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Thanksgiving is about classic customs, so keep it simple

Nov. 17, 2012 @ 11:34 PM

Year after year, the glossy food magazines scream that you have to tart up your turkey and pimp out your pumpkin pie. But the truth is, when it comes to Thanksgiving, most of us don't want exciting, new-fangled dishes. We 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." 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. Remember the year you departed from family tradition by putting walnuts in the stuffing? Or the time you skipped Grandma's Jell-O mold? Didn't go so well, did it?

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 European butter and the crispest apples you can find. Make your cornbread stuffing with real eggs and butter and get the andouille from the local specialty shop. 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" and most recently the editor of "The Essential James Beard Cookbook." 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. Once a year you're going to roast a turkey. Would it kill you to buy a nice one?"

And remember that little things -- things that take no time at all -- 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 5 minutes to make it? It's just little things like that that make it a special meal."

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. You don't want four starchy, creamy, buttery things, as delicious as that sounds."

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 real butter. Forget about Uncle Morty's high blood pressure and salt the food until it tastes good. Use real sugar in the desserts.

"It's Thanksgiving," Sifton says. "You can have a salad tomorrow."

If you're still looking for just the right dishes or recipes for your Thanksgiving dinner, consider these:

CIDER-BRINED TURKEY WITH SAGE GRAVY

Start to finish: 2 1/2 to 3 hours (plus brining)

Makes a 12- to 14-pound turkey with gravy

For the turkey:

12- to 14-pound turkey

1/2 gallon apple cider

1/2 cup kosher salt

1/2 cup packed brown sugar

1/2 cup minced fresh sage

1 tablespoon crushed black peppercorns

For the gravy:

1/4 cup white wine

2 cups low-sodium chicken or turkey broth

3 tablespoons instant flour, such as Wondra

3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh sage

Salt and ground black pepper

Place a 2 1/2 -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 F. 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 2 1/2 hours, or until the temperature of the breast reaches 160 F and the thighs reach 170 F. If the turkey begins to darken too much, over it loosely with foil.

Transfer the turkey to a serving platter, wrap with foil, then set a couple layer 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 stovetop (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.

Nutrition information per serving: 420 calories; 170 calories from fat (40 percent of total calories); 19 g fat (5 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 185 mg cholesterol; 4 g carbohydrate; 0 g fiber; 2 g sugar; 56 g protein; 480 mg sodium.

PEACH CRANBERRY SAUCE

Start to finish: 15 minutes

Servings: 6

12-ounce bag fresh cranberries

10-ounce bag frozen peaches, chopped

Zest and juice of 2 oranges

3/4 cup sugar

Pinch salt

In a medium saucepan over medium heat, combine all ingredients. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the cranberries pop and the mixture has reduced to a thick sauce, about 10 minutes. Allow to cool.

Nutrition information per serving: 130 calories; 0 calories from fat (0 percent of total calories); 0 g fat (0 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 0 mg cholesterol; 33 g carbohydrate; 3 g fiber; 30 g sugar; 1 g protein; 25 mg sodium.

SOUR CREAM AND CHIVE MASHED POTATOES

Start to finish: 45 minutes

Servings: 8

4 pounds red potatoes

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature

1 cup sour cream

Salt and ground black pepper

1/3 cup chopped fresh chives

Peel half of the potatoes. Place of the potatoes in a large pot, then add enough water to cover them by 1 inch. Cover the pan and set over medium-high. Bring the water to a simmer and cook until tender, about 20 to 25 minutes. Thoroughly drain the potatoes, then return them to the pot.

Set the pot over low heat and cook for 1 to 2 minutes, shaking or stirring the potatoes to dry them. Using a masher, roughly mash the potatoes, then stir in the butter and sour cream. Season with salt and pepper, then stir in the chives.

Nutrition information per serving: 310 calories; 150 calories from fat (48 percent of total calories); 17 g fat (10 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 45 mg cholesterol; 37 g carbohydrate; 4 g fiber; 2 g sugar; 5 g protein; 290 mg sodium.

HERB CRUSTED SWEET POTATOES

Start to finish: 45 minutes

Servings: 8

4 pounds sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch-thick slices

Salt and ground black pepper

1 cup panko breadcrumbs

1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme

1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary

1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter, melted

Heat the oven to 350 F. Coat a large casserole dish or a 9-by-13-inch baking pan with cooking spray.

Place the potatoes in a large saucepan and add enough water to cover by 1 inch. Add 2 teaspoons of salt and bring to a boil. Cook until firm-tender, 12 to 15 minutes. Drain the potatoes, then spread them in an even layer in the prepared casserole dish or baking pan.

In a small bowl, combine 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon black pepper, the panko, thyme, rosemary and sage. Sprinkle over the sweet potatoes. Drizzle the melted butter over the crumbs and bake for 30 minutes, or until golden brown and tender.

Nutrition information per serving: 260 calories; 50 calories from fat (19 percent of total calories); 6 g fat (3.5 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 15 mg cholesterol; 47 g carbohydrate; 7 g fiber; 12 g sugar; 4 g protein; 380 mg sodium.

SAUSAGE PECAN STUFFING

Start to finish: 1 hour

Servings: 8

12 ounces loose Italian sausage meat (hot or sweet)

1 large yellow onion, chopped

2 carrots, finely diced

2 stalks celery, diced

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

3/4 cup chopped toasted pecans

12-ounce bag seasoned stuffing cubes

2 eggs

2 1/2 cups low-sodium chicken or turkey broth

Heat the oven to 350 F. Coat a large casserole dish or 9-by-13-inch baking pan with cooking spray.

In a large skillet medium-high heat, saute the sausage meat, breaking it up as it cooks and browns, about 8 to 10 minutes. Add the onion, carrots, celery, salt and black pepper. Cook for another 6 to 8 minutes, or until the onions are soft and translucent.

In a large bowl, combine the sausage mixture with the pecans and stuffing cubes. In a medium bowl, beat the eggs until foamy, then whisk in the broth. Pour the egg and broth mixture over the stuffing mixture and gently stir to thoroughly mix. Spoon into the prepared casserole dish or baking pan and bake for 30 minutes, or until browned and cooked through.

Nutrition information per serving: 340 calories; 130 calories from fat (38 percent of total calories); 14 g fat (2.5 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 60 mg cholesterol; 38 g carbohydrate; 4 g fiber; 5 g sugar; 16 g protein; 870 mg sodium.

ARUGULA PEAR SALAD WITH POMEGRANATE VINAIGRETTE AND GOAT CHEESE

Start to finish: 15 minutes

Servings: 10

1 tablespoon butter

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

3 large pears, cored and sliced

1/2 cup dried cranberries

1/2 cup sliced dried apricots

1/2 cup pomegranate juice

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

2 tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

Pinch of ground allspice

1/4 cup olive oil

10-ounce container baby arugula

4 ounces 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.

Nutrition information per serving: 190 calories; 90 calories from fat (47 percent of total calories); 10 g fat (3 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 10 mg cholesterol; 25 g carbohydrate; 4 g fiber; 18 g sugar; 3 g protein; 180 mg sodium.

MAPLE PUMPKIN PIE WITH CINNAMON-MAPLE WHIPPED CREAM

Start to finish: 1 hour 15 minutes

Servings: 8

For the pie:

9-inch prepared deep-dish pie crust in a pan

15-ounce can pumpkin puree

1 cup grade B maple syrup

1 cup heavy cream

4 eggs

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon dried ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

Pinch salt

For the whipped cream:

1 cup heavy cream

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 cup sugar

Heat the oven to 350 F. Place the pie crust on a baking sheet.

To make the pie filling, in a medium bowl, whisk together the pumpkin puree, maple syrup, heavy cream, eggs, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and salt. Pour into the prepared pie crust. Bake for 50 to 60 minutes, or until the center is just barely set. Set on a rack to cool completely.

When ready to serve, make the whipped cream. In a medium bowl, whisk together the heavy cream, cinnamon and maple sugar until the cream forms soft peaks. Serve alongside the pie.

Nutrition information per serving: 530 calories; 310 calories from fat (58 percent of total calories); 35 g fat (16 g saturated; 0.5 g trans fats); 170 mg cholesterol; 50 g carbohydrate; 3 g fiber; 28 g sugar; 6 g protein; 220 mg sodium.

The Herald-Dispatch

HUNTINGTON -- If you're having troubles with your holiday meal preparation, here are some tip lines that can help.

USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline: 888-674-6854, www.fsis.usda.gov: A wide assortment of useful storage, handling and preparation information, as well as information on how to send food gifts safely to military members.

Butterball Turkey Talk-Line: 800-BUTTERBALL, www.butterball.com: Talk turkey with the experts, even on Thanksgiving Day.

Reynolds Turkey Tips Line: 800-745-4000, www.reynoldskitchens.com: Cooking using Reynolds products.

Honeysuckle White: 800-810-6325, www.honeysucklewhite.com: Pre-recorded answers to turkey prep questions. Web site includes recipes for leftovers.

Crisco Pie Hotline: 877-367-7438, www.crisco.com: Answers to common pie questions and time-saving hints.

Foster Farms Hotline: 800-255-7227, www.fosterfarms.com: Covers a variety of methods of turkey cooking -- roasting, grilling, smoking, and rotisserie.

National Turkey Federation: www.eatturkey.com: 900-plus recipes.

Ocean Spray Helpline: 800-662-3263, www.oceanspray.com: All you need to know about cranberries -- fresh or canned.

King Arthur Flour: 802-649-3717, www.kingarthurflour.com: Baking tips, including secrets of perfect pie crusts.

Shady Brook Farms' Dial-a-Chef Holiday Hotline: 888-723-4468, www.shadybrookfarms.com: Meal prep and entertaining tips, as well as an online Kids Zone.

Perdue Farms: 800-473-7383, www.perdue.com: Anything you want to know about turkeys including roasting, carving and stuffing.

Betty Crocker: 888-ASK-BETTY, www.bettycrocker.com: A comprehensive help line, featuring answers about everything from pies and cakes to gravy.

Fleischmann's Yeast Baker's Help Line: 800-777-4959, www.breadworld.com: Carb fans rejoice: Get your questions about breads and rolls answered here.

Nestle Toll House Baking Information Line: 800-637-8537, www.verybestbaking.com: An online holiday magazine, tips and recipes for everything from Toll House Chocolate Cheesecake to Creamy Pumpkin Soup.

Hershey's Consumer Hot Line: 800-468-1714, www.hersheys.com: Chocolate-y questions and answers.

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