Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Simple Thanksgiving Dinner

Can you believe it's November!!??!!  I shared this post last year on a blog and thought you might enjoy it here too.

We're getting ready for Thanksgiving, and as part of my ritual I have gone looking around for recipes, and couldn't help but notice that most recipes are very time-intensive—not very practical for some of us that are chasing kids or working long hours right up until the big day. I wanted to get back to the basics with Thanksgiving, especially for those of you that may be running the show for the first time.

There are 4 necessities for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner: turkey, potatoes, rolls and pies. The rest is just icing on the cake.

The Turkey
Naturally, the turkey is the most important part of the meal.  If you mess it up, no one will forget it (remember Aunt Bertha's Turkey Jerky from 1964?).  If the turkey's perfect, everyone will be sleeping peacefully within an hour or so--more pie for you!  There are 3 commandments when it comes to making the perfect turkey.  First:  Thou Shalt Brine Thy Turkey.  This one step can mean the difference between  turkey that requires lubricant to swallow (typically gravy), and turkey that stands firmly on its own delectable thighs.  Second:  Thou Shalt Cook Thy Turkey Breasts Down.  This allows the moisture to flow down into the meaty parts of your turkey--the parts that will actually get eaten.  Third, Thou Shalt Use a Meat Thermometer.  Don't rely on the little pop-out thing that comes with most turkeys.  By the time that thing pops out, your turkey will most likely be jerky.

1.  Three to Four Days Prior:  If you're like most of us and are using a frozen turkey, move your turkey to the refrigerator three to four days before Turkey Day.

2.  The night before Turkey Day, assemble your brining ingredients.  There are several varieties, but the one I like the most combines water with salt, sugar, fresh thyme and fresh rosemary.  That's the one I've used below.  Other variations include adding acidic fruits (lemons/oranges), and just about any other spice you can think of.

3.  For the brine, I do a 1/2-1-1 ratio, meaning 1/2 c. sugar to 1 c. salt to 1 gallon of water.  I typically start with 2 gallons of water.  In a saucepan combine the salt, sugar and about four cups of the water.  Over medium heat, stir gradually until the sugar and salt have completely dissolved.  Put this mixture aside to cool.
4.  Remove the gizzards bag from inside the turkey and rinse the turkey with cool water.  Place the turkey in a large (preferably 5-gallon), clean bucket with 6-7 sprigs each of fresh thyme and fresh rosemary.  Pour your cooled mixture (from step 3) over the top of the turkey.  Add enough cold water to cover the turkey completely.  Cover your bucket with tin foil or a lid, and put it in a cold (but not freezing) place.  If you have space in the refrigerator, that's probably best, but I've put mine outside if its cold enough.  Remember you only want to leave the turkey in the brine for 1 hour per pound of turkey.  If you leave it too long, you may end up with turkey soup.

5.  When you are ready to cook, remove the turkey from the brine and rinse it thoroughly.  Discard the brine.  Place the turkey on a clean surface and towel dry the turkey, inside and out.  Place turkey in a roasting pan.  I use a separate electric roasting oven to preserve oven space.

6.  Assemble your ingredients for the inside of the turkey.  This recipe does not incorporate breaded stuffing because I hate it (no offense to you stuffing lovers).  

Butter, softened
2 carrots (washed and chopped in 1 inch pieces)
2 stalks celery (washed and chopped in 1 inch pieces)
1 onion (chopped in large pieces)
2 sprigs fresh Rosemary (or 1 T. dried)
2 sprigs fresh Thyme (or 1 T. dried)
Pepper, to taste

7. Using your hand, spread butter all over the skin of the turkey and underneath the skin, especially on the breasts.  Sprinkle pepper all over turkey.  Place all the carrots, celery, onions, and fresh rosemary and thyme in cavity of turkey.  Tie the legs shut with cooking string--this helps keep all that goodness in the middle, and place the turkey--breasts down--in the roasting pan.  Insert meat thermometer in the thigh.  Make sure the thermometer is not resting against a bone but is lodged firmly in the thickest portion of the thigh.

8.  Cook at 450 degrees for ½ hour, then turn down the temperature to 325.  Depending on the size of your turkey, it should take 2 ½-3 hours for an 8-12 pound turkey or 3-3 ½ hours for a 12-16 pound turkey.  If using a meat thermometer, the thigh should register 175 degrees when the turkey is done.  Turn off the oven, and and let the turkey sit 20 minutes in the covered pan before carving.  Enjoy!

The Potatoes

We love potatoes at our house, especially topped with gravy made from turkey drippings.  Potatoes can be simple, mashed with a little bit of butter, salt and sour cream, or more complex (at least for potatoes).  Plus I'm from Idaho, so potato promotion is good for the economy!    
A lot of Thanksgiving is about thinking ahead: planning out exactly what you are going to make, how long it needs to cook, what oven space you will need, etc.  Potatoes are one thing that you can totally do the day before, stick in the fridge, and then heat up when you are ready.  One of my favorite recipes is called Creamy Mashed Potatoes and comes from Pioneer Woman.  They are very delicious and heat up beautifully the next day.

One of my very favorite things about Thanksgiving is the leftover turkey and rolls. makes my mouth water just thinking about it.  Unfortunately, making yeast breads is more like a relationship than a recipe--you're never going to get it just right the first time, and probably not even the tenth time, and you won't know if the recipe you're working with is any good until you've made it several times and had a chance to iron out the kinks.
  This is something that I have been working on since I was about 8 years old.  My grandmother and mother would let me work with the dough when they made bread so I could learn how it should feel and what it should look like.  Now I can tell just from touch if it's going to turn out well.  If you have never made rolls before, I wouldn't try them out for the first time at your special dinner.  Either practice beforehand with your recipe several times until you get it right, or buy them.  There is nothing wrong with store-bought rolls--especially if you have a local bakery that you trust and you can get them somewhat fresh.  Plus if they're not that good you can save face by blaming it on the store where you bought them.  
Yeast breads are much easier if you have a bread machine (hence the name).  However, often I find that bread from a breadmaker is too airy, and the flavor is shallow.  If you've ever had a really good artisan bread then you know what I'm talking about.  I like my bread with a little more substance, so I use a Bosch mixer (my machine of choice).  I love the dough hook, and it will make your attempts at bread-making much better because the dough will always pull completely away from the sides of the bowl when you have added enough flour.  
I have some tried and true roll recipes on my blog, but if it's too late this year maybe you can start working with a good recipe now and be ready to have awesome rolls by next Thanksgiving.  My two favorite recipes are Garlic Knots and Fancy Dinner Rolls.  I've tried several other recipes, but take it from me that these two recipes in particular are worth getting into a committed relationship with.  


I know there are some people, including my sister, who don't like pies, but great pies are what most of my family looks forward to as much as the turkey.  Pies are something that you can also keep very simple.  Some of my family's favorites from growing up are the simplest.  My dad loved mincemeat pie, but I think that was mainly because he didn't have to share it because no one else would eat it.  
Pie filling is often a fairly simple matter.  When it comes to crust, however, all too often a soggy and/or tasteless pie crust can ruin an otherwise excellent pie.  I think sometimes people forget that the pie crust is supposed to do more than just contain the filling--it is supposed to be edible, and should complement the filling in both texture and flavor.  I looked for awhile and finally found a flaky, buttery pie crust recipe with a great texture AND taste that complements just about any pie filling!  Check it out here.
A pie crust is also something you can make ahead of time.  If you are going to use a crust for pudding pie, cook the crust beforehand (10-12 minutes at 400 degrees) and store it covered in a cool place until you are ready.  Here are two easy pudding pie recipes that are sure to be a hit with your crowd.  

Chocolate Pudding Pie

1 9-inch pie crust, pre-cooked and cooled
1 small box (3.4 oz) instant chocolate pudding
1 ½ c. milk
8 oz cool whip
Cocoa (for spinkling on top)

1. Mix chocolate pudding with milk and whisk for 1 minute.  Let set up for 5 minutes.  Fold in cool whip and store covered in the refrigerator until ready to serve.
2. When ready to serve, pour into your pie crust.  Sprinkle cocoa on top and serve immediately.

Banana Cream Pie

1 9-inch pie crust, pre-cooked and cooled
1 small box (3.4 oz) instant vanilla pudding
1 1/2 c. milk
3-4 bananas
8 oz. cool whip

1.  Mix vanilla pudding and milk together, whisking for 1 minute.  Let sit 5 minutes until set.  Slice bananas into 1/4" pieces and add to the pudding mixture.  Fold in cool whip.  Store covered in refrigerator until ready to serve.
2.  When ready to serve, pour into your pie crust and serve immediately.

I hope this helps with your Thanksgiving preparations!
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