Food for Thought #2: Turkey Time

As many of you know, I don’t celebrate Thanksgiving the way most Americans do. Images of smiling Pilgrims and Native Americans breaking bread around long tables in Massachusetts don’t do much for me; I am all too aware of what happened once the feasting ended.

But I am all for taking a day to share football games, the Macy’s parade (yea, Santa!), and loads of good home-cooked food with my favorite people. Often, as will be the case this year, I share the day with my mother and my brother’s family. Every other year or so, Spousal Unit and I play host, and we always include dear friends who are away from their families. We share good times and great food, and we give thanks for each other, for our blessings, and — of course — for the diet-and-exercise regimens we will begin once the holiday season is over.

As far as I am concerned, admonitions against gluttony do not apply on Thanksgiving. Days in advance, preparation begins as I plan out a menu of side dishes. And while I can’t pass up someone else’s traditional green-bean-and-onion casserole or the cylindrically molded cranberry sauce, my creative side insists that the only can I open for T-Day cooking is a can of imagination. There are many different ways to approach using basic Thanksgiving staples like sweet potatoes and cranberries, and we’ll talk about that shortly. But first, we must shine a light on the star of the show and the source of many Thanksgiving Day cooks’ worries: the turkey.

Mmmm, turkey. Sorry, PETA supporters, y’know I love you, but Thanksgiving dinner is about the bird. Even some vegetarians can’t resist its allure — why else would so much effort be spent on making tofu’s appearance and flavor resemble that of the noble fowl so revered by Benjamin Franklin? (No offense intended; tofurkey is quite tasty, but I respect the un-turkey more.)

Fear not, my poultry-eschewing pals, there will be something for you in the recipe section below. Right now, however, the focus is on the real deal.

I can anticipate a question from the skeptical:

If you don’t care about Pilgrims and all, why go along with the tradition of eating turkey for Thanksgiving?

Good question; thanks for asking. Yes, legend tells us that the Plymouth diners feasted on turkey, but we don’t know if that is actually true.

From HolidaySpot.com:

[T]here is no real evidence that turkey was served at the Pilgrims’ first thanksgiving, but through [the] ages it became an indispensable part of the Thanksgiving tradition. The tradition of turkey is rooted in the ‘History Of Plymouth Plantation,’ written by William Bradford some 22 years after the actual celebration.

In his letter sent to England, Edward Winslow, another Pilgrim, describes how the governor sent “four men out fowling” and they returned with turkeys, ducks and geese.

Unfortunately, the Bradford document was lost after being taken away by the British during the War of Independence. Later it was rediscovered in 1854. And since then turkey turned out to be a popular symbol of the Thanksgiving Day. And today of all the the Thanksgiving symbols it has become the most well known.

In short, I refuse to equate turkey with genocide. Turkey is healthful, lean, a good source of protein, and quite tasty. And as you’ll hear from me a thousand times, taste matters.

If turkey has a downside, it’s that most people prepare it once or twice a year, on a red-letter day. Consequently, the pressure is on the cook to prepare a perfect bird or else — quelle dommage! — be responsible for wrecking an entire holiday. If you are new to cooking for Thanksgiving or inexperienced in preparing turkey, first, take a deep breath. However the bird turns out, you will still be loved and the holiday will still be great. Besides, dealing with turkey is not as difficult as you might think.

Lots of resources are available to lend a helping hand to new cooks and even to those just looking to brush up on their turkey technique. One I recently discovered turns out to be quite the gem: Turkeyhelp.com.

The 6-year-old Massachusetts-based Web site is an offshoot of America’s Test Kitchen, the public-television cooking show featuring editors of Cook’s Illustrated magazine. Turkeyhelp.com is just terrific: It’s a bright, colorful site jam-packed with information that will be of value to cooks at all levels of experience.

There is cool stuff to be found: a list of the “Top 10 Holiday Cooking Disasters” (and tips for how to avoid them); assessments of cooking tools, including roasting racks and pans, oven thermometers, and more; tips for staying safe in the kitchen, a streaming video and step-by-step guide showing how to carve a turkey, and loads of recipes for turney, side dishes, desserts, and leftovers. Particularly interesting is the site’s “Turkey Q&A,” which covers subjects ranging from brining and basting to the ubiquitous “when is the turkey done?” (Hint: Buy or borrow an instant-read thermometer. And one more, given that T-Day is two days from now: If you have a frozen turkey, start thawing it now. If you have yet to purchase your bird, get a fresh one.)

The good news: There is no need for worry. Turkeyhelp.com has the information you’ll need to prepare a bird so moist and flavorful that your guests will give thanks for you.

Now that we have the turkey covered, let’s move on to those promised recipes.

The bird may be the star attraction of the Thanksgiving meal, but the side dishes play a very important supporting role. The sides provide splashes of color to dazzle the eyes, the bulk of the nutrition to nourish the body, and varying flavors and aromas to engage the senses. For that reason, as anyone who has dined at my table will attest, I like to provide a wide array of dishes. Most involve seasonal root vegetables that may have been enjoyed in colonial times, but every now and then, it’s fun to add something surprising to the mix. Keeps everyone guessing.

Because I create a large number of dishes, it is important that they be relatively uncomplicated. For this week’s FFT recipe section, here are two offerings from my kitchen that everyone — even vegetarians — can enjoy. And each takes only minutes to prepare. Enjoy!

Cranberry Medley

I love this one — not only is this a tasty, surprising salad that brings a nice bit of sweet and tangy coolness to a typically hot and heavy dinner, but in a large bowl, it can do double-duty as a colorful, eclectic centerpiece for your dinner table.

Ingredients

2 orange, peeled and segmented
2 tsp. orange zest, minced
2 tart apples, peeled, cored, and cubed
2 cups cranberries, chopped coarsely
1/2 lb. seedless grapes, halved
1 pineapple, peeled and cut into chunks
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup lemon juice

Procedures

Simply prep all of the fruit as instructed in the ingredient list. The most difficult to wrestle may be the pineapple: First, use a sharp, long knife to remove the crown and base of the fruit. Place the base side down and slice off the skin; use the knife’s tip to cut out any leftover eyes. Once peeled, cut the pineapple into chunks. (If you don’t feel confident enough to tackle this, feel free to substitute a large can of unsweetened pineapple chunks.)

When you have all of the fruit prepped, combine it along with the sugar in a large bowl. Add the lemon juice and toss gently. Cover the bowl and chill in the refrigerator until serving time. Makes eight servings.

*****

Steamed Sweet Potatoes with Thyme

This quick and easy dish is meant to replace the traditional candied sweet potatoes. It’s fresh, light and healthy; includes no added sweetener (in fact, it has a nice peppery kick); and has absolutely no marshmallows.

Ingredients

8 large sweet potatoes, peeled
2 tsp. fresh thyme, chopped
1/2 tsp. freshly ground pepper

Procedures

Cut the potatoes into 1/2-inch slices. Place the slices on the rack of a steamer. Top the potatoes with half of the thyme and half of the pepper. Steam for 25 minutes or until fork-tender. Transfer the cooked potatoes to a serving platter and sprinkle them with the leftover thyme and pepper. Makes eight servings.

However you celebrate Thanksgiving, have a happy, peaceful day.

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