The kitchen is a sauna, peas have scattered across the floor, and the sweet potatoes are on fire. All you have to do is pour hot gravy on grandma’s lap or slice your fingertip off with the carving knife to win a spot in the Holiday Hall of Shame.
There is a better way — a way to stay calm, cool and collected this Thanksgiving and Christmases to come. Culinary veterans John DeShetler, professor in culinary arts and instructor at the Culinary Institute of America’s Holiday Boot Camp, and Ric Orlando, chef-owner of New World Home Cooking of Saugerties, New World Bistro Bar of Albany and New World Catering, are in your corner. Here are a few of their top tips, tricks and fixes for your next holiday meal.
Gravy: Nothing beats a good pan gravy, made with the drippings that pool beneath your turkey or roast. This should be the last thing on your prep list, said DeShetler, made while your turkey rests before service. Add a little fat to the caramelized bits in the bottom of the pan — enough to brown some aromatic vegetables. Sprinkle flour on top of the sweated vegetables and combine (singer, pronounced san-zhay, means to thicken a sauce in this manner). Whisk in your preferred stock, and voilà.
Hors d’oeuvres: If you d’oeuvre, make sure it’s something light. Canapés, crudités or anything that sounds remotely French will do the trick — fruit and brie. Don’t give your guests the opportunity to incapacitate themselves before the meal is served. This goes for alcohol, too. Save the really heavy hitters like rum-laced eggnog for dessert.
Lists: They’re not just for domestic doyennes anymore. Make lists of ingredients, dishes and utensils, and day-of tasks, including projected times for chopping, peeling, assembling and serving.
Make-ahead foods: Desserts, pies, cakes and cookies can be made at least two days in advance. Many side dishes — roots, tubers, glazed items, winter squash, braised cabbage — can be made a day or two ahead. Put them in ovenproof or microwave-safe dishes and they’re ready to be reheated. Store mashed potatoes or yams in a stainless steel bowl and you can reheat them over a pot of hot or simmering water (i.e. for another dish). Green vegetables can be shocked early in the day and held for last-minute finishing.
Why Thanksgiving is on a Thursday
“Don’t try to do everything in one day. Thanksgiving was set on a Thursday so we can have all week to get the little things done,” said Orlando.
Pie crust: DeShetler said it’s no sin to buy a quality pre-made crust. Orlando said it’s no sin to buy what you like, but one can infer he would deem it a shame to buy pie crust that contains partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, which, apparently, the body has a hard time processing.
“Now, it is only one day and you’ll only have one slice (right?) so I suppose you will survive, but I’ll bet you’ll get heartburn that may cast a dark shadow on an otherwise fabulous day.” In other words: just say no.
Instead, he swears by lard — “yes, lard ... Julia Child, still cackling well into her 90s, swore by lard pie shells.” Second-best are made with butter and, either way, the recipe is as easy as four-two-one: measure 16 ounces of flour, eight ounces of lard or butter, and four ounces of ice water. “Put flour and butter in food processor and spin until it looks like crumbles. Add the water and spin until it starts to come together like dry dough. Put on a board and massage for a minute, pull it together and form a disk. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and chill for at least a half an hour or up to three days. Remove, roll out and bake.”
Sweet potatoes: “If you burn them, put marshmallows on them,” said DeShetler. Oh, and cut the sweetness with acidity: a little lemon, lime, orange or pineapple juice.
Side dishes, in general: Both chefs say you can’t go wrong with classic string beans.
“Take a nice green bean, precook it, shock it, hold it, finish it with a little bit of butter, maybe some almonds, shallots, garlic, pistachios,” said DeShetler.
Ric’s picks also include shaved Brussels sprouts and glazed carrots. “Shaved Brussels sprouts are always quick and easy,” he said. “You can shave them thinly, and sauté them with (or, sadly, without) some bacon or prosciutto, shallots, olive oil and sage for a winning dish in ten minutes.”
Glazed carrots: “Boil that pot of water again. Peel six medium carrots. Cut in half lengthwise and then cut slices on a bias, about a quarter-inch in thick. Drop carrots in to boiling salted water for three or four minutes. Meanwhile, melt a quarter-stick of butter in a heavy skillet. When the butter is foaming, add the carrots, straight from the boiling water, getting a little water in the pan with the carrots and butter. Sprinkle with salt, pepper and sugar lightly. If you have some dry tarragon, add that, too.”
If you are nervous about food and have issues with butter and sugar, advised Orlando, use olive oil and honey. “If you don’t like olive oil and honey, use maple syrup. If you don’t like this recipe make something else.”
Poached stuffing? Yes
Stuffing: Can be done a day ahead in its own pan. DeShetler has also rolled stuffing tightly in plastic wrap and poached it. “You can slice and fry it, make it really crispy on the outside,” he said.
If you insist on stuffing the bird, leave egg out of the equation. You could be setting yourself up for contamination because not all portions of the bird (including the cavity) heat to the same temperature at the same time.
Turkey: There’s nothing sadder than a dried-out, overcooked turkey, which is exactly what you’ll get if you roast your bird to 170 degrees — the advised food-safety temperature.
“Go in the backyard, dig a hole, and bury it, because it’s going to be ruined,” said DeShetler cheerfully. Instead, you want to cook it to 150 or 155 degrees, because you’ll gain ten or 15 carryover degrees as the meat rests, once the bird has been removed from the oven. (It should rest from a half-hour to an hour to allow the juices to re-disperse before carving.) Temperatures should be taken with a probe thermometer next to the thighbone. Don’t rely on that white plastic pop-up on the breast.
Remember to baste. If the skin gets too crisp and cracks, the meat will lose moisture.
Make sure to elevate your turkey so the oven’s heat can circulate properly. This can be achieved with a rack in the roasting pan. Don’t have one? You can use a few small, sturdy vegetables as pedestals.
If your sides are ready and the guests are ravenous, here are Ric’s tricks for speeding up the process: 1. Remove the legs and thighs. 2. Tent the turkey with foil, add some boiling water and create enough steam to cook it. 3. Desperate times call for Chef Mike.
“Who is Chef Mike?” asked Orlando. “The microwave. While I do not [emphasis on the not] recommend this as regular practice, in this situation, all will be forgiven …. Put slices on a place with a lil’ water and zap it for a minute or two to cook out the pinkness.”
And if your ministrations fail anyway, just remember that the meal may be a large part of the holiday but it’s also about giving thanks and being with the ones you love. So enjoy yourself, and try to find the humor in all situations.
“So if the turkey is raw — open another bottle of wine and have another canapé or six while you wait,” said Orlando. “This always works. If it is really, really raw, have some pumpkin pie and have turkey later. If it is overcooked, or burnt, there is only one way out — more gravy! Gravy is the panacea of many an overlooked beast.”++
For more turkey tips from Ric Orlando, visit: www.ricorlando.com/turkey101.html. To sign up for a CIA Boot Camp with John DeShetler, visit: www.ciachef.edu/enthusiasts/bootcamps.