Easy No-Fail Thanksgiving Recipes - Cooking Like Poets (For Orlando Ramirez)
BLOG NOTE: I wrote this a couple of months ago but was too busy to type it up before deadline. I wrote this in a rush, giddy with the possibility of branching out and writing "content" for pay: cooking, travel, literary and other articles for this online agency. So, I'll post this today, in case ya'll are faced with a big ole turkey you have no idea what to do with -- and it's not your boss. I dedicate this to Orlando Ramirez, a real food writer, foodie and poet extraordinaire. If you don't know his work, read him. Nando, I think of you fondly every year -- for the past 20 years. I miss you in the kitchen. Here's to another Thanksgiving again sometime soon. Glad you're with friends, cooking it up and writing it up. (Great new poems!) I'm thankful for the memories. Buen provecho, all.
A poet gives advice and no-fail recipes for herb-brined roast turkey, bread stuffing with holiday goodies, sauteed mixed vegetables with dill, and sweet orange yam casserole topped with caramelized pecans. All prepared with her secret ingredient: love.
There's no way to fail when preparing a Thanksgiving Feast. Everyone will be so grateful that you're doing it that no one will care if you've overcooked the turkey, failed to mash the potatoes completely or over-salted the veggies. Don't worry. Thanksgiving is about receiving and expressing love and that's what cooking is all about. It's a natural given. Relax. Put on your favorite music, pour a glass of your tastiest elixir and roll up your sleeves or get out grandma's apron. You are about to work wizardries of love. Feel it.
First thing to do is buy the turkey — if you're serving it, that is. Even if you haven't reserved your free-range, organically fed, no-additives bird, you can always find an extra at the local health food store, either small (perfect for my family) or very large (perfect for that family reunion or flurry of friends). These turkeys are partially flash frozen as soon as they are processed and are fresh and defrosted at the time of purchase. Succulent, naturally tender and flavorful (happy gobblers), it's hard to go wrong as long as you closely follow safe handling and cooking instructions.
I brine mine. The day before I use a large stock pot and fill it with half a bottle of good Chardonnay, Gefirtzagamer, Riesling or other white wine recommended for turkey; add one cup of sea salt, 2 tablespoons each of rosemary, sage, oregano and tarragon, and enough water to reach the top of the submerged bird. (You can use a small clean or new bucket for extra large turkeys.) Keep refrigerated overnight up to 15 hours. In the morning, drain, rinse and dry. Prepare using your favorite recipe as instructed. I preheat the oven to 425 and roast for 45 minutes before turning down the oven to 375-350, browning the bird and sealing in the juices before slow roasting. I also believe in the virtues of frequent basting (with wine, butter, herbs, shallots chopped fine (or onions), and broth from simmered turkey necks and tails. I also place the turkey on a bed of whole celery stalks, carrots, and leeks which adds flavor and keeps the turkey from sticking to the bottom when it comes time to drain the drippings for gravy.
"Me! Make gravy?" you ask. Piece of cake, I say. Or, a box of corn starch. Have some handy. Skim the fat off the top of drippings after pouring a 1/4 - 1/2 cup of wine or a little wine or cider vinegar (Chinese rice wine vinegar works well) into the pan (after remaining turkey and vegetables or stuffing left in the roasting pan) and stir, scraping up and dissolving all the flavorful bits. After all fat is removed add cooked giblets and neck meat (if you must, I just use neck meat as I don't like innards) and chopped mushrooms (I like shittake which are also healthy). Stir until cooked. Then, have a bit of milk, half & half or unflavored rice or soy milk, and place 2 teaspoons of cornstarch in a cup and add a half cup of liquid, stirring well as you do. When cornstarch is dissolved add, while stirring, to the simmering liquid. Stir constantly until it thickens. Adjust liquid (you can add broth) or add more cornstarch mixture to reach desired thickness. Gravy will thicken as it cools. Pour into your grandmother's gravy boat or other server. Add finely chopped parsley to garnish. Simple and delicious. You can also add a can of mushroom soup to the basting liquid at the last hour of roasting to enrich your gravy or your memories of old time sake.
Now, you say you'd rather take this bird and stuff it? Piece of bread. 6 - 8 to be exact. I lay them out on the rack of an oven set to low until dry and hard. But, in a pinch, I just toast them. Use your favorite bread. We're gluten intolerant but can tolerate spelt bread. You can also use non-gluten rice bread or make non-gluten muffins (without sweetener) the night before. Good to get the kids in on the crumbling. Clean hands an dry toast just seem to go together -- when it's okay to make crumbs.
Get up early for stuffing. We eat later than most anyway. That way our friends can come over after their family meals for a second helping. But the turkey must be stuffed immediately before roasting. And you can't assemble the ingredients ahead of time. Be sure you allow extra roasting time for a stuffed turkey.
When is a stuffing a dressing? I don't know. But, dressing in a dish is just not stuffing to me. It's the most complicated and time-consuming part of the meal. So, if it's not in the turkey, soaking up all that rich goodness, then what's the point? Just do it right, paying close attention to the safe-handling and roasting instructions.
I like crouton-sized chunks in my stuffing, so I crumble the bread to half crumbs, half 1 inch pieces. Then I add sage, tarragon, oregano, pepper and a bit of marjoram to taste (1 tablespoon each). I always grind dried herbs between my fingers as I'm adding to bring out the oils and flavor, and keep sprinkling until it looks right. Mix well. I keep the salt out, and always use unprocessed sea salt which seems to affect people who are on low-sodium diets. Besides, I usually make the broth using sea salt and simmered heart, tail and turkey necks in chicken broth (also salted), a cup of white wine, and chopped celery, carrot, parley, onion or shallots, garlic, a bay leaf or two and the above mentioned herbs. Strain and moosh cooked vegies through the strainer into the broth after simmering 2 to 3 hours adding liquid as needed.. Make plenty broth. This is a good stock to have handy throughout the meal preparation. You can also use a can of mushroom soup in this which will have plenty salt unless you buy otherwise. I sprinkle 1/2 - 1 cup of this on the bread crumbs along with half a stick of melted butter or ghee, and an egg mixed well to moisten. Do not over-moisten. Stuffing will absorb liquid from the turkey. Mmmmm.
I add all sorts of goodies before adding the final liquid to the stuffing; whenever I'm feeling nostalgic: celery sliced at an angle, chopped parsley, shallots, mushrooms, water chestnuts, pecans, pistachios, pine nuts, cooked neck meat or other bits of turkey, a handful of bean sprouts, a few shakes of paprika, apple (Golden Delicious), dried figs, dried papaya, golden raisins (the latter fruits left out these years as my partner stands far to the extreme when it comes to the sweet/savory debate; he likes no sweet in his savory). Loosely stuff the turkey. I keep large darning needles and clean cotton thread reserved for actually performing surgery on the bird, then tucking the legs back into the wire or plastic holds. Place a wad or two of stuffing in the neck cavity. Or, if you have two stuffings, try a different one in the neck (which will cook more thoroughly) sewing the flaps of skin over it.
Rub bird with olive oil and ground herbs, sprinkle with paprika and dot with 1/2 stick of butter. Pour 1 cup of white wine and 1 cup of turkey stock or chicken broth into the side of the pan, being careful not to wash off herbs for turkey. Roast. Relax. Baste every half hour after the first 45 minutes.
And the rest? I finely slice sticks of vegetables about the length of my second knuckle (julianned): carrots, zucchini or other squash, green beans, bamboo shoots, mushrooms, red and yellow bell pepper, and fast wok or saute them in 1/2 olive oil and about a tablespoon of butter (hey, it's a special occasion) and maybe a splash of wine (to keep it consistent) or broth or water. Cook until limp but still somewhat crisp (you can add the mushrooms and zucchini last along with 2 teaspoons of dill weed).
Let people bring the rest -- as long as someone brings the refritos topped with cheese. Of the other side dishes my favorite is My Mother's Special Sweet Orange Yam Casserole topped with Toasted Carmelized Pecans. Just wrap garnet yams, stabbed several times with a fork, in foil and place around the turkey in the oven. When soft, split skin with a knife and scoop out yams into large mixing bowl. Add 1/2 stick of butter, 2 tablespoons each of condensed frozen orange juice, Gran Marnier (best) or other orange liquor or 1 tablespoon of sweet sherry (okay), and mash, mixing thoroughly. Spread into buttered or greased casserole dish (9x9 square). Melt 2 tablespoons of butter over medium to low heat in a frying pan or skillet and add crushed or chopped pecans. (I hit mine in the bag with a rolling pin.) Saute, stirring constantly until lightly toasted. Add 2 tablespoons of maple syrup and 2 tablespoons of raw sugar and stir until thick. (You can add a splash of liquor before this and let alcohol bubble off before adding maple syrup.) Scatter these with a spoon over casserole. (You can prepare this ahead of time and freeze.) Heat for 20 minutes in oven set at 400 degrees. (Watch that the pecans don't burn, you may have to cover with aluminum foil in final minutes of cooking. Hubby eats this discretely on the side, after consuming all his savories, that is. Like dessert. Kids love it. I still do. It makes a good breakfast, too.
Add your own memories. Build your own feast, fest and fancy. Invent and recreate family treasures. After all, everything, when touched with love, is good. And, don't forget to say "Thank you."
Copyright 2006 by Lorna Dee Cervantes