Last year, Priscilla Martel, a chef and cookbook author from Chester, was lucky enough to get a heritage turkey from friends who raise them in Rhode Island. When she went to pick it up, she found it was 25 pounds.
“I could barely lift it,” she says.
She and her husband, chef and restaurateur Charles van Over, jammed it into a roasting pan and started cooking it at 8 a.m.
“We’d never seen a turkey that big,” she says.
Then, at 10 a.m., there was a freak power outage.
“That had us scrambling for a solution for cooking the turkey. Friends in town offered up their oven, but the hot bird was too difficult to move. Charlie went to build a fire in our outdoor oven, but the beast wouldn’t fit through the opening. We contemplated hacking the bird into pieces and grilling it,” she says.
While they considered their options, the power came back on.
“I’m praying we get a smaller bird this year,” she says.
If award-winning chefs like Martel and van Over can sometimes struggle with Thanksgiving dinner, needless to say it’s possible the rest of us might run into difficulties as well. With that in mind, we asked some of our favorite chefs, foodies, and food bloggers about their Thanksgiving memories, recipes, and tips. Stuffing is a huge favorite with most. Jello salads and canned sweet potatoes, not so much. Turkeys tended to be the tricky part of the meal for most cooks, along with getting all the food to the table while it’s still hot. Here’s what they had to say.
Priscilla Martel: When the Turkeys Came to Call
Martel agrees that, even with a normal sized turkey, coordinating and cooking a full Thanksgiving meal can be complicated.
Her advice is to plan a menu that fits the number of people you are serving, and the capacity of your kitchen. If you need two turkeys and have only one oven, she recommends cooking one on the outdoor grill, or butterflying the turkeys so that they lie flat and can be baked on two shelves of your oven.
“Make as much as you can ahead of time,” she says. “Cranberry relish, dips for raw vegetables, and salad dressings can be made three days ahead. Side dishes like mashed potatoes or butternut squash can be made the day ahead. And any sort of dinner roll or pumpkin bread can be made up to a week ahead and frozen.”
She recommends making gravy ahead as well.
“Gravy, too, can be made ahead. Cut the wing tips off your bird. Roast them with the neck until they brown then simmer these in some chicken stock. This gives you a great gravy base,” she says. “After the bird has roasted, use this liquid to loosen the drippings in the pan to make your gravy.”
And don’t go crazy with the nibbles, “unless you are feeding a team of linebackers. In our family, everyone loves turkey with all the fixings so much that we hate to ruin our appetites before the main event.”
She recommends investing some time into making a good salad that is ready when your guests sit down.
“I start with crisp, bitter greens like frisé, chicory, and romaine with a mustard vinaigrette. Then slices of pear and crumbles of some kind of cheese. Toasted pecans or walnuts are nice accents. Pomegranates are in season and a few seeds finishes it off,” she says.
She recommends against stuffing the turkey.
“Instead we place aromatic seasonings inside the cavity of our turkey—some garlic, chopped celery, and a quartered lemon. We prepared our sausage and chestnut stuffing the day before. Then we bake it separately in a wide shallow baking dish before serving. Baking the stuffing separately is safe. It gives you more flexibility, but best of all, we can get a nice top crust on the stuffing, something that never happens when you bake it inside the bird,” she says.
The single most important trick she’s learned works only if you cook the stuffing separately from the bird—if you do it with a roasted turkey packed with stuff, it is a recipe for food poisoning, she says.
“Plan to have your turkey ready about an hour before your guests arrive. Remove it from the pan and place it on a baking sheet or platter. Then cover it with a big piece of aluminum foil. Cover that with a thick bath towel. Your turkey will stay hot for 1 to 1 ½ hours. Then you’ll have your oven free to heat side dishes or even bake a pie or two,” she says.
As for those pies, Martel is fussy about them. She only likes to eat them the day they are made.
“When I feel especially organized, I might bake an apple pie while the turkey rests,” she says.
The occasional food disaster notwithstanding, Martel says Thanksgiving is her favorite holiday.
“It’s all about family and friends gathered around an iconic meal,” she says, adding that sometimes unexpected guests stop in as well.
“Wild turkeys cross our lawn from time to time. One year, we put out cracked corn to invite them to join us,” she says. “On Thanksgiving Day that year, as if on cue, they appeared just as we sat down to eat. I hope the lucky flock wasn’t offended, but we enjoyed the irony of their visit.”
Find out more about Martel, who lives in Chester, at priscillamartel.com. She is currently working on a project called Bread Makes the Meal. Thursday, Nov. 17 is Home Made Bread day, and anyone who is interested can enter to win a baker’s dream kit from Emile Henry before that time, at priscillamartel.com/bread-makes-the-meal-recipe-contest/
Lee White: Looking Forward to Sandwiches the Next Day
Lee White’s favorite Thanksgiving memory is when she and her husband Doug just got married. They merged parents, children, in-laws, and White put herself in charge of the food, from Thanksgiving Eve through Turkey Day. The night before featured lasagna, salad, garlic bread, and, after the feast, children strewn all over the house in sleeping bags. And then, on Thanksgiving Day, another gargantuan meal.
“Then it got smaller. Parents couldn’t make the trips. They got sick. They died. Kids grew up, went to college, got married, had kids. Now there are no parents, my husband is gone, the grandchildren are in college, I’m in a condo,” she says.
Now the meal is served at White’s daughter-in-law’s house in Massachusetts and White still cooks about a third of the meal.
Her favorite? The sandwiches the next day: turkey, from-scratch cranberry sauce, fried stuffing, and hot gravy.
“The key, of course is the turkey, stuffing, and gravy,” she says.
White opts for lots of stuffing inside the turkey, and extra in a casserole. She bastes the turkey with a combination of wine and butter that she cooks in a pan (one stick of butter, half a cup of good white wine, reduced down). White likes Pepperidge Farms herbed stuffing mix, to which she adds butter-sauteed mushrooms (she says canned ones are fine here), celery, onions, walnuts, and warmed butter and water per the package directions.
When the turkey is done and on the counter, she leaves it under a foil tent for at least 20 minutes.
Then, it’s all hands on deck. Someone does the mashed potatoes, someone puts the vegetable and sweet potato gratin casserole in the buffet table, someone gets the cranberry sauce out, and White makes the gravy. And then someone is recruited to carve the turkey and spoon out the stuffing.
“Nothing has to be piping hot. I always forget the boiled onions. Only my husband liked them, so we don’t do them anymore. After the entrées, the grandchildren clean the tables and we all help do the dishes. After that, we have dessert,” she says. “Oh, yeah, we do have wine. Even the granddaughters can drink wine now. Mostly.”
She can’t remember any outright disasters, but admits to some of the memories being a bit murky.
“At someone else’s house, many years ago, there were Midori cocktails and the fancy turkey ideas—dark meat in one oven, white in another—didn’t work. Most of the adults were pretty drunk because we hadn’t been eating at all for hours and hours. I had to take Doug home before dessert,” she says. “There was a contest for best brownies. Everyone thought everyone else had cheated. Oh, there was a side-dish made with apples and those red candy hearts and it was served warm. I loved it. The host loved it—he grew up in the Binghamton, New York area and they always had that every Thanksgiving. Not only did nobody else except us like it, but there were bad words said. Imagine! Bad words on Thanksgiving!”
Still, most of the memories of the big holiday are quite warm and happy.
“Overall, I just love my family, the stepchildren, the biologicals, the boyfriends and girlfriends. That night I will cry a bit, missing my husband,” she says. “Even as I write this, I am, a little.”
Lee White of Old Lyme has been a food editor and restaurant reviewer for more than 25 years. You can email her at email@example.com.
Taylor Grant Greenberg: Worry about the Diet Later
Taylor Grant Greenberg, a nurse from Branford who blogs about healthy food options at thelittlechefthatcould.com, is known for putting a healthy twist on most meals. Still, when it comes to holiday meals like Thanksgiving, she is happy to indulge in just about every dish placed on the table.
“One of my favorite food memories was made last year. Every year we make our own butter, usually with an old Mason jar, and also hand whip our own whipped cream,. Last year, the “Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae)” song was gaining popularity and there may or may not be a fun video of my mother and me whipping the cream and nae naeing the butter,” she says.
Her favorite Thanksgiving dish is her grandfather’s pepperoni stuffing.
“This is one of those recipes he starts making days before and ends up being so much work every year he swears it is the last year he will make it,” she says.
It’s made with Italian bread, lots of butter, and lots of pepperoni—”It is a definite holiday guilty pleasure that we all end up fighting over.”
While she’s not a big fan of dishes like the green bean casserole, she is a huge fan of tradition and Thanksgiving is the holiday that embodies tradition in her family.
“As a nurse, I don’t always have the holiday off, so I have learned to cherish it more than ever. I look forward to the usually cold Turkey Trot in the morning,” she says, the annual Thanksgiving Day road race and family fun walk put on by the Madison Jaycees. (This year it will take place around the Madison Town Green, instead of Hammonasset Beach State Park. To find out more and to register, visit www.madisonjc.com.)
“The rest of the day is simply family time. Most people assume, being a food blogger, that I cook the whole meal. The reality is that I usually take this day to relax and lend a hand while my mom works her magic on our family’s traditional dinner. Later on, we will sometimes play football or go on a walk to help wake up from our turkey coma,” she says. “So many people stress about how to eat for the holidays...[but] unless you are someone who will spiral out of control after a day of sinful eating, there is no reason to tiptoe around the holiday calories. Eat what you want, don’t go overboard, and try to balance your indulging with an after dinner walk, morning Turkey Trot, or even some black Friday mall walking.”
Taylor Grant Greenberg writes thelittlechefthatcould.com, and will be featured on a healthy Friendsgiving cooking segment on FOX CT on Thursday, Nov. 17 during the morning show.
Michel Vejar: Memories Forged at Grandma’s Table
Michel Vejar, a Madison mom who writes about food at thetravelingepicurean.com, says her first fond Thanksgiving food memories were forged at her Grandma Reilly’s table.
“The blueberry pie with a crispy, flaky crust and oozing sweet blueberries was my favorite. Her lemon meringue pie was a very close second. Not that her creamed onions didn’t leave a huge impression on me,” she says.
Vejar never was able to get Grandma Reilly’s pie crust recipe, but spent hours and hours fooling with pie crusts until she came up with something she thinks is just as good, which she wrote about at http://thetravelingepicurean.com/perfect-pie-crust-in-5-minutes and http://thetravelingepicurean.com/best-blueberry-pie.
While cooking the perfect turkey can be complicated, Vejar remembers some Thanksgivings spent in Carmel, California with her friends Greg and Nena and their son Blake. Nena made a salt-encrusted turkey, baked in two brown paper bags.
“It always yielded an extraordinarily juicy turkey,” she says.
Then they would take a walk down the quaint little streets in town.
“Almost every house including our own had a fireplace blazing with hickory or oak, leaving an incredibly rustic and smoky fall smell in the air,” she recalls.
She says one of the hard things about Thanksgiving is that it can be exhausting if you try to make too many dishes.
“There’s the dilemma of which ones are tradition, which one is your favorite, and can I eliminate any of them? The best answer is don’t be a control freak or a kitchen hog and have everyone join in doing their part, laughing, mixing, tasting, working alongside of you,” she says. “It’s OK to delegate out some of those tasks. Then it doesn’t seem like work at all!”
Stephanie Lesnik: Embrace the Chaos, Don’t Rush It
Stephanie Lesnik, the owner and operator of Field House Farm in Madison, says she loves that Thanksgiving is not a gift giving holiday.
“The gift is in the presence of the people there. My favorite thing about Thanksgiving food is that you can’t rush any of it. I love the process and the time that it takes. It requires many hands in the kitchen and while that can be chaotic sometimes, I think that’s the best,” she says.
One of her favorite dishes is mashed potatoes. And she loves stuffing.
“I have found the best way to make mashed potatoes and stuffing is to substitute a hearty chicken broth for any water required. I don’t use cream or milk in my mashed potatoes either. The flavor and the richness from the homemade chicken stock truly add the flavor one could want. I would be remiss to leave out that I have the pumpkin pie as well! Brussels sprouts! Did I mention Brussels sprouts!? I can’t think of anything that I don’t like about Thanksgiving food.”
Because she loves fall vegetables, for her it becomes a celebration of the autumn harvest.
“This holiday is one about people with whom you share it. To me that means willing hands in the kitchen. My kids take on a dish of their own. We often talk about what they would like to bring to the table weeks in advance of the holiday so that they can have the time to plan the dish that they want to create,” she says. “That level of participation and inclusion of all ages helps foster a true family feel to the meal. And preparing such a large meal, often times for many people, it’s easy to become resentful if one person is doing all the work. If the work is divided and everyone has some ownership, it truly is a family gathering.”
Her only other advice for the season?
“Maybe take a nap...and then go back for round two at the dinner table.”
Field House Farm runs adult and children’s culinary classes and field to table dinner throughout the year providing people with education based dining direct from the farm. The schedule is constantly being updated at the website at www.beatestfrom.net. Stephanie can be reached at Stephanie@fieldhousefarm.net or directly at 203-779-9187. Field House Farm does sell Heritage Turkeys, but they are sold out for the 2016 season. They are now accepting deposits for the 2017 season.
Kara Pierson: Team Up, Cherish the Memories
On Thanksgiving, Kara Pierson, who lives in East Haddam and works in Madison at Shore Publishing, spends time with her family. She and her mom, Maureen Pierson, never watch television or football, go shopping, or decorate for Christmas that weekend.
“We always spend time enjoying each other’s company, playing board games, sharing stories, and drinking good wine. Because it is my mother’s favorite holiday, she has started the tradition of keeping a Thanksgiving book. Each year we take a group photo to include and everyone signs and writes messages next to the photo,” she says. “My mom cherishes the book because it has 80 pages and she always said, ‘Once this book is full, there will be 80 years of memories contained within its pages. Already there are 36 years and beautiful memories of people no longer with us, babies grown up, and lives full.’”
Kara says it is really fun to bring out the book each year and see how much everyone has grown over the years, not to mention how the styles have changed.
“But the same book contains my great grandmother’s signature along with my cousins’, sister, and my toddler scribbles and hand drawings and it is a very thoughtful way to document each year and I hope to continue in the future. Not to mention the comedic act of us trying to set up the tripod to take the annual picture,” she says.
Other traditions focus around baking and eating. Pumpkin pie with sugared cranberries. Sugar-free pumpkin bread with dark chocolate chips. Pecan pie bites from a super simple recipe. Braided bread cornucopia with vegetables. Chocolate cream “birthday” pie.
“Since my birthday falls around Thanksgiving, each year I blow out candles on a pie because the year I was born, I upset the Thanksgiving dinner plans. The pie is always a chocolate cream pie that we originally got from our local bakery in Texas where I grew up. After moving to Connecticut, I had to learn how to make the pie myself and I have mastered the recipe,” she says. “And, every year, I make a baked Gouda appetizer. The combination may sound odd, but trust me, it’s phenomenal.
“Cover a Gouda round with premium Dijon mustard, cover it with pastry dough and bake in the oven. The result is a combination that is a perfect cheesy Thanksgiving appetizer.”
Next Week in Living: More Thanksgiving tips, and recipes including one for that pepperoni stuffing.