Let’s talk turkey.
Mikey and I hosted Thanksgiving for the first time this year, a slightly terrifying prospect that ended up going surprisingly smoothly. I only broke one brand-new glass in the process! And dropped a full container of yogurt at one point, which spurted all the way across the room. Oh, and I also dropped a sheet-pan-sized cracker while attempting to flip it over halfway through its baking time, shattering a good quarter of it and getting various kinds of seeds all over the counter. But other than that: smooooooth sailing.
Yeah, about that cracker: I went just a little nuts this week. I made almost everything we ate on Thanksgiving from scratch, from the flatbreads we piled with Nonnie-approved dips to the stock I whisked into gravy to the pumpkin purée I used in my pie. (The one half-exception to that rule was the stuffing, which I’ll explain more about in a bit.)
It was a valuable learning experience, and totally satisfying, and one that left me fully, bone-deep exhausted. (I spent Friday prone on our couch, listlessly watching a Simpsons marathon, stirring every now and then only to stuff my face with leftovers.) I probably won’t go quite as crazy next time we do this, whenever that may be; I also probably won’t make Nonnie’s turkey again, mostly because it’s a little fussy: there’s stuffing involved, and trussing, and metal skewers, and you have to flip it over in the roasting rack halfway through its oven time—a perilous operation that requires deep breaths, four steady hands, and the willingness to get turkey grease all over your oven mitts. (What is it with the flipping?)
That said, I can’t argue with the results: the turkey came out with deeply browned, crispy skin and tender meat, though the white portions may have been a tiny bit dry. And the portion of stuffing that actually went inside the turkey, and came out of the oven thoroughly soaked through with glorious turkey fat and drippings? It might’ve been some of the best I’ve ever had, even if getting it into and out of the animal was a big pain in the turkey cavity. Read on for more info—as well as my full menu, if that’s the sort of thing you’re into.
Use only fresh turkey. [By which I think Nonnie means, don’t buy a frozen one—advice I’d agree with, if only because frozen turkey takes forever to thaw in your fridge. I got a 12-pound bird to feed 8 people, working off the basic formula that you want 1.5 lbs of turkey per person in order to ensure leftovers; I’d say that’s a more than safe estimate.]
Day before: Wash and clean turkey; pat dry. [Addendum to Nonnie’s woefully uninformed mid-century health advice: just pat it dry! Don’t wash it!] Season cavity with salt. Season outside of turkey with salt, poultry seasoning, and paprika. [What kind of poultry seasoning? You could buy a canister of this, or you could make your own based on the ingredients used in most commercial blends; I did the latter, combining roughly equal amounts of thyme, rosemary, marjoram, and fresh sage, as well as some nutmeg and black pepper. It was rull good.]
Cover with damp towel and refrigerate. [Actually, don’t do this! I got my skin so crispy by using the same trick you should always use when roasting a chicken: leave the bird uncovered in your fridge overnight, which will dry out the skin (in a good way). The result will be brown, crisp, and totally Instragram-ready.]
When ready to cook, pre-heat oven to 325; stuff turkey [a spoon with a real long handle works well for this, if you, like me, are a literal-stuffing neophyte]; rub outside with softened butter [I brushed mine with melted butter instead, because I didn’t want all those spices and salt to fall to the bottom of the pan] ; place on a rack in a shallow roasting pan, breast side down; and cook about 20 min per lb.
[Some notes! I added wine to my pan—a sheet pan rather than a real roasting pan—in an attempt to prevent the drippings from burning so that I could make gravy with them. That worked, sort of, but I wasn’t careful enough about watching the liquid’s levels as the turkey cooked, so most of it ended up evaporating. I should have added more wine or stock in the pan at the very beginning, or more throughout the roasting process. I think 20 minutes per pound is also a little much for a perfectly-cooked turkey; most of what I’ve read recommends more like 15 minutes per pound, though those same sources also recommend eschewing stuffing, since a stuffed turkey cooks more slowly. Maybe keeping this turkey in the oven for three and a half hours rather than a full four would’ve resulted in a moister bird.]
Turn turkey breast side up after a little less than half of the cooking time has elapsed. [This sounds scarier than it is! You literally have to just lift the bird up with your (covered) hands; loosen the skin from the rack with a thin metal spatula first, if necessary. It helps, too, to have someone else there, either to hold down the rack or just to provide moral support.
This is Nonnie’s way of trying to prevent the breast from drying out before the legs are fully cooked; I’m not sure if it was ultimately worth the trouble. Next time, I might try roasting breast-side up from the beginning and tenting the breast with aluminum foil instead.] Brush with softened butter several times during cooking. [Or don’t—I was busy enough with preparing other stuff that I sort of let basting fall by the wayside partway through cooking, and I ended up with great skin regardless.] Remove from oven and allow to cool for at least 30 minutes before carving.
Pepperidge Farm Cornbread Stuffing [Yes, that’s right: Nonnie’s stuffing comes from a bag. And so did mine—at least, the portion that went inside the turkey. Though the bag indicates that it holds eight servings, Mikey was worried we wouldn’t have enough—so I ended up making a quick cornbread (using the recipe from the back of the cornmeal bag), letting it dry out overnight, and mixing that with the bagged stuff, as well as some extra sautéed vegetables, to make a full lasagna tray of stuffing. As it turns out, we had way too much, though really, I’m not complaining.]
1/2 cup onion, chopped
2 carrots, grated
1/4 cup butter
1/2 cup celery, chopped
1/2 cup chopped parsley
Hot water, according to package directions
Half the amount of butter (melted in hot water) called for on package directions [Fun fact: the package directions seem to have evolved since Nonnie’s days. Instead of moistening the stuffing with hot water and melted butter, they now call for Swanson stock; I fudged that by subbing in my own homemade stock. Praise hands for the one part of dinner that actually ended up containing less butter than I thought it would!]
Melt 1/4 cup butter in skillet and sauté onions and celery until tender. [Whoops—my sous-chef (a.k.a. my mother) beautifully chopped the stuffing vegetables, but put them all in one bag, so I had to sauté them all together rather than just cooking the onions and celery. I don’t think anyone noticed, let alone minded.]
Beat egg slightly. Place cornbread stuffing in a large bowl (amount depends upon size of turkey and number of servings desired). [Is there anyone on earth who wouldn’t just make this full bag? What could they possibly be saving the rest for, next Thanksgiving? On second thought, this stuff probably keeps that long. Also: I just mixed all the stuffing… stuff in the same dutch oven where I cooked the vegetables, adding the egg last so it wouldn’t accidentally scramble. Behold, one fewer dish to clean.]
Add sautéed onions and celery, beaten egg, carrots, and hot water and melted butter mixture. Mix well. Spoon stuffing, loosely, into large cavity of turkey and close opening with small metal skewers. [Stuffing loosely is important because this stuff expands as it cooks, and you don’t want an explosion on your hands. You’ll also have to stitch the cavity closed using twine tied around the skewers, which is a delicate operation best left to those with the patience for detail work, a.k.a. not me.]
Spoon stuffing into throat cavity, loosely, and close opening with metal skewers. [You won’t be able to get much in there; in fact, all told, the bird probably contained a quarter or less of the bagged stuffing mixture. Again: the stuff that came out of the bird tasted amazing, but it’s such a small fraction of the total stuffing that you might do better to ditch the entire literal stuffing process and just add some drippings to a separately cooked dressing.
Do not prepare stuffing until ready to use. Do not stuff turkey until just before placing it in oven. [Why is this underlined? I guess because stuffing can carry food-borne illness if it’s not cooked to a proper temperature, and the longer it’s in contact with a raw bird, the more likely that is to happen; it also contains raw egg, which Nonnie probably didn’t want lying around on a counter.]
Remaining stuffing can be cooked for an hour (covered) in a baking dish. I usually mix extra stuffing (that has been baked separately) with the stuffing from the turkey before serving. [Whoops: Absolutely everything I’ve read about stuffing birds indicates that you shouldn’t actually eat any stuffing straight from the bird, given food safety concerns. So instead, I did the following:
1. mixed auxiliary cornbread, sautéed vegetables, sage, thyme, stock, and a few eggs into the leftover bagged stuffing mix;
2. smoothed it all into a giant lasagna pan and tossed it in the fridge while the turkey cooked,
3. removed the stuffing that had been inside the turkey,
4. mixed that with the stuffing in the pan, and
5. put the whole kit and caboodle into the oven, along with the various other things I had to warm up/bake while the turkey rested. It worked like a charm, and, like I said, we’re still eating leftover stuffing. Not that anyone’s complaining.
The verdict: I’d give both turkey and stuffing an A-. Next year, I’ll ditch the bagged stuffing altogether in favor of one that’s totally homemade; I’ll also skip stuffing the turkey itself, and keep it in the over for a shorter period of time. Those quibbles aside, though, I was thoroughly pleased with how Thanksgiving turned out. And just for fun, here’s the full list of everything else I cooked; expect to read more about the Nonnie recipes in the coming weeks:
Bon Appetit‘s seedy oat crackers—delicious, but a real pain in the ass to make (did I mention the flipping and the breaking and the counter covered in seeds?)
Smitten Kitchen’s rosemary flatbread—delicious and easy enough to convince me that maybe making my own crackers wasn’t such a crazy thing
Nonnie’s Liptauer spread
Nonnie’s salmon mousse
Some homemade hummus my mom brought, an unexpected healthy oasis in a sea of dairy fat; it’s the only dip that almost fully disappeared
Nonnie’s cornbread stuffing, bulked up with this cornbread from Bob’s Red Mill
Nonnie’s creamed spinach (pictured above next to the stuffing, looking slightly radioactive)
Nonnie’s cranberry sauce
Smitten Kitchen’s green bean casserole—good enough that even a mushroom hater like me couldn’t complain.
Smitten Kitchen’s crispy sweet potato roast—the only dish that wasn’t a home run, maybe because I cut the sweet potatoes too thickly; they didn’t quite cook all the way through, and now I’ve got a pan of semi-cooked sweet potatoes to rejigger into a new dish we’ll actually eat.
Bon Appetit‘s Parker House rolls—the greatest bread in the world, and one I’d make all the time if not for the buckets of butter they contain.
My mom’s mashed potatoes—there’s not a recipe here so much as a method: I peeled two pounds of russet potatoes and two pounds of Yukon Golds, boiled them until tender, drained them, placed them on a sheet pan to dry out, and passed them through a potato ricer; then I sautéed four cloves of garlic in butter, and added the potatoes as well as eyeballed amounts of whole milk, Greek yogurt, white pepper, salt, and a little more butter. Voila: the best mashed potatoes you’ll ever eat, as long as you’re comfortable cooking by feel.
Serious Eats’s turkey gravy, with a few substitutions (I used duck fat in lieu of butter, and boiled the gizzards and neck in water rather than stock because I was worried about running out)—so good and viscous and savory, especially when fortified by turkey drippings.
How to Celebrate Everything‘s kale and pomegranate salad, with a few handfuls of toasted walnuts on top—because you need something fresh and green on the buffet, even if nobody’s going to eat it.
Serious Eats’s extra smooth pumpkin pie, except with 1. this Bon Appetit crust, because I generally have better luck with crusts that contain a mixture of shortening and butter; and 2. a pumpkin purée I made myself, using this Serious Eats method. (I did have to squeeze out excess water from the purée, but I still think it was worth it; everyone who’s eaten it has told me that it’s the best pumpkin pie they’ve ever had, no joke.)
Bon Appetit‘s cranberry lime pie—like a gloriously creamy key lime pie, but seasonal!
Martha Stewart’s pear and berry crisp—because Mikey requested something with blueberries, and who was I to deny him?
A cranberry-lemon pavlova, contributed by my sister-in-law, which was also a hit—according to those who weren’t too full to skip dessert altogether, that is.