Kitchen rookie's playbook
A primer on how novices can prepare a successful Thanksgiving dinner without making themselves crazy
A quick-prep Thanksgiving may sound risky, but it's well within reach, even for holiday-hosting newbies. Choose your tasks wisely. Pick an approachable menu. Call on a few shortcuts that don't involve compromises. (Put down that box of powdered mashed potatoes!) And get the grocery shopping done two days in advance so you feel rested. Head straight for the kitchen on Thanksgiving morning and roll out this four-hour menu for 10, with leftovers, in a breeze (almost).
Here's the basic plan: Use the turkey's three-hour stay in the oven to prepare the sides and accompaniments. The secret is butterflying the bird. You'll get moist meat, crisp skin, and slices of your golden centerpiece in half the time.
Start by glazing pecans, which will welcome your guests. Toss the nuts with maple syrup and chipotle powder or cayenne, then roast them until fragrant.
Go to work on the sides - seasonal stuffing, gravy, a gratin of hearty greens, and candied sweet potatoes. Slip a spiced pumpkin pie into the oven before you begin the bulk of the cooking.
A butterflied turkey doesn't have the robust presentation that a whole bird does, but most people take the cooked bird from the oven, let it rest, and carve it - so it doesn't go to the table anyway. And several good things happen as the result of this simple reshaping of the bird. You can cook the turkey at a slightly higher temperature. The roasting time is shorter, the skin browns nicely, and there's less chance of drying out the breasts. A flat bird is also easier to carve than a whole one.
The final advantage has nothing to do with the turkey itself, but rather with the stuffing. Most folks have taken to cooking the stuffing separately because it must heat to 165 degrees; this invariably results in overcooked meat. Alas, stuffing cooked on its own doesn't taste of all those wonderful poultry juices. With a flat bird, you can do a free-form stuffing, roasting the turkey right on the mixture so it catches the juices and cooks at the same speed. Then while the turkey rests, turn up the oven temperature and crisp the stuffing. To make it, toss bread cubes with sauteed fennel and onions, dried apples and cherries, Parmesan, and fresh herbs.
Because all of the bird's drippings go into the stuffing, you won't have any for the gravy. This works just fine for our speedy approach; use caramelized onions to make gravy while the turkey roasts.
For accompanying greens, saute fresh spinach and Swiss chard, add a good splash of heavy cream, and top with Parmesan and coarse panko. A generous spoonful of marmalade gives candied sweet potatoes some tang and avoids the overwhelming sweetness that mars this retro favorite. A canopy of melted marshmallows is hard to resist.
To cap the meal, fill a store-bought crust with sweetened pumpkin and bake it just until the custard sets. Serve slices with maple whipped cream.
Now throw off your apron and have a seat. Give thanks - and let someone else clean up.