Saturday, November 21, 2009

Sneaky Shortcuts for Thanksgiving

For 39 years I’ve been doing Thanksgiving for an ever-growing group and as the years passed, I’ve streamlined the process so much that it’s embarrassing. I’m sort of a nut about holidays—especially the decorating part—and while I’m pretty good at baking (Scandinavian background) I’m not a serious Martha Stewart-type cook, as all my friends know. I did work for several years for Ladies’ Home Journal’s food department back in the sixties, but that definitely did not turn me into a master chef.

Nowadays magazines and ads on TV make much of the young wife and mother terrified by the complexities of roasting a turkey and serving Thanksgiving dinner to a crowd. I think the whole thing has been vastly over-complicated by the media.

So I’m going to share with you my sneaky shortcuts for a super-easy Thanksgiving, including how to keep children amused (although my children are all grown up now—but still coming home for the holiday.)

But you have to promise not to tell anyone how lazy I am –especially my Greek relatives who spend a whole day making a stuffing out of pine nuts, chestnuts, sausage, and everything but the kitchen sink. My corn bread stuffing takes about five minutes and every year they marvel at it. (Evidently no one has ever told them about packaged stuffing.)

The Turkey—don’t stuff it!
A turkey roasted with the stuffing inside takes much longer and then you have all those risks of food poisoning if you leave the turkey & stuffing un-refrigerated long after taking it out of the oven. Stuffing baked in the turkey comes out soggy. I prepare my stuffing on top of the stove and serve it in a covered casserole. And if you have vegetarian guests, as I often do, you can serve them vegetarian stuffing.

The directions are on the back of the Pepperidge Farm Corn Bread Stuffing package—Melt 6 TBSP butter in a saucepan, add a cup of chopped celery and a cup of chopped onions, cook for 3 minutes. (Then I throw in sliced mushrooms and maybe this year chopped apples and cook some more. You could also add chopped chestnuts or pecans and crumbled bacon or sausage.)

When everything is softened, you throw in 2 1/2 cups water or broth (if you’re not going for vegetarian) and stir and you’re all done.

As for the turkey—I always get a fresh turkey, even though it costs more, so as not to have to defrost it for days and then find it still frozen in the middle on Turkey Day. I generally cut an onion in half and a couple oranges in half and put them in the cavity before putting the turkey in the oven. Put a tent of aluminum foil over it as soon as it gets brown. Every half hour you should baste it with pan juices (You poured broth into the roasting pan at the beginning.) . For the last 15 minutes I baste it with Maple Bourbon Glaze which also gives a nice color.

Green Bean Casserole and Candied Sweet Potatoes with Marshmallows: I don’t make them. I came to realize that nobody eats them. What I do make is: Parmesan Potato Casserole which is mashed potatoes in a casserole dish with a lot of butter and cheese, cream and eggs stirred in and then you bake it with some cheese and parsley on top. I cook Wild Rice mix straight out of the Uncle Ben box. Artichoke hearts alla Polita with peas and dill. Corn and red pepper casserole. Brown and serve rolls –cook them in the oven after the turkey comes out. (Don’t forget, the turkey needs to sit for a half hour to soak up the juices.) Stuffed mushrooms as an appetizer.

Gravy—open a can.
I’ve tried about a million “No fail turkey gravy” recipes over the years and I manage to fail every time. Gravy is a big nuisance right at the end of the cooking while everyone’s waiting to eat. What I do is open a couple cans of store-bought turkey gravy, chop up some of the neck and liver of the turkey (which have cooked in the roasting pan alongside the turkey), add a nice splash of some liquor—like sherry—or you can throw in some of the pan juices. Who’s going to know that it came out of a can?

Orange-cranberry relish—you can make this up to a month ahead and keep it in the refrigerator. Everybody loves it and it makes even the driest turkey taste better. Pick over and grind in the blender a one pound bag of cranberries. Grind up a couple oranges—pulp and rind. Mix together with two cups sugar or more. Chill in the refrigerator. I always make a double recipe.

When the kids were little I would have them cut with scissors a jagged edge for hollowed-out orange halves to make little baskets to hold the cranberry relish—I’d put the baskets surrounding the turkey. Or nowadays I surround the turkey on its platter with green and purple bunches of grapes.

Desserts: Everything made ahead.
Always some kind of apple pie (I keep trying to find the perfect recipe.) A pumpkin ricotta roll—it looks like a jellyroll and you can make it and freeze it way ahead, then slice it and sprinkle powdered sugar on top when it’s time to serve. Somehow a fabulous Chocolate-Kahlua pie has become a staple of our Thanksgiving. It, too, can be made way ahead. Last year I made a blackberry swirl cheesecake pie as the fourth dessert, but when I make a pumpkin pie—which is really fast and easy…(just take the recipe off the pumpkin can)—I decorate the top with a circle of candy corn left from Halloween. Or Cinnamon Praline Pecans.

Pie dough—Pillsbury refrigerated. I don’t have the magic touch for “from scratch” pie crust that grandmas always brag about, and I’ve never had any complaints. When I do some clever crimping around the edge, the pie crust looks completely homemade and tastes fine.

Placecards and menus—Making the placecards or favors is a great way to keep children busy and out of your hair. I used to have them make favors/place cards that were turkeys fashioned out of (store bought) popcorn balls with a ladyfinger for the head and neck, three toothpick legs to stand, red or orange cellophane tied around the popcorn ball and gathered for a tail.—The three-legged turkey was then stuck in a large flat cookie, where the name would be written using those cake-decorating tubes. The kids really got into making these “resemble’ the person it was for.

Just today on Facebook I saw the Oreo Cookie Turkey above which was created by a clever artist named Shane Donnelly. It’s probably too complicated for any but older children, but would make a nice alternative to the popcorn-ball turkey.

The centerpiece is always the same—I have a basket shaped like a cornucopia, filled with various fruits, nuts and some fall flowers that have survived in the garden. Couldn’t be easier. Candles in candleholders.

I always print out on the computer a small decorative menu for each plate so people know what they’re eating. What they won’t know is how easy it was, unless you tell them.

1 comment:

CJ said...

Your Thanksgiving prep sounds like mine. Stuffing out of a bag and dressed up a little, gravy out of a jar because my attempts at homemade end in epic failure. I don't stuff the bird either. I do make bread, was super easy with my bread machine, but still easy using the Kitchen Aid mixer to mix and knead. My oven is only large enough to roast the turkey and sweet potatoes for the 6 of us. Sides down the day before and then heated in the micros. Have a Happy Thanksgiving!