Thanksgiving menu: results

No, I’m not going to post photos of everything we ate at Thanksgiving dinner, since I didn’t take any. But I do want to report on how things turned out (see previous post: “Menu planning for Thanksgiving“).

First off, it is immensely easier cooking dinner for three people, even (or maybe especially) when it’s a huge and complex meal with multiple side dishes and tight scheduling restrictions to get everything done at the same time. For one thing, there are no guests who can’t (within the bounds of politeness) be shoo-ed out of the kitchen. Even the dog was well-behaved! We made the same amount of food for three as I would have made for six (with perhaps the addition of one more side dish for guests who don’t like spinach even with a cup of cream and half a stick of butter).

The process started a week and a half ago, when I made turkey stock. I didn’t follow any particular recipe, but having done it before I had a pretty good idea how to do it: roast turkey wings (would have loved to get some turkey backs and necks but those are never available before Thanksgiving when you actually need them!) and then simmer in water with aromatic vegetables (carrots, celery, and onion), herbs, and spices for three hours or so. This ended up making about two quarts of stock, which contained so much gelatin that it completely solidified when cooled. I stuck it in the freezer for safety, and took it out on Tuesday so that it would be thawed by the time I needed. (It wasn’t, and took about 15 minutes in the microwave at 50% power to melt enough of the ice to get it back to the proper consistency.) The turkey wings I ended up buying frozen from Mayflower Poultry, which was a bit of a disappointment — I could have gotten the same thing from Stop & Shop.

Also on Tuesday, I made the Cook’s Illustrated cranberry chutney with pear, lemon, and rosemary. This recipe makes an enormous quantity of chutney, far more than six people, never mind three, could eat. (I think I coded it in my calorie-counting app as 18 servings, and even that may be an overestimate.) Usually my mother makes the cranberry sauce, but I was inspired by seeing a TV show last week (don’t recall whether it was ATK or Cook’s Country TV) with a related ginger chutney recipe.

Stepping back a few days, on Saturday, I made a trip into town to stop by MF Dulock for some sausage and salt pork. They didn’t have any salt pork, but they did have a lovely-looking garlic and thyme sausage, which the staff was ready to strip from its casing for me. The sausage goes into the stuffing (ATK “Sausage and Fennel Stuffing”), but in the mean time I stuck it in the freezer. I went on to Savenor’s in Cambridge, still looking for salt pork, and was rather disappointed that the guy working the butcher counter didn’t even know what salt pork was. Eventually I managed to find some house-made salt pork at Formaggio Kitchen (where I also picked up cheese, salami, and some sweets that I haven’t finished yet). I also prepared a timeline, showing exactly when everything needed to be going in or out of the oven to have the turkey and sides all ready for serving at 5:00.

I picked up my turkey at Whole Foods on Sunday, put it in a keep-cold bag, and drove directly to my parents’ house to stick it in their refrigerator. I also bought all the other ingredients I expected to need, with the exception of butter (folks always have plenty and my mother always buys unsalted) and marjoram (which Whole Foods didn’t have). Of course, I managed to forget to buy cheesecloth (turned out I didn’t need more) and cranberry juice (for home use) and had to go back after work on Monday for those. I had ordered a fresh free-range organic turkey from Whole Foods, which was shipped in from Pennsylvania; it turned out that I could have had one from Vermont right out of the case at the store, and there was also a local turkey farm I could have gone to right here in Framingham, both of which might have been better choices (from the standpoint of greenhouse-gas emissions if nothing else). The bird was about 13 1/2 pounds. I left my mother with instructions to dry-brine the turkey on Tuesday night, so I wouldn’t have to fight getaway-evening traffic to do it myself.

On Wednesday, I sliced the salt pork for the turkey (“Old-Fashioned Stuffed Turkey“, Cook’s Illustrated 11/2009) while it was still partially frozen. However, I noticed that the recipe recommended using salt pork that was about 50% lean, which clearly must be made with pork belly rather than fatback like the salt pork that I bought from Formaggio. It doesn’t seem to have made much of a difference, other than having more fat to separate off after deglazing the pan. One other issue with using Formaggio’s salt pork was that it still had the skin on it, which had to be removed in order to slice it.

Thanksgiving morning did not start out so well. I was late getting up, forgot to take my medication, and then got stuck in a traffic tie-up behind a three-car accident on Route 128 heading down to my parents’. My original timeline required me to be there at 11:30, and I didn’t arrive until about 11:45, so I pushed the whole thing back an hour. On the plus side, I was able to enlist my mother as sous-chef, which made the preparation vastly easier, since I didn’t have to do any of the vegetable and herb chopping myself. (Their kitchen is easily big enough for two people to work without bumping into each other. I couldn’t even dream of doing this in my condo’s tiny galley kitchen.) I ended up putting the turkey into the oven about an hour and a quarter late, but without the pressure of guests needing to drive back home, this did not stress me out unduly.

One issue that I never did manage to resolve was the disagreement between the supposedly complementary turkey and gravy recipes. The turkey recipe says to take the drippings out at the end of the low-temperature stage of cooking, whereas the gravy recipe says to leave them in until the end (since we’re deglazing the roasting pan). I stuck with the process described in the gravy recipe, which starts by putting chopped aromatics in the bottom of the roasting pan. By the end of the high-heat phase of roasting, these vegetables are nearly black, and add a wonderful deep brown color to the resulting gravy. I also followed the full broth-making protocol for the stuffing, even though I already had a proper turkey stock, and used butter rather than schmaltz for the roux; these also contributed to a better, deeper gravy than I had previously managed. However, the broth lost a lot of water in the cooking process, so I had to add an additional three cups of turkey stock (after the four that had been used in the broth originally) to make up the expected volume of broth for the gravy.

We made one major change to the stuffing recipe, which was adding about one additional cup of my turkey stock (beyond the amount called for in the recipe), so that the completed stuffing would have more of a bread-pudding texture to it rather than the distinct cubes of bread that we had experienced with this recipe before. After all this, I was still left with about a cup of turkey stock, so I never needed to break out the emergency-backup chicken broth.

I delayed starting the spinach cooking until much later than I should have, so everything else ended up waiting on the creamed spinach (The Silver Spoon‘s “Spinaci alla crema“), but the end result was excellent. It is still a shock to watch more than two pounds of spinach cook down into just four servings, after being drained and squeezed of excess liquid. (And no, the spinach wasn’t boiled: it was cooked “in just the water clinging to the leaves after rinsing”. Spinach is mostly water, and as soon as you get it hot, its cell walls burst, releasing that water into the pan. We used a tall stockpot, and added more spinach in at the top as it cooked down, until all two and a quarter pounds had reduced down to a few inches thick.) I should figure out a way to cut this recipe down so I can do it myself. (I should also try the other two recipes I found, which I had rejected because they contained onions, although this turned out to have been unnecessary.)

Everything turned out excellent, but there was so much food that no one went back for seconds. For leftovers, I took home about a pound of turkey breast, and left my parents with one whole breast, both wings, one leg quarter, and about a pound of miscellaneous trimmings. It’s important to use a proper boning knife for cutting up a turkey (or other poultry); my parents used to use a huge slicer, which is just about the worst possible knife for the job. The boning knife is just the tool for removing the wings and legs intact, and taking each breast off the carcass whole, so that it can then be sliced with an electric slicer. (This is just about the only reason for anyone to own an electric knife — otherwise they would be pretty much useless.) Cook’s Country‘s garlic mashed potato recipe makes an enormous amount — it starts with four pounds of potatoes — so there is always several meals’ worth left over. We also had two thirds of the stuffing left, most of the cranberry chutney (none of us had more than a quarter of a cup), and about a serving and a half of the creamed spinach.

One final note: the yeasted cornbread was very interesting — it tasted almost like a cross between a corn muffin and a dinner roll — but the recipe made far too much: we had three pieces left over in the basket on the table, plus half of the 13×9 pan. It sure looks like this recipe could be cut in half easily; one suspects the author of being afraid of requiring only half a packet of yeast. (Of course, my yeast doesn’t come in “packets” so I’m not remotely concerned about this.) It might have been nice to add some additional flavor to the bread, perhaps some seasonal herbs, and to my northern taste, it could have used a bit of sweetening as well.

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