YOU Magazine - November 2007 - Think Outside the Bird: Trimmings for the Ideal Thanksgiving Meal By Kirk Leins
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Think Outside the Bird:
Trimmings for the Ideal Thanksgiving Meal
By Kirk Leins

Think Outside the Bird: - Trimmings for the Ideal Thanksgiving Meal - By Kirk Leins

Thanksgiving is almost the perfect holiday. Unlike many celebrations, the emphasis is less about the material aspects, and more about the day itself. Simply put, Thanksgiving is about reconnecting with loved ones, eating great food, and watching a few football games. The one blemish, however, is the pressure we feel to flawlessly execute a great Thanksgiving dinner.

Several months ago, when I began thinking about this year's Thanksgiving article, I carefully contemplated which angle I would take. My first thought was to put forth an editorial on how to roast a succulent bird. But I sort of did that last year. I also thought about mixing it up a bit and showing you how to deep-fry a turkey. But that would have required most of you to purchase added equipment, and who wants to do that? Then, it hit me. Giving you great Thanksgiving advice didn't require me to think outside the box. I needed to think outside the bird!

Your Bird
It's no secret that your turkey will be the centerpiece of your Thanksgiving table. It's also no secret that the quality of the turkey is the primary measurement by which your Thanksgiving meal will be judged. What is a secret? Cooking a turkey isn't all that difficult.

The sad part is that many people concentrate so much on their bird, they end up botching the other components of their meal. This article will attempt to right this wayward ship with a few delicious side dish recipes, as well as some overall side dish advice. But, before we go there, here are a few turkey tips to ease your mind.

Turkey Tips

  • Opt for a fresh turkey over a frozen one. The overall quality is better, and it alleviates the arduous task of defrosting. Just don't forget to place an order with your butcher in plenty of time before the holiday.

  • Brine your turkey. This simple process not only adds flavor to your bird, it also makes it very juicy. Last year's Thanksgiving article contains a great turkey brine recipe.

  • Allow your turkey to come to room temperature prior to roasting. Not doing so will wreak havoc with your cooking time. Minimally, your bird should be taken out of the fridge when you wake up Thanksgiving morning. Bigger birds should be taken out the night before, right before you go to bed.

  • As soon as you unwrap your bird, make sure to remove the giblets and wash it well (inside and out) under cold running water. Dry completely using paper towels. Also, be sure to practice due diligence in safely handling your raw turkey.

  • Don't stuff your turkey. This practice will lengthen your cooking time and could result in a dry bird. It also yields what I consider to be soggy stuffing, lacking in texture. Opt instead for filling the turkey cavity with fresh herbs, halved lemons, and roughly chopped aromatics like onion and garlic. These additions add great flavor to the meat without affecting your cooking time. Don't worry, I'll show you how to deal with your stuffing in a bit.

  • Brush your bird with melted butter, and season it liberally prior to roasting it.

  • There are many different methods for roasting a turkey, but what's most important in terms of keeping it juicy is the careful and judicious monitoring of the bird's interior temperature. Turkey breast is at its best when cooked to 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Thighs need to be somewhere in the range of 170-175 degrees.

  • Remember to let your bird rest for 20 minutes before carving it. Not doing so will cause all the wonderful juices to run out, as opposed to remaining within the meat.

So, now that we've gotten that out of the way, it's time to address the issue of making great side dishes. The following are my opinions and advice regarding some of the more traditional accoutrements to a Thanksgiving meal.

Mashed Potatoes
Is there anyone who doesn't love mashed potatoes? I believe the answer to this question is the reason why most people have their own favorite method for making them. That being said, I've decided to bypass giving out my recipe. But that doesn't mean I don't have some mashed potato advice.

Regardless of the type of potatoes you use, or your method for mashing them, I recommend giving careful thought to your choice of additional ingredients. While cheesy mashed potatoes are great, I don't think they're a good accompaniment to Thanksgiving dinner. It's a little too heavy for an already heavy meal. Opt instead for adding ingredients like roasted garlic or finely-chopped fresh herbs.

I also recommend making your mashed potatoes towards the end of your turkey's roasting time. Making them any earlier is not a great way to go, as they are at their best when served right away. Remember, your turkey has to rest for at least twenty minutes before carving. This should leave you plenty of time for tending to the taters.

If you make your mashed potatoes earlier than recommended, do not utilize a flame to keep them warm. This will either cause them to burn or get very oily. Instead, transfer your potatoes into a glass bowl placed over a large pot of lightly-simmering water and cover with aluminum foil. Do not allow the simmering water to touch the bottom of the bowl.

An important bit of gravy advice is to make plenty of it. There is almost nothing worse than running out of gravy halfway through your Thanksgiving meal. When it comes to the type of gravy you make, the variations are nearly endless, and most are pretty darn good. Gravy varies from region to region and can range from light and creamy, to dark and rich. It can include, or not include, wine or fresh herbs. My guess is that you will make your gravy similar to the version you grew up with. That's what I do.

One tip I'd like to leave you with is what to do in case your gravy turns out lumpy. First, don't freak out. Second, don't tell anyone. Third, pass it through a sieve into another saucepot or straight into your gravy boat. No one will ever know.

Green Bean Casserole
I hate to say it, but I utterly despise this dish. Not only does the combination of overly cooked green beans, canned cream of mushroom soup, and store-bought fried onions not sound good to me, it's an awfully heavy way to serve veggies next to some already heavy side dishes.

Do yourself a favor and go with a fresh green vegetable like haricot vert (French-style green beans) or asparagus, simply prepared. Steam your veggies lightly, and toss them in unsalted butter or olive oil, kosher salt, and a little citrus zest. Top them off with lightly-toasted almond slices, and you've got a delicious, healthy, and easy side dish.

Candied Yams with Marshmallows
While I like this dish far better than the green bean casserole, I do think we can do better than the traditional version.

To serve 6 people, you will need 4 large sweet potatoes or yams, peeled and cut into quarters. Place them into a baking dish. In a separate bowl, combine 1 to 1.5 cups of freshly squeezed orange juice, 1/2 C dark maple syrup, 2 tsp powder ginger, a few grinds of fresh nutmeg, and a pinch of salt. Pour the mixture over your sweet potatoes or yams, and dot with unsalted butter. Bake them in a 375 degree oven for 1 to 1.5 hours or until they are soft and golden. Make sure to baste your "tubers" every 15 minutes with the orange juice mixture.

I guarantee that my recipe for Candied Yams will be a home run. While they may not include marshmallows, they provide a sweet punch to the thanksgiving dinner without utilizing candy. I'm sorry, but I truly feel that marshmallows have no place in a Thanksgiving meal. I look at their addition the same as I do the addition of pineapple to pizza. It's not that I won't eat it. I just find it to be a superfluous and heavy-handed ingredient for this dish.

Cranberry Sauce and Corn Bread Stuffing
Here are a few more great recipes to accompany your Thanksgiving turkey. First up is cranberry sauce. I highly urge you to make this as the difference between homemade and store-bought cranberry sauce is monumental. This recipe couldn't be simpler, and it can be made several days prior to Thanksgiving, giving you one less thing to do in the kitchen that day.

Old-Fashioned Cranberry Sauce (Serves 4 to 6)

  • 1 C freshly-squeezed orange juice (3 oranges if doing it from scratch)
  • 1/4 C cold water
  • 1 C sugar
  • (1) 12 oz. bag of fresh cranberries
  • Zest of 1 orange
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1/2 Tsp ground ginger
  • Freshly ground nutmeg

In a saucepot, bring orange juice, water, and sugar to a boil. Stir to dissolve sugar. Add cranberries, orange zest, cinnamon stick, ground ginger, and nutmeg. Stir to incorporate, and reduce heat. Allow mixture to simmer uncovered for 15 to 20 minutes or until most of the cranberries have popped. Allow mixture to cool, transfer to an airtight container, and refrigerate overnight.

Cornbread and Sausage Stuffing (Serves 4 to 6)
  • 1 box cornbread mix, prepared two days in advance and cut into small cubes
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1 red bell pepper, chopped
  • 2 celery ribs, chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 3 Spanish chorizo or hot Italian sausages, removed from casings
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1 - 1.5 C chicken stock
  • 2 - 3 Tbsp fresh thyme, sage, or parsley, or a combination of all three
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large skillet, heat a Tbsp or so of olive oil until hot. Fry sausage, breaking it up with a wooden spoon, until fully browned. Transfer cooked sausage meat to a large bowl. In the same skillet, heat 2 Tbsp of olive oil until hot. Add onion, bell pepper, celery, and garlic. Season the veggies with salt and pepper, and sauté for 5 minutes. Transfer veggies to the same bowl with the sausage. To the bowl, add crumbled cornbread, beaten eggs, chicken stock, and herbs, and then season with salt and pepper. Using your hands, mix until fully incorporated. Grease a casserole dish with butter or non-stick spray, and transfer the stuffing mixture to the dish. Pack the stuffing loosely, and roast it in the oven for 30 to 40 minutes. For an extra-crispy top, place casserole under the broiler for a few minutes. Serve.

We've done it! We successfully focused on the periphery of our Thanksgiving meal without forgetting the importance of the turkey. I honestly feel it's just as important to focus of the spirit of this holiday without losing sight of the many reasons we have to be thankful. Doing so will not only set the tone of the day, it will also alleviate some of the pressure we feel to flawlessly execute our Thanksgiving meal. From YOU to you, have a happy and safe Thanksgiving holiday.

Kirk Leins has been cooking his entire life. No stranger to professional kitchens, he currently devotes most of his time to cooking instruction, food writing, and producing television. Kirk also provides his services as a personal chef in and around the Los Angeles area. He has made several TV appearances on both the national and local level, and is the Executive Chef for YOU Magazine. His free newsletter, The Everyday Gourmet, is available by contacting Kirk at

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