Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Thanksgiving Dinner

Thanks to insanity from Hurricane Sandy, things in downtown Manhattan have been pretty insane. Among other things, my local Pathmark is now going out of business- but even before that, they were unable to get any fresh meat in for weeks. My local C-Town, I wouldn't eat their meat if you paid me. All of this means that until a few days ago, I wasn't sure I was going to be able to get a turkey for Thanksgiving.

Then a friend of mine with a car was able to take me to a Costco in Brooklyn. I looked for turkeys, but all I found were Butterballs (ewwwww) and some ludicrously expensive tiny turkeys. I also found a Thanksgiving Inna Box. It was a pre-cooked turkey, stuffing, potatoes, beans, etc. The entire thing could be ready in 90 minutes. I met a couple who were marveling over it and debating whether or not to buy it. Being the pushy New Yorker that I am, I told them not to. 

"But look at the time you save!"
"Yes,"  I said "but Thanksgiving is the one day a year when you TAKE the time to make your dinner as great as you can. You do it so that you can be really thankful for being able to do things like this." 

Look, I'll be fair. I know people that this pre-cooked turkey dinner would have been a godsend. Some people just aren't good cooks, can't be bothered, whatever. And for them, god bless. But this couple was standing there debating and it was clear they they were perfectly capable and willing to make their traditional dinner, they were just wrestling with temptation.

I was eventually able to get a real turkey, thankfully. That said, my Thanksgiving dinner is usually a fairly big draw for people. I thought it might be nice to talk a little bit about what I make and how I make it. The menu slowly changes over the years- adding an item here, removing an item there.

Turkey: Seemingly obvious for some people, strange to others. I've had vegetarian thanksgiving which was too proud to stoop to tofurkey, but it wasn't my cup of tea. Many dislike turkey because the meat is so dry or bland and boring. I've only ever had one turkey go dry on me, and it was an Empire Kosher turkey. Whether it was dry because it was kosher, or something else, I don't know. I baste my turkeys pretty damn frequently and the meat always comes out moist and flavorful. Doing this also ensures a tasty, crispy skin, for those of you who like that. Don't buy Butterball. Butterball shortcuts the basting process by injecting oil into the meat. Ew. People, basting takes two damn seconds. It isn't difficult or painful. It's Thanksgiving- put a modicum of effort in.

If your turkey is still partially frozen, it's okay. Just rinse the inside with some hot water before stuffing and stick it in the oven anyway. It'll take a little longer to cook, but it's okay.

Stuffing: It's called stuffing because you stuff it into the damn bird. The only time you should make a separate pan is if you have a hell of a lot of people coming to dinner. If that is the case, it's a good idea to buy a larger bird- larger cavity, after all. Part of the flavor of stuffing (as well as moisture) comes from the juices it absorbs from within the turkey as the turkey cooks. When you make that stovetop stuff, the flavor it gets comes from bouillon (mainly salt) as opposed to actual juices. Do yourself a favor. Either buy some real bread and let it sit out to get stale, or buy some Pepperidge Farms stuffing. Don't use pre-sliced bread. That's nice for sandwiches, but the water content is really high and it takes forever to get stale, because of all the stabilizers. If you try to use it and you don't dry it, you stuffing will end up being a gluey mess.

A question of texture. I know some people who take the raw stuffing, stick it into a blender until smooth, load it up into a baster, stick the baster under the skin of the turkey, and stuff the stuffing between the skin and the meat. I prefer not to have a stuffing paste. I actually mix my stuffing with my bare hands. It allows me to assess the stuffing both by look and by feel- making sure that everything is evenly coated and mixed, while delicate enough to prevent pasting. I'm not saying this is for everybody. It can often be painful, after I've added boiling water and going "Argh! Ow! Auuugh!" and my wife screams at me "Andrew, why don't you just use a fork?!" But it is how I like to do it.

Now, I like a savory stuffing. I know others like a sweet one, but I don't. I make a chestnut stuffing. That means that in addition to the bread, onions, celery and spices, I also add chestnuts. I like them in medium chunks rather than powder or in whole. Whole prevents the flavor from permeating through the stuffing. Medium lets you remember it's still there.

Pearl Onions: Traditionally, these are made in a very thin, slightly sweet white sauce. I haven't done that in years, but I may end up doing that this year. What I've done in years past was to make a heavy cream sauce, then melt good brie into it, making a brie sauce. It tastes divine, but it can overpower the onions and some people just ignore the onions to pour the sauce over the potatos, the meat, etc. That's a shame, because I do cook the pearl onions until just tender to the teeth.

Potatoes: By potatoes, I mean mashed potatoes. Simple potatos, butter, salt, pepper, a little bit of milk. I don't use powdered. I also don't do sweet potatoes. 

Now, I've had a number of complaints over the years about the lack of sweet potato, so let me explain. We used to make them when I was growing up. And it wasn't that they were bad, it's just that everything else was so damn good that they never ended up being eaten. So one day we just said to hell with it and stopped making them, never looking back. Now when people explain that they'll eat every sweet potato I make, I look at them dubiously, then ignore them and don't make the things anyway. If you like them, good for you. But I *know* that it will jut be a waste of money and effort.

Brussels sprouts: Before you start complaining that you don't like brussels sprouts, shut up. First, the sprouts aren't frozen, but fresh. Frozen sprouts have a mushy interior. Second, mushy is not a texture sprouts should have. If you cook a sprout until it is mushy, you have overcooked it. Third, that bitter taste? That's also because you cooked it too long. Properly cooked sprouts have a very pleasant, slightly astringent green taste to them.

And I cook 'em in bacon (or when I've got dough, panchetta). Plus chestnuts. And onions. You could cook a hat in that combination, and it would be delicious.

Pomegranite sorbet: I've now made this both with fresh pomegranite juice from pomegranits I squeezed by hand, and once with pure unflavored Pom. I couldn't tell the difference, to be honest. A little bit of sugar, a little lemon juice, an astringent palate cleanser and a nice, light way to end the meal.

This year, I'm also planning to make some creme brulee with thick, coarse sugar on top. It allows a fatty, sweet dessert, but still very light.

Why not pumpkin pie? I used to make it. And, again, I made a very nice, very tasty pumpkin pie. But usually by the end of the meal, the last thing anyone wanted with a big piece of pie. So it would go uneaten. So I said, to hell with it. Nobody ever turns down creme brulee.

Hm. Maybe I'll make a pumpkin creme brulee, now that I think about it. At least it'll shut people up.