Monday, November 21, 2005

Thanksgiving Week--Food Seems Appropriate

Here in America, Thanksgiving week makes us all go nuts about food. How do you cook a turkey again? After all, it's been a year since you last cooked one. Maybe longer, if you rotate the cooking among various relatives. People make themselves crazy worrying about whether the food is absolutely perfect. Of course, the Thanksgivings that get talked about are the ones where it isn't perfect.

My grandmother used to go all out. She made her ravioli dinner and a full turkey dinner. And along with three kinds of pie, we got cake and ice cream because the family celebrated my November 28 birthday whenever Thanksgiving was every year. We got overstuffed and one lucky family got to take the ravioli leftovers home. We didn't care about the turkey leftovers. We'd get more turkey at Christmas. It was the ravioli that were special.

I look forward to Thanksgiving because I love turkey, and so does my family. I got in the habit of cooking it several times a year, especially since it's always one of the cheapest meats you can buy. I discovered that it's super easy to roast a good turkey. The cooking magazines keep adding steps--brining or dry brining, sticking herbs under the skin, putting stuff in the cavity, trussing--or not, high heat roasting, grilling, and now, (shudder) deep-frying. I guess it gives them things to write about. But now they're writing about the simplest way to roast a turkey and have it turn out well. I can see how it can be confusing to someone who hasn't done it before. What makes Thanksgiving harder than a normal dinner isn't the turkey. It's that you're cooking for more people than normal and making more courses and different types of dishes than you usually do.

So, in addition to the turkey, there's gravy and pie crust to obsess over. And yeast rolls or biscuits, if you've never made them from scratch before. And doing the salads and veggies fancier than usual. And cranberry sauce and yams and nontraditional recipes that are family favorites. And appetizers and first courses, if you're doing a super formal meal. It can seem overwhelming.

There are ways to make it all much easier, so you can focus more on what you're thankful for and less on worrying about what needs to be done next to get dinner on the table. The first thing to do is to look at the menu. If you're not having a huge crowd, maybe you don't need so many different dishes. People get too stuffed if you put out too many appetizers, so keep them to a minimum or skip them, if there's not much time between when they get there and when you serve dinner. You don't have to serve a soup course, either. If only one person likes a particular dish, maybe you can skip that dish or have the one person who waits all year just for that dish make it. You can save yourself a lot of work by cooking the turkey, stuffing, and gravy and having everyone pot luck the rest of the meal.

Another thing is to do as much ahead of time as possible. You can make rolls in advance and freeze them. You can do the same with pies. Cranberry sauce is really simple to make and it's better if you make it 1-2 days ahead of time and keep it in the fridge. You can caramelize thawed pearl onions a day ahead to add to a green veggie. You can toast sliced or slivered almonds a day ahead to put on a veggie dish. Tosted pecans are great for sweet potato dishes. You can cook bacon bits in advance and use them to liven up rolls, potatoes, or veggies. Grated cheese is another simple ingredient that you can add to rolls. Fresh herbs can be used in any dish.

The last trick is to buy some things preprepared. Rolls and desserts can be purchased at a bakery and they're just as good as what you can spend a lot of time making yourself. You can buy a complete meal from many grocery stores and some restaurants, but we were disappointed in the food when we were invited to dinner at someone's house who did that. The food was bland and way over-salted. The turkey was dry.

My plan for this year, because I'm in my mom's kitchen, is to get the rolls and dessert premade. I'm doing the cranberry sauce on Wednesday. I'm not doing giblet stock for the gravy. I'm using canned, no-fat, low-sodium chicken stock, which I'll use to baste the turkey. That will give it more of a turkey flavor in the gravy. I'd love to cut one more course and just do stuffing, because we don't have that many people to feed. But my family insists on potatoes and I only get stuffing once a year.

So, does anyone have any Thanksgiving cooking questions they'd like answered? Or recipes you'd like me to post? Write me a note in the comments and if I get any, I'll post them as my posts for the next two days.