After twenty-six years as a cooking adult, I’ve hosted a variety of Thanksgivings— everything from lavish multi-course feasts to free-for-all buffets. One year we went to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade and I got home just in time to roast little Cornish hens before nightfall. Then there was the year I served goose.
Presiding over all of those Thanksgivings, I’ve learned a few things. The first is that unlike any other dinner of the year, friends and family seem to need Thanksgiving to be familiar. If you stray too far off the traditional path, you’ll more than likely hear about it. But it’s also important to keep the meal interesting.
That’s why I like to give little flavor twists to the classic elements of a Thanksgiving meal. Take cranberry sauce, for instance—one that’s a perfect balance of sweet and tart, whole berries and sauce, and (most important for me) that won’t run all over your plate. Flavor the sauce with familiar orange zest and juice, but add a surprising herbal note with minced fresh rosemary.
Give your guests the stuffing they want. I call mine a dressing because I like to bake it separately. (My reasoning: To get stuffing in a turkey cavity to a safe temperature, you risk overcooking the turkey, and I don’t think dry turkey is worth good stuffing. And frankly, a turkey cavity doesn’t hold that much stuffing anyway.) Build the dressing with great bread, flavor it with lots of fresh herbs, bind it lightly with eggs, and bake it right—covered first to heat it through, and then uncovered so that it browns. The trick is to stud it with the unexpected—I like to add chestnuts, bacon, and prunes. For the gravy, a simple turkey broth provides a backbone of flavor; build on it by adding ingredients like Cognac, thyme, and a little cream.
I’ve also discovered little ways to keep Thanksgiving recipes simple without sacrificing flavor. My turkey recipe is a great example. While developing recipes for a roasted chicken story in Fine Cooking #70, I found that salting the bird overnight gave it a crisp, browned skin. I adapted the technique for turkey and got the well-seasoned flavor of a wet-brined turkey without the hassle—I call it a dry brine. Just sprinkle the turkey with salt and place it on a wire rack set over a rimmed baking sheet—no big bucket or ice chest of salt water and no worries about the turkey becoming overly salty.
Finally, I’ve come to realize that the key to a truly relaxing Thanksgiving meal is to get much of the cooking done ahead. My first few Thanksgivings were so packed with last-minute tasks that there wasn’t any counter space left to stack the dinner dishes. After a few experiences like that, I’ve figured out how to get most of the meal prepared ahead and many of the pots and pans washed and put away before I sit down. Follow the tips and the timeline (Great Ideas for the Holiday and Every Day) and you too can prepare and enjoy your Thanksgiving feast.