These tips and recipes can save the day

Adrienne Freeman Originally Published November 22, 2012 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated November 21, 2012 at 2:31 p.m.
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“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” This well-known first line of the Dickens novel The Tale of Two Cities is the perfect description of the crazy swirl of extended family, overly ambitious menus and attempts to recreate Great Aunt Clara’s stuffing recipe on Thanksgiving.

Even the most accomplished in the kitchen can be frazzled with the array of demands on Turkey Day, the Super Bowl of Cooking. These last-minutes tips can help a drowning cook survive the unexpected waves of culinary expectation and emerge as a world champion, at least to the guests, and all diners will say “Thanks!”

The bird

• Fully defrost the turkey, and bring it to room temperature. If you buy it frozen, it could take up to 2 days in the fridge. Taking this extra step will make for a more dependable timetable and more even roasting.

• Pat the skin dry with paper towels if you want crispy goodness.

• Brine the turkey if you have time. It’s a science thing, (www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/alton-brown/good-eats-roast-turkey-recipe), but it is the best way to make a moist bird.

• Deep-frying should be classified as an extreme sport. Read directions, be safe, and do it far from the house.

Emergency solution: Pre-roasted whole birds and breasts are available at most grocery stores. In a more dire situation, deli roast chicken can be portioned and served on a platter as a substitute.

The gravy

• Pour pan drippings into a gravy separator — a special “measuring cup” with a long spout that helps to pour off excess oil. If you don’t have one, just pour pan drippings into a slender container and allow to sit for 20 minutes while the oil separates from the flavorful juice for the gravy. Just spoon off the excess grease.

• Flour or cornstarch will thicken your gravy, but make sure you thin cornstarch with cold water before adding to a simmering stock.

Emergency solution: Jarred or canned gravy can be easily pumped up with pan drippings, extra poultry stock and a healthy pinch of poultry seasoning or herbs. We won’t tell.

The potatoes

• Traditional mashed potatoes should be made with russet (baking) or buttery gold potatoes, not the smaller round, red-skinned variety. Cut in uniform size for even cooking, and add warmed cream or milk to the hot potatoes; cold liquid plus hot potatoes equals lumps. Stir in butter at the end.

• Believe it or not, canned sweet potatoes are an acceptable substitute for fresh. Drain well, heat and proceed with your recipe.

• Recipes for sweet potatoes are varied. Whipped, baked or served in a pie are just a few of the methods. Remember, sweet potatoes or yams aren’t as starchy as white potatoes, so don’t expect the same results. Basic rules are as follows:

• Chop into uniform sizes.

• Add liquid that is warmed to the temperature of the cooked vegetable. Perfect spices are cinnamon, maple, cloves, allspice or apple-pie seasoning. A little butter and sugar/sugar substitute are always welcomed.

Emergency solution: Refrigerated mashed potatoes from the grocery store are better than boxed potatoes. Put in a greased casserole, stir in a little butter, and sprinkle with grated cheese after heating for a home-cooked touch. Or if KFC is open, just ask them to put the gravy on the side.

The dressing

• Cornbread, sausage, oyster, white bread — everyone has an opinion. But universally, the bread should be a little stale to withstand the added liquid. Make it the day, week or month before. It freezes beautifully and results in the perfect day-old bread called for in your recipe.

Emergency solution: Boxed stuffing mixture doesn’t have to be made on top of the stove. Use the dried cubes, soak in stock (canned or homemade), add sage, thyme and a beaten egg to bind, but watch added salt! Anything pre-made has a lot of salt for taste and also to make it shelf stable. Remember — you can always add more, but you can’t take any out.

The centerpiece

• Expensive flowers aren’t a must. Pine cones, a few “artful” branches anchored in acorns, candles in a large vase surrounded with popcorn can make any table festive.

Emergency solution: Kill two birds with one stone and have any children sit down and color Thanksgiving place mats or trace their hands to make turkey-themed place cards.

All in all, little mistakes in the kitchen are more visible to the cook than to the guests. After all, everyone is there to eat and give thanks! Give yourself a break with these simple recipes.

FIVE-CUP SALAD

Ingredients:

1 small can mandarin oranges, drained

1 6-ounce can pineapple tidbits, drained

1 cup sweetened coconut

1 cup mini-marshmallows

1 cup sour cream

Directions:

Mix all ingredients well. If desired, thin salad to desired thickness with reserved fruit juices. Chill 30 minutes before serving.

WILD RICE WITH DRIED FRUIT AND NUTS

(Adapted from Martha Stewart)

Ingredients:

4 scallions, sliced thinly, separate white and green parts

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

Coarse salt and ground pepper

1 box wild rice blend (Uncle Ben’s preferred)

2 tablespoons red-wine vinegar

1/2 cup dried cherries or cranberries

1/2 cup pecans, toasted and chopped

Directions:

In a medium saucepan, heat olive oil over medium-high. Add scallion whites and cook, stirring often, until soft, 3 minutes. Discard seasoning packet from wild-rice mixture, add mixture to pan, and cook according to package instructions.

Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, combine vinegar, dried cherries and 2 tablespoons water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce to barely simmering and cook until vinegar is almost absorbed and fruit is rehydratedi, approximately 3 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and add rice mixture, scallion greens and chopped pecans. Stir well to combine, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve warm or at room temperature.

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