Let’s Talk Turkey


We hosted the Thanksgiving feast this year, which meant that I got to kick into high gear, plan the food, orchestrate what gets cooked when, and decide how to put my stamp on family traditions.

First off, and let’s get this out of the way – all holiday meals are DEEPLY steeped in family traditions. Food invokes so many memories that even though that green bean casserole is universally reviled, and you’d never think of cooking it any other time of the year, it simply MUST be on the table or else it isn’t Thanksgiving. The result is that regardless of culinary aspirations, sometimes you have to “take one for the team” and prepare food that may be emotionally filling if gastronomically devoid.

(For the record, both my parents and my in-laws are good cooks, and I have no issues with either family’s traditional holiday table. This is a challenge that has come up in every conversation I’ve had about the holidays, though, so it deserved some space.)

Enough philosophy. Let’s get to the food.

MENU:

  1. Roasted butternut squash soup
  2. Turkey with gravy
  3. Mashed potatoes
  4. Roasted sweet potatoes
  5. Roasted cauliflower
  6. Steamed broccoli
  7. Glazed carrots
  8. Bread stuffing
  9. Cranberry sauce
  10. Rolls / baguette
  11. Apple Pie
  12. Pumpkin Pie

Let’s meet the players. All photos are credit to Christine Tremoulet – thanks for holding up dinner and grabbing the camera so I could have photos for this post!

Roasted butternut squash soup
Straightforward with a bit of elegance. Take a couple of heavy butternut squash, and cut off a bit from the top and bottom. Stand up on the base, and halve vertically. Use a spoon to spoon out the inner webbing and seeds, rub down with salt, pepper, and a neutral oil (I keep canola on hand), and put cut-side down in a roasting pan. Put in a hot oven – 425F or so – until the flesh is soft to a fork and the edges have caramelized. Remove from oven, let cool, and scoop flesh away from the skin. Put the flesh in a pot, add about a pint of heavy cream (hey, it’s the holidays) and puree with a stick blender until smooth. If you want it thinner, keep adding cream or milk until it’s where you want it to be. Stir in some spices – cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, things like that – and taste for seasoning.

Turkey with gravy
This is easily one of the best turkeys I have ever eaten, if not THE best. It’s a little involved, but none of the steps are hard and the flavor is incredible.

One blessing is that we’ve never carved the turkey at the table, so none of our traditions involve a whole turkey as a showpiece. This is freeing as a cook. White meat and dark meat are fundamentally different, and need to cook to different times and temperatures. Many, many words have been written about how to manage this on a whole bird – cook it upside down for part of the time, ice the breast before cooking to chill it compared to the legs, all sorts of things to do with foil tents for the white meat to keep it from overcooking, and so on. If one of these works for you, by all means, have at it. I’ve moved on.

In hunting down info on cooking a turkey in parts, I came across this article that gave me the outline I wanted. I hadn’t thought of braising the legs, but it makes perfect sense; the long cooking time gives the added connective tissue in the dark meat time to melt out into the stock, and the breast only cooks for as long as it needs. Plus, you get an over-the-top gravy.

Here’s the outline:

  • A day or so beforehand, break the turkey into parts – two leg/thighs, one big intact breast, and the back and wings. Make a stock from the back and wings. Rub the leg quarters and the breast with salt, pepper, thyme, garlic, and oil, and put in the fridge overnight.
  • On the morning of, brown the legs in a roasting pan, brown some mirepoix, and braise the legs in the stock from the day before for about 3 hours. Strain and save the double stock for gravy.
  • Put the breast on top of the leg quarters and roast at 375F for an hour and a half, until the breast is done (use a thermometer!)
  • Let the meat rest before carving. Traditionally, slices are taken along the breast. This worked well, but if you can, take the breast off the bone and cut across it – perpendicular to the muscle fiber. This will give an even more tender breast. Shred the dark meat with two forks.
  • While the meat rests, take some of that double stock, let it reduce (MORE! MORE FLAVOR!), and thicken with roux until it’s gravy.

The meat was all extremely juicy, tender, flavorful, nothing was dried out in the slightest, and it’s largely unfussy and unattended cooking.


Mashed Potatoes
This is one of my standby party dishes – I can put it together in under half an hour, and it always gets rave reviews.
Take yukon gold potatoes, peel them, and cut into chunks (maybe 1-1.5 in. in any direction at most – shortens the cooking time). Place in a pot of cold water, bring to a boil, and simmer until the potatoes are fork tender. Drain. Place the potatoes in the bowl of a mixer with the paddle attachment and beat on the lowest setting, adding a stick of butter, some cream, salt and pepper to taste. Finally, throw in a block of Boursin garlic/herb cheese. (Oops, the secret’s out.) It won’t taste cheesy in the potatoes, but it adds a lot of depth of flavor very quickly.

Roasted sweet potatoes
Sweet potatoes are a core part of my holiday tradition. However, having grown up in Kentucky (there’s a better family story on the origin, I think, that may have nothing to do with my home state) these were always a casserole of sweet potatoes, eggs, milk, sugar, and a LIBERAL lashing of bourbon. They’re delicious, but they’re perhaps on the strong side – not everybody’s taste. I can’t abide by marshmallows on sweet potatoes, they’re sweet enough as is. So, instead, I decided to roast them and let the natural sweetness shine.
Peel and cut the sweet potatoes into 1″ (ish) chunks. Toss with enough oil to coat, and some salt, and spread in a roasting tin on a single layer. Throw in the oven at 425F, shaking and stirring occasionally, until all sides are brown and caramelized. Take out of the oven, salt, and serve immediately.

Roasted cauliflower
Similar concept to the potatoes (minus the lore and the bourbon).
Remove the core and cut the cauliflower into chunks – remember, the cut sides are the ones that brown up and get sweet in the oven – and coat with oil, salt, herbs, and place in a single layer in a roasting pan. Roast, shaking occasionally, and serve.

Steamed broccoli
Break a head of broccoli into florets. Put in steamer basket over water. Steam until tender. ‘Nuff said.

Glazed carrots
Originally, these were to be roast with the cauliflower. However, they needed different cooking time and it was getting monotonous with the roast meat and vegetables. Plus, I frankly goofed and didn’t get them prepped in time, so I “called an audible” and went for the glace.
Cut carrots into thick sticks and place in a wide pan (bonus if it’s a single layer of carrots). Add just a bit of water – maybe 1/4 C – especially if the carrots are a little old or woody. Add a pinch of salt, a pinch of sugar, a few pats of butter, and cover. Bring to a boil, then cut the heat to low and let the carrots cook for 15-20 min, shaking occasionally. Remove the lid and let the water evaporate off, leaving the carrots in the glaze. Optional – finish with a spray of lemon juice and some fresh parsley or herbs. The goal is to get the carrots cooked tender without overcooking until they fall apart.

Bread stuffing
Gladly outsourced. This is my mother-in-law’s recipe, and despite my best efforts (and meticulous attention to instruction), it never comes out quite right. I hadn’t picked up what I needed for the stuffing, so I happily asked her if she would make and bring it. Delicious.

Cranberry sauce
Look, tart foods and I don’t normally get along. I’ve never been a fan of cranberry sauce, whether canned or fresh. This year, I ate it and enjoyed it.
Zest and juice two oranges. Add water to make 1C of liquid. Pour over 12 oz. of cranberries and 1C of sugar, stir, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until the berries have all split and are getting soft. Stir in a bit of salt to taste. They are a bit tart, but the orange kick and sugar definitely help balance.

Rolls and baguette
Phoned it in, and went with King’s Hawaiian rolls (family favorite) and a Slow Dough baguette that I bought spur of the moment at the market the day before. I hadn’t worked into the schedule how I was going to get bread baked anyway, so I cheated a wee bit.

Apple Pie
Pie crust and I get along. I make a pretty good crust – won’t win awards, but it works out well. However, I’ve never actually made an apple pie, let alone a double crust pie. First time for everything, I suppose. On advice of counsel and friends, I used a mix of Granny Smith and Macintosh apples in the filling, with a bit of brown sugar, corn starch, salt, and lemon juice. Putting in the bottom layer was straightforward, filling the pie wasn’t a problem, and laying the top crust over went pretty well. Trying to figure out how to tuck the ends together (wife said over from top, recipe said under from bottom, quick scan showed an even split on the internet), I managed to create something that looked vaguely pie-like. It baked fairly well, although my adventures with making a foil collar for the crust led to Christine’s declaration that I would have failed as a 1950s housewife… Tasted delicious, which is really what matters.

Pumpkin Pie
No shame in canned pumpkin here – from what I understand, breaking down and cooking a raw pumpkin is a fair bit of work, and the canned product doesn’t suffer in quality or taste. Again, this was a stick-to-tradition item, so you can find the recipe proudly on the side of the Libby’s can (of pumpkin, not of pumpkin pie filling – there IS a difference).

And that, my friends, was our Thanksgiving feast.

The other trick was orchestrating all of this. Planning this meant not only setting up a menu, but working out shopping lists, prep lists, and most importantly the choreography of the oven – what dishes needed to be in or on top of the oven, at what temperature, and for how long. There was no way I was going to run into the issue of needing three things in the oven at different temps at the same time.

For grins, here (PDF) are the notes I took for getting this together. I know there are a few holes in the notes as the menu evolved – I think cranberry sauce made the item list but didn’t get onto the shopping list, for example, which almost caused a small crisis. But, for a big event like this, you HAVE to do some sort of preplanning to get your head straight about what to do. The net result is that Thursday’s cooking was easy, assembling final dishes, and only really got a bit hectic right at the end, trying to get everything onto serving plates and out of the kitchen.

In brief:

  • Saturday and Sunday were spent obsessing over the menu, writing the notes, researching techniques and recipes, and so on.
  • Monday was grocery shopping, breaking down the turkey, and maybe roasting the squash.
  • Tuesday was making the turkey stock and par-roasting the vegetables. (Great technique. Basically, like par-boiling, you roast the vegetables until they have just started to color. Pull them out, cool, and they can hang out in the fridge until day of. Let them come to room temp, then throw in a hot oven to refresh and finish cooking – while the turkey gently rests.)
  • Wednesday was cranberry sauce, making sure the turkey meat was rubbed down, and baking pies.
  • Thursday – the main event. Cook the turkey, finish the sides, make the gravy, and serve.

And THAT, as they say, is that. I’d like to hear about your menus and preparations in the comments. If any of you try these out, by all means, let me know how it goes (or ask for tips first, since my shorthand above may not be complete)!