When it comes to Thanksgiving, most of us want classic, comforting food, the stuff of Norman Rockwell.
"All that malarkey gets in the way of making a good Thanksgiving," says Sam Sifton, author of "Thanksgiving: How to Cook it Well" (Random House, 2012). "Just make a good bird. How about we start with excellence on the basics and move beyond there? You can probably improve on a classic Thanksgiving, but why?"
Thanksgiving exists as much in our minds as our stomachs, say cookbook authors and food experts, and it's not the day to mess with people's expectations.
But traditional doesn't have to mean boring. As with any good meal, experts say start with excellent ingredients and treat them well. Vary flavors, textures and colors. And perhaps most important, know your limits.
"I suggest to people that they need to be honest with themselves about what they can really accomplish," says Jack Bishop, editorial director of America's Test Kitchen, publisher of Cook's Illustrated magazine. "You can have this fantasy, but if the reality does not line up, then you've just created a nightmare moment rather than a comforting moment."
If you've only got a day to shop and prepare, Bishop offers, don't make pies. Buy them, or have a guest bring them. If you've got one oven, do your mashed sweet potatoes in the slow cooker, and maybe grill or deep fry the turkey to free up the oven for other things. Do as much as you can — the soup, the cranberry sauce — beforehand.
Use your time — and your money — wisely by investing in the best possible ingredients. If you buy a pie, buy a good pie. If you make one, use butter and the crispest apples you can find. And remember that the absolute last place to cut back is the turkey.
"The turkey has to be the star of the show," says Rick Rodgers, author of "Thanksgiving 101" (William Morrow, 2007) and most recently the editor of "The Essential James Beard Cookbook" (St. Martin's Press, 2012). "That means choose it carefully. That means a fresh turkey. I never use a frozen turkey. The cost of a fresh turkey has come way down."
And remember that little things can make the meal exciting and special.
"Fresh out of the oven rolls. Really good local butter. A wine that you would never serve unless it's a holiday," Rodgers says. "Homemade cranberry sauce. I repeat, homemade. It's so easy to make and it's delicious. One day out of the year, why open a can when it takes you five minutes to make it?"
Plan the menu well, anticipating how all the dishes go together so that the meal doesn't run together into one bland sensation.
"You don't want to make three potato dishes," Bishop says. "You need to think about how the flavors and colors and textures are going to work on the plate."
But don't skip the starchy, creamy, buttery things, they all agree. Thanksgiving is a day of indulgence, a national day of dietary absolution. So use real cream and butter. Salt the food until it tastes good. Use real sugar in the desserts.
"It's Thanksgiving," Sifton says. "You can have a salad tomorrow."
Unless it's a really special salad, like the one below with pears and arugula.
Cider-Brined Turkey with Sage Gravy
For the turkey:
12- to 14-lb. turkey
½ gallon apple cider
½ c. kosher salt
½ c. packed brown sugar
½ c. minced fresh sage
1 T. crushed black peppercorns
For the gravy:
¼ c. white wine
2 c. low-sodium chicken or turkey broth
3 T. instant flour, such as Wondra
3 T. finely chopped fresh sage
Salt and ground black pepper
Place a 2﻿½ -gallon zip-close plastic bag upright in a large bowl. Place the turkey in the bowl, then pour in the cider, salt, brown sugar, sage and peppercorns. Seal the bag, squeezing out as much as possible as you do so. Massage the bag to mix the ingredients in the liquid. Refrigerate and let brine for a minimum of 8 hours, turning the turkey now and again.
When ready to roast, heat the oven to 350°. Fit a roasting pan with a rack.
Remove the turkey from the brine and discard the brine. Pat the turkey dry with paper towels, then set it onto the roasting rack. Roast for 2 to 2﻿½ hours, or until the temperature of the breast reaches 160° and the thighs reach 170°. If the turkey begins to darken too much, cover it loosely with foil.
Transfer the turkey to a serving platter, wrap with foil, then set a couple layers of bath towels over it to keep it warm.
Remove the rack from the roasting pan. Place the roasting pan over medium heat on the stove top (you may need two burners) and bring the juices to a simmer. Add the wine and scrape up any browned bits on the bottom of the pan. Pour the broth into the pan, whisking continuously. Then add the flour and whisk to combine. Simmer for 5 minutes, while continuing to stir. Season with sage, salt and black pepper.
Boursin Mashed Potatoes
3﻿½ lbs. Russet potatoes, peeled, cut into 2-inch chunks
½ c. half and half
2 packages (5.2 oz. each) Boursin cheese with garlic and herbs
¼ t. salt
⅛ t. ground black pepper
Preheat oven to 350°.
Place potatoes in large saucepan. Add enough water to cover. Bring to a boil on high heat. Cover. Reduce heat to medium-low. Simmer 15 minutes, or until potatoes are tender. Drain. Return to saucepan.
Add milk; mash with hand masher or electric mixer on medium speed until creamy. Mix in cheese, salt and pepper until well blended. Spoon into shallow 2-quart baking dish.
Bake 20 minutes, or until heated through. Makes 8 servings.
Pan-Fried Cranberry Pancetta Stuffing
6 ozs. pancetta, chopped
1﻿½ T. chopped capers
1﻿½ T. chopped fresh sage
8 c. cubed brioche
1﻿¾ c. low-sodium chicken or turkey broth
¾ c. chopped dried cranberries
3 T. butter, divided
Coat a 9-by-13-inch baking pan with cooking spray. Line the pan with parchment or waxed paper, leaving an overhang on the edges of the pan.
In a large saute pan over medium heat, cook the pancetta until crispy, about 8 minutes. Add the capers and sage and continue to cook until crispy and lightly browned, about 3 to 4 minutes. Add the brioche and cook until lightly toasted. Remove the pan from the heat.
In a small bowl, whisk together the broth and the eggs. Stir the broth mixture and the cranberries into the brioche mixture. Spoon into the prepared pan. Press the brioche mixture to create an even layer. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours.
Using the overhanging paper as handles, lift the stuffing in a single block from the pan and set on a cutting board. Cut the stuffing into 16 pieces.
In a large skillet over medium-high, melt half of the butter. Set 8 of the stuffing pieces into the pan and fry for 3 minutes per side, or until golden and crispy. Transfer to a plate, then repeat with remaining butter and stuffing. Finished stuffing can be kept warm in a 200° oven. Makes 8 servings.
Arugula Pear Salad
1 T. butter
½ t. ground cinnamon
3 large pears, cored and sliced
½ c. dried cranberries
½ c. sliced dried apricots
½ c. pomegranate juice
2 T. red wine vinegar
2 T. sugar
1 T. Dijon mustard
½ t. salt
½ t. ground black pepper
Pinch of ground allspice
¼ c. olive oil
10-oz. container baby arugula
4 oz. soft goat cheese, crumbled
In a large skillet over medium-high heat, combine the butter and cinnamon. When the butter has melted, add the pears and saute until they are softened, about 5 minutes. Add the cranberries and apricots, then cook for another minute. Set aside off the heat.
In a blender, combine the pomegranate juice, red wine vinegar, sugar, Dijon mustard, salt, pepper, allspice and olive oil. Blend until well combined.
In a large bowl, arrange the arugula. Top the greens with the sauteed pear mixture, then the crumbled goat cheese. Serve the vinaigrette on the side. Makes 10 servings.