I survived my first Thanksgiving dinner prepared entirely by moi. And the first time I've fed as many people not related to me. Truth be told, I've been lazy about writing about this. But then lazy has been my theme for the weekend. I am ashamed, ashamed to say that on Friday, I didn't leave the house at all, and yesterday I didn't leave until 8:30 pm, and that was only to go and stuff myself with udon. Anyway, I must write about this now to get it off my chest, because David is tired, very tired of the Thanksgiving dinner post-mortem, particularly since we are now on version 50. I think even my parents were getting bored during our hour long weekly phone call yesterday, bitterly regretting the decision to ask me how everything turned out.
I was very prepared for Thanksgiving 2006. While I procrastinate and dither over many things, cooking for people is not one of them. I had multiple lists for the stores I needed to hit, had investigated several ideas for table decorating and had worked out an elaborate game plan for the day of. I even picked up my turkey when Whole Foods opened their doors at 6am on Wednesday morning.
So lets talk turkey shall we? I had spent most of the week prior surrounded by every one of my tried and trusted cookbooks, as well as endless recipes printed off the internet, and ripped from cooking magazines over the last several years. I knew that I would cook a turkey someday and I wanted to do it right. I have a morbid fear of dry turkey and would not be guilty of such a crime. Finally I went with the Cook's Illustrated/James Beard method of brining, air-drying and then rotating the thing 4x throughout cooking, starting breast side down, but adapted the recipe to use the herb butter rub and shallot gravy from my new Bon Appetit cookbook. I know it all sounds complicated, but it wasn't so bad. Finding the space to brine the beast was a bit of a challenge. Needless to say I spent much of the brining time worrying about the salting vessel (a $2,99 brining bag from Whole Foods resting in a giant roasting pan) bursting and letting its salmonella-flavored contents gush and trickle over the contents of the fridge, many of them essential items for the next day's cooking. Of course that meant compulsive checking, something for which I demonstrate endless talent.
Well the brine stayed in the bag; everything was adequately protected from raw turkey juice and that turkey was actually pretty damn good. It did everything it was supposed to in the oven, didn't fight with me during rotation and reached the recommended temperature for juicy turkey in almost exactly the prescribed time.
But now lets talk about the REAL reason for Thanksgiving dinner: the side dishes. I could happily eat just brussels sprouts, stuffing and mashed potatoes for dinner and be fine with it. And I fear that in my quest to prepare the perfect bird, my sides may have suffered a little. I had no idea how stressful (not to mention sweaty) it would be to get everything on the table at the right temperature at the same time. It wasn't completely disastrous: the stuffing, and brussels sprouts were yummy and the yams were just a tad overdone, or just very caramelized, as I kept telling myself. The biggest mistake, for which I am still bowing my head in shame, were the mashed potatoes. I mean really, is there any point at all in serving the perfect, herb-rubbed shallot-y turkey alongside spuds that taste as if they could have come directly from Cell Block H? Ok, I am exaggerating just a bit. They tasted fine, but the texture? A bit too lumpy for my liking and not hot enough.
But now that I'm over it and ready to move on to other kitchen projects, I present the lessons learned from my first Thanksgiving dinner.
1. When it comes to mashed potatoes, keep it simple. Follow the instructions given by the Joy of Cookings, and the America's Test Kitchens. Maybe stay away from the recipe that swears by Yukon Golds which I now truly believe don't mash up quite as easily, or as fluffy.
2. If you're really serious about making mashed potatoes for a crowd that aren't too lumpy, invest in a food mill or potato ricer. Mashing a lot of those suckers is a lot harder with your attractive and probably not very functional masher from an oh-so-hip housewares store in Montreal.
3. Yes, there is nothing better than mashed potatoes fresh from the masher, but there is no easy way to make gravy and mash potatoes at the same time. Especially in a small galley kitchen in which teamwork can only lead to someone grabbing a sharp knife and using it as a weapon. If we ever do this again, the potatoes get mashed and ready to go before the bird comes out of the oven.
4. Realize that with all the last minute stuff going on, the turkey might rest for longer than 20 minutes. With that in mind, for piping hot sides that aren't ready too long before the bird is, put the brown sugar glazed yams and the stuffing in the oven a bit later than you think you should. If there's anything I should have known, it's this.
5. A baked artichoke dip loaded with fat and calories is a great thing to keep people eating and mingling in the living room and out of the kitchen where they won't get to see how beet-red and sweaty you can get playing tetris in the oven to get everything to fit.
6. It is all too easy to get burnt while trying to remove a roasting pan that you had to fit sideways in the oven to accommodate the stuffing that is sitting snugly alongside it. Where is my dual wall oven when I need one?
7. Don't beat yourself up about overly caramelized yams. Is there such a thing as an overly caramelized root vegetable? And on the Giada de Laurentiis/Rachael Ray Iron Chef face-off, I was thrilled to note that Giada's butternut squash for her ravioli filling got just as caramelized as my yams, something she furrowed her brow over, and they turned out just fine.
If any readers (if I have any left after being so apathetic about blogging lately) have any nuggets of Thanksgiving wisdom, I'd love to hear them.