Americans have so few real feast days left… days when we gather with our nears and dears over a table full of home cooked food. Days when the meal is the spotlight; the way that we build community and the way that we express affection for one another.
People will say that Thanksgiving is a holiday of excess, and I suppose that may be true. Americans consume a lot, and this holiday is certainly not an exception, though I have to say I’d rather see people at home, eating a meal together, than out shopping at retail stores for great deals… or even worse, having to work in the stores that are having those sales.
I’m famous for my hatred of the holiday season, for reasons that I will explain at some later date, but Thanksgiving is an exception. I’m usually responsible for a large portion of the holiday cooking. My mother got too frail to do this kind of cooking years ago, and I don’t even remember exactly when I took over, but at some point I did. My family tells me it’s because I’m good at it, but I think I’m probably the only one willing to put the effort in. Either way, I have some experience cooking Thanksgiving dinner. I thought I would come here and provide some tips for those who are interested.
Know Your Cornbread. If you’re going to have cornbread dressing, and I suggest that you do, it’s important to know a little bit about cornbread. Cornbread is divided into two main types; Dixie cornbread in the south and Yankee cornbread in the north. Dixie cornbread is unsweetened, and Yankee cornbread is sweetened. Most boxed mixes you’ll find are Yankee cornbread. For dressing I would recommend Dixie cornbread as the sweetened kind can taste odd in a dressing, and because the sweetness needs to be balanced and it just complicates things. I recommend Dixie cornbread for eating, also… I like mine with butter and honey. As far as I’m concerned, Yankee cornbread is more or less a cake, and not a bread. My family does a dressing that’s half cornbread and half bread cubes. My mom used to buy the packaged bread cubes, but I cube up my homemade bread (ends and stale leftovers) throughout the year and save them in the freezer.
Brine Your Turkey. Little known fact: most commercially available chickens and turkeys are either injected or soaked in saltwater. This is to “plump” the bird, and it results in a moister end product. I would rather purchase an unbrined bird (this can be difficult) and brine it myself, because that way I know what’s going into it. The brine helps season the bird, and the salt itself pulls more water into the meat, reducing your chances of drying out the turkey. Anyone who loves white meat as much as I do understands the disappointment of a dried out bird. Another reason for doing your own brining? You’re not paying for a bunch of water when you buy your meat. Kosher birds are almost always brined, as are turkeys labeled as “self basting.” Turkeys bearing the “natural” label are less likely to be brined, but you’ll have to check the fine print on the package to be sure. After you take your turkey out of the brine, before roasting, be sure to pat the skin dry with paper towels… if the skin is wet going into the oven, it won’t crisp as well and may turn out flabby and unappealing.
Don’t Use Soup. Thanksgiving is a bonanza for food marketers, and one of the big triumphs of food marketing is the creation of recipes to sell products. At least one of the iconic dishes of the American Thanksgiving table was developed to sell soup… green bean casserole. Some people love it; some people hate it; almost everyone makes it according to the same recipe. I tried this recipe once, and ended up with flaccid beans in greyish goop. I knew there had to be a better way, so I stopped using the packaged ingredients. I used fresh green beans, blanched them (the frozen ones put out a LOT of water), and baked them with a bechamel with sauteed mushrooms and onions. I threw in some blue cheese and lemon zest because I thought it needed some acidity to cut through the white sauce. See, a bechamel with sauteed mushrooms is essentially the same thing as a cream of mushroom soup, except better. Defy food marketers and cook the food yourself. I will give you a pass on chicken broth, though… you can buy that.
Skip the Ham. Even if there were still pigs left for the first Thanksgiving, it was very unlikely that there was ham… pigs are traditionally slaughtered in the fall, which gives one the opportunity to cure bacon and ham in the cool weather without refrigeration. This is why ham is traditionally a spring food (easter ham, anyone?). Any hams brought on board the ships were already eaten, and any hams that had been made after settlement wouldn’t have been done curing and aging yet. The actual account of the first Thanksgiving did state that there were many “wild fowl” being served, of which the noble turkey was very likely to be one, as the turkey is native to the Americas and non-migratory… but if you don’t like turkey, try a goose, or a roast duck instead!
Booze. Some people say that family holidays are not the time for indulging in corrupting spirits. I say the opposite. Even if you’re not normally a drinker, a glass of wine will help the holidays go down a little more smoothly, as we come into close contact with relatives or family friends that we may not always get along with. Have a celebratory drink, or two. Relax. It will help you figure out how to get away without doing any dishes.