Monday, November 21, 2016

More Thanksgiving Shortcuts from a Lazy Grandma

--> It's time to post my yearly essay about Thanksgiving shortcuts from a lazy cook (me). It changes slightly every year as I find more ways to cut down my holiday hysteria with even more shortcuts.  For example, this year I got our turkey from Trader Joe's because it 's already brined as well as "all natural, no antibiotics,  fresh" and  the turkeys "roam free...and they're fed an all vegetarian diet."  And they're very reasonably priced!   

I'm starting my annual baking tonight before the kids and grandkids arrive on Wednesday and on Thursday we'll sit down to a Thanksgiving table set for 12, including five-year-old granddaughter Amalia and 18-month-old grandson Nicolas.  Last year  Amalia made me promise that we'd bake an "orange pie" together, which I took to mean a pumpkin pie, and she decorated the top with a ring of candy corn left over from Halloween.  The pies pictured above are from a Thanksgiving several years ago, in the days when I would make three pies and a pumpkin roll every year. 
Every Thanksgiving I'd try a different apple pie recipe in the hopes of finding the prize-winning pie that will bring tears (of joy, not sorrow)  to my family’s eyes.  This year I'm only baking the Chocolate Kahlua pie (at right above) which has become a tradition that the family insists upon.  I'm ordering a pecan pie and an "Apple Croquante" from a wonderful  bakery that popped up next to my hairdresser's in Westborough, MA.  It's called "Yummy Mummy Bakery" and has addictively delicious brownies all year round.  By popular demand, I'm substituting for the old faithful pumpkin pie (which nobody ever finished) some incredibly delicious Melt-In-Your-Mouth Pumpkin Cookies which I made last Christmas and then had to make again after Christmas.

For 46 years I’ve been streamlining Thanksgiving cooking  because I’m lazy, and my Greek relatives still don’t realize that my special cornbread stuffing comes out of a package (slightly doctored up.)  They spend days making their Greek stuffing, which includes chestnuts, hamburger and a lot of other good things.  Amalia's honorary Grandma, "Yiayia" Eleni Nikolaides, will be making it for our table this year.  Of course everyone prefers the Greek stuffing, but I still make my cornbread stuffing, because it’s “tradition.”   Another tradition is everyone competing for the honor of wearing the Turkey hat, which Nicos won last year.  He's next to "Yiayia" Eleni Nikolaides.

Amalia wore her turkey dress to the Thanksgiving show at her school last year

 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 my sneaky shortcuts for a super-easy Thanksgiving.

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 and stuffing unrefrigerated 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.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  and add the stuffing mix, 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 on Thanksgiving morn.  Last year I got mine from a nearby Wegman's and bought the organic kind, which cost five times as much as the non-organic kind, but I justified the expense to myself and a sticker-shocked husband by saying the turkey was free range, had a happy childhood, and was never injected with hormones. (This year I got the already brined free-range turkey described above from Trader Joe's.) When I put it in the oven, I'll cut an onion and a couple oranges in half and put them in the cavity first.  For the last 15 minutes I'll baste it with an Apple-cider glaze from an old Martha Stewart Living.  (Do you remember the Thanksgiving when Martha recommended deep-frying your turkey and many faithful readers risked life and limb trying?  This year she recommends starting the turkey upside-down, nestled on slices of bread on a v-shaped rack for 45 minutes, but I'm certain that, when it came time to turn it over, I'd drop it. So I'll stick with a turkey cooking breast-side up, but with an aluminum foil tent  on it after it's nicely browned.  Tradition! (Don’t forget, the turkey needs to sit for a half hour to soak up the juices.  But without stuffing, it cooks a lot faster, so I won't have to get up before sunrise to start it.)

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.  Stuffed mushrooms as an appetizer.
2016 Update: Daughter Eleni has been doing research for a magazine article on foods that are likeliest to improve health and increase longevity, and it seems that sweet potatoes are one of the best.  Who knew? So this year, at her suggestion, I'm going to make Coconut-Mashed Sweet Potatoes from the Blue Zones site. 

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. What I do now 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? (Update--this year I'm using Trader Joe's Turkey Gravy which comes in a small carton, not a can.)

Orange-cranberry relish—you can make this up to a month ahead. 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--the longer it sits the better it tastes. I always make a double recipe.

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

Place cards and menus—Making the place cards or favors is a great way to keep children busy and out of your hair. I used to have mine 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.  Last year granddaughter Amalia made our place cards --colorful paper turkeys with googly eyes from a kit I bought at a Paper Store in Manhattan.  Stores like Michael's now offer place mats to color and place-card kits to assemble.... perfect for keeping the little darlings busy through the long Thanksgiving meal.

Here's our table last year.  Papou Nick, as the patriarch,always sits at the head of the table to carve the 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 candle holders.  Also I've acquired a bunch of rubber turkey finger puppets which Amalia has already commandeered.    And yes, everyone has to tell what they're thankful for. 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.

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