At around 11 AM Wednesday morning, I found out that I was cooking Thanksgiving dinner.
Now, in order to tell you this story, I have to tell you another one.
One year ago, my wife was eight and a half months pregnant with our third child. Her pregnancy had been very difficult, with lots of pain in her back, and she had become more and more miserable as the time passed. Needless to say, she was not in any mood to cook a Thanksgiving dinner. She wasn’t even in a mood to go anywhere, so going to her mother’s for Thanksgiving also wasn’t an option.
Now, just a few months previous I had started watching this show on the Food Network called Good Eats. I’d discovered it while channel surfing when I came across the host, Alton Brown, lying on top of a huge foam piece of lemon merangue pie. I soon became a dedicated watcher, because cooking had always interested me and the show is very funny and presents straightforward, common-sense recipes – none of this “stuffed quail with mango chutney” stuff.
And Good Eats had a special on making Thanksgiving dinner. I’d seen it several times, and thought…well, the recipes I’d tried hadn’t been that hard and had tasted great…yeah, the dinner would be very involved and have lots of steps, but it didn’t look hard – I wouldn’t be trying to make caramel or a soufflé or anything silly like that. It looked doable.
So I decided I was going to make Thanksgiving dinner for my poor pregnant wife. I took tons of notes, and even made up a schedule so that I would know what to do when. The most involved part was the turkey, since I had to buy it on Sunday so it would be thawed on Wednesday so I could brine it overnight and cook it on Thursday.
But the result was worth it – the meal turned out fantastic. We had turkey, cornbread pudding and mashed potatoes. It was so good I couldn’t believe I had cooked it. And my wife mercifully didn’t have much back pain that day, so the day overall was very good…just the kind of break she needed going into the last two weeks of her pregnancy. She raved about the meal to all her friends and relatives, and it became well known that I could make a Thanksgiving dinner. I ended up making the same dinner again a few months later when we had a friend in from out of town.
Fast forward to this year. It had been my understanding all week that we would be packing up the three chilluns and taking them over to their grandmother’s house for Thanksgiving. Now, my mother-in-law is a wonderful woman (seriously!) but she is getting on in years and is becoming less capable. So Wednesday morning she calls my wife and tells her that she doesn’t feel up to the task of cooking Thanksgiving dinner this year. My wife informs me that it’s up to me.
Now, I don’t mind cooking, but this was a bit short notice. Not only would I have to cook the dinner, but we’d also have to get the house clean enough for company. I didn’t know if I was going to have the time necessary to prepare the turkey.
So I went shopping. Needless to say, the grocery store was a madhouse. The sugar/flour/spice aisle was almost completely stripped. Fortunately, I had most of the spices I needed left over from the last time I’d made the dinner. Also, very fortunately, the grocery store still had a good supply of turkeys, and they had turkeys that were fresh rather than frozen, so thawing wouldn’t be necessary. I ended up getting a fresh 15.5-pound bird. I managed to buy everything on my list, sometimes getting the very last one of a certain item, like the stuffing mix I used.
I also went to the hardware store and bought a bunch of cleaning supplies and a five gallon plastic bucket to brine the turkey in.
Now, here’s how brining works: you create a very salty solution with some other seasonings (I use black peppercorns, allspice berries and some crystallized ginger). You soak the turkey in the brine for half an hour per pound, and as the bird soaks, the bird’s cells absorb the salty water. This causes the bird to become more juicy and more flavorful. Thus, a 15.5-pound bird should soak for about seven hours and 45 minutes – in other words, overnight. The problem is that you must turn the bird over halfway through the brine, so I had to set my alarm clock for 3:30 in the morning to flip the turkey. You also must get the turkey out of the brine at the proper time, for if you let it soak too long, the turkey will taste salty. I made that mistake once.
This time instead of slavishly following all of Alton Brown’s recipes, I mixed things up just a bit. While his cornbread pudding is very tasty, it’s also time-consuming to make because it has to be baked for an hour. The turkey was going to be monopolizing the oven, so I needed a different recipe.
Last Thanksgiving, after dinner was done, I was looking through the channel guide and I came across a special called Rachael Ray’s Thanksgiving in 60. I watched it and was intrigued. I thought that she used some very clever tricks to put a Thanksgiving dinner on the table in just one hour, including one where she cooked a stuffing on the stove, then baked it in the oven for a short time to crisp the top, making it taste like it had been baked through. (Longtime fans will know that this is a classic Rachael trick.)
So I did the same thing. I used this recipe. I left out the apples (apples in stuffing? blech), and I didn’t make muffins out of the stuffing…I thought that was kind of silly. But the basic stuffing turned out great, and kept the oven free for the turkey and the apple pie.
I also made mashed potatoes, using six big baking potatoes, two cups of heavy cream, and two sticks of butter, as well as some salt and garlic powder (I forgot to get garlic at the store, can you believe that?) They also turned out great.
But the thing I’m proudest of is the gravy I made. Last year I used a packet. (Give me a break, it was my first time.) Later I tried making sawmill gravy, which didn’t turn out that great. This time I did it right. I made a béchamel sauce in a heavy saucepan, and I deglazed the drippings from the turkey that were left in the roasting pan. I added the drippings to the béchamel and cooked it for a bit to thicken it and it turned out wonderful.
Between making the dinner and cleaning up (which required things like scrubbing crayon off the walls and removing spots from the carpet) I only got about two hours of sleep last night. In fact, when the alarm went off to flip the brining turkey, I hadn’t gone to bed yet.
But it was worth it. The dinner turned out fantastic and everybody had a wonderful time.
Dallas lost, though.