Wednesday, November 21, 2007

baby in the oven

Buy bird; be ready tomorrow


'Twas the day before Thanksgiving, and all through the house -- you don't have a turkey!?

I'm sure most of you are saying, "Huh?" Of course you have a turkey. You've probably already made your pecan pie, cut up veggies, and the stuffing is ready to put inside the bird.

For my audience -- remember, this is about easy cooking for those like me who always have gone to relatives' homes to get their favorite dinner of the year -- I know you don't have a turkey because you've probably never cooked one.

Is this the year you don't have an invite? The first time that happened to me, my former wife and I had to make our first Thanksgiving dinner. We were both almost 30!

Our annual offering had always been a jar of olives.

So, if you find yourself in that position today, do not try what I did: "Hey, honey, let's buy some turkey pot pies. That will be close."

If you go to a grocery store today, I'll bet you can still find a fresh (that means non-frozen) turkey, and a roasting bag. Frozen turkeys take a few days to thaw, so, if you buy one, you'll be eating Thanksgiving dinner on Sunday.

If you successfully complete this mission, I can tell you how to cook a turkey that will be better than any you've eaten by the "professional" turkey cookers, like Mom, Dad, Grandma and my baby sister, Elizabeth. They will turn up their noses at you. They will disinherit you.

But, if they take a bite of your bird, they will curse you until the end of the world -- because they spent two days getting everything ready, and you just popped this baby in the oven and blew them all away.

Season the turkey with a good amount of salt and pepper. Then put a couple of tablespoons of flour in the bag, as directed. Shake up the bag, put in the turkey. Put on one of the tie wraps tightly.

If you have a roasting pan -- hah, hah -- put the whole thing in it. Or do as I do and buy a large, disposable, aluminum pan. Follow the cooking directions on the bird or on the roasting bag. It's usually about 15 minutes per pound.

And be very careful when you remove it after it's cooked, because, while the pan is pretty sturdy, it could bend a little.

Drain the juices, discard the bag, then put the bird on a serving platter or return it to the pan.

I also use Hungry Jack mashed potatoes, Heinz turkey gravy, Stove Top stuffing, Pillsbury crescent rolls and canned Le Seur peas. Hey, it ain't homemade, but it ain't bad either.

It's been at least a year since you prepared Thanksgiving dinner. Or maybe this is your first time in the hot seat. Either way, you want guests to remember your meal for all the right reasons - not because you forgot to cook the potatoes or you melted the thermometer inside the turkey. You don't want a glitch that leaves you looking like the turkey.

Take defrosting, for instance: If you're serving a big bird, and it's not thawing in the fridge now, you could be headed fortrouble. So read on for ideas and pointers that can help make the most formidable feast of the year a smashing success.

Tina Danze is a Dallas free-lance writer.

Potato pointers

Do the mashed potatoes: Peel the potatoes (Russet or Yukon Gold are good options) and cut them in quarters, then place them in a big pot with enough water to completely cover. Boil until fork tender, then drain. If you want them to absorb the maximum amount of butter and cream, return them to the pan and place over low heat for 1 minute so that the residual liquid evaporates. Mash by hand or with a hand mixer, adding butter, cream, salt and pepper to taste. Do NOT use a food processor to mash potatoes or they will get gummy.

Not into mashing? Buy frozen mashed potatoes at the supermarket. All you do is add the butter and cream.

A sweet alternative: For a nice change, roast whole sweet potatoes. Bake them with skins on in a 400-F oven until soft to the squeeze (wear oven mitts). An 8-ounce potato will cook in 40 to 50 minutes, depending on size. Wrap them in foil to keep them warm until serving time. You can bake them in the same oven with the turkey, but they will take longer to cook because the turkey cooks at a lower temperature. Flavor softened butter with lime juice and fresh grated ginger to taste. Serve the potatoes with the flavored butter, salt, pepper and lime wedges for guests to season to taste.

Pacing the meal

Start slow: Don't stuff guests with appetizers before dinner - they'll need room in their tummies for your feast. Avoid meat, cheese or rich creamy dips with starch (chips or bread) before dinner. No matter what you serve, don't leave appetizers out indefinitely; even vegetables fill you up if you eat enough of them. Consider these alternatives to heavy appetizers:

*Serve an aperitif such as sherry with spiced nuts and imported spiced green olives. Spice stimulates the appetite.

*Serve crudités (blanched or raw vegetables) with a light dip. If your favorite dip recipe (or mix) calls for sour cream, substitute yogurt. For extra body, add light mayonnaise in place of some of the yogurt.

*Make a dip by combining store-bought basil pesto with light mayonnaise to taste.

*To make tapenade (olive spread): In a food processor, process 2 teaspoons minced garlic, 1 cup pitted imported black olives, 4 canned anchovy filets, 1/4 teaspoon thyme and 1 tablespoon capers until chunky. Slowly add 1/4 cup olive oil while motor is running, processing until combined but not pureed. Mixture should retain some texture. Stir in 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon lemon juice and freshly ground pepper to taste. Serve with toasted baguette rounds.

Turkey tips

First thing: Before you do anything to the bird, be sure to reach deep into the cavity to remove the neck and giblets (they're usually packaged together) before you bake it.

Rack it: Instead of using a roasting rack, roast the turkey on a bed of celery and quartered onions. This will help flavor the pan juices, which you can use to make a no-fuss sauce, a tasty soup base or a rich gravy.

Take a shine: Many recipes say to tent the turkey with foil after the skin browns. But what they don't tell you is that the shiny side of the foil should face out; if you don't get this right, the turkey will absorb heat instead of reflecting it, making for some very dried-out breast meat.

Happy ending: Garnish the turkey platter with fresh herbs, red-tipped kale leaves, watercress or dandelion greens under and around the turkey. If you want some color, scatter lady apples, kumquats (or other small whole citrus), cranberries, small chile peppers, clumps of red grapes or figs around as well. Or surround the bird with small, whole, cooked vegetables, such as baby carrots, brussels sprouts and onions.

The kindest cut: Carving the turkey at the table can be an agony for everyone, so cut it in the kitchen before serving dinner. Leave the legs and wings whole, and slice the breast meat. You can still garnish the platter for a pretty presentation.

A real head start: Dallas cooking teacher Tina Wasserman goes even further with the advance preparation. She roasts the turkey a day ahead of time on a bed of vegetables, slices it, places the meat in a 9x13-inch glass pan and pours the pan juices over the meat. Then she covers the pan with plastic wrap and refrigerates it until it's time to reheat it in the microwave for 5 minutes on High (100 percent power) or until the meat is hot. The meat will still be juicy, because it


Freshly ground white pepper

1. Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Leave the small parsnips whole, and cut the larger ones in half, so they will be uniform in size and cook evenly.

2. On a shallow baking tray, toss the parsnips with the thyme, marjoram, olive oil, three-eighths teaspoon salt and white pepper to taste. Place the tray in the oven and roast until parsnips are tender, about 45 minutes.

Each of 8 servings: 109 calories; 1 gram protein; 15 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams fiber; 5 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 118 mg. sodium.


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