Turkey & Most of the Trimmings
Turkey and Dressingby Eleanor Bradshaw
Photographed on Fiesta Dinnerware
Whether you're a novice at preparing a holiday meal or an old hand, Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner can be daunting. Even if you are able to delegate preparation of some of the dishes to friends and relatives, more than likely you will be responsible for the basics; that is, the turkey, the dressing (that's stuffing to you non-Southerners) and the gravy.
And since friends and families like to get together for these dinners, you will no doubt find yourself cooking for more people than you are accustomed to. Cooking a meal for a comparatively large number of people is a challenge for most of us, unless you happen to be regularly employed as a quartermaster cook. The trickiest part of such a meal can be getting everything to the table, hot and ready to eat, at the same time. Many of us face this task with only four burners and one oven, so coordination and timing are important.
Selecting the turkey:The "rule" stated by some authorities is three-quarters to one pound of turkey per serving; so if you are expecting 10 guests with healthy appetites that would mean you buy a 7- to 10-pound bird, right? Wrong. I don't know about your crowd, but I'd have a riot on my hands if I presented my Thanksgiving regulars with a bird that size. There are two reasons I ignore that rule:
Okay, so that decided, should you buy fresh or frozen? If you know you can get a fresh turkey no more than a few days before you need it then, by all means, buy a fresh one. Some meat markets let you reserve a fresh turkey. If, however, you show up on Tuesday and discover that all the fresh turkeys have been gobbled up (couldn't resist the pun) and no more are available, you have a problem. Frozen turkeys take a long time to thaw. In an emergency, you can use the cold water method, but it's messy and troublesome. Quoting the Butterball people: "To speed thawing, place breast down in cold water, changing water every 30 minutes. Allow 30 minutes per pound. DO NOT THAW AT ROOM TEMPERATURE."
You can avoid all that by simply making sure that you buy your turkey early enough for it to thaw in your refrigerator.
Fresh or frozen, it doesn't matter a whole lot really. I've cooked many of each, and either can be excellent. I think it depends as much on the individual turkey, not to mention the individual cook, as anything else.
Roasting the turkeyI hope I won't disappoint too many of you by not including instructions for stuffing, trussing and roasting your turkey. I stuffed a turkey only once, and that was on the occasion of my first Thanksgiving dinner. I was an over-eager neophyte determined to roast the perfect turkey. Stuffing is the traditional method, but I had to worry about whether the dressing was getting hot enough to prevent our all coming down with food poisoning, while at the same time fretting that the turkey was drying out. The poor bird was bristling with meat thermometers. And I ended up having to make a side pan of dressing anyway which, by the way, is every bit as tasty. A turkey would have to have a body cavity the size of a beach ball to accommodate the amount of dressing it takes both to feed my guests and be available for leftovers. (As you can tell, leftovers are important to me.)
The Butterball people say that the most often asked question on their Turkey Talk-Line (1-800-BUTTERBALL or 1-800-288-8372) is "How long do I cook it?" Here is their table, which I completely endorse, for thawing and roasting (stuffed, if you must, and unstuffed):
The times given in this table assume that you are roasting your turkey in an uncovered roasting pan at 325°F.
There are a number of ways to determine if your turkey is done:
You can use one, some or all these methods, but don't expect your perfectly roasted turkey to look like they do on television and in magazines -- that's artwork, not reality.
More roasting tips
The all-important timing:Now, this is important: Let's say you want to put dinner on the table around two o'clock in the afternoon and you are cooking a 20-pound unstuffed turkey. Do the math, and you'll see that your turkey should be in the oven no later than ten o'clock in the morning.
Okay, so your pies are all baked and you readied the bread for the dressing the day before. Here's the drill:
Turkey dinner side dishes
Holiday dessert recipes:
Some cooks prefer to take full responsibility for preparing the meal in exchange for the cleanup by others. Don't feel shame if your kitchen looks like it has been shelled.
Turkey Dinner BuffetIf you have too many dishes for your table, set up a buffet so people can line up and help themselves. And (again, this isn't the way they do it in the movies) matters will be simplified enormously if you carve the turkey in the kitchen before it gets to the table. That way your family and guests don't have to sit around watching the carver perform while all the food gets cold.
Most every familys' holiday meal is a law unto itself. You may enjoy dishes that are unique to your table, and your meal preparation routine may differ in scope or scale to the one described above, but holiday meals are very special to all of us.
There are links below to two kinds of dressing -- my favorite Cornbread Dressing with Giblet Gravy, and an excellent Southwestern Cornbread Dressing.
We at Texas Cooking wish you the happiest of holidays and the most successful holiday meals.
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