen turkeys are generally all you can find in UK supermarkets until Thanksgiving morning (I remain convinced that the British do this on purpose) have always meant I’ve resorted to the frozen bird in the past. But no more. I will sell my body or soul to order a fresh turkey from a good butcher if I have to. I’m done with the two days of waiting for it to defrost while it takes up all the room in either your fridge or bathtub and all the room in your head because you’re worrying it’s going to slay your guests with salmonella due to incorrect defrosting.
Also, all frozen birds here all “self-basting”, which means they’ve been injected with unpredictable amounts of saline solution- the purpose of which is to keep them moist while they’re frozen, not while they cook. This means that, aside from even just starting from fresh, I can’t even try out brining the bird, which is something I’ve been wanting to do for years.
This year was the final straw. Sure, the turkey defrosted just fine and nobody contracted food poisoning – or so I presume. I have yet to receive any notifications of impending lawsuits or a visit from the Centre For Disease Control – but as the turkey roasted, it began to produce frankly worrying amounts of liquid in the pan. So much so that as I removed the bird to rest, the roasting pan was full to brimming. Now I had covered the bird in bacon, and had rubbed herb butter between the breast and skin, and I had poured a half a cup of cider into the pan as the bird roasted, but this was just thin watery liquid, not melted fat and apple-y reduced juices. One early-arriving guest went so far as to ask whether I was “Doing something really advanced, like braising the bird.”
Nope. What I had on my hands was not Advanced Turkey, but Absolute Terror. Yes, the turkey itself was fine, but I make my gravy from- and in- the roasting pan. No way was this flavorless flood going to become a deep rich thick gravy. This bird had so much water injected into it that it had washed all the meat juices and even the cider away. At almost the last minute, I was going to have to make gravy from scratch. Which leads me to:
LESSON 2. THAT INVESTMENT IN HOMEMADE STOCK REALLY PAYS OFF.
Thank goodness I had recently made a big batch of chicken stock, and thank GOODNESS I had a rare moment of prescience and defrosted more than I thought I would need. With pan gravy now down the pan, I was going to need it after all. So cue the frantic whisking together of butter and flour in a saucepan to make a roux, followed by the addition of the remaining cider (which I had equally presciently not imbibed) and then that prescient supply of stock. It wasn’t the fabulously flavorsome pan gravy I’d been planning on, but it was at least a sauce of sorts.
However, it did throw my schedule out of whack. I’d been planning to have the gravy made and left to simmer for an hour or so, while I calmly and coolly laid the table and greeted guests in a relaxed if not soigne manner before gathering them at the table and carving the bird like a suave swordsman. The plan was to have everything bar one dish done and keeping warm well in advance. That one dish? Well, I always like to serve one lightly cooked vegetable side dish to counter all that starch. This was clearly no longer to be, as the potatoes were still simmering and not yet ready to be mashed, and I had barely toasted the almonds for my sautéed Boston fine beans. Which brings me nicely to Lessons 3 and 4.
LESSON 3. EARLY ARRIVAL MEANS EARLY ASSISTANCE.
When it comes to cooking a feast for six or more, no man is an island. Especially when the gravy situation is, well, grave. Fortunately for me, my dear friend Steven had arrived early from points North and is no mean cook himself. So following his polite offer of assistance, he was immediately pressed into service with the mashing of potatoes (of which more in a moment) as well as the supervision of the sauteeing of beans. They had only to be tossed into a wok with a knob of butter and given the occasional shake while he got on the the more manly task of mashing and then whipping, and I had a stiff drink while I laid the table. The next arrival was then pressed into carving the bird while I had another stiff drink. The alternative would have been me hacking at the turkey or committing Hara Kiri. But the point was that what with my schedule having run adrift, I was going to need some towing from friends to steer it back on course.
LESSON 4. MILK IT.
By this I do not mean that I gave in to histrionics. Rather, I mean that when making whipped potatoes (or just mashed, but giving them a good beating with a whisk makes them lighter and airier), never again will I boil them in water first. In another moment of prescience (perhaps I should give up this foodie lark and take to reading palms- or at least never attempt T-Day dinner again) I had already decided try something I had seen US tv chef Tyler Florence do, which is to boil the potatoes in milk.
FOLKS, TRY THIS AT HOME.
The difference in flavor is exponential, as you’re using the liquid in which you cooked the potatoes to mash them as well, so all that potato-ey taste gets right back into them. Plus, your milk is already hot so you don’t have to heat the milk up separately – cold milk going into mashed potatoes being a huge no-no unless you want potato glue. And you don’t even need to drain the potatoes!
Just use about a third as much milk as you would have water, and let them simmer steadily with the lid half off the pan instead of boiling them like the clappers. The milk will reduce down to just enough to ensure a creamy but by no means soggy mash. You do have to be a tad vigilant to ensure then pan doesn’t boil over, as milk is wont to do, and to shake the saucepan from time to time so the potatoes don’t stick, but you’ve eliminated an entire labor intensive step! You may even find, as I did, that I didn’t need anywhere near as much butter as I usually do. Really, the mash you get has such a full-on flavor that it requires no sour cream, no chives, no fancy adornment at all. In fact so pleased was I with the results that I got quite emotional. Which segues neatly to lessons 5 and 6.
LESSON 5. DON’T GET CORNY.
At Thanksgiving it’s far too easy for me to over-egg the corn pudding, so to speak. It is after all a bit of a blockbuster of a feast, and since I have always cooked this feast on the wrong side of the pond I do tend to over-stress the American-ness of the meal. I have even, in years past, gone so far as to make it about “American Ingredients And Immigrant Influences” to such an extent that the meal came with a side order of historical lecture. Not only must the centerpiece have been turkey, but there must have been potatoes, there must have been pumpkin, there must have been pecans, and there absolutely must have been corn. And everything must have been intricately flavored.
This year, as the rest of the guests had gathered and we all finally sat down to eat, I learned that I had finally hit a balance between what was fulfilling for my pretensions and was just pleasantly filling for my guests. Yes, all the above were present and accounted for (although the pumpkin was in fact butternut squash as I’ve yet to meet a person this side of the Atlantic who can bear pumpkin pie so I had to go with a roasted savory alternative), but I had taken a far more balanced approach to flavorings and was more circumspect with my number of sides.
My stuffing was complex in taste and texture, with Italian sausage and wild rice and apples and dried cranberries, but the potatoes were as simple in flavor as can be. I had roasted the squash with garlic and sage and chili, but had just sautéed the Boston fine beans and tossed in toasted almonds. Neither the potatoes nor the beans were bland, but rather straightforward, so that the more complex sides and the turkey itself stood out. I had finally hit that balance on the plate.
And as for the corn, in previous years I have not only served cornbread, but also served a corn, bean and pepper hash, or made my guests suffer through the indignities of eating the corn on the cob – which may be delicious, but does lead to rather a lot of gnawing amongst company. This year, just cornbread. Cornbread with herbs and scallions (I’m not a monk), but just cornbread and no further kernel-related sides.
LESSON 6. DO GET CORNY.
Thanksgiving, as it should be, is an emotional day. And while this particular cook may go through a variety of emotions throughout the day- most of which are best experienced alone or at least unwitnessed- the best of them are that bittersweet mix when you sit down at the table and think about who is there and who isn’t. You start to think about the passage of time and what that passage brings and what it takes away. And as we were taking turns around the table expressing gratitude for one thing in our lives, I was thinking about the stuffing I had made.
I have always made a rice-based stuffing (except for one disastrously experimental year when I learned that no, you cannot replace cornbread with wholemeal bread and expect pleasant results), and that rice stuffing has always been based on my mother’s. Now over the years I’ve adapted it, replaced her bacon with chorizo, added chestnuts and sherry, and tweaked it in other ways, but the premise has always been the same. It has always been at least distantly related to my mother’s stuffing.
And I have always had Thanksgiving with at least some of my family. In fact, the years I’ve skipped Thanksgiving have been the years I couldn’t share it with family. So this year has been the first time I’ve ever made this meal with no member of my family at the table. My sister has just emigrated to the US, leaving me just one nephew here in Britain, and he couldn’t come. So as I looked around the table at my guests, all dear or new friends, I realized that the stuffing I had made this year was kind of representational; it was the first stuffing of the rest of my life.
I had finally branched away from the stuffing I had been tinkering with all these years. Yes, it had rice in it, but wild rice instead of plain, and it was only an ingredient. This was not even a distant cousin of my mother’s stuffing. I was making something new, at least to me.
I had been making my mother’s stuffing all these years because I was cooking for the family of my childhood; my mother’s family. All that tinkering was just my way of expressing and asserting myself, of making that stuffing mine too. And I’d held on to it, variations and all, over these last few years because she was gone and never going to make it again. So who else would?
Well the beautiful thing, the thing that really freed me to let that dish go, was this: shortly before she left, my sister asked me for my mother’s stuffing recipe. She has moved to live near my brother in the US, and he had asked for the recipe. To serve at Thanksgiving. They (really we) hadn’t been able to share the Thanksgiving meal for well over a decade, but this year they have. And my mother’s stuffing, in it’s original form, is being served. I may not have been at their table and they may not have been at mine, but I felt very close to them both as I ate my Thanksgiving meal, and grateful. Grateful (though I’ll miss her) that my sister is starting a new life, grateful that my brother gets to share a Thanksgiving with this family of his alongside his new family, and grateful that my mother’s stuffing will live on in our family. Which may well be corny, but a certain amount of corn is not only right, but downright necessary for Thanksgiving.
LESSON 7. THAT RECIPE FOR LEFTOVER TURKEY AND PESKY BITS
The Thanksgiving meal went down splendidly. We all stuffed ourselves, drank too much, and had a thoroughly good time. And as they were cleaning up (Lesson 8. At Thanksgiving, Whomsoever Cooketh, Cleaneth not) and I was putting away the leftovers, I was pleased to note that for once I’d gotten my proportions just about right. Sure there was loads of turkey left over, but there was really just a couple of portions of stuffing left, and maybe one portion of whipped potatoes. Just enough of the sides, really, to be hoovered up over the next day or so. It’s rare that I manage that feat.
What I did have lots of, however, were bits and pieces of ingredients for the meal; a half a bag of pecans that weren’t needed for the pie, a few scallions left over from the cornbread, a couple of sprigs of fresh thyme, a green apple that was surplus to the stuffing requirements, the other half of that lemon I used stop the apple I did use from turning brown.
These are the leftovers that I find really pesky. They’re not the ones that will get hoovered up over the rest of the Thanksgiving weekend. They won’t get popped in the microwave for a quick midnight stack, or turned into a sandwich (or not yet) or one of those legendarily odd but delicious American leftover turkey recipes, like Turkey Tetrazzini, which to the uninitiated is best described as a curried turkey lasagne. They’re the ones that will grow stale in the cupboard or wilt in the fridge as they lie there unnoticed by me until it’s too late for me to put them to use.
But not this year.
Because this year – the year that Fabulous Foodie tackles all leftovers possible – I have decided that no ingredient will be left over, and no slices of turkey breast will be left to get more and more dry as they await being loaded into sandwiches, while those leftover bits of dark meat will cling to a frozen carcass in my freezer. This year, I give you:
PESKY LEFTOVER TURKEY SALAD
Think a Waldorf salad, except as a sandwich filler; from perhaps a more reasonably priced hotel. And without that beyond pesky celery. Although should you be a raw celery fan, it might actually be chopped and serve this salad/sandwich filler very well. Provided you are so culinarily insane as to contemplate such a thing.
You will need:
- 3 cups turkey meat, white and dark, chopped or shredded into roughly equal bite-sized pieces.*
- 4 scallions, thinly sliced
- 1 tart green apple, peeled, cored, and chopped into small chunks then tossed in the juice of half a lemon (see what I did there?)
- 1 heaped teaspoon fresh thyme, chopped
- 1/2- 1 cup toasted and chopped pecans (I had 1/2 cup. If you’ve got more, start another pie!)
- 1 teaspoon lemon and pepper seasoning (or the rind of 1/2 a lemon and a dang good grind of pepper if you absolutely will not buy pre-mixed stuff)
- 1 1/2 cups low fat mayonnaise (2 if you like a more “loose” salad)
- A good pinch of salt.
Mix all the ingredients up to the mayonnaise in a large bowl, mixing and tossing with your hands to distribute evenly. Then fold in the mayo with a large spoon to make sure everything is evenly coated. Wait five minutes then taste for salt. if you’re using lemon and pepper seasoning you may not need it.
You could, if you are mayo-phobic, dress the salad with a good thick plain yogurt instead. I think of this as a sandwich filler for the week ahead though, which may call for the preservatives in a commercially produced mayo. And I listed low-fat mayo, but that is only because that’s what I generally use. Absolutely no reason why you should.
*please do not segregate white meat from dark, especially when it comes to leftover turkey recipes like this. The dark meat holds all the hope you have left of retaining any actual turkey flavour as the leftover sandwich week goes on.
So I hope you all had a great Thanksgiving, with family, or friends, or both. And I look forward to next year’s feast, with lessons learned, and more lessons still to come. And I’ll be thankful for them too.