Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Blue Collar Thanksgiving

By now you probably have your Thanksgiving holiday all planned out, and the feast just hours away from the starting line. But here are some tips, perhaps for next year, or better yet, for all the people stuck working on the holiday and won't be partaking of the grandest feast of the year until the weekend.

This little piece is really dedicated to them, the folks who will not actually be sitting around a crowded family table flinging mashed potatoes at the kids' table, or spiked nog at older relatives later in the evening when political conversations inevitably make their way into the inebriation of the after-party. This is for the blue collar folks who may be eating alone this year, or perhaps with just their significant other who also just worked a weeks worth of hours in two days, to honor the gods of consumerism. (Let's not leave out here too, the thankless hero's like emergency workers who respond to your deep fried turkey fiasco, or the gas station attendant who makes sure you get to grandma's with that one last-minute ingredient that was forgotten.)

A lot of folks, particularly in recent years, have gone all sorts of gourmet for the year's grandest feast, but for myself, nostalgia meets with much easier ways to prepare a meal than some hot mess you try to pull off from this season's latest cooking show. Now don't get me wrong, I have a few graduates of the Culinary Institute of America in my family (who all too often had to work on Thanksgiving anyway) so I am no stranger to good, complex recipes, unique spins on old classics, and a healthy reverence for the farm to table concept. But typically, I save my gourmet experimentation for just about any other day of the year. On Thanksgiving, I want it easy, I want it tasty, and I want it to remind me the dinners Grandma used to make. Let's skip the fresh green beans for the canned ones here, in other words.

The Bird

The centerpiece of any Thanksgiving table is the turkey, of course. Largely ignored by the American consumer through the rest of the year, but the ubiquitous image of festive over-indulgence to top off the season with the thanks of bountiful harvests of yesteryear, when man lived much more intimately tied to the land.

There are some upper-crust sorts who will insist on nothing less than a free-range bird that costs more per pound than the price of gold. There are also those who will insist that going out and hunting their own is the only way to truly celebrate the traditions of the holiday in full. (And I do have to admit that wild turkey is the bee's knees.) But most Americans simply don't have the time or the money to go high-end.

We pick up a frozen factory bird steeply discounted with our supermarket value card, after vigilantly searching the flyers to get the absolute best bargain down to the penny per pound. This is the category I fall into most years.

Oven roasting the bird is nowhere near as intimidating as it may seem to the beginner. The packages usually instruct you on the proper temp to set the oven, and how long it will take in hours per pound. There is also that cute little plastic popper injected into the breast to make the process nearly foolproof. (Beware though, I once had a "popper" that never triggered, even though the bird was clearly done.) A quick YouTube search will show you how to make sure your bird is cooked properly, and maybe even give you a few extra tricks and tips on how to kick it up a notch in technique.

The next thing you want to do is let the turkey rest once it is out of the oven. This is probably the biggest mistake that most people make when it comes to just about any meat, not allowing it to rest before attacking it with the knife. The resting period not only allows for a bit of extra cooking time, but tightens up the flavor juices that will make all the difference between a succulent piece of meat, and flavorless, unintended jerky. Not to mention you will burn the crap out of your fingers as all the flavor runs out onto the carving board.

Here are some tips from the Culinary Institute of America on how to finally butcher the bird when the time is right.

Now all of that is pretty straightforward and traditional, but in this day and age, things can be anything but traditional, as much as we may long for nostalgia.

Alternative to Cooking The Bird

There was one year where I found myself without an oven to roast a turkey. What was I to do?!

I suppose I could have just gotten some turkey coldcuts at the deli, or a TV dinner and called it a night, but I hated the idea of missing out on the real bargain of a whole turkey. So a new method was employed on the fly.

Instead of roasting, then carving the turkey, I attacked the process in reverse. I let the turkey thaw and then butchered it down before cooking it. I did not have an oven, but I did have an electric frying pan. If you are cooking for a whole big family, this might be a drawback. But if you are cooking for yourself, and maybe another person or two, you will have plenty of bird on the plate with this method. Even without a large electric frying pan, you can still do a piece or two at a time this way.

This meant that I could cook the portions I needed and could store the rest to cook later. I found that all of the parts fit perfectly into my large electric frying pan, except for the breast which I left un-split and still on the bone to be pan roasted later for sandwiches. Another drawback here was that pan roasting, covered, I didn't get that golden crispy skin. I did however, have a nice crust of twigs of thyme along with other herbs, seasonings, and aromatics. The lack of a golden crust was hidden beneath the gravy which I made right there in the same pan later. Another huge bonus was that it did not take hours upon hours for the turkey to roast. In less than an hour I had gigantic thighs, wings, and drumsticks all ready to serve just as the other fixins were finishing up.

A turkey wing is about the size of a chicken drumstick, perfect for a kid, or perhaps that elderly grandma who is too old to cook, and her appetite is not what it once was. For myself, I gorged on an enormous, succulent, herbed and seasoned turkey thigh smothered in gravy. Simply de-boning all of this rich, succulent and luxurious dark meat after it is cooked is also an option of course, to get the proper portion size to serve.

As mentioned above, the breast, still on the bone, was reserved to be pan roasted later before carving from the bone, for tomorrow's sandwiches. The drumsticks might also be reserved for later for extra meaty soups, creamed turkey on toast, and so forth. Make sure you save all the bones from the carcass for the soup stock later too!

So all in all, butchering the bird before cooking actually made it all a lot quicker and more manageable if you are feeding a smaller family. If it's just yourself, you might even simply pan roast a single thigh, and cook up the rest of the pieces later as desired. I might also add that it was the most tender, juicy turkey I have ever eaten. So much so that even when I had an oven the following year, I still went with this pan-roasting method instead.

The Gravy

This is the one place where I don't go directly off the shelf. Of course, you could just buy a few jars of baby food-like tasteless gravy, but if you are actually cooking some bird, you are much better off taking the extra step of using the pan juices and little bits stuck to the pan to make a quick gravy from scratch.

The herbs and seasonings I used on the turkey give an aromatic depth to this nectar of the turkey gods. All the fats, juices and scraping should be reserved, but then skim the fat off the top before it hardens. Meanwhile, chop up those giblets that so many people just wind up throwing in the trash. Take out the turkey liver, but the rest you can cook in the pan, with some onion, carrots, celery, and perhaps some herbs to create more stock. You might want to also buy some extra stock to keep on hand for when you are creating the final product, though water can be used to stretch the stock you have already made now as well.  All in all, more stock means more gravy.

To actually create the gravy itself you want to begin with a roux. A fancy way of saying we are going to fry flour in turkey fat. Some insist on proper measurements, particularly to avoid lumpy gravy. Stir or whisk constantly until your roux becomes a nice golden brown, then start adding your strained liquid stock until you have achieved the right consistency. The gravy will continue to thicken upon standing. Adding more stock or water might help if you don't nail it the first time. A dash of poultry seasoning and a little cracked black pepper will also make a more sophisticated depth of flavor to your gravy. Alternately, you can leave out the aromatics altogether and leave it a pure tasting turkey gravy.

Gravy making can really be an art, so google some videos and experiment a little to build confidence and hone in on your own perfect gravy recipe.

All The Fixins

While the turkey and the gravy are the real centerpiece of the Thanksgiving feast, it seems all the rest is what we really crave. The stuffing, the taters, the cranberry, even the veggies. Now here again, there are all sorts of gourmet ways to go about this. But today we are talking about making a meal that is easy, nostalgic, and good for those of us who won't be feasting with 30 pain-in -the-neck family members upsetting your digestion.

Stuffing (or dressing as they call it down south.)

Probably the most sought after dish on the table. There are plenty of really top-notch recipes out there for this, but I don't have the time to let bread sit out to get to just-right staleness to create my own croutons and so forth. So Stove-Top it is. I don't recommend store-brand stuffing (bland), but at the same time, those gourmet bags of dried bread don't really seem to bring any more satisfaction to the plate than the mainstay corporate brand.

The main trick here is to make sure the butter is incorporated thoroughly, and maybe even add a smidgen extra. You might also fancy-it-up a little by mixing flavors such as a box of sage flavored and a turkey flavored, or a turkey and a cornbread flavored, and so forth. You can even make it seem like you slaved for hours on a secret family recipe by adding a few extras such as crushed walnuts, raisins, maybe some chopped figs, whatever catches your fancy. I saw a little tub of mixed cashews, walnuts, and pecans with dried cranberries and some other little nibbles in there, all pre-mixed. Shaking some of that in there to the boil might give the impression that this was an old family recipe. 


Who doesn't love mashed potatoes? Especially when they are the real reason behind all that work you did on the gravy. Hand mashed? Sure, you could. But quick and easy means instant flakes from the box. I add a bit less liquid than called for to give them a thicker consistency. No one really likes runny mashed potatoes. I also use evaporated milk for a richer flavor. You might also like to whip in some sour cream, cream cheese, chives, garlic powder, cracked pepper, etc. Don't omit the salt here though, even if you are trying to keep the meal low sodium as possible. Don't go too crazy trying to add extra flavor to the spuds either though, lest you start to fight with the flavor of the gravy.

Sweet Potatoes

I love to split a fresh sweet potato and roast it in the oven, but most years its the canned yams on the table. Some people really like to do the whole marshmallow thing on top too, but I don't really care for that. Instead, I smash them down into a casserole dish, top with pats of butter all over, a drizzle of honey, then molasses, sprinkle with cinnamon, and crumble over with brown sugar. No marshmallows necessary, and I think this might be a running tie for me between those and the stuffing as my favorite dish.


Not usually the star attraction of the feast, but they do help break up the heavyness of the meal. Green beans are a long time favorite, though I am not a big fan of the retro green-bean casserole hot mess. Some canned green beans with a little butter, salt and pepper reminds me of the days when grandma thought all veggies had to come from a can, and there is nothing wrong with tasting that nostalgia here. On the other hand, you could go a little more fancy with some frozen green beans, maybe sauteed with a little olive oil and crushed garlic.

Corn, again you could go canned or frozen, with a little butter. But a little sprinkle of sugar in there, just a hint, can make that corn a true sweet corn.

Carrots. Often used more as part of the aromatics in making other things, it can be a sweet side dish as well. I like to fry some baby carrots in a pan with some butter and a drizzle of honey until lightly browned but still on the crunchy side as they will continue to soften on the way to the table
Broccoli and/or cauliflower. Fine with just some butter, salt and pepper. Even better smothered in some cheese sauce.

Butternut squash is a good traditional honorable mention here too.

Pick any or all veggie ideas to round out your plate depending on time and budget, as always in the blue collar world.

Odd and Ends

Cranberry sauce tops this category. Other times of the year for different recipes I will go out of my way to make a nice cranberry compote or chutney, maybe with a hint of orange zest. But that is one thing you won't find on my Turkey Day table. If anything says nostalgia in the whole meal it is the gelatinous can of cranberry, impossible to get out whole unless you are grandma, sliced into discs, and served in a little glass boat. It still makes the best turkey sandwich condiment later too.

Pimento stuffed olives, and little sweet gherkins always fill in the little gaps between bigger plates on the table too.


You mean dinner after dinner? So many to choose from, so many preferences. But for me, pumpkin pie has to make an appearance, with Cool Whip. Not whipped cream, Cool Whip, just like grandma had a freezer full of. Pecan Pie happens to be another of my favorites, though not owing to any southern traditions in my family really. Apple pie, well, I don't like the flaky crust on top. Give me the old-fashioned Dutch apple pie with plenty of cinnamon. plump raisins in there, with a brown sugar crumble topping and a drizzle of icing.

Ice cream is great, but should be kept simple to as not to overpower the palate. An authentic French vanilla (that actually has no vanilla at all) which I find Stewart's has the best, even if you have to wait 20 mins to pay for ten bucks petrol at the pump. Turkey Hill brand mint chocolate chip is hands down the best with their quality chocolate shavings in there, rather than those hard nibs that wind up like pieces of plastic in your mouth long after the ice cream has melted. The mint is refreshing after a heavy meal too. Butter pecan is another seasonal favorite. I tend to skip chocolate ice cream in favor of some other desserts like chocolate dipped dried fruit, chocolate chip cookies, brownies, a cup of hot cocoa with a nudge of cinnamon or mint liquor, or something along those lines anyway.

Well, there you have it folks, the store-bought Thanksgiving feast. Most of what is written here is not so much about cooking as re-heating and serving. Almost all if it can be done in the microwave in fact. Just because you are alone, or maybe with just a friend, or had to postpone the feast a few days, there is no reason not to celebrate and give thanks with a bountiful meal that doesn't take two days to put together.

Happy Thanksgiving!