Monday, November 12, 2007

Thanksgiving Tips & Techniques

Thanksgiving 101
I have a confession to make. I've never made a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. I always cook something for the feast at my parent's house, but not the whole meal and certainly not the turkey. I'm not sure I could take the pressure! Thanksgiving is one of the most traditional of meals and most of us have very specific expectations about what that dinner should be.

Here to help make yours a success, whether you are cooking one dish or ten, is cooking teacher and cookbook author extraordinaire, Rick Rodgers. His book Thanksgiving 101, is out in paperback and in stores now. Rick is answering questions about Thanksgiving and sharing his advice over on the Epicurious blog but I snagged him for a few questions of my own...

What kind of turkey do you recommend for Thanksgiving--organic, heritage, wild, fresh, frozen?

Look for a fresh bird from a local source.  Where I live, organic Eberly from Pennsylvania is my bird of choice, but when I teach in Northern California, I am happy with Foster Farms. There are a lot of very good supermarket birds out there at a reasonable price.  Look for the words "all natural, minimally processed" on the label, and your bird won't have been shot up with lots of gunk.  If you want to splurge, get an organic bird.  Heritage birds are very pricey, and frankly, their rich flavor isn't to everyone's taste, and you won't get a lot of meat--they are much more compact than mass-produced birds.

I teach my Thanksgiving cooking class all over the country, and almost always roast standard, local fresh turkeys, and as long as the turkey comes out moist, I hear "This is the best turkey I ever had" a lot.  the secret to a juicy breast isn't brining (which only adds salty water to the flesh), but protecting the breast from the oven heat.  Simply wrap aluminum foil over the breast area (not the wings or legs) and roast as usual.  This slows down the cooking in this area and keeps it moist.  Remove the foil during the last hour of roasting.  That's all there is to it.

What's the biggest mistake home cooks make on Thanksgiving?

Making too much food.  The typical Thanksgiving menu can be pretty tyrannical--turkey, gravy, stuffing, potatoes, yams, green vegetable (you are very lucky to get something fresh and not green bean casserole), often turnips, cranberry sauce, rolls...and who knows how many desserts?  The first thing that goes on my menu is mashed potatoes because it is ridiculous to have so many starches on the menu.  I will make extra gravy and serve mashed potatoes on Friday or Saturday, but not at my holiday meal. Make a sensible meal that is balanced in flavors and portion sizes.  If you and your guests are so full that you can't truly enjoy and savor the meal, what's the point?

What's your favorite thing to do with leftover turkey?

Hot turkey sandwich with gravy and cranberry sauce on Friday lunch.  After that, I usually make Mexican food with the turkey.  It's great in enchiladas, tostadas, and tacos.

What do you recommend for vegetarians on Thanksgiving?

I will make a wonderful vegetarian main course (roasted portobello mushrooms in a Gruyere sauce was a hit one year) that doubles as a side dish. Of course, you have to be sure that the vegetarians get their larger portion before any teenagers dig in!  I have also purchased individual main courses at the best natural food store in town.  And, my favorite scenario was when a vegan friend called and said: "You are already making dinner for twenty other people, and I am not going to make you create something special for me.  I am perfectly happy to bring my own main course.  Frankly, because I cook vegan all the time, I know that it will be good--nonvegetarians don't "get it," as hard as they try.  I'll bring enough so you can serve it as a side dish, too."

How would you feel about making Thanksgiving a two day event with a second holiday meal devoted to eating leftovers?

Hmmm.  There's nothing celebratory about leftovers.  I vote for what more and more of my friends are doing: Having a second holiday dinner with their chosen family members in addition to the "be there or die" edict put out by their blood relatives.  My friends Heather and Alexis always have a big turkey dinner one Saturday in November with friends, neighbors, and co-workers, leaving them free to have a family-only dinner on the fourth Thursday.

If you are looking for a twist on the classic dessert choices, check out Rick's Pumpkin Sticky Toffee Pudding