While it’s true that my family roasts a turkey on a day other than Thanksgiving, that’s only because we take advantage of holiday-season sales to scoop up a couple of frozen birds for our own freezer, and use it much later for a meal that we view as ironic, parodying the Norman Rockwell image of a turkey dinner by reproducing it perfectly. In July.
This isn’t the turkey we use at Thanksgiving. That one has to be a costly, hand-raised, antibiotic-free bird, served with a gravy of liberal hypocrisy. Our guests won’t accept a mere Butterball for the holiday (but nobody inquires in July). Frankly, it’s getting expensive.
And it’s intrinsically problematic. You can’t cook it to everyone’s satisfaction. Roasting it requires a fancy timing dance so that the dark meat cooks through without destroying the white meat. My wife’s family’s tradition was to blast the whole bird to a state so dry that it required an ice pick, not a knife. We’ve done the dance of cooking it to breast-meat doneness, then returning the legs only to the oven, but that’s too much work, especially on a day I also dedicate to drinking.
We have subjected it to other, more successful cooking methods. Smoked turkey is excellent, providing the best leftover meat as well as a carcass that produces a unique soup stock. It requires an outdoor smoker, however, which isn’t always a joy to operate in late November. And we have guests who aren’t crazy about the flavor.
Deep frying it means it cooks evenly and quickly: you can finish a 16-pound bird in under an hour. The result is tasty as can be and has a crisp skin that’s more fun to nibble on than pork rinds. But deep frying is another outdoor process with some danger attached. Start with too much oil and you get an unpleasant surprise as you lower the dinner into it. And, no matter how scrupulous you are about containing it, it makes a mess of your yard. This method too has its opponents, who wrongly believe that the meat is sucking up all that oil.
For the last couple of years I’ve prepared the holiday turkey by removing its skin while keeping that skin in one piece, taking off the breast meat as another single piece, butterflying the breast and stuffing it with a sausage made from the dark meat, jelly-rolling it back in its skin, tying it up and roasting it. It’s worth the prep trouble: it cooks relatively quickly, is evenly done through and through and still has the skin component for that added crunch.
Because I’ll never top that preparation—and I’m in constant competition with my own cooking—this year I’m abandoning turkey as the Thanksgiving centerpiece. It won’t go away completely: I’ll be making, for the main course, a variation of the classic Italian timpano (see the movie Big Night for a glorious example), stuffed with homemade tortellini and turkey meatballs, with a ragu developed from pork, turkey, chicken livers and sage.
Suppose you want to buck the turkey tradition completely: What else can you offer your guests?
For a slightly exotic meat, try lamb. (If it seems silly to call it exotic, try finding it in the supermarkets near where I live, in Montgomery County.) If you avoid the expensive rib chops, lamb lends itself to preparations that will perfume your house more compellingly than that old bird ever did.
Leg of lamb lends itself to marinades and stuffing. You can marinate it in wine, yogurt, citrus—anything with some tasty acids to purvey. Then you can fire up the grill and finish it with an attractive crispy coating.
If you’re roasting it, what’s required is the addition of rosemary and garlic. Apply the latter by piercing the leg at regular intervals and inserting a sliver of the garlic clove.
Stuff it with spinach and feta for a Greek approach; go Moroccan with apricots and olives and preserved lemon. Keeping it ovine, I’ve stuffed it with merguez, the spicy North African lamb sausage.
My favorite part of the beast is the shank, a once-neglected morsel that’s gotten steadily more expensive, but still is worth the price. Brown it, slather it with tomato paste, then braise it in a mixture of red wine and chopped tomatoes enhanced with celery, carrots and onions. It needs a few oven hours. Don’t forget to enjoy the marrow.
Beef short ribs also lend themselves to braising, and they make a worthy alternative if you can’t find lamb. Braised anything is usually excellent, because the lengthy cooking time brings out flavor as it tenderizes.
When’s the last time you enjoyed a crown roast of pork? Enough said.
I‘ve offered seafood to my guests over the years, but it tends not to invite the encomia of the land-based comestibles. One exception was a preparation of salmon en croute, a long filet coated with a mushroom purée before being wrapped and baked in dough. The fact that it was served with Hollandaise ensured its appeal.
I canvassed some friends about their holiday traditions, and discovered that the majority accedes to a turkey-centric family gathering because that’s the way it’s always done. Any mixed feelings about the bird and its preparation were offset by the opportunity to spend time with people they like, or at least to escape to the TV set.
Those who are perennial guests saw no opportunity to change the menu; those in charge were nervous about offending the others, particularly the oldsters for whom (they believe) tradition is a necessity.
But one friend offered an interesting alternative strategy. “We never do turkey,” he says. “We have lasagna every year, and it’s terrific.”
Bird! Of Course!
For the last few years, I’ve gone out on a limb and, taking advantage of super savings, purchased a supermarket turkey, stocking the bird in the freezer until a day when I felt like making non-Thanksgiving dinner a bit more festive. In September of this year, I had an unexpected visit from several out-of-town relatives, so I pulled out the bird, slathered butter and Southwestern seasonings under the skin, trussed it up and popped that baby in the oven. What emerged was glistening, mahogany skin with insanely tender flesh and an outrageously addictive aroma. Everybody was thrilled at the unexpected sight of turkey, and it really did bring out a celebratory mood to, what because of a particular relative’s current health issues, had been somewhat melancholy.
There’s a reason turkey bears its rightful place at the centerpiece of most Thanksgiving feasts. I mean, look at that bugger, especially if you invest in a fresh bird with a proud breast. The turkey should arrive at the table on a mammoth platter that’s almost too unwieldy to carry. It should stay there, undisturbed, while guests ooh and aah and simply marvel at the mouthwatering possibilities, especially combined with stuffing and gravy, before them. The act of carving the turkey is the original form of dinner theater here in the New World.
Many complain that turkey is rather bland. I prefer to think of it as an empty canvas on which to paint any stroke of whimsy, in terms of ingredients and seasonings, that I feel like. This year I’m taking inspiration from a Tyler Florence recipe calling for fig-glazed turkey—the picture of that perfectly browned meat was simply too beautiful to resist. My kids have never had had the same Thanksgiving turkey twice, which in some ways might seem kind of sad, but to date, nobody’s complained. Turkey as the main protein provides me the ability to go old-school New England one year, Tuscan another, and Southern yet another. And there is no end to the variations on stuffing and gravy to make each Thanksgiving uniquely delicious.
Of course, most people like the inevitable leftovers, for making soup and hot turkey sandwiches, etc. I have to say that I prefer if all the meat is inhaled during the main course, in part because it reminds me that I can turn out a pretty damn tasty meal. But now with teenagers in the house, those leftovers serve a purpose, provided they are properly stored so as to avoid getting dried out. I know people who, because vegetarians will be at the table, don’t serve a turkey; to my way of thinking, that’s what all the other glorious side dishes are for. A Thanksgiving without turkey is not the only way to show some imagination and culinary flair. There’s a reason Ben Franklin thought the turkey, not the eagle, should be the national bird. I think he was thinking about dinner. Go for it, I say.
Easy Does It
The holidays can be a bottleneck of obligations: shopping for family and friends, getting to important parties and events, making travel plans. Planning for your own holiday get-together can easily get out of hand if you let it. The secret is: Don’t.
Here are some tips on how.
1. Keep things simple so you stay relaxed.
It is easy to make an event bigger than you can manage. This is because the future doesn’t have anything to do with right now. That infinite seems far away, and in all the time between now and then, you should be able to weave tinsel into your carpet, swap the curtains for blinds that feature the Three Wise Men on one side and the Grinch on the other. Even if you spent every evening watching Christmas videos from the ’70s, you cannot poke a case of oranges with cloves between now and the date. You cannot make pomander balls for the two dozen guests you want to invite. Forgive yourself before you get started and keep your plans very small and manageable.
You can invite people. You can make the party a potluck. Assign beverages. Assign savory and sweet nibbles. Assign a spinmaster. And if all those things make you feel like you’re copping out, it is 100-percent OKAY to just skip it and do yoga instead. Nobody said you have to have a party. Trust me. The world will survive without your frantic antics.
2. Think about the kinds of parties you’ve loved.
Did you love them because they looked like a set for an uber-hip good time? Or because you smelled cinnamon and chocolate, and the eggnog was sweet and smooth?
Chances are the coziest parties you’ve attended were ones that were minimally manufactured. What you loved about the party best, I bet, was the way the host or hostess made you feel: loved and at ease. You can’t transmit that feeling unless you are at ease.
Freaking out about making the mix and match thrift store crystal match just so, and decorating the aluminum Christmas tree with gingerbread men you’ve rolled super thin—thin enough to make you weep as they fall from their precious ribbon hangers when you try to get the tree in the perfect position—is not going to make you a happy person. Putting a few red and green wrapped chocolate kisses in a saucer might.
3. Don’t try to do things that you haven’t done before.
Magazines, TV and the rain of e-mails in your inbox will flood you with ideas for new foods. Cinnamon-cheddar bonbons. Fake and edible mistletoe that people can kiss and nibble. Don’t fall for the hype! The media’s job this time of year is to get you frenetic about nothing, and make everything seem brand-new.
Newsflash: Holidays are about traditions. Make the sugar cookies you remember. DO NOT try to make colored macaroons just because everybody thinks they are beautiful. They are, but that doesn’t mean you have to make this particular kind of beauty. DO NOT try to make marshmallows. Or nut brittle. Or anything with hot sugar, unless you know that hot sugar burns worse than hot glue, and you have a wicked healthy respect for the stuff.
If you feel the need to get fancy in the kitchen, tack the inspirational recipe to the fridge under a piece of black construction paper. You have my permission to figure out how to make chocolate-covered malted milk balls, blue-cheese fondue, and triple-dipped pretzels—and the caramel, salt butter, and chocolate sauces for dipping—on New Year’s Day.
In other words, don’t do anything drastic. Focus on making a friendly atmosphere and a festive one will follow.
There are a lot of foods out there that have become synonymous with Thanksgiving tradition. You’ve got your turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, and even your rice-stuffed Tofurkey if you’re so inclined. But in Minnesota, any gathering of more than six people means that you break out your metal folding chairs, your vintage percolator (you know, the one you let the church borrow last spring), and your hotdish. Oh, I’m sorry. You’re not familiar with hotdish? Well, strap on your feedbag, because this might get a bit messy.
Hotdish originated one November in 1860 on a small dairy farm in northern Minnesota. (This actually isn’t a verified fact, but there is a 3-percent chance that it could be true. There is also no research to support that statistic, but just keep going, OK?) The matriarch of the family, a sturdy woman who likely spoke Finnish or maybe a bit of German, was faced with the dire dilemma of needing to feed a large group of ungrateful family members a holiday meal. Times were tough and resources were lean, but she had a meal to make and was bred with pure Midwestern grit (too mean to die), so she dusted off her largest baking dish and set to work. What she came up with is something that every Minnesotan knows better than who most of their cousins are: the legendary hotdish. (Old Elmer was the only one who cared for it much, but just because the rest complained didn’t mean that they didn’t go back for seconds. They were ungrateful, remember?)
In the north country, there are three basic foods groups: starch, meat, and something creamy to cover up the first two and make the meal go down easier. The hotdish is made by combining any version of these components and then warming it up. Easy peasy. If you want to get fancy and impress all those Lutherans at the next social, you swap out the wild rice for tater tots, and the ground beef for ham, and the cream of mushroom soup for . . . heck, there’s no substitute for cream of mushroom. You add some crispy French onions to the top. Now you’re talking.
Hotdish is an empty canvas for every casserole artist with a penchant for saying, “Oofda.” This is where creativity of any sort is invited, and the crazier things get, the more people ask for the recipe. I’ve seen hotdish with ramen noodles in it. I’ve seen fruit where fruit should never be. I’ve seen condiments used inappropriately. I’ve seen things I can’t unsee.
To be fair, some versions are pretty good. And in true Midwestern spirit, the hotdish has become a thing to be celebrated and revered. It is what makes a family gathering a family gathering. That and the watery coffee and the vicious fights over Parcheesi. You want to see mean? Watch Grandma capture that 6-year-old’s game piece. Don’t mess with the G-ma, don’t cha know.
Al Franken (our favorite senator) even came up with a competition among Minnesota’s congressional delegation to honor the beloved fare. In the event’s second year, Franken tied for first place. His dish, “Mom’s Mahnomin Madness Hotdish,” was made of wild rice, mushrooms, water chestnuts, roasted turkey, parmesan, and cream of mushroom soup. (Say it out loud: There is no substitute for cream of mushroom soup.)
Feel free to get a little ‘Sotan this Thanksgiving. No one’s asking you to get rid of your precious turkey or stuffing. All I’m saying is that maybe you’ll have a little more time to sit down and commune with your loved ones if you put all those yummy menu items into one deep cooking pan, slather it with cream of mushroom, and pop it into a preheated oven for 20 minutes or so.
And if that works out for you, try serving up some dessert bars, eh?