Cooking Thanksgiving dinner? Get organized.
In a typical year — three of which we haven’t seen recently — Thanksgiving dinner is often the biggest annual family meal a cook prepares. The most intimidating; the most complex; the most agitated.
It doesn’t have to be all that – well, except always the greatest. It could be rather daily, in truth; it just requires planning.
“Mise en place” is kitchen French for “planning”. (It’s French-French for “to put in place” or “everything in its place.”) It really is France’s greatest gift to the kitchen since butter.
“Setting up” means having a well-stocked pantry and freezer. Or shop ahead to fill them. It is a question of cutting, before cooking, all the vegetables and other food to be cooked. It is about portioning and having at hand, in small bowls or on plates, all foods, fats, flavors, seasonings, liquids, etc., everything intended for heat. Before lighting the flame.
“Set up” means “everything on the counter, where I can see it, ready to go”. Thus, if all establishment is in place, all you have to do is cook, eat and clean. And relaxation. That’s the point.
“What I find people do when cooking for a group, like at Thanksgiving,” says Jamey Fader, longtime Denver chef and culinary director at Marczyk Fine Foods, “concerns with so many fine details that everything catches them.
“Keep it simple,” he reminds. “Concentrate on ‘It’s good’. Cook only five dishes, for example, not 14.”
“Get into the right headspace,” says Fader, “which means being relaxed and organized.” He and I both agree that ‘organized’ is simply English for ‘putting in place’.
Fader takes particular pride in cleaning as you go, so that “in the end, once everyone has eaten, all you have to do is put the plates in the washing machine.” As an example, he says that after mashing the potatoes, “put them in a serving dish that you will keep warm, then immediately wash the pot in which you boiled them and put it away” . In a sense, the serving platter of mashed potatoes then becomes part of the “mise en mise” of that dinner.
“Mirepoix [a mix of celery, carrots and onions] can be cut into different sizes in advance to suit different uses,” says Fader. “I lay my roasting turkey on large pieces of mirepoix and use smaller cuts in the stuffing.”
Other Fader suggestions for setting up Thanksgiving: “Peel the potatoes and put them in water.” (Can be made several days ahead if using the refrigerator.) “Never throw away leftover vegetable peelings; they go into storage, either for now or, if you freeze them, for the future. (This includes onion skins which will impart their light brown color to lighter stocks such as those made from fish or poultry.)
Like some cooks, Fader cooks two turkeys for Thanksgiving. “One is for that day,” he says, “and the other is for the two leftovers to send home with others,” as well as future inventory. Anthony Bourdain was also known for preparing double turkeys, one “stuntwoman” for the table, dressed “like a dancer”, and the second in the kitchen, already cut up and ready to be served.
Additional Fader Day Ideas: “I like to make buttery orange glazed sweet potatoes,” he says, “and always cook the stuffing outside of the bird.” (As with mashed potatoes, once the stuffing is cooked, ideally in its serving container, “just keep it warm and that’s one less thing to worry about.”)
I asked Fader about a common concern of mine, adding too much salt to a dish, something that cannot be removed. “Always season [add salt and freshly ground pepper] at the end,” he says, the seasoned chef’s way of avoiding oversalting from the start.
“The only solution for oversalting is volume,” he says. “If there’s too much salt in the stuffing, tear up Parker House rolls and roll out the stuffing. Too much salt in the sauce? Add more broth or broth. Nothing can hide too much salt. Adding volume is all that works.
Stock of Roasted Chicken Carcasses
Prepare it well before Thanksgiving dinner, to use in soup, as a humectant for stuffing, and as a base for sauces. Or, alternatively, use the turkey carcass of the day in place of the chickens in the recipe to make broth for use in the future. Makes 2-3 pints.
2 roast chicken carcasses (not raw), golden skin OK
2 medium onions, peeled, halved along their “equators”
3 celery stalks (leaves OK), halved
2 medium carrots, washed and halved
4 garlic cloves, unpeeled but crushed
6 stalks of parsley
2 sprigs of fresh thyme or 1/2 teaspoon of dried thyme
1 bay leaf
Separate or cut roast chicken carcasses into pieces, especially at the joints, the more pieces the better. Put aside. Sear the 4 onion halves over medium-low heat in the pan (unoiled) you will use to make the broth until the cut sides are golden brown.
Put the chicken pieces and all the remaining ingredients back and cover with 2 inches of water. Bring to a gentle boil, then simmer, partially covered, for 3 to 4 hours, skimming off any fat or foam that may rise and topping up with boiling water, if necessary, to keep everything submerged.
Strain the broth, through a cheesecloth if you want it clearer. When cool enough to handle, remove the meat from the bones to use for other preparations. Cool it in the pan overnight so any fat that rises will freeze and can be skimmed off. Portion broth as desired and refrigerate for use within a week or freeze for long-term use.
Gene Amole, the late and beloved Denver native, radio DJ and Rocky Mountain News columnist, wrote several dozen columns for this sadly defunct newspaper, but the one with his turkey stuffing recipe was the sizzle. According to an editor’s note in the November 4, 1982 edition, the recipe was “the most requested column in the Rocky Mountain News files.”
Her recipe is here, with directions in her own words.
Gene Amole’s Thanksgiving Turkey Stuffing
17 slices of white bread (or use a package of dry bread cubes)
3 slices of black Jewish pumpernickel (don’t leave it out)
1 tablespoon of salt
1 teaspoon of pepper
1 tablespoon sage, thyme or poultry seasoning
1/2 pound breakfast sausage
1/2 pound Italian sausage
1 cup chopped celery
1 cup chopped onion
1 cup chopped walnuts
3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
2 cups thickly sliced mushrooms
1 tart apple (Granny Smith type), peeled, cored and chopped
1 cube of unsalted butter
2 cups chicken or turkey broth
3 tablespoons cream of sherry
First, open a bottle of Harvey’s Bristol Cream Sherry. In fact, any brand will do, but Harvey’s is the best. Take yourself a small pinch, then pour exactly 8 ounces into a measuring cup. Set it aside while you prepare the other ingredients.
Take the bread slices and cut them into crouton-sized cubes and place them in a large mixing bowl. Sprinkle with pepper, salt and sage or poultry seasoning. Brown and crumble the two sausages in a skillet, out of their casings if necessary. After mixing the sausage well, remove it with a slotted spoon and put it in the large bowl.
Add celery, onion and walnuts; discard parsley and mushrooms. Add the apple pieces. I know what you think. You’re preoccupied with pumpernickel and Italian sausage. Just seems out of character, doesn’t it? Trust me. And you probably want to sauté the onions and celery. Don’t.
Every time I make this prank, I remember Chinese philosopher Lao-tze’s observation about bean sprouts. “They should be firm but flexible,” he wrote. The same goes for the celery and onions in this dressing. The nuts and the apple will also retain a nice freshness.
Heat the butter and broth together until the butter melts. Pour the liquid into the bowl. Do not mix yet. There is another important ingredient. You’re right! It’s sherry. Never forget the sherry. Very carefully pour 3 tablespoons of sherry into the bowl. Sip the sherry you have reserved in the measuring cup.
Gently stir the stuffing with two wooden spoons until all the ingredients are well combined. Don’t bruise the sausage! If the mixture is too dry, add lukewarm water. Food science no longer recommends stuffing the bird. We compose the recipe and cook it in a ceramic casserole dish. Guess that makes it dressing rather than stuffing – whatever you call it, it’s fine.
Revery Bill St John to [email protected]