The anxiety that swirls ’round the Thanksgiving meal has puzzled me. Most of the dishes can, in fact, be made well in advance, and fine renditions of all of them can be picked up at any number of local outlets. Media and YouTube coverage gets more sophisticated and consumer-friendly each year. Why, it’s hard to find a corner of the prep that hasn’t been FAQ’ed, videoed and sliding-scaled.
My latest theory? To-do lists are to blame. There are so many of them, so many weeks out. I scanned nine online “stress-free”/“trouble-free”/“easy” lists just now and came away with a knot in my stomach.
Ironic, then, for me to offer one more list! It is, however, intended to take culinary chores off your plate — assuming you are helping to produce a meal with a turkey for the holiday:
Don’t brine the bird. Wet or dry, this prep takes up time and precious refrigerated space. The practice became popular, perhaps, to counter an era of bland, mass-produced birds. But locally raised, good-tasting turkeys are plentiful and widely available; start with one of those, and you won’t be sorry. (And if you choose a frozen or kosher bird, it probably has already been treated to some kind of salt solution.) Testing Pam Ginsberg’s No-Fuss Roast Turkey last year convinced me.
That said, if you’re looking for more than pure turkey flavor, rubs and pastes prior to cooking can make all the difference.
Don’t flip it, either. Food chats and blogs are filled with debates about whether cooking the turkey breast side down for a while keeps the white meat juicy. People who’ve managed to do it without a mess are the ones who say it’s worth it, I’ve found. Bottom line: It causes additional stress and cleanup, not to mention the various MacGyvering needed to avoid telltale rack marks once the bird is turned right side up again. The same juicy results can be achieved with the application of a butter-and-wine-soaked cheesecloth directly on the breast, a la 1980s Martha Stewart.
Don’t make gravy. We used to fret about its potential for — gasp — lumps; now we’re fixated about avoiding last-minute disaster. What’s wrong with simple pan juices, full of crispy bits and all? (The ones from the Pasilla-Chili-Rubbed Turkey are an awesome sauce.) What about reducing leftover apple cider with sherry? What about pureeing caramelized onions with a bit of broth? Why not a mole? How about using a thinned-out version of the first-course soup, maybe with a splash of apple cider vinegar thrown in? You are hereby emancipated.
Don’t open a can of cranberry sauce. People get mighty sentimental about the ringed imprints on the jellied mass that exits with a satisfying thwock. Should nostalgia and corn syrup trump the fruit’s true tartness? Twelve ounces of fresh berries, 1 cup of sugar and 1 cup of water produce spectacular, beautiful results — and there are so many worthwhile variations on the theme. (We’ll make an exception for Cranberry Sauce Mold.)
Don’t wait to whip up the mashed potatoes. That’s a total make-ahead dish (up to three days, refrigerated), whether you’re using Yukon Golds, russets or Haymans. Reheat them, all doctored up and tightly covered with foil, in a heatproof bowl set over a pan with a few inches of simmering water. It’ll take about 20 minutes to heat through a crowd-size batch if you give them a good stir every now and then. You can hold them that way for at least an hour. (Or put them in a slow-cooker, if you can sacrifice the work space.)
Don’t cook more than three sides. This is where careful planning can go out the window. It’s tempting to make everyone’s favorites. It’s all too easy for a cook to get overwhelmed and run out of casserole dishes. Take a deep breath and say: There’s only so much room on the plate. Something green’s a good place to start. Next, think about an orange-colored element (squash, sweet potatoes, carrots, persimmons). Let the guest who has come the farthest choose the final side dish — and draw lots for the honor of who gets to pick for next year’s feast. A new tradition!
Don’t buy salted butter. The unsalted kind is better to have on hand for cooking and baking (for monitoring/controlling sodium), and we like the flexibility of creating our own compound butters to fit the occasion. It’s a quick, personal touch for the table that yields compliments every time. Bring the plain, unsalted butter to room temperature before you stir/whip in your spices, herbs or flavorings. If you add too much, just add more butter. Roll up, tube-style, in plastic wrap and freeze so you can make nice slices.
Don’t bake dessert. This is a boon for cooks who worry about oven time and storage space, and those who have yet to master pie crusts. The Washington area is blessed with plenty of places to buy a pie. Even Ina Garten, a.k.a. the Barefoot Contessa, recommends taking this chore off your plate in her “stress-free” holiday tips this season.
Your friends “will feel like they’re on the A team — that you trusted them to bring something delicious” when you assign the dessert, Garten says. “My friends won’t have more fun if I make everything myself.”
Is there a holiday culinary chore you’ve managed to jettison over the years? Share in the comments below.