The author of How to Cook Everything streamlines the holiday feast.
Last Thanksgiving, I vowed to minimize everything: time, number of ingredients and, most of all, work. Heretical as it may seem, I thought it might be fun for the cook to have enough energy to actually enjoy the meal for a change. My idea was to buy all the food in one trip and prepare the entire feast in the time it took to roast my 15-pound turkey - roughly three hours. And, with one minor exception, I was successful.
The results, I believe, are as close to a traditional Thanksgiving dinner as you can get without spending an entire day - or more - in the kitchen. Without using convenience foods - I made both the stuffing and the cranberry sauce from scratch, each in less than 10 minutes - I prepared a full-fledged feast for 12. If I didn't slave over a hot stove for two days, like my grandmothers always did, I still prepared more food than anyone could possibly finish; and, with all due respect to my ancestors, there were many aspects of this meal that were fresher and better-tasting than any Thanksgiving food I ate as a child.
Turkey with Bread Stuffing and Sherry Gravy
To get good-tasting turkey (this, I admit, I learned from my maternal grandmother), you have to start with a decent bird. Like her, I use kosher turkey, available at nearly every supermarket in the metropolitan area. It's tastier and moister than any other commercial turkey. A high-heat boost at the beginning gets the bird cooking fast, insures browning, and keeps roasting time well under three hours.
The stuffing was inspired by a recipe from the late Pierre Farley, who often roasted a chicken with a "sandwich" of bread, liver, and parsley. It took a little tinkering to adapt this to turkey, but the result is a light, almost pate-like stuffing that was even eaten by the kids. You can make it and stuff the bird in less time than it takes to preheat the oven. The sauce relies, of course, on pan drippings, but is finished with nothing more than water, good sherry, and butter; it's made in 10 minutes or so, as the turkey rests before carving.
Sweet Potato Home Fries with Garlic and Parsley
There's no room in the average home oven for both a 15-pound turkey and a sweet potato casserole, or even baked sweet potatoes, so preparing either of those would have stretched my cooking time by at least an hour. I got around that problem by starting the potatoes in boiling water, then transferring them to a roasting pan to finish cooking after the turkey comes out of the oven. Garlic and extra-virgin olive oil add punch, and parsley makes the color combinations pop. Peeling, parboiling, and roasting add up to about 40 minutes.
Green Beans with Lemon
The green beans are precooked in boiling water (you can use the same water for both sweet potatoes and green beans), then finished at the last minute with both juice and zest of lemon. Total time, including picking over three pounds of beans: about 20 minutes.
No-Cook Cranberry-Orange Relish
By adding a handful of mint and a couple of pinches of cayenne, I take the now-classic recipe - printed on nearly every package of cranberries - one step further. Start to finish, 5 minutes, including washing the food processor.
Pear, Mesclun, and Gorgonzola Salad
A far cry from the days of iceberg and bottled dressing, but not much more work. Peel and slice some pears, wash and dry some mesclun, crumble some gorgonzola. Dress with bottled dressing if you must, but I prefer extra virgin olive oil and sherry or balsamic vinegar, or a homemade vinaigrette. Depending on your choice, this will take you 15 to 20 minutes to put together. I started my guests off with cheese and crackers and passed mixed nuts and fresh fruit after the meal. You can do more work if you like . . . but I don't see the point.
The Order of Battle
Timing, of course, is never exact, but there's little likely to go wrong here. If you're the nervous type (like me), allow an extra half-hour. But do not in any case begin roasting the turkey more than three and one half hours before you wish to eat.
Zero Minus Three Hours: Preheat the oven; rinse the turkey; prepare the stuffing, stuff the bird, and put it in the oven.
0 minus 2.30: Peel, cut up, and boil the potatoes. Turn down the oven heat and check the turkey; make the cranberry relish.
0 minus 2.00: Drain and cool the potatoes; toss them in a roasting pan with the garlic and oil. Trim and boil the string beans. Check the turkey.
0 minus 1.30: Drain and cool the stringbeans; zest and juice the lemons. Check the turkey.
0 minus 1.00: Crumble the gorgonzola; wash and dry the mesclun; make vinaigrette should you choose to do so. Pick over and chop the parsley for the potatoes. Check the turkey.
0 minus 30: Assemble but don't dress the salad. Ready ingredients for sherry gravy. Check the turkey with an instant-read thermometer and remove it when ready.
0 minus 15: After removing the turkey, crank up the oven heat and insert the potatoes. Heat a skillet and finish the green beans.
Turkey Time: Force someone else - your dad or father-in-law is usually a good candidate - to carve the turkey while you make the sauce and finish the string beans. Put everything on the table except the salad, which you can dress and serve after or during the main part of the meal.