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November 23, 2006

Holiday Feasts for Beginners
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 11:24 PM *

From Elizabeth Moon*, reprinted with permission:

Pursuant to a thread on another newsgroup…and speaking as someone who’s been doing T-day dinners a long time…here’s some advice for those who are facing their first “big” one. (You know as well as I do that making a little dinner for you and your significant other or another couple is not the same thing as your first big turkey dinner for a family.)

1) Avoid all expert shows. Ignore Martha Stewart (she has staff) and all the chefs on TV who want you to do something new! creative! different! fantastico! for your turkey dinner. Just turn them off, tune them out, and pretend they don’t exist. You aren’t cooking for a TV audience: you’re cooking for friends and family (if you’re cooking for enemies and strangers…well…I can’t help you).

2) Make it as easy as possible. Your first is not the time to try to combine a free-range or wild turkey, brined and basted with a homemade specialty sauce, all fresh organic vegetables prepared in special ways, homemade rolls, home-churned butter from your own cows, cranberry jelly made from cranberries you personally picked from your own bog…and so on. The point is the people around the table, and abundance: that’s it.
So it’s OK to use: an injected commercial turkey, commercial stuffing mixes, bottled gravy, commercial pastry dough, commercial pies and other desserts, canned cranberry sauce, canned or frozen veggies of choice, etc. It’s also OK to make, or let family and friends bring, more “home-made” side dishes and sauces and stuff, but it’s not worth getting yourself exhausted and cranky. People first, then abundance. Simplicity.

3) Share the load. As above, you don’t have to do it all yourself. Ask people to bring things you don’t want (or don’t know how) to make. They will feel part of the deal, and are less likely to carp (and—anticipating the hint about guests—if you get a carper one year, don’t invite that one again). I have friends who have brought homemade cranberry sauce (good stuff!) and pecan pies (also good stuff!) for years, and others who regularly bring the green bean casserole or another veggie. Friends who don’t cook can bring a sack of ice (you always need more ice) or a tub of ice cream or container of whipping cream for the pies or a sack of store-bought rolls (unless you’re a baking genius who likes to make rolls the morning of…)
MOST IMPORTANT on sharing the load is making it policy, from the first time you do this, that *you* do not clean up. You prepare ahead of time, you clean, you cook, you lay out the table, you hostess or host…but you don’t clean up. You get to sit around finishing dessert in peace because the cleanup is done by someone else. (Important note about that: if the cleaners-up break something, don’t throw a fit. And don’t critique them. Give them a large space on which to lay things out if they don’t know your storage means, but even if they put the gravy boat where the glasses should go…no comment. You got to sit and rest. They need praise and appreciation, not critiquing.)

4) Food: get enough. The guidelines in most books, etc. are not sufficient. This holiday is about abundance; you want enough so people can take home their favorite bits after they’ve stuffed themselves, and no one has to worry about taking another serving. This applies particularly to the turkey, dressing, and gravy, but also to desserts. I figure a pound of turkey per person…yes, howl if you wish, but remember it’s an injected turkey, so some of it is just juice and runs out. A 20 pound bird may be only 17 pounds of meat (2 pounds of injected fluid plus a pound of bones and gristly stuff.) Bread-type stuffings will stretch a turkey and so will potatoes and breads, but green beans or corn won’t (trust me, this is 37 years of T-day experience talking…).

5) The turkey. Baking a turkey is dead simple. Take your average commercial injected turkey, whichever one is on sale. Take out the package of giblets and the neck (usually these are in separate paper packets, one in the body cavity and one in the neck cavity.) Put these on to boil with some peppercorns and a bay leaf. They can simmer for hours without harm. Unless you have a bias against stuffing the turkey, stuff the turkey with a commercial bread-type stuffing that’s loaded with flavorful things: chopped celery, chopped onion, chopped parsley, and an extra dose of poultry seasoning and sage. The dry dressing mix should smell strongly of onion, sage, parsley, and less strongly of other herbs.
If using a baking pan, cover tightly with foil, making sure foil does not touch the turkey. Otherwise, use a roaster—just put it in, put the top on the roaster, set the dial, and leave it be. Bake at 350 degrees for hours and hours and hours…no basting, no peeking until near the end of its time. (Cookbooks will tell you. Big turkeys usually need less time per pound, but a turkey that’s full of stuffing should have a little more. I usually figure on 3 pounds per hour. The turkey is done when the drumstick falls out of the socket or there is no pink (NO pink) at the bone of the thigh and breast. Juices running out should be clear, not pinkish.

6) Dressing. The easiest dressing is a commercial mix: I use Pepperidge Farm mixes, and I mix them: 2 packages of one of the bread mixes and 1 of the cornbread. For each 3 packages of mix, chop one medium onion, about half of one bunch of celery (needs to have leaves, as many as possible; you want the chopped leaves in there as well as the celery), and at least half a bunch (depends on the size bunch) of parsley. Add “Italian” herb mix plus additional sage. This brand calls for adding butter and water—and I do use butter, but margarine is OK if you must.
Do not add eggs. Zero eggs. Thus zero chance of salmonella from the stuffing (from the turkey…well, that’s what well done is for.) The strong herb flavoring of the stuffing helps flavor the turkey, but it does get milder with cooking. Inevitably people want more stuffing…so make enough to have an out-of-turkey pan to bake (it goes in the oven when you pull the turkey out.)

7) Gravy. I’m a dud at gravy. My mother was good; I’m not. So I use jar gravies. Here the trick to making them seem homemade is: take the giblets, about an hour before you serve, cut them up, and be ready to put them in your commercial gravy. The gravy goes on to warm 30 minutes before you serve—add the giblets, and when the turkey comes out, add some pan juices from the turkey itself. The commercial gravies will keep the gravy thick and smooth; the stuff you add gives it a homemade flavor once it’s been sitting together awhile. Make enough gravy. People who like gravy will want a lot of gravy. Have extra jars of gravy ready to add in as needed…there is not a gravy boat in the world big enough for the people at my table…

8) Table. Set the table the night before. Thus no scurrying around on the day trying to remember where the whatsit is. Use the good stuff, if you have good stuff. Use a tablecloth, if you have one. Enjoy it—that’s what it’s for. If you have more people than you have plates/silverware/glasses of one pattern, alternate them.
Use colorful fruits and nuts for a centerpiece, along with bread. When guests arrive and see a table already set, it lowers their anxieties and convinces them you’re all organized (heh-heh-heh), and when they see the rich colors of different fruits and a few nuts, it sets up the expectation that there will be abundant good food. Make sure the centerpiece includes red, yellow, purple, and green…food colors. You can certainly use vegetables as well (one year I set one table with fruits, and the other with colorful vegetables—squashes, gourds, etc.)

9) Guests. Here’s the absolute key to a good T-day dinner: the people who come. Now sometimes you have to invite so-and-so because he’s an in-law or she’s a relative or something…but as much as possible, invite people who like you already, who want to be there, who can hold up their end, who don’t irritate everyone around them. It’s YOUR table; you get to choose who sits at it. It’s the guest’s responsibility to enjoy what you offer, just as you’ve worked to provide something enjoyable. Crabby, cranky, critical people are no help to the hostess.
If you have enough good guests, though, they’ll help you deal with a difficult one (whom you won’t invite back, right? Right.) Children are partially exempt from all this, because all mothers know that even an ordinarily polite child may come unglued in a big gathering. It’s not necessarily the fault of the parents *or* the child (though a note to parents-as-guests…this is not the place to insist that the child eat everything, clean his/her plate, or forego dessert…you’re not just punishing your child, but everyone else when the child has a meltdown).
If you know you’re going to have a houseful that includes children, then pre-dinner discussion with the other parents is a good idea, setting strategies that will defuse potential problems. The alternative of mac-and-cheese or a bowl of soup or peanut-butter sandwiches can save the dinner for everyone else.

10) Guilt. Some of us are prone to feeling guilty when we look at our own abundant table and remember that others aren’t that lucky. Guilt does not make for happy hostesses/hosts, and happy hostesses/hosts are one of the best gifts you can give your guests…even more than a perfect dinner is the knowledge that you, the guest, are wanted and appreciated. So, defuse that potential guilt attack: contribute ahead of time to whatever organization in your area serves the poor. Pack boxes at the food pantry, give time as well as money, if you can, and give the equivalent to the cost of the dinner you fix, as a minimum, to the cause. That doesn’t really fix things, but it may get you through the preparation and enjoyment of a big T-day dinner with less guilt.
Then there’s the guilt from something going wrong (you spilled gravy on the tablecloth, you forgot that X doesn’t like butter on the mashed potatoes…) It’s a big production, and something will go wrong. It is not a disaster if you don’t act like it’s a disaster. Seriously. Guests look to the host/ess to determine if it’s a disaster…some of them will start to get upset because they think you’re about to…so remember dear Mr. Rogers and the Neighborhood…”everybody makes mistakes sometimes…” Everybody spills the gravy, dumps the beans, drops a crystal glass, splashes someone else with cranberry juice *sometime*…and that’s normal. You aren’t going to get perfect-like-Martha-Stewart. You don’t WANT perfect-like-Martha-Stewart. What you can get is a lovely abundant meal shared with good friends. That’s doable. Everything else is sprinkles on top.

And the final unnumbered rule: if you don’t like any of these, dump them and do it your way.

E.

See also: Jon Singer’s Turkey Algorithm


*Elizabeth Moon

[Recipe Index]

Comments on Holiday Feasts for Beginners:
#1 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2006, 01:15 AM:

Sounds quite common-sensical.

I have fond memories of totally-non-holiday-related turkey feasts. A college friend was incredibly adept at bargain finding. His pantry was full of items he scored for next to nothing; his freezer jammed with turkeys.

A few times a year, a bunch of us would get together. A turkey would be put in the oven, vegetables boiled, stuffing . . . stuffed. MST3K videos and Ren & Stimpy episodes would roll. Then, the gorging. Ah, good times.

Good company and plenty of food. That's all it takes.

#2 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2006, 01:29 AM:

I'd only add that if you're really unsure about your ability to pull it off, buy one of the prefabricated dinners from your local grocery store (10-lb. bird, potatoes, stuffing, cranberry sauce, gravy). Follow the directions on the enclosed sheet of paper. It's nearly foolproof.

I've been buying these (~$45) for about 10 years both at Christmas and Thanksgiving; they're more than acceptable and feed six easily.

#3 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2006, 01:34 AM:

What Linkmeister said. I haven't had experiences with those, but it sounds like a nice convenience.

From the description, it sounds like there'd be lots of room for guest-provided side dishes.

#4 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2006, 01:50 AM:

Absolutely. Today we had a sweet potato mixture topped with marshmallows that was baked in scooped-out oranges, for example.

I will add that if you've got cranberry fiends coming, the amount these offer is not enough. Buy a couple of cans of the Ocean Spray stuff (if you get the whole berry kind you can add it to the quantity the store provided and nobody will even notice).

#5 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2006, 01:51 AM:

I forgot to say that it also comes with a reasonably good pumpkin pie.

#6 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2006, 01:59 AM:

I've considered the store "feasts," but I don't have enough room in my freezer for most of it. Plus, my grocery store has Boston Market sides. Ick.

I had one of my favorite frozen meals -- the Marie Callendar turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, and green beans with sweetened cranberries. I have pumpkin pie and cool whip, too.

#7 ::: Jenny Islander ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2006, 02:35 AM:

That's a really nice, commonsensical, reassuring list. I agree with Ms. Moon about the cooking shows. Watching a pro at work is guaranteed to make an amateur feel like a failure before she even starts. I also agree about sharing the workload; in fact, my extended family has done potlucks for years. A small family gathering is a dozen people--we just had fifteen at our Thanksgiving--so asking each person to cook or bring just one item saves everyone's sanity.

#8 ::: Jenny Islander ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2006, 02:54 AM:

Oh, and the leftovers don't have to be a headache either. After everybody picks out something to take home, roll up your sleeves and do the math:

1 picked-over turkey carcass+a big pot into which you put the dismembered carcass+any, all, or none of the following: bay leaf, one or two carrots cut into chunks, an onion ditto, a stick of celery ditto, some fresh parsley, some garlic cloves smashed with a soup can+water to cover+simmering briskly for an hour or so=broth. Lift out the big bits and throw them away. Ladle the broth through a strainer into a big mixing bowl. When it is cool enough to handle, put the broth into margarine tubs or yogurt containers or whatever you have saved up and freeze until needed. To use, run the container under some hot water to loosen the lump of frozen broth, then dump into a saucepan and heat to boiling. Measure out what you need, then refreeze the rest. This is the only processing you have to do on Thanksgiving Day (unless you have a gargantuan turkey, in which case you will need to freeze your extra turkey meat in 2-cup portions for use later). Over the next few days, you can try these:

The quart or so of leftover giblet gravy you will get out of a brine-injected bird unless you have a horde of gravy fanatics+leftover seasoned mashed potatoes=fantastic cream of potato soup. Pure comfort food.

Turkey broth+a little bit of leftover bread dressing+some chopped turkey meat+some leftover green bean casserole minus the almonds+water and/or additional seasoning if needed=Friday Soup. Sounds bizarre, tastes great.

Sliced white meat of turkey+thin slivers of jellied cranberry sauce+a bit of Miracle Whip+some lettuce leaves+warm toasted bread=a fantabulous sandwich. Also you get rid of the extra cranberry sauce without wasting it.

A pan lined with leftover bread dressing+a layer of chopped turkey+a large spoonful of gravy=Saturday Casserole.

Leftover pumpkin pie+a glass of milk=breakfast!

#9 ::: Iain Coleman ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2006, 05:04 AM:

Your first is not the time to try to combine a free-range or wild turkey

Why not? It's no harder to cook a free-range or wild turkey than an intensively reared turkey, the meat will taste much better, you can get a smaller bird (since it doesn't have loads of water injected into it) thus saving oven space, and you can tuck in to your feast without supporting the miserably cruel practices of intensive poultry farming.

#10 ::: Eric ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2006, 06:54 AM:

In light of what Iain wrote at #9, it's worth mentioning what Cooks Illustrated discovered about heirloom turkeys: They tend to survive overcooking better than commercial birds. The relative flavor advantage was most pronounced when the tested turkeys had stayed in too long.

So while I can't speak about the merits of injected turkeys (I've never cooked one), don't write off a bird from a local farm. If Cooks Illustrated is to be believed, it may actually be more forgiving.

(That said, you can face other dangers: If you buy a turkey far in advance, you don't always know how big it will be. We wound up with 3.5 pounds of turkey per person this year, much to our surprise... extremely tasty, but we'll be eating it until Christmas.)

#11 ::: rams ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2006, 07:57 AM:

And one last bit of reassurance: my grandmother correctly maintained that as long as the gravy is hot it doesn't matter if everything else didn't time out exactly right.

#12 ::: Bruce E. Durocher II ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2006, 07:58 AM:

My wife's family is large enough that the Thanksgiving meal rotates from house to house. Last year we held it and she bought a non-injected turkey and two boxes of Morton's Salt and had me pull out the picnic cooler so she had something to hold the turkey while she brined it. The only extra hassle was getting it into and out of the cooler, and she felt it was worth it.

At least until her relatives showed up. She brined the turkey? Why would you ever brine a turkey? None of her grandparents had ever brined a turkey! Her mother had never brined a turkey! The Joy of Cooking said to brine a bird that large? Why would you do it...

At the height of it I wished I still lived on Quartermaster Harbor. If I did I'd have opened the door and brined the pumpkin pie--Frisbee style.

#13 ::: Shannon ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2006, 08:39 AM:

I celebrated Thanksgiving yesterday in England with my husband (Chris) and about 5 other students. We did a pot luck as well - my husband made the turkey, stuffing and apple pie, I made cranberry jello mold and everyone else brought the rest. We had loads of amazingly homemade food, a lot of wine, and a great time sitting around and talking. It was especially unique as we had three non-Americans celebrating with us - a Brit, a Canadian, and a Croatian.

Also, in terms of free-range, local turkeys, we had one and it came out really well. This is despite the fact that Chris had never prepared a turkey before and our student accomodation oven heats rather unevenly. It was expensive and Chris had to baste it every half-hour or so but it was great.

#14 ::: Ali ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2006, 09:21 AM:

My very first ever Thanksgiving dinner was also my very first great big dinner ever, Thanksgiving or otherwise.

Yes, I left the giblets and the neck in the turkey because try though I did, I just couldn't find them. Disaster? No. Only my best friend knew what happened and she had a good guffaw at my expense, but that's what best friends are for. She also cleaned the kitchen.

The thing I did right was that I asked all good friends and friends of friends who were all alone on campus for Thanksgiving so I heartily agree with that rule. The other thing I did right was I asked about dietary restrictions several weeks ahead of time and therefore in addition to turkey, dressing both in and out of the turkey, salad, green beans, mashed potatoes and plenty of rolls, I had a very nice veggie lasagne that even the non-vegetarians and the one vegetarian I missed because he was a last-minute guest had PLENTY to eat. We even had another great big Thanksgiving for a big group of different people two days later with the leftovers.

Ten Thanksgivings later (seven American and three Canadian) it's still the best Thanksgiving I ever had.

P.S. I used an organic turkey. I think it helped because I've never had a bird that moist (or that expensive) since. Or maybe it was leaving in the giblets and neck since I haven't done that since either.

#15 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2006, 09:52 AM:

Ian @#9: Not everybody lives where free-range unfrozen organic turkeys are readily available. The point of the advice, I believe, was that if your standard industrial-grade frozen liquid-injected turkey is what's available to work with, don't sweat it -- and that if the real or imagined extra responsibility of working with something like a free-range et cetera turkey intimidates you on your first big dinner out of the starting gate, your standard frozen supermarket turkey will produce a perfectly acceptable dinner. There's always next year for the upgrade.

#16 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2006, 10:23 AM:

Marilee -- do you have a Whole Foods nearby?

IF you do, they can tailor a Thanksgiving feast to your requirements. I can tell you that their curried pumpkin soup is to die for, and I love their herb-roasted turkey. (So do the four-feets.)

Trying to do Thanksgiving from scratch for 2 people is too much of a hassle, so we pick the dishes we want to make and let Whole Foods supply the rest!

#17 ::: BSD ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2006, 10:31 AM:

Timing I've learned:
The turkey itself will happily sit in its pan for hours if covered (it should sit at least 30 minutes, in any event). This is a good time to, as noted, make stuffing, mount gravies, mash potatoes, and move everything else to serving rather than cooking or transport or preservation vessels.

Many of the traditional items will also happily sit for hours if in an insulated vessel and, if prone to drying or skinning (wetter mashed potatoes, un-onioned Green Bean Casserole, fresh cranberry product (which I find EASIER than dealing with a can), etc.) contact-covered with plastic wrap.

If there was enough food, everyone should require a break (between 30-120 minutes) before dessert. This means that unless you're doing something fiddly from scratch, dessert need not be thought about until the plates have been cleared. Even if it is something fiddly and needful of hours in the oven, it's probably something that can go in when the turkey comes out.

#18 ::: Faren Miller ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2006, 10:32 AM:

My husband had to work a 9-hour shift yesterday (ah, the joys of retail!), so we're having our "official" Thanksgiving later, but I managed to bring a touch of the spirit with just what I could carry on the walk back from a nearby store -- deli-sliced smoked turkey (tasty!), a little tray of cornbread, and a block of cheddar for him. He came home with Mexican beer, and we snacked on the various combos we wanted till the Spiderman movie came on TV -- we hadn't seen it when it first appeared in theaters.

It may not sound like much, but the two of us had a nice evening.

#19 ::: steve ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2006, 10:48 AM:

This is wonderful, practical advice.

I have cooked about a dozen thanksgivings for a small family and find the turkey itself to be relatively easy - apart from the obligatory fire alarms. I mastered cranberry sauce from scratch a few years ago, managing it in about ten minutes. Last year I learned to make a kind of sweet-potato puree flavored with a bit of OJ concentrate, pecans, butter & brown sugar. I find really good gravy to be the most difficult element, and am still far from perfecting it- though I do find barley flour made into roux is a vital part of the equation. Perfect corn-bread stuffing is still on my to-master list.

I also agree that this is a time for simplicity and plentitude, close friends and family. The purpose is to be cozy, compfortable, content: not to wow.

#20 ::: jennie ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2006, 10:48 AM:

Bounty and company. What lovely ideas.

I'm looking forward to the day I get to host Thanksgiving. My grandmother can't get up the stairs to my apartment, and it wouldn't be Right to do Thanksgiving with anyone other than my mom's family, so right now I have to go to my mom's and do things on her terms (which led to a certain amount of stress this year, and means that the company is never very good. Yes, I love my family. That doesn't mean they aren't the most boring people I know.)

I really do believe that pot-luck is the way to go. If you're hosting, tell everyone what you will prepare (the roast, usually, and whatever sides you believe it just won't be right without. Keep track of the number of desserts, sides, and make sure someone's bringing rolls, and someone else is bringing potables, then don't worry about it. Part of the joy of pot-luck is the luck part. If you get turkey, scalloped potatoes, baked squash, lasagne, and pumpkin won tons, with apple crisp and chocolate fudge for dessert, well, cool! You get to find out how won tons go with gravy. You'll have bounty, and good friends, and people can exchange recipes. That doesn't suck.

(I really miss orphans' Thanksgiving potlucks, like we had at university.)

#21 ::: Evelyn Browne ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2006, 11:02 AM:

Ian @#9, Debra @#15--

When I hosted my graduate program's Thanksgiving potluck, I did fresh unbrined, fresh brined, and frozen commercially-injected, and they all produced good results, but the frozen one was the most hassle. It may also have been the best, since I'd had several years' experience roasting birds at that point, but getting it defrosted in time to go into the oven was a headache and a half, and I ended up having to leave it in the bathtub the night before (with cold water running over it and the bathroom radiator turned off, to make sure it didn't get too warm.)

In my experience, if it takes extra hassle to get a fresh bird, it's more than balanced out by the ease of being able to put the thing in the oven whenever you like.

And I'm a great fan of the upside-down roasting method, with the bird propped on tinfoil balls or a bent (unpainted) coat-hanger; the dark meat gets roasted to falling-off-the-bone tenderness without drying out the breast, and since the juices flow down and collect in the breast, you don't need to baste. Flip it over and turn up the heat for the last twenty minutes of cooking, to brown the breast skin-- you may need help doing this. Also a clean pair of work gloves.

Man, I miss cooking Thanksgiving dinner. Next year, I should have a potluck.

#22 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2006, 11:05 AM:

A few times a year, a bunch of us would get together. A turkey would be put in the oven, vegetables boiled, stuffing . . . stuffed. MST3K videos and Ren & Stimpy episodes would roll. Then, the gorging. Ah, good times.

Ah, yes, Stefan, MST3K and Turkey Day...

#23 ::: Gar Lipow ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2006, 01:00 PM:

Also something that will prevent any turkey from being dry (so that you can feel safe using an unbrined one)- basting. Our family used to baste with a mixture of butter, rum, and honey - though I admit not lately. That particular formula is a mixture of every thing that is bad for you (concentrated carbs, saturated fat and salt all at once) but the turkey was not dry and you never needed gravy. "Drippings" turkey cooked that particular way provided all the gravy you needed. Also our trick with stuffing was a commercial stuffing mix, cooked with onions and celery added, mixed with cooked ground giblets and drenched in "drippings". Eggs in stuffing never occurred to us.

These days we've lightened our cooking a bit, but back in the long-long-ago when we paid no attention to such things, we had a number of gourmet cooks ask for the recipe. I guess that turkey was as much fried as roasted, but it was good.

#24 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2006, 01:14 PM:

Stefan... In case you're interested, yesterday's column of World O' Crap has, embedded in the middle of its review of 1943's Batman serial, a link to Joel and the 'bots singing their famous Turkey Day song.

#25 ::: Caroline ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2006, 01:31 PM:

Happy Thanksgiving, all!

I was grumpy earlier in the month because my group of college friends suddenly lost interest in our semi-traditional pre-Thanksgiving dinner party. We always got together the weekend before Thanksgiving for a Thanskgiving-style potluck (usually with ham or beef instead of turkey), and it was always so much fun to have everyone together, all sharing food.

This was the first year I'd taken over the planning, and suddenly I was getting told things like "That was something we used to do when we were first out on our own and just pretending to be adults; we're over it now."

It turned into a dinner out for a total of five people at a chain Italian restaurant with terrible service and salty food. Bah, I say.

But family Thanksgiving was wonderful. All the family together, and everyone brought a dish, so that my parents had only to roast the turkey (and my mother prepared pumpkin chiffon pie and whole-berry cranberry sauce, because she loves those things). No food-related drama -- just much breaking bread together, drinking wine together, laughing, catching up, and reminiscing.

There's something bonding about sharing food, especially food that everyone has prepared for each other. I'm still sad that I couldn't share that with my friends this year. But I am so grateful to be able to share it with my family.

(I'll have to find out from my carpool partner how her deep-fried turkey went. She planned to do it at the end of the driveway, in case it caught fire. This sounded sufficiently pyromaniacal to intrigue me.)

#26 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2006, 01:41 PM:

We had a very small Thanksgiving this year, but quite happy. No turkey (vegetarian) but it wasn't missed with the bounty of side dishes - green beans with roasted slivered almonds, mushroom gravy, baked potatoes and baked Jewel and Garnet yams, (yeasted) pumpkin bread, home-made cherry streusel pie and apple pie, and my annual piece de resistance, the honey-glazed onions. My wife requires me to cook those for both the Thanksgiving and winter solstice dinners.

Here's the recipe from The Mystic Seaport Cookbook, with the instructions slightly expanded:

Honey-glazed Onions with Walnuts

36 small white onions (aka pearl onions, boilers), trimmed and peeled
1/2 cup butter
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon white pepper
3/4 cup honey
1/4 cup boiling water
3/4 cup chopped walnuts

Parboil onions in salted water to cover for 10 minutes; drain well. Place in a heavy (oven-safe) skillet with melted butter, salt and pepper. Set over medium heat and cook for 5 minutes, gently stirring or shaking pan frequently. (Onions should be delicately browned.) Stir honey with boiling water until evenly mixed and pour over onions. Continue to cook while gently stirring or shaking pan until the onions are thoroughly glazed and tender. (The glaze should be reduced and thickened.) Sprinkle with walnuts. Put them under the broiler with the oven door open. Baste with the honey syrup until lightly browned. Serve.

#27 ::: JESR ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2006, 01:49 PM:

The big problem with Thanksgiving in our family is how terribly it's shrunk in the past twelve years or so, as elders die and, this year, offspring go away to college. So we have my sister, her (always cranky) husband and son, and her sister-in-law (who apparently marinates in hair-cair products that my sister and I are allergic to), me, my husband, and our son.

The food is good, although I have yet to hit on a vegetable side-dish anyone but me and one other random person will eat, but it feels a great deal like dining in an open tomb.

Denny's looks better every year.

#28 ::: anomalous4 ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2006, 03:25 PM:

There's a better way to cook a turkey. Wrap it up tightly in heavy-duty aluminum foil and roast it at 450F.

It cooks a lot faster. You can cook a 25-pounder in just over 4 hours (or a more reasonable 10- to 12-pounder in about 3), which means you don't have to get up at zero-dark-hundred to put the thing in the oven =yawn= (I don't know about you, but I wouldn't trust myself in the kitchen at 5 or 6 am!) and/or stuff it the night before (which is a humongous no-no unless you really want to risk a family-wide salmonella attack).

It doesn't dry out as much either.

Of course, like any other way to cook the bird, it tastes better with a fresh one than a frozen one. Even the frozen ones come out pretty good though - but who wants to put up with a big old frozen bird floating in the bath tub for most of the previous day?

In recent years I've only had to cook for 3 people, so I get a fresh turkey breast. It takes about 2 hours to cook.

Oh, and we always have the feast at regular dinner time - it's far less rushed. I've never figured out what's up with the 2 in the afternoon thing.

Last but certainly not least: don't forget a nice bottle (or 2, or 3, or...) of wine............

#29 ::: Thena ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2006, 03:32 PM:

This was the first year we did it at our place with His Side (My Side all thankfully live well out of state.)

Fortunately, we both love to cook.

Now if only I could get his mother to let us do it without taking over my kitchen to "help," we'd have a much better time.

(Everything seemed to be going pretty well until half an hour before dinner she decided she didn't like green bean casserole, which necessitated my rummaging around in the freezer until I found some frozen peas for her, then listening to her complain that they weren't the right kind. Am I just being overly sensitive, or is it bad form to show up to dinner at someone else's house and throw a fit because one of five, count them five, vegetables wasn't prepared the way you like it?)

I love my squirrelfriend dearly, but if we ever get around to getting married I think I'm going to have to choke his mother, who is a wonderful person until she sets foot in my kitchen and then she turns into the grand matriarch of food hell. Which, in my kitchen, is my job.

Ah well. It's over until we get to fight his aunt for hosting privileges next year.

#30 ::: John Emerson ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2006, 03:55 PM:

The key to having a good turkey day is to eat duck instead. Mmmmmmmm duck!

While duck is fatty, it's all Type Z fat, which tastes wonderful and actually helps prevent heart disease! And it also helps you lose weight!

Fact.

You probably won't have leftovers, but if you do it's best not to eat them cold because the fat is tastiest when hot. The best duck I remember was stuffed with green apples, but duck is almost always good.

Mmmmmmmm.

#31 ::: JennR ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2006, 04:19 PM:

I did T'giving dinner for sixteen, including 3 9-11 yo boys, plus 4 kids under 3. At someone else's house. We dropped the turkey off Wednesday evening, and my brother in law dealt with getting it thawed, stuffed, and in the roaster. His wife and I did the ham, the other stuffing, the salad, etc. The 'kids' (our nieces and nephews) brought a dish to pass each. My mother-in-law stayed out of the kitchen, which was a boon -- SIL and I can share a kitchen just fine, but MIL can't share with either of us. I brought home almost all of my "family traditional" dishes because my in-laws "have never had that", and wouldn't even try it (mince tarts, cranberry bread, home cooked cranberry sauce, apple/cranberry dressing). Their loss.

#32 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2006, 04:20 PM:

I missed the whole Thanksgiving thing, which is both the privilege and the pain of being an expat here in thankless Scotland. We had beef in rice, and my better half had to go out in the evening to explain something to his brother. Then one of the kids threw up, which rather finished off any chance of a special evening.

However, having talked my mother into recognising that she is once again catastrophically depressed, only to have her invite a paranoid schizophrenic and a manic depressive over to have dinner with her, my Aspie dad and my ADHD sister, I have much to be thankful for here in Scotland.

1. The beef in rice was actually quite tasty.
2. My son was not really unhappy about being ill. He took it all with great grace and no tears.
3. Our bathroom is tiled.
4. My daughter stayed away from the mess when asked to, first time, which is pretty good for not quite 3.
5. I wasn't at my mother's Thanksgiving dinner.

#33 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2006, 04:29 PM:

Abi #32: It sounds as if you have a really happy life over there in Scotland (apart, of course, from the weather).

#34 ::: Elyse Grasso ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2006, 04:38 PM:

Hello --

I've been reading for a while, with much thankfullness for this site.

Regarding getting up at O-dark-thirty to start a large turkey:

When I was growing up we used to Thanksgiving or Christmas for twelve to twenty people. We did big turkeys. The routine for the turkey was: make the stuffing early the evening before.

Stuffing: giblets and other innards sauteed with sausage, onion and celery and run through a meatgrinder, mixed with Pepperidge Farm mix plus some plain bread and poultry seasoning, salt and pepper, soaked with stock made by simmering the neck.

Put the stuffing in the fridge until needed. If you're feeling industrious, tease the meat off the neck and give it to the dog or cat.

After the 11 o'clock news, stuff the turkey (both turkey and stuffing must be COLD) and put it into a fairly cool oven. (325?)

When you get up at 6 or so to let the dog out and give him his breakfast, (or if you start smelling the turkey enough to wake you up) turn off the oven. Let the turkey coast awhile, then when it seems done, take it out and let it rest in the roasting pan while you use the oven for other things. (Timing may be a bit different in self-cleaning ovens because they have better insulation.)

The turkeys were always juicy and delicious when we sat down to eat not long after noon.

Elyse

#35 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2006, 05:11 PM:

#28 -- That may indeed be a better way to roast a turkey, but Thanksgiving Dinner for guests isn't the time to do the experiment.

#36 ::: John Emerson ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2006, 06:15 PM:

The turkey is not a patriotic bird, except for the wild turkey. The turkey was well established in England before any English settlers came to America.

By 1575, turkey was becoming the usual main course at an English Christmas.

At this late date, should we still be slavishly following the customs of the mother country? I think not.

#37 ::: Tamago ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2006, 06:16 PM:

My sympathies to Caroline at #25. Personally, I'm not sure how being all "grown up" precludes enjoying a good meal with friends, but chacun à son goût, as they say in France. (Each to his own taste.)

#38 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2006, 06:18 PM:

Mr. Emerson @#36, you're tellin' me Ben Franklin was wrong? (See 1776, the discussion about the national bird.)

#39 ::: John Emerson ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2006, 06:25 PM:

Franklin was, as we all know, a British double agent. Lyndon has explained this in great detail.

#40 ::: John Houghton ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2006, 06:52 PM:

None of my family brought up the peanut-butter sandwich story this year, so of course youse had to mention in.

When I was young, I was a notoriously picky eater. I'm older now. The summer that I was four years old, my mother had pneumonia, and I was packed off to live with my grandmother for the duration. Grandma was a rather stern person, but I was four and missing my Mom and she was a grandmother, and so I ended up being coddled while I stayed with her.
Mom gets better, I go home, life goes on, and Thanksgiving rolls around. At Grandma's. With my multitudinous cousins, that came from a thou-shall-eat-all-that-is-on-your-plate family (makes sense, one of my Uncles had eight or nine kids by then -- final score was 13). Tables piled high with turkey, stuffing, vegetables, cranberries and all of that good stuff. I wasn't eating any of it. Tearfully not eating any of it, most likely. Grandma comes over and asks what's wrong, and if there is anything that I'd like.
I ask for, and get, a peanut-butter and jelly sandwich. Finally, a meal worth giving Thanks for! My cousins were stunned, my father was probably embarrassed, but I was happy. Peanut-butter and jelly continues to be an available and acceptable Thanksgiving option, as I'm frequently reminded.

It was a long time ago that I was four, and memory is unreliable. It may not have really happened that way, but it truly happened that way.

#41 ::: Thena ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2006, 07:21 PM:

JH@40 -

The choices at my mother's table were Eat It, Be Hungry, or Make A Peanut Butter Sandwich.

Am v. tempted to offer MIL same options, and wait for v. satisfying Drama to ensue.

(Hey, if there's going to be one, might as well enjoy the fireworks.)

#42 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2006, 08:24 PM:

John Emerson #36: This is a country whose founders began by claiming the rights of Englishmen. I believe that this includes turkey.

Of course, the sight of one turkey pardoning another is exclusively American.

#43 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2006, 08:33 PM:

Lori, the closest Whole Foods (I just googled to check) is an hour away, but that might be worth it for a good turkey dinner. Back when I cooked, I always cooked the turkey upside down until the last 30 minutes. Then I turned it over so the top would brown. Even being single, I used to make a whole turkey at Thanksgiving and Christmas because that's when turkeys are the cheapest and I would end up with lots of turkey and stock in the freezer for the winter.

Jenny Islander, you should never refreeze things you've thawed. There's no guarantee that you haven't introduced bacteria during the thawing.

#44 ::: John Houghton ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2006, 08:46 PM:

Thena @41:
Eat It, Be Hungry, or Make A Peanut Butter Sandwich
Needs to be rendered in Latin, implemented in cross-stitch, and hung in dining rooms across America.

#45 ::: oliviacw ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2006, 09:22 PM:

Fresh homemade cranberry sauce is fabulous and easy - sugar, water, and cranberries, and about half an hour of occasional stirring. This has become "my" designated item to make when at my mother's house for Thanksgiving, which lets me get out of the labor-intensive and skilled items like gravy.

My mother's stuffing uses the boxed stuff as a base, with celery, water chestnuts, and mushrooms. She also does mashed yams, baked with raisins, pecans, and marshmellows on top. (The marshmellows were missing this year - she didn't realize that there weren't any in the house until too late).

#46 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2006, 10:38 PM:

I'm kind of relieved to see folks referring to "stuffing." Out west, and maybe in other parts of the nation, "dressing" seems more common. Man, that was confusing the first time I heard it.

* * *

My short (3.5 miles) commute passes by a Safeway, A Haagen (a bit upscale) and a WinCo (a bit downscale).

By this time next year, there will be a Trader Joe's AND a Whole Foods along the route!

I fear for my waistline.

#47 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2006, 11:09 PM:

True potlucks definitely make for an interesting Thanksgiving. The one I've been going to for almost 30 years had only 12 people this year (recently it's been more like 20) but even so the table included take-your-Lipitor-NOW! creamed spinach, a vat of mashed local potatoes, a sweet-potato dish that wasn't sticky-sweet but was good enough to make me forget they were sweet potatoes, "Chinese chili" (homemade chili with Chinese vegetables added), 2 kinds of dressing (i.e., stuffing cooked in a pan instead of in the bird), two kinds of dangerous chocolate cake, and an heirloom turkey (brined for 36 hours because the hostess wanted to try it). The turkey cooked much faster than expected, possibly because the breed was a lot leaner than modern turkeys; this was the first year I didn't have to do emergency siphoning to prevent the juices from overflowing the tray in the middle of carving. And it was still juicy, even after cooking until it just about fell off the bone. (Also very nice flavor, although that was helped by what the hostess puts on it before roasting -- starts with mace.)

#48 ::: Bruce Arthurs ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2006, 11:38 PM:

abi@32:
"However, having talked my mother into recognising that she is once again catastrophically depressed, only to have her invite a paranoid schizophrenic and a manic depressive over to have dinner with her, my Aspie dad and my ADHD sister, I have much to be thankful for here in Scotland."

Once again, real life appears to be turning into a Phil Dick novel. (In this case, CLANS OF THE ALPHANE MOON.)

#49 ::: oliviacw ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2006, 12:07 AM:

Stefan - I know about the Trader Joe's coming in at 185th, but where's the Whole Foods? That should be quite exciting!

#50 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2006, 12:14 AM:

Cornell, roughly opposite the Streets of Tanasbourne.

#51 ::: JESR ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2006, 12:39 AM:

Stefan,

In the interest of passing on critical knowledge, Haggen pie crust is the best commercially available. (Although I'm in the Top zone of their empire)

The nearest Trader Joe's to where I am is still a half-hour away, so we are limited to every other week trips. This is just as well, right now as they have Joe-Joes with candy-cane filling.

#52 ::: Greg ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2006, 02:42 AM:

Well, you know... On the whole, fine, but I shudder at the thought of store-bought gravy. Ms. Moon may have problems with it, but it's really not hard. Indeed, gravy is just a bechamel variant, and any half-way competent cook should be able to do it. To whit:

First, make a roux with the fat left in cooking the turkey. You can pour it into a pan (scraping the roasting pan to add the non-burnt bits, which will add flavor), or you can try to make it in the roasting pan (which is trickier). You want roughly 1/4 cup of turkey fat; if you have more, pour the rest off.

Add 1/4 cup flour, and whisk over low heat until blended--this is important, as if it isn't sufficiently blended, you will have lumps.

Take 2 cups broth or (for cream gravy) milk. I usually make broth by boiling the neck and giblets with a carrot, onion skins and cut off ends from other dinner preparations, and 4-6 peppercorns, but canned is fine.

Add broth a little at a time, whisking after each addition until smooth.

Add 1/2 tsp thyme or sage; 1/2 tsp salt; a grind or two of pepper. If desired, add chopped giblets. Add more liquid if too thick, or boil for a bit if too thin. Taste and adjust salt.

#53 ::: Kathryn from Sunnyvale ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2006, 02:52 AM:

Oliviacw @45,

Yes- nothing beats cranberry sauce* for ease:beauty and time:tasty. (Not counting time browsing through Epicurious to see if any new recipes have moved into 4 fork territory.) The beauty of such a rich red color is why we redeveloped 3-color vision some 90 million years ago, in that order, I'm sure.

The apple-guy at the farmers market had quince last Friday, so I also made quince-applesauce for the ham. Yum. And the bread, of course.

Those 3 were so easy, I even had time to try a more intensive apple tart (Alice Waters of Chez Panisse). Other than I couldn't get it to roll out to 14 inches- 10 instead (I don't see how I could roll it out that big without getting into submillimeter thicknesses)- it turned out nicely. I had both white and pink-fleshed apples to make a random mosaic layout.

* 1 bag cranberries, 1 cup water, 2/3 cup sweetness, flavors**, simmer until all the berries have opened.

** orange juice and 2 cinnamon sticks for the traditional sweet; apples, onions, vinegar, ginger, cinnamon and cloves for the chutney.

#54 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2006, 06:33 AM:

Fragano @33

It sounds as if you have a really happy life over there in Scotland (apart, of course, from the weather).

Well, I do in the summer. But I have pretty severe Seasonal Affective Disorder, and we're not far off of 55° north here. (Roughtly parallel with Sitka, Alaska). Let's just say I didn't have much trouble recognising my mother's catastrophic depression from 8,000 miles distance.

(But I have a name for what the problem is, it isn't me, I can treat it, and we're moving south next year. So that's more to be thankful for.)

#55 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2006, 09:10 AM:

My mother's gravy started with simmering the neck and the giblets to make the basic broth, which got cooked down and thickened. The stuffing and the dressing got canned chicken broth (in our house, stuffing was inside, or in the pan with, the bird; dressing was never that close to it until it hit the plate).

My mother's complaint about turkeyday was that she didn't get an automatic dishwasher until she didn't really need it (she had three dishwashers for years; it was a matter of finding the right buttons to push).

#56 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2006, 10:14 AM:

Greg@52: Scratch gravy is better than canned gravy, no contest. But Thanksgiving dinner with all the fixings is no time to take that particular show on the road for the first time -- as with omelets and homemade bread, the products of the learning process are best kept for private consumption (or, in dire cases, private disposal.)

I can make a lump-free white sauce, nine times out of ten (the tenth time, something dreadful will probably happen); but my Thanksgiving-dinner patience only extends to one item of that nature, so I spend it on the creamed onions, which are canonical at our house. Nobody here minds canned gravy, but I don't think that I could even get canned white sauce, or that anybody here would touch it if I did.

#57 ::: TomB ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2006, 01:17 PM:

I've come around to my partner's view that you can have a good turkey dinner without gravy. We have many kinds of cranberry sauce to put on the turkey. Mashed potatoes are quite tasty by themselves or with a little butter on them. Dressing is quite tasty by itself. The flavors of the food seem brighter and more distinct without the gravy.

My mom, on the other hand, really likes gravy, so if we're having the big family gathering at our place, she makes it. All I have to do is get her the drippings and the giblets. That is my idea of an easy (and very good) gravy recipe.

#58 ::: David Wald ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2006, 03:51 PM:

Since the gravy discussion has continued into the third day of Thanksgiving (which includes six assorted game birds with pear sauce): This year's discovery was that roasting the neck and giblets with vegetables produced a very good gravy base, letting us make the gravy the day before and thereby avoid a last-minute task. It wasn't quite as good as starting with all the carmelized drippings and vegetables from the pan, but anything not done right before the meal allows for two or three more calm breaths during the day, so we may stick with it.

#59 ::: JESR ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2006, 04:36 PM:

Quince notes:

This year I only had about two dozen quinces (last year I had forty pounds, which was a problem of zucchini dimensions) so all the juice went into quince and Bulgarian Carrot pepper jelly, following, sort of, the Sur-jell recipe. To control the heat, I made a simple syrup infusion of the peppers.

One of the "sort of" disclaimers or modifications was that I sugar-extracted the quince juice instead of the water extraction in the recipe, and did it low and slow; the quince jellies I've had before were pale pink and barely perfumed, this stuff is full-on garnet red and robust. We're thinking of using one of the pints to glaze a pork roast.

#60 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2006, 07:56 PM:

Abi #54: SAD is no fun, by all accounts. Moving south sounds like a good idea to me. How far south would that be? Down to the land of the Base Brutal and Bloody Saxon?


(When I was in primary school in London, a teacher created a crossword in which the clue 'One of our ancestors' gave the answer 'Saxon'. I was deeply alarmed at this since any Saxon ancestry I have is pretty distant -- Celtiberian, Suevian, Jewish, West African and maybe some additional flavourings.)

#61 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2006, 09:17 PM:

On Thanksgiving foods:

I was musing this year that it seemed that the foods people really get emotionally attached to as Thanksgiving/Xmas holiday foods are those that pack a powerful dose of umami, especially combined with other basic flavors like sweet, fat-rich, or salty.

Roasted meats (such as roast turkey, especially with skin on), roasted root vegetables, browned butter, walnuts, toasted almonds, and sauteed mushrooms are all supposed to be strong umami sources.

Theory. Discuss.

#62 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2006, 09:44 PM:

RE Clifton's observation:

Doesn't surprise me a bit. Rich harvest-time comfort foods good for bulking up on before the long, cold winter.

#63 ::: Magenta Griffith ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2006, 10:46 PM:

I've found the easiest way to make gravy is with cornstarch, rather than flour. Measure the pan drippings or broth made from giblets; for every cup of liquid, use 1 tablespoon of cornstarch. Mix the cornstarch with a little of the liquid, then add to the pot of simmering liquid. Should thicken up nicely in a couple of minutes. Watch it like a hawk, though. (This is also the technique used to thicken Chinese sauces, at least in the cookbooks I own.)

Also, when I'm making bread stuffing, I add a chopped up apple, or even two, if it's a large batch. Keeps it moist, and adds a certain hint of sweetness. I've also tried adding half a pint of oysters, but I've found not everyone has my love of them. I grew up in Maryland, where they used to be "poor peoples' food", so I know lots of oyster recipes no one does any more.

#64 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2006, 11:05 PM:

Greg@52: from the little I've learned, just whisking the flour into the fat may or may not be enough; the flour has to cook or it won't properly emulsify the oil/water mixture. That's cook, not char -- there's a reason Grandfather taught me to make Welsh Rarebit in a double boiler.

#65 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 26, 2006, 04:09 AM:

Fragano @60

Actually, we're going southeast, to the Netherlands. There are a lot of reasons for crossing the Channel, including a strong desire that the children be multilingual. (Also, I never really warmed to England. I love parts of it dearly, but my profession means I would have to work in London, and that is not one of the dear parts.) The Netherlands is the country of choice partly because my husband grew up there - so one of us already speaks Dutch - and partly for cultural reasons.

The plan is to move in the summer, but if work gets much worse for me, we may advance the schedule.

Also, I lied - Edinburgh is just south of 56° north, not 55.

On the gravy front, I was always taught to mix flour with cold water first, then add the liquid to whatever I was trying to thicken (including gravies). As a bookbinder, I have learned that that's the best way to make lump-free paste, which is really much the same thing.

#66 ::: joann ::: (view all by) ::: November 26, 2006, 06:05 PM:

On gravies: You definitely cook the roux (on medium) for about a minute, maybe two, making sure it doesn't burn, before adding the liquid. My secret weapon is the whisk; throw in liquid, turn heat up to just short of high, and start whisking away maniacally. As long as you're continuous about it, this is absolutely foolproof. (Meaning my mother can't do it, because her notion of cooking is to turn the burner on and then go off and read a book.)

My typical gravy is made using butter in the roux, and pan fat as liquid, making up the difference with milk. If it looks like too much milk, even, then use canned broth to finish. Make sure it's well seasoned with plenty of pepper.

#67 ::: joann ::: (view all by) ::: November 26, 2006, 06:16 PM:

I've only cooked one full-scale Thanksgiving dinner involving turkey, because there's only two of us, and we're not big inviters. I've been known to try things like poaching fish instead. These days we go stay in DFW for a few days, spree around, and then get Thanksgiving dinner at my mother's. This year's was surprisingly good, involving game hens.

The one turkey was almost 30 years ago. It happened because my mother and her cousin, who was visiting from out of state, descended on us from 200 miles north, demanding Thanksgiving, after about a week's warning. (I fail to remember where they stayed.) This was at a time we had no car, and the nearest large grocery was at least a mile away. Several days before the Event, we got on our bikes, brought the turkey back overflowing the bike basket, and then discovered it would not fit in the apartment freezer. We ended up parking it in the rather large vegetable crisper, packed in ice cubes, which we then removed in advance. Perfect defrost method, and the turkey got cooked enough that there were no unattractive bacteria.

#68 ::: Paula Helm Murray ::: (view all by) ::: November 26, 2006, 10:49 PM:

Gravy forumla.

xT Fat by xT flour, cook until thoroughly mixed. Then gradually add x Cups milk/stock/whatever liquid (I shudder to think someone would use water) by stirring the liquid into the flour/fat mix. x count should all equal, I've never done it above 3 cups gravy, so I don't know how large it works.

Day after Thanksgiving I made us mac and cheese.
1 lb macaroni (Bertolli) cooked, 1 lb. Burger's smokehouse seasoning pieces, white sauce to equal two cups, 1 cup plus cheese.

I started with cooking the ham, but it was remarkably dry. I added butter to the drippings and scraped the fried ham bits left into the pan into the flour and melted butter. Added 2 cups of milk, let it thicken, then poured over the mac and cheese mix.

#69 ::: Susan ::: (view all by) ::: November 27, 2006, 09:29 AM:

Thanksgiving feast: 1 microwave diet pizza, eaten while miserably sick in bed with only two enthusiastically sleeping cats for company.

Weekend: Drive, dance, read, sleep, dance, sew, dance, raise $10,000 for sick kids via music and transvestitism, surround-sound Hallelujah in the jacuzzi, Christmas carols, sleep, drive, read, sleep.

#70 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 27, 2006, 09:35 AM:

Sorry to hear about your being sick, Susan. Sounds like the days after that were more pleasant.

#71 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: November 27, 2006, 10:29 AM:

No Thanksgiving here, and I cannot imagine how Americans can stand having Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas so close together, all excuses for blowouts of the most incredible kind.

But we are having fifteen people for Christmas lunch, which will feature crayfish, prawns, turkey, glazed ham, duck, Mr Musgrove's lamb, Christmas pudding, Peveril pudding, mince pies, four kinds of wine and ghod alone knows what else. And a chocolate tree. All in an antipodean 35 degrees (95 degrees fahrenheit), and we wouldn't have it any other way.

And we call you strange!

#72 ::: Janet Brennan Croft ::: (view all by) ::: November 27, 2006, 11:09 AM:

I converted to cooking my turkeys in plastic oven bags a few years ago and never looked back. Cooks faster and seals in the moisture, plus cleanup's a good bit easier. A 13-pound turkey took about 2 hours. We do our stuffing on the side now -- that makes it a bit quicker, too.

Our new favorite holiday dessert since going low-carb is pumpkin mousse with maple-flavored whipped cream. Very rich and intense! The maple flavoring really adds something to the traditional pumpkin pie spices.

I do regret being so far from family that it's been just the three of us for the past six years. I miss cooking for a bigger group sometimes!

#73 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: November 27, 2006, 12:41 PM:

Abi #65: To Amsterdam, eh? Goede gelluk! By all accounts it's a pretty interesting place. If ever you run into a journalist named Fitzroy Nation give him my regards.

As a native Londoner, all I can do is remind you of the wise Samuel Johnson who said 'He who is tired of London is tired of life.'

OTOH, my baby brother and his family live in Aberdeen....

#74 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 27, 2006, 01:54 PM:

Fragano,

Niet Amsterdam. (I can tell you're a Londoner! You leapt from NL to Amsterdam in an ogenblik!) I'd rather live outwith the Randstaad, the major conurbation along the coast. My husband grew up in Limburg, the southernmost province (which contains Maastricht, as in the treaty). That would do, or anything up to abouot Nijmegen.

I guess I'm tired of life. I'll spare you my latest sonnet, which definitively proves it (or that I have SAD, which is the hypothesis with which I am currently running).

#75 ::: Susan ::: (view all by) ::: November 27, 2006, 02:35 PM:

Serge @ #70:

The sick was pretty bad, but the rest was really a good time. Fortunately, I'm not particularly fond of Thanksgiving, people, or giant feasts, so I didn't mind the absence of holiday trappings. I'd have done a little better for myself than the pizza if I'd been able to either get to the grocery store or cook, though - at least a homemade pizza!

I'm especially pleased with the fundraiser - we'd set a goal of $10K since it was the 10th year, but I didn't think going in that we'd actually get there. We've been doing around $3-4000 a year on average, so this was a huge jump, especially for a con of maybe 500 people. I suspect we will see no more "dares" of the "if you raise X dollars we will do this" variety, though, since it's clearly dangerous to challenge us that way!


#76 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 27, 2006, 03:27 PM:

it's clearly dangerous to challenge us that way

I'll keep that in mind, Susan.

Meanwhile, my wife, her sis and their mom went to San Francisco's Castro Theater last night. They just couldn't resist attending a showing of The Sound of Music where the audience got to sing along with Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer. And to collectively hiss every time the Baroness showed up on the screen.

#77 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: November 27, 2006, 04:29 PM:

Abi #74: Limburg... hmm right next to Belgium and Germany. That'll certainly be multiethnic. Only marginally warmer than Scotland, though, and about as wet. On the other hand, when you can drive to the Med in a day and half....

As I said earlier, goede gelluk.

The best advice I can give on SAD is John Gay's epitaph on himself: 'Life is a jest, and all things show it.'

#78 ::: Nancy C ::: (view all by) ::: November 27, 2006, 11:00 PM:

For years, major holidays were at Grandma's house. Grandma cooked the meat. Everyone else in our large (19 at full strength) family brought something else, usually a specific dish beloved of the family.

I miss those meals.

#79 ::: L M B MacAlister ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2006, 01:59 AM:

I certainly can't add to what's been said, except one final item about disposal.

I keep a large, active, and well-utilized compost pile. After cleaning the turkey carcass with next day's snacking frenzy and assorted Tupperfying, and then boiling it and assorted remains for stock, I let it dry, then run it through the chipper, and into the compost it goes.

#80 ::: Susan ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2006, 09:38 AM:

Serge @ #76:
I'll keep that in mind, Susan.

...or you too might end up on stage in fishnets and a garter belt playing electric guitar and singing "Sweet Transvestite" for charity...

#81 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2006, 09:42 AM:

Duly noted, Susan. Besides, I don't want to impose upon the world the sight of my hairy legs, bowed as they are.

#82 ::: TomB ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2006, 11:47 AM:

Serge, if you plucked your legs instead of bowing them, they wouldn't be so hairy.

#83 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2006, 11:52 AM:

if you plucked your legs...

Ow, ow, ow...

#84 ::: Wristle ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2006, 01:42 PM:

Paula #68:

I second your implied recommendation of Burger's Smokehouse : a one-stop source for all things pork and smoked. I've had good luck avoiding the gravy-making morass by using Tofurky Giblet and Mushroom gravy . Despite the name, no actual giblets are involved.

#85 ::: Lexica ::: (view all by) ::: November 29, 2006, 04:13 PM:

abi, have you tried light therapy? I have a lightbox that I pull out of the closet every fall equinox — 15 to 30 minutes in front of it every morning makes the difference between a winter that seems cold & dark and a winter that seems bleak & without hope.

We went for a micro-Thanksgiving this year. I've been on an Indian cooking kick lately, so we had a number of dishes (including a not-entirely-successful tandoori-spiced turkey breast — gotta find a better recipe for tandoori paste) spread out over the day. With just the two of us, timing was not an issue. And my husband got to have his annual Thankgiving-means-Godzilla-movies binge, courtesy of Netflix. Low-key, lazy, and very pleasant.

#86 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 29, 2006, 04:40 PM:

Lexica,

Thanks for the thought. I write this sitting in front of a suitcase-sized light box of astonishing brilliance*, as I do for two hours every evening** from October till March. This is me with light therapy. You should see me without it.***

I love my light box dearly, and my desk lamp, and my dawn simulator alarm clock. They help, but they don't solve things. And I lost a lot of ground this autumn when I was without a desk lamp for 4 weeks. I'm not sure I can catch up again this winter.

I wish it only took 15 - 30 minutes. But really - thanks for suggesting it, because if you'd done so 6 years ago, before I found out about light therapy, I'd pretty much owe you my life and my career.

* If I close my front blinds and curtains, and put the light box across the length of the house, pointed out from the front window, you can still cast a shadow on our lawn.

** which does not do much for my social life. But I find that I don't react much differently between morning and evening, and I don't have the time in the morning.

*** No, actually, you shouldn't. The terms that get used about my un-lit mood tend to be phrases like "blast radius" and "minimum safe distance".

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