Thanksgiving is approaching and once again, despite the annual avalanche of "new" or "tried and true" recipes, millions of turkeys will be served overcooked and under-seasoned, yams and cranberry sauces will come out of cans, gravies will be made out of a powder, and store-bought pies will be stealthily placed on side tables. For those committed to actually cooking this most American holiday feast from scratch, the Foodcommander has some isolated, life-changing tips. No full recipes shall be given as those can easily be looked up elsewhere.
Hors d'Oeuvres Are For Gluttons
The Foodcommander considers it vulgar to serve hors d'oeuvres before a mid-day meal that already consists of several courses. Exercise some restraint. A crudité platter with cheese dip may be fetching for a Seventies' style costume party, but this is Thanksgiving 2012. Pigs in a blanket make grown-up men behave like pigs and spoil the appetite of the young. Roasted salted nuts and the like are not recommended as they encourage heavy drinking. Should your guests be drunk by the time supper is served, it means that either the wait was too long or that they'd rather be somewhere else.
Soup or Salad
Creamed butternut squash soup and the like reek of baby food and make everyone sluggish even before they chew on their first piece of white meat. Serve a salad instead. This year, the Foodcommander advocates a combination of watercress, shaved Brussels sprouts, toasted pumpkin seeds and diced apple, lightly dressed with lemon juice, good extra virgin olive oil, and cracked black pepper. An addition of cheese would be redundant in the light of things to follow.
Curb Your Herbs
Use only fresh herbs and only one kind per dish. Rosemary for squash, thyme for turkey, sage for stuffing, savory for string beans, parsley for potatoes. That way, each component will be distinct in flavor.
Turkey, Cold And Tight
On Wednesday evening, rinse the beast in your kitchen sink, pat it dry and judiciously rub the entire cavity with kosher salt. Don't bother seasoning the skin at this point. Disregard your fears of bacteria contamination and store the beast uncovered in a cool and dry place overnight so that the skin can tighten, a condition much needed for crisp results. On Thanksgiving Day, season the cavity with pepper and chopped thyme, stuff it or not, and fold the wings tips under to prevent them from blackening. Brush all over with melted butter and sprinkle with plenty of kosher salt only -- anything else will burn. Roast on a bed of chunks of root vegetables or a rack, at 400ºF. Baste at leisure. The Foodcommander will not tell you how long it will take until it's done. Make friends with your oven and an instant-read thermometer to find out. 165ºF is the magic number. When it's done, take it out of the oven and let it rest at least 15 minutes before carving (use this time to prepare the jus -- see below). Do not cover it with foil or any crisp skin will get soggy once again.
Gravy vs. Jus
Nouvelle Cuisine was invented in the Sixties to lighten things up but people continue to thicken sauces with flour or starches as if nothing happened. Get with it, already. When the beast is done, deglaze the roasting pan with something that's better than water and doesn't come from a can, like home-made stock, wine, or fresh pomegranate juice (in the spirit -- but not following the recipe -- of Ruth Reichl). Strain, skim off the bad fat (that would be the rendered turkey fat), reduce, check for salt and beat in the good fat (that would be cold, unsalted butter). Don't forget to preheat your gravy boat.
Addressing the Stuffing
Cut a crusty freshly baked loaf of bread into slices and freeze it overnight. This will facilitate cutting it into neat cubes. You can omit this step if there is a Hulk-type man in the house, in which case you may ask him to tear the fresh loaf into little pieces by hand, crust and all. Watch the bicep action but avoid seeing his facial expression as he goes about it. Lightly toast the bread cubes or shreds in a 250ºF oven until completely dry. Proceed from there following someone else's advice, but don't even think of using onion or garlic powder as seasoning. As a matter of fact, toss any such things you may keep in your pantry into the garbage right now.
Apple Pie 101
The Foodcommander is not amused when he beholds these all-too-common apple pie shortfalls: aluminum tins as cake pans, soggy half-baked crust bottoms, still-raw apple pieces in the center, oozing starchy goo that bears little resemblance to fruit, and a ridiculously high sugar quotient aimed at masking the absence of real flavor.
Precook cut-up, cored and peeled apples, preferably Winesap or other tart variety, with added lemon juice, some cloves and a little sugar, over medium heat, until halfway done. Let the mix cool down before further use. Do not add any juice or starch -- that's what really brought down Hostess Cakes. Nor should you overly sweeten the filling, there will be enough sweetness in the crumb topping, not to mention the ice cream everyone will clamor for to get alongside. Use half butter and half shortening for your pie dough and all butter for your crumb topping. Bake the pie in a glass dish. There are two ways to tell when it's done: the fruit will be bubbling at the edges, and the bottom of the crust, seen through the glass dish as you carefully lift it above your head to take a look, will appear golden and dry. Wear washable mittens -- in all likelihood they will get soiled from caramelized apple juices.
A Final Note
As a rule, keep emotions out of the kitchen and execute each task with a cool mind. Reserve your feelings for your family and guests.