Monday, November 7, 2016

Thanksgiving - random disorganized musings....

I'm a geek for Thanksgiving.  It's one of the few holidays that Corporate America has been unable to commercialize to a great degree, because it's pretty much about staying home with loved ones and eating. I know there are football games, and Christmas shopping, but so far, in my mind anyway, Thanksgiving has remained relatively unadulterated.  And for that, I am, well, thankful.

Growing up, my family spent Thanksgiving either at home celebrating with the neighbors, or at our cabin in the mountains.  The sale of the family cabin and my mother's passing happened in a relatively short space of time, and at the age of 30, I was faced with trying to cobble together Thanksgiving for the family in a house that no longer really felt like a home.  I am forever grateful to the varied friends who all answered our pleading invitation to come spend "the first" Thanksgiving with us, when they probably had happier places to be.

That was the year that I began to be "in charge" of Thanksgiving, and it eventually moved to a cabin of my own up in the mountains.  I'm a foodie at heart and choose to look at the silver lining of now being able to make some changes to the tired Thanksgiving menu and finally get rid of the dreaded Green Bean Casserole.  Over the years, I've experimented a lot.....  global flavors, butterflied turkey on the grill, "light" recipes, all with varying degrees of success.  I've bought frozen Butterball turkeys, had a farmer raise (and butcher) a turkey of my choosing, and ordered fresh heritage birds from the local expensive market.

Every year, in anticipation of My Favorite Holiday, I start perusing websites, leafing through cookbooks, and asking friends about their own meals, hoping for new and unique ideas.  I've cooked Thanksgiving in my own kitchen, and taken it on the road to my cabin or other ill-equipped rental cabins, and once the commercial kitchen of a "closed for the season" rustic lodge that a group of us had access to one winter.  Every new option provides it's challenges and opportunities and I've learned a lot.

We've recently downsized our home, but have invited a large number of guests for Thanksgiving, so my new first world challenge is cooking it in my new "one cook, one oven" kitchen, and trying to find the balance between "enough" menu items for a large group and the constraints of my kitchen.  Happily, this is the first house that I think I will be able to expand my dining room table to it's full 9 feet.

As I've said, I've learned a lot over the years.  Very few "experimental" recipes make regular comebacks, but a lot of technique has remained in my repertoire year after year.  Some of the key things I've learned.....

  • Everybody still wants that damned Green Bean Casserole.  I've had to get over offering a more sophisticated alternative, and the casserole format keeps it warm longer than other recipes anyway
  • Brine your turkey.  Yes, you can still make gravy from the drippings, as long as you rinse the bird well before cooking.  Besides all the great and varied brining components (lemon peels, juniper berries, fresh herbs) I always put about a dozen black tea bags in too.  Whaaaaaa? you say?  My guess is the tannins tenderize the meat, but in my experience, a tea-brined turkey is always incredibly tender and I don't notice a tea flavor
  • Good gravy starts with good stock.  I make my own turkey stock because gravy is my favorite part of the dinner.  I buy extra necks, wings, offal, basically whatever the grocery store has and use that as my base.  Make a TON.  You'll need it for stuffing as well as gravy.  And turkey noodle soup!
  • Plan your menu all the way down to which serving dishes and serving utensils will be used for each dish.  Get those out and make sure they're serviceable and set them aside so that nobody decides to have their breakfast cereal in the dish you'd planned for the cranberry sauce.  It happens.
  • Start well in advance and make lists.  Not just what dishes, but what ingredients.  Plan out what can be made in advance and frozen.  If you buy a frozen turkey and you want to brine it, you need to get the turkey several days in advance to allow time for both thawing and brining.
  • Clear space - I always have a couple of empty bins in the garage that I start filling with potatoes, stuffing bread, the damned cans of cream of mushroom soup, stock ingredients (carrots, onions, etc) and all the other non-perishable supplies you can buy in advance.  I clear space in the fridge and the freezer for all the stuff that I:
  • Cook in advance.  There are actually very few Thanksgiving dishes that won't stand up to spending a week or so in the freezer - even the mashed potatoes!  Also turkey stock, the pre-cooked mirepoix for the stuffing, the sweet potato casserole (or twice-baked sweet potatoes that I prefer)
  • One oven is enough.  If you've planned well, meaning all your side dishes just need to be re/heated/warmed on Thanksgiving day, they will get a good 40 minutes in the oven after the turkey comes out (rests for 20 minutes, 20 minutes for carving).  All you need to do while the turkey is resting is make the gravy.
  • Get used to butter.  It's just one day - eat a ton of it.  If a recipe doesn't call for butter, it doesn't belong at Thanksgiving
  • Nobody but me likes a dish whose primary ingredient is onions
  • THIS is the most awesomest cranberry recipe and the only recipe that has made a reappearance virtually every year after I discovered it.  It's GREAT over brie and very wine friendly!  Keeps for a week in the fridge, and the recipe makes enough for you to offer a jar to your neighbors
  • Stock up on disposable foil food containers - great for sending leftovers home with your guests
  • Snacks - if you've got a houseful of football-watching individuals, throw some snacks at them like nuts, crudites, brie and cranberry sauce etc. but that's it.  They need to be hungry when dinner is served.
That's what I've learned!  What survival strategies do YOU have?