Well here we are. One week before Thanksgiving. To some, this holiday brings back painful memories. To others, the chance to make new memories. In my opinion, Thanksgiving is the ultimate American holiday; not because it represents the “discovery” of America, but because we get a perfectly good excuse to stuff our faces with all manner of delicious foods.
This year is special for me though. It’s the first time that my wife and I will actually be hosting Thanksgiving dinner, and our guests will be my parents. Now, as nice as it will be to see my parents, I am really looking forward to cooking, if you couldn’t already guess. I’ve got a pretty sweet spread/menu shaping up, and I’m getting anxious to get it all going. I think the most important thing for me was to take the classic items that you would normally find at a typical, traditional Thanksgiving dinner, and change it just enough to make it different, but the same.
Take, for instance, my turkey. I am not going to roasting a full bird. In my opinion, that is wasteful and time-consuming. I will only be roasting the breast (which you can buy, they’re next to the actual full turkeys). Most people only eat the breast meat anyway, and when cooked properly, that’s all people will WANT to eat. So instead of just roasting my (partial) bird, I plan on brining it very simply, and then following a recipe entitled Bacon and Herb Turkey Breast. The first word in that title says it all. I made this once before a few years ago and it was a smash. I’m not going to give out the recipe here unless someone is desperate for it right now, but suffice it to say, that during the last bit of cooking, the bird is getting basted with bacon fat, and it is essentially frying in the oven. The skin gets really great and crispy, and there’s an herb butter right underneath it. Divine. I will also be employing my probe thermometer to ensure that proper doneness will be achieved, and that my (partial) bird will not be overcooked.
You may have noticed that I mentioned the “B” word in the previous paragraph. That’s right, brining. I recommend to every single person cooking a turkey that they brine it. Plain and simple. There is plenty, PLENTY of time to plan for that right now. Sure, if you’re cooking a turkey in the range of 15 pounds or so, it might be difficult to organize, but it is entirely possible if you use a little clever thinking. I mean, if you have a spare cooler laying about, that can be filled with ice and used as a containment vessel for the brining bird, which will also save room in your fridge. It’s all about getting creative. Let’s face it, with a turkey that size, something is bound to get overcooked. It always happens. Then you find yourself dousing your bird in gravy like you’re trying to put out a fire or something. It doesn’t have to be like that! Even if you overcook the bird a little, brining it properly first will grant you a bit of insurance in that process. You may overcook it, but there is a great chance that it will retain most of its juiciness despite that fact.
So along with my bird, I was trying to think about classic dishes that I have had year after year for Thanksgiving. Sweet potato casserole. Broccoli casserole. Corn casserole. Macaroni and cheese (casserole). There’s a definite pattern there; they’re all basically casseroles. And there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, corn casserole might very well one of my favorite thanksgiving items when done properly. And to be honest, this paragraph took a completely different turn that I had not originally intended. The point I had thought of at first was that I wanted to take the classics of my childhood and early adulthood and do something different with them. Sure, I’m no Bobby Flay or anything, and I needed recipes for everything, but it’s not going to look like a typical thanksgiving spread. And yes, I’m aware that I stopped capitalizing “thanksgiving.” I figure you know it’s a proper noun and I don’t feel like capitalizing it anymore.
So just to give you an idea of what I have in mind, instead of sweet potato casserole (usually made with copious amounts of brown sugar, honey, sometimes pecans, and topped with marshmallows), I plan on cubing a few sweet potatoes, tossing them with olive oil, salt, pepper, ground cinnamon and fresh nutmeg (and maybe a little brown sugar) and roasting them very simply. The high heat of the oven mixed with the sugar will give them a beautifully deep, rich color, and will taste really great, too. I admit that I am making a type of broccoli casserole, where I’ll be baking the vegetables with gooey cheddar cheese and garlic and making it finger-licking good. Macaroni and cheese is also a staple, and now that I think about it, I don’t think we actually have a recipe picked out for that yet. Oops! I’ll also be making a garlicky mashed potato wherein the garlic will be steeping in half and half and then added to the potatoes once cooked. This will develop a wonderful garlic flavor, and of course the cream will smooth everything out. And I almost forgot about the cranberries! I found some nice fresh cranberries at the grocery today, and I’ll be turning them into a nice tart dipping sauce for the turkey, or just a fork.
All in all, I am really looking forward to this holiday. I’m sure there will be times that I will be stressed, and I’m sure the same for you (if you’re cooking). And if you ARE cooking, I offer you this advice: plan everything out as early as possible. Do as much prep work you can the day before. Cooking should be about the fun, not the stress. Sure, things might go wrong, but it’s about embracing those challenges and learning for the next time. So try to eliminate the stress of the holiday, and have some fun (and a cocktail or two!)