Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Thanksgiving Planning

Thanksgiving is by far my favorite holiday. Not only is it among the least commercialized festivities, the small amount of consumer activity prompted by Thanksgiving can easily be directed towards businesses I cherish, such as organic family farms. And the centerpiece of the holiday -- a meal of traditional dishes shared with loved ones in a spirit of gratitude -- is balm to the soul.

Of course, not everyone celebrates Thanksgiving by gathering three generations of the family around the table while Grandpa carves the large turkey in the center. Due to varied economic circumstances, as well as families being increasingly scattered, not to mention a large proportion of adults with cooking skills limited to the microwave, the Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving scene is something to which many can no longer relate.

For those in need, volunteers in my town serve a free community Thanksgiving meal at a local church; this is a popular annual event for those who serve and those who are served and volunteer spots often are filled weeks in advance. Volunteers also deliver Thanksgiving meals to shut-ins.

People in comfortable financial situations may also find themselves unable to enjoy a meal at home. Some restaurants are open on Thanksgiving Day to serve traditional meals, usually at a fixed price. Twice in my life I've enjoyed Thanksgiving in a restaurant and both were among my most memorable holidays. When I was 13, my father was on a temporary assignment in Florida and the rest of us flew down for Thanksgiving week. It was my first time riding an airplane, and dining out was a rare treat on any day; I didn't miss being at Grandma's farm with my cousins at all!

My second restaurant Thanksgiving was in Half Moon Bay, California, during the year my husband had a fellowship at the University of Colorado. We drove to California for Thanksgiving break and stopped at a restaurant enroute from San Francisco to Monterey. John and the kids ordered the traditional turkey dinner; I opted for the fish. Afterwards, we waded in the Pacific Ocean near Monterey. I loved spending Thanksgiving in short sleeves.

This year, as with most of our Thanksgivings for the 19 years we've lived in northern Michigan, I'll be cooking a feast at our home to share with close friends. We'll have 5 guests, for a total of 9 diners, and I'll cook more than can be eaten in 2 days. By the end of the weekend, we should be finished with leftovers, at which time I'll never want to see turkey again, or at least for a year.

The key to serving a large feast to guests is advance planning and preparation. Just this morning I realized that Thanksgiving is next Thursday! For some reason, I thought I had two more weeks. Fortunately, I had already been drafting a menu, so I'm not behind. I usually divide the cooking into two days -- Wednesday for everything that can be made in advance, and Thursday morning for the turkey and the day-of dishes. This year I've decided to be more organized and add Tuesday as a cooking day, which will make Monday my big Oryana shopping spree day.

In planning a Thanksgiving menu, or any large meal for guests, it is crucial to consider the time and equipment demands of each dish. For example, if you have a stove with four burners, you don't want to have a menu of 6 dishes that all need to be prepared on stovetop and served immediately. If you have a standard-sized oven, like mine, the turkey will take up most or all of the space. My strategy is to put the turkey in the oven first thing on Thanksgiving morning; I bake casseroles when the turkey is out and resting. Also, don't be troubled if you have casserole recipes with various cooking temperatures; if the recipe says bake at 325F or 375F, a 350F oven can easily handle it, so all casseroles can go in at 350F and bake together. Just peek in to check for doneness.

Anything that is served cold or chilled should be made in advance. For Thanksgiving, this may include your cranberry sauce or relish, salads, and probably your dessert.

Here's my menu and strategy:

Appetizer tray of cheese puffs, spiced nuts and salted radishes, all made ahead (Tuesday).
Cranberry sauce (Tuesday)
Pumpkin Pie, (Wednesday)
Pumpkin Cheesecake with caramel sauce, candied pecans and whipped cream (Wednesday)
Mashed potato casserole (Wednesday)
Green salad with blue cheese, walnuts, apples, dried figs and pumpkin seeds (Wednesday)
Onion biscuits (start Wednesday, finish Thursday)
Cornbread dressing (start Wednesday, finish Thursday)
Green bean casserole (start Wednesday, finish Thursday)
Turkey with Madeira gravy (early Thursday)
Squash with chestnuts and apples (Thursday)
Corn Maque Choux (Thursday)

Finally, I'd like to share the turkey recipe I've been using for the past 20 years. It's from the November 1991 issue of Southern Living and I've never found a better one. It requires only a roasting pan and a baster -- no plastic bags or deep fryers. Last year I did brine the turkey for two days prior and probably will again this year as I pick it up from my Amish farmer on Tuesday afternoon, but I can't say the brining made a huge difference.

Madeira Roast Turkey

1/2 cup butter, melted
1 cup Madeira wine
3 tablespoons soy sauce
3 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1 lemon, cut in half
1 12-15 lb turkey
cooking spray or oil
1 to 3 tablespoons cornstarch
1/4 cup water

Combine first 4 ingredients and juice of one lemon; set aside.

Remove giblets and neck from turkey; reserve for other uses [my husband makes another gravy from them]. Pat turkey dry if removing from brine. Tie ends of legs to tail with cord; lift wingtips up and over back and tuck under bird.

Place turkey on rack of a roasting pan, breast side up; rub with other lemon half, squeezing juice over turkey. Spray with cooking spray or brush with oil. Insert meat thermometer into meaty part of thigh, making sure it does not touch bone. Bake at 325F for 3 hours or until meat thermometer reaches 185F, basting every 30 minutes after the first hour with Madeira mixture. If turkey starts to brown too much, cover with foil.

When the turkey is two-thirds done, cut the cord or band of skin holding drumsticks to tail. This will ensure that thighs are cooked internally. The turkey is done when drumsticks are easy to move up and down. Let stand at least 15 minutes before carving [this is when you bake all those casseroles].

Measure remaining basting mixture and pan juices from turkey. Using 1 tablespoon cornstarch to each cup of drippings, combine cornstarch and 1/4 cup water, stirring until smooth; stir into pan drippings. Bring to a boil for 1 minute [or until desired thickness], stirring constantly. Serve with turkey.

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