What do you do with 30 women and one man from 18 countries on a sunny day in November? Teach them how to cook turkey, of course.
The lust for turkey, chunky dressing, mashed potatoes all drowning in muddy brown gravy is an acquired one. It's something we Americans learn from the time we cut our first teeth and were fed our first sliver of shredded turkey.
To explain this need to munch on the same kind of bird, cooked the same way, on the same day, to a room packed with foreigners, risks hoots of laughter.
Two Thursdays ago, THIS, The Hospitality and Information Service, a 26-year-old volunteer organization designed to welcome diplomats to Washington, presented a Thanksgiving cooking demonstration at the home of Charlotte Chapman.
The only man present, sitting in the front row, was Henri Robcis, spouse of Sandra Fuentes, a political officer at the Mexican Embassy. A veterinarian in his homeland, Robcis becomes a gastronomic consultant whenever he crosses the border. Enjoying the company of a roomful of women, Robcis passed out his professional card throughout the morning. Asked if he thought it hard to find and identify ingredients in the United States, he shook his head. "In America you can find anything. It's just a question of price."
Two members of the National Turkey Federation were on hand to show the group how to truss, stuff and carve the bird. Why turkey? Because in 1621, they explained, our forefathers dined on wild turkey. By the time President Wilson declared the annual gorging a national holiday in 1863, the entree had stuck. In fact, so nationalistic were we about this white meat that when the astronauts landed on the moon, their first meal, wrapped in silver foil, was roasted turkey.
Imagine, the diplomats smiled.
Mary Jo Monahan of the National Turkey Federation made sure to stress the risk of salmonella if the turkey was mishandled. Do not leave, she said, the bird at room temperature for more than two hours. Don't use wooden boards because any grooves and cracks can trap raw juices. She also suggests that it is better to bake the stuffing in a separate pan rather than in the cavity of the turkey.
Throughout the demonstrations for the turkey and other nine dishes (sweet potatoes, herbed dressing, cranberry chutney, root vegetable pure'e, onion scallop, string beans, refrigerator rolls, cranberry nut tart and utterly deadly pecan pie) there was some confusion.
"Are you talking about water chestnuts for the dressing?"
"Can you eat cranberries raw for dessert?
"Limes, those are lemons that are real green.
Most popular was the cranberry nut torte, for which volunteer Lonie Landfield lugged the food processor to the living room to make the nut crust. Do not worry, she said, if the crust cracks or the crust falls off, "pretend you don't even see it, just patch it back using the filling like glue."
Clara Plorutti, whose husband is a counselor at the Argentinean embassy, and who will be cooking a turkey dinner this year for her family and another Argentinean family, found the pie demonstration particularly helpful. "I have a Cuisinart, but I've only used it twice. Here, she made it seem something you would do everyday. I wouldn't now be scared to try it."
Marie-Paule Martinelli from Switzerland tried the recipes from the local paper last year for her first turkey. "I like to do as the host country does." Now, after this demonstration, she said, she has a whole new set of recipes to try.
THIS volunteer Randy Gracey, trying to assuage some of the women's fears about baking their first Thanksgiving dinner, told them how her first turkey blew up after she had stuffed it too much. "They say stuff, so I stuffed. There was my husband, pulling on the legs and there I was shoveling away. And when it was baking, it exploded all over the oven."
Here are a few hints to make sure your Thanksgiving turkey is produced without catastrophe.
Storing: When cooking a fresh turkey, buy it only one to two days before you plan to cook it and immediately refrigerate it at 40 degrees or below. You can store frozen turkeys up to a year in a freezer without much quality loss, although turkey parts, with less freezer-life, should be used within six months of storing. Frozen prestuffed turkeys should be kept frozen until cooking time, as bacteria can develop if the bird has a chance to thaw.
Thawing: Keep the turkey cold while it thaws. There are two methods of thawing turkeys, the better method being in the refrigerator. Place the wrapped turkey in a pan large enough to keep the water accumulation from spilling over in the refrigerator. The USDA recommends allowing 1-2 days for an 8-to 12-pound bird to thaw, 2-3 days for 12-16 pounds, 3-4 days for 16-20 pounds, and 4-5 days for 20-25 pounds. Alternatively, one can place the wrapped frozen turkey in a cold-water bath and change the water every 30 minutes. This method will thaw an 8-12 pound bird in 4-6 hours, 12-16 pounds in 6-9 hours hours, 16-20 pounds in 9-11 hours and 20-24 pounds in 11-12 hours.
Washing: Remove the neck and giblets and carefully wash the turkey inside and out with cold water. Drain well and pat dry. Salt and pepper the inside of the bird. Wash your hands after touching the bird and remember to keep utensils clean throughout the cooking process.
Stuffing: Stuffing a bird incorrectly can be dangerous to your health. To avoid bacterial growth in the stuffing, there are two ways to proceed. One method is to bake the stuffing separately in a greased and covered casserole dish for the last hour the turkey cooks. Without the stuffing, the turkey will cook more quickly. The other alternative is to pack the cavity loosely and close the opening with a skewer, toothpicks, or a clean piece of string (or cover the opening with the heel of a loaf of bread). By all means, do not stuff the bird in advance to save time. If you want to get as much work done possible in advance, assemble the dry and wet ingredients separately the night before, making sure to refrigerate the latter, and combine them just before stuffing the turkey the next day. Allow 3/4 cup stuffing per pound of turkey.
Roasting: In a shallow roasting pan, place the turkey breast side up and, if desired, brush the surface with cooking oil or butter. To avoid over-browning and to promote heat circulation, cover the bird with a tent made of foil, crimping the edges loosely in the sides of the pan. Poke a meat thermometer through the foil and into the thickest part of the thigh muscle. (The turkey is done once the temperature reaches 180 degrees here. Another way to check doneness is to press the meat of the drumstick between your fingers. The meat should be very soft.) To brown the turkey, remove the foil 20 to 30 minutes before the cooking time is finished. Basting is not necessary using this method.
Use the accompanying guide to roast (in a 325-degree oven) your turkey. Let the turkey rest, covered with foil, at least 20 minutes before carving.
It is best not to cook a turkey over the course of a day or more at low temperature. This only increases the chances for bacterial growth.
Turkey and stuffing should be allowed to remain standing at room temperature no more than two hours from the time they're removed from the oven. (Be sure to remove remaining stuffing from the turkey as soon as possible.) Store large portions of leftovers in small quantities in shallow covered containers. Turkey leftovers should be kept in the refrigerator no more than 3-4 days. Stuffing and gravy leftovers should be used within 1-2 days.
Questions: If you do have any mishaps here are a few numbers to call.
USDA meat and Poultry Hotline, (202) 447-3333 in D.C., 1-800-535-4555 elsewhere. Open weekdays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. until Nov. 27; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. thereafter. Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years Day.
The Butterball Turkey Talk-line, 1-800-323-4848. Open weekdays through Nov. 25, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.; weekends of Nov. 14-15 and 21-22, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Thanksgiving day, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.; weekdays from Nov 27 to Dec 24, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Fleischmann's Bakers Hotline: 1-800-227-6202. Open weekdays, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Closed Thanksgiving day and Nov. 27.
Cooperative Extension Services: These phone numbers are listed under county government or state university in the phone book. Call your area extension service for questions regarding the handling and storage of food, as well as nutritional content.