I am the Executive Chef and Chief Dish Washer of our Annual Thanksgiving Dinner, and HERE is how I manage to make that important event enjoyable and successful.
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Buy the Turkey – A frozen turkey that weighs about 15 LB makes the best Roasted Turkey and it will easily feed 8 to 12 people. Heavier birds are tougher. I prefer to use a frozen turkey instead of fresh because flash freezing right after slaughtering is better than keeping a dead carcass unfrozen for who knows how long. Read the label and buy an organic unbasted bird without additives and preservatives.
Make Dessert Ahead – A traditional turkey dinner should include two pies, a pumpkin and an apple, and each should be served with optional vanilla ice cream. This is a labor of love especially when the ice cream is home-made. So, this cannot be rushed and it needs to be done ahead of time. The pies will keep well in the refrigerator a couple days until ready for serving and the ice cream will keep well in the freezer. Serve the pumpkin pie cold and the apple pie warm.
Thaw the Turkey -- It will take about three days to thaw a fifteen-pound turkey in the refrigerator. I for one do not have time for that, so I put the frozen bagged bird in a big stainless-steel pot, cover it with filtered water, and then put the pot on the stove-top at lowest possible heat, covered for about five hours. The pot and water will stay cool but the heat will defrost the bird. I have no scientific evidence for this, but I think it is better to thaw meat in five hours than three days.
Make Turkey Stock and Giblets – Take the now-thawed bird form the bag and remove the plastic gadget that holds the legs and rear body cavity shut. Take out the motors, neck, and oil cans from the rear cavity and put in a sauce pot with about a quart of filtered water to cover (make sure you unwrap the motors which are sometimes in a little paper bag). Also remove the wings and put them into the pot too. Bring the pot to a boil and then turn down heat and simmer for an hour or so. Afterwards strain the meat out and reserve the stock for later use.
Brine the Turkey – Pick any pin-feathers off the bird and wash it in cold running water. Then put the washed bird in a new clean plastic kitchen bag, and put the bagged bird in a large pot in case the bag leaks. Then in a large bowl mix 1 gallon of DISTILLED WATER mixed with one cup of SEA SALT and one cup of WHITE SUGAR until the crystals are dissolved. It is important to use distilled water because we don’t want to put chlorine, fluoride, and who knows what else that is in ordinary tap water. Add this brining mixture to the bag in the safety pot, and then press out all the air in the bag, before you twist-tie the bag shut. Brine the bird in the refrigerator for about TWO HOURS, and then on the counter top for ANOTHER TWO HOURS. By this time the bird should come up to room temperature, and have the benefit of about four hours of total brining (brining any longer than this will begin to damage the texture of the meat).
Make Stuffing and Cold Sides while the Bird is Brining – The stuffing needs to be ready by the time the bird finishes brining, so now is the time to make Bagel-Giblet Stuffing, Pea & Pearl Salad, and Cranberry Sauce.
Rinse the Turkey – After brining for the required time, remove the bird from the brining bag and put into a clean sink. Rinse the bird thoroughly with cold running water, both inside and out (any brining solution remaining on the bird will ruin the taste of the roasted turkey. Then pat dry with paper towels and place the patted-dry bird on a meat cutting board. Discard the brining solution and wash the big pot for later use.
Stuff the Turkey – Fill the front cavity with stuffing and then pull the neck skin over the opening and pin/tie shut. Turn the bird over and fill the back cavity with stuffing and pin/tie shut.
To Truss or not to Truss, that is the Question – Here is my thinking: The dark leg and thigh meat is perfectly done when it reaches a temperature of 175 F (under that and you will see red at the joint which is off-putting to everyone). But the white breast meat is perfectly done when it reaches a temperature of 165 F (beyond that and it becomes dry). If you truss the bird so that the legs are tied tightly to the body, they will cook at the same rate as the body, but if you leave them untrussed and even push them away from the body a little, they will cook faster. I want them to cook faster so they reach their desired temperature at the same time the body meat (white breast meat) reaches its desired temperature. So, I truss not.
Roast the Turkey – Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Baste the bird with melted butter (if you use regular butter, no salting is needed; if you use unsalted butter, then sprinkle with sea salt). Place the bird breast side down on a rack in a roasting pan. Prop-up the legs with crumpled foil to prevent the body from rolling to its side and also to spread the legs for faster cooking.
Make Hot Side Dishes – While the turkey is roasting you will have about three hours to make the hot side dishes. I clean up after completing each side dish so as to keep my kitchen clean; that way when the bird comes out of the oven, everything is done and ready to keep warm in the turned-off oven and my kitchen is clean. For a traditional Thanksgiving Dinner, I do the following hot side dishes: Mashed Potatoes, Cream Cheese Corn, and Candied Yams.
Set the Table – There should also be enough time to set the table while the turkey is roasting. Remember, one finger distance between edge of table and edge of plate, napkin on the left of the plate with forks on top, knife on the right side with sharp edge facing the plate, water glass and wine glass above the knife. Arrange forks so that smaller salad fork is outside and larger entre fork on inside.
Make Gravy – While the roasted bird is resting, deglaze the hot roasting pan on the stove top with about a cup of water, loosening the browned bits with a flat wooden spatula. Then strain the loosened mixture into a frying pan and estimate the amount of fat in the mixture. For each TBS of estimated fat, sprinkle in 1 TBS of flour. Wisk until smooth and then heat to a slow boil adding reserved stock as necessary until a gravy consistency is reached. Correct seasoning with salt and pepper. Put in a gravy boat and keep warm with other hot side dishes in the turned-off oven until serving.
Dish the Stuffing – Untie the pin/tied openings and scoop the stuffing out into a serving bowl. Fluff it two forks and correct for S&P and moisture with reserved stock. Then cover and put in the turned-off oven along with the other warm side dishes.
Thank the Turkey – Before carving the turkey, invite everyone into the kitchen to admire and thank the turkey. Then carve the turkey and plate the meat on the main serving platter. With the bird on its back on the meat cutting board, carve the two breasts off the body and remove the skin. Then cut these breasts across the grain into ¼ inch pieces and arrange down the center of the platter. Next remove the legs at the hip joint. Then cut the drumsticks off and arrange the two drumsticks on the platter for those who like to chew on them whole. Then skin and debone the thighs and arrange this meat on the platter for those who like the dark meat. Finally slice the skin of the breast into ¼ inch strips to decorate the platter. Put the platter in the turned-off oven to keep warm until serving. Put the carcass in the big pot along with the thigh bones, and left-over stock and pan drippings.
Clean the Kitchen – If you have been keeping up with your KP duty along the way, the only thing at this point that needs to be done at this time is cleaning the cutting board, carving knife, and roasting pan. Everyone will be amazed that you could do all this feast without making a mess!
Pour the Drinks -- Put store-bought ice (it is clear and just looks better than the ice your refrigerator makes) and cold filtered water in the water glasses. Fill four carafes, one with more ice-water, one with red table wine, one with white table wine, and one with juice of some kind (I like to use apple juice because its golden color makes it easy to differentiate it from the water and wines. Put the four carafes at the corners of the table setting. Now is also a good time to get the coffee ready to turn on later when the table is cleared for dessert.
Serve the Meal – All the warm dishes are waiting in the turned-off oven and all the cold dishes are waiting in the refrigerator so serving the meal is easy. Put the main platter of turkey meat in the center of the table with a candle at each end. Arrange six side dishes, three on each side of the center platter, and put the pre-plated Pea & Pearl Salad on each plate. Then put small bowls of gravy and cranberry sauce condiment one on each end. Light the candles and call everyone to dinner.
Seat the Guests – As the guests come to the table, suggest where they should sit. Typically the meal is hosted by a husband and wife who sit at opposite ends of the table. The honored woman should be seated at the right of the husband, and the honored man should be seated at the right of the wife. Others should be seated at the wife’s direction. At least that is the way it used to be when proper etiquette was in vogue.
Saying Grace – This is Thanksgiving, so it is particularly appropriate to say grace before partaking of this meal. Let me suggest, the following: “Dear God Almighty, all power and glory is yours now and forever and ever. Thank you for providing for us everything we need, and today we especially thank you for gathering us together so we can enjoy each other’s company over this bountiful meal. Amen,”
Passing the Plates – The host or hostess should ask someone seated at the center of the long table to serve everyone from the main dish. This person should ask for plates to be passed to him/her and then ask what kind of meat to serve and how much. When this is done, then the host should tell each person at the table to take what they want from the dish in front of them and pass then pass it to the right (counterclockwise). Hint: to remember which way to pass, just ask yourself which is the right way to pass, the answer is “the right way”.
Clear the Table – When it becomes apparent that the guests have had their fill, begin removing the side dishes, then the main platter, and finally each guest’s plate as they finish (finishing is usually indicated by putting the knife and fork at the four o’clock position on the plate, but many do not know this). Put leftovers from serving dishes in storage containers and scrape leftovers from plates into the carcass pot.
Serve Desert – Turn on the coffee pot. Set the table with a dessert plate under a coffee saucer under a coffee cup at each place setting along with a dessert fork and coffee spoon. Also set out coffee cream and sugar. Then set out the two pies and serve the coffee. Ask who wants home-made ice cream atop his pie and then serve it as requested.
Thank the Cooks – It is more fun to cook with others than do it all yourself, so I always ask if anyone wants to help and I especially encourage the kids to help. Those who volunteer become my chef in charge of a side dish and at the end of the dinner I always thank them for their wonderfully prepared dishes, and I never forget to thank the person who provided the wine whether that person provided it all or not. This is a good way to end a wonderful Thanksgiving Dinner.
Wrapping Up – After dessert, excuse the slackers to the patio for smokes and brandy, and excuse the kids to the family room or yard. Then the more productive can enjoy the pleasure of good conversation while doing the dishes.
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