Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Thanksgiving Prep for Slightly Anal People

I love hosting Thanksgiving dinner. Not only is everything on the standard menu on my “favorites” list, but the vast majority of dishes are really not that complicated to make. Other than carving the turkey, which my husband is in charge of, there are no fancy culinary techniques required. There is nothing that requires long, laborious standing at the stove and stirring or checking or testing. The peas, squash, gravy, and rolls are merely heated. The mashed potatoes and creamed onions have just a few ingredients tossed in and mixed up. Even the turkey is pretty much shoved into the oven and forgotten about until the timer goes off. The most labor-intensive dish is probably the dressing, and even that takes only a few minutes. Even the preparation of the ingredients – and yes, after all my years of watching competitive cooking shows, I do mentally refer to it as my mise en place – can be done quickly and easily the night before.

The only thing that makes preparing the Thanksgiving meal complicated, for me, is getting the timing right. It’s like a high school math word problem: If the turkey takes 1-1/2 hours at 475 degrees, and the dressing takes 15 minutes at 350 degrees, how many hours will the potatoes need in the crock pot on high if the guests are 15 minutes late and it takes 8-1/2 minutes to carve the bird?

But I find the scheduling to be a fun challenge. Every year, I carefully get out all my recipes and write up a timeline, starting with the time I want my guests to sit down to dinner, and calculating backwards. I always start with my template from the year before, so it’s rare that I have to do much more than tweak a few times. But this year, my husband and I decided to get wild and crazy and spatchcock our turkey. Yes, I admit that this is a recipe that requires some degree of technique, since it involves butterflying the turkey by cutting out the backbone and laying it spreadeagled (spreadturkeyed??) on a roasting pan. 

Before and after – it looks pretty ridiculous both ways, but at least the “after” version looks like it’s wearing an expensive coat.

The idea is that this allows the meat to cook more evenly and the skin to become nicely crispy all over, since it increases the surface area of the bird as well as decreasing its thickness. It makes such a difference that the roasting time for the turkey drops from my usual 6 or so hours down to a mere 1-1/2. My usual early Thanksgiving morning routine - even before my first cup of coffee!! - involved preheating the oven, slathering the turkey with oil and wrestling it into the oven, grabbing a cup of coffee (phew), then taking the turkey back out, flipping it over, stuffing it, wrapping it with foil, lowering the oven temperature, wrestling it back in, then several hours later wrestling it out again, unwrapping the foil, draining off the juices, lowering the oven temperature yet again, and finally throwing it back in for a bit longer sans foil to let the skin turn golden brown. This complicated recipe always resulted in a moist, delicious, nicely-browned turkey, but I’m ready to try something a bit less involved this year, in the hopes that the results will be equally delicious but less time-consuming. So this year’s turkey routine involves a night-before backbone-ectomy and dry brining with kosher salt, a quick rub with oil and spices right before tossing it into the oven around noon and then ignoring it until it’s time to take it out just after the guests arrive.

So the technique is easier (well, my part of it is, anyway; my poor husband is in charge of the backbone-ectomy), but the math is harder. It changes the schedule enough that I decided to toss last year’s template and start from scratch. Let’s see, the guests should arrive at 2pm, so the turkey should be carved at 2:30pm. But the turkey needs to rest for 20 minutes, so it should come out of the oven at 2:10pm, which means it should go IN the oven 1-1/2 hours earlier, at 12:40pm. But the oven has to be preheated to 450 by then, so add “12:20pm – Oven on to 450” to the schedule. And it will take a few minutes to rub the turkey with the oil, so add “12:15pm – prep turkey” to the list. I go through my entire menu, dish by dish, figuring out what prep needs to start at what time, adding in the little tasks that can be done at any time (such as “slice the cranberry sauce,” “set the table,” and “lay out crescent rolls on baking pan”) during whatever vacant windows of time appear. This also helped me realize that I have several dishes, including my appetizer, rolls, and dressing, which are supposed to be baked at the same time as the turkey but at a much lower temperature. This was never a problem in years past, as my turkey roasted at the same temperature called for by these dishes, so I always just popped them in right alongside the bird. A few quick calculations were needed to figure out whether any of them can be baked while the turkey is resting (yes for rolls and dressing, no for apps), and how long those that can’t should be baked at the higher temp.

For anyone who’s curious as to what exactly a Thanksgiving schedule written by a highly organized but rather tightly wound cook looks like, here’s what mine looks like this year:

Day/night before: Cut up dressing ingredients & sweet peppers for dip, make creamed onions, make pumpkin pie. Butterfly and dry brine turkey in fridge overnight.

9:00am: Peel and chop potatoes, put squash in pot to thaw
9:15am: Start crock pot potatoes
12:15pm: Preheat oven to 450, sprinkle turkey with pepper and rub with oil & paprika
12:40pm: Turkey in oven
1:00pm: Make stuffing, slice cranberry sauce
1:15pm: Check potatoes, mash and finish, leave on warm, make dip
1:40pm: Make gravy, prep crescent rolls, dip in oven
2:00pm: GUESTS ARRIVE, dip out of oven and serve
2:10pm: Turkey out and rest under foil, temp down to 375, boil peas, heat onions and squash
2:20pm: Crescent rolls & dressing in
2:30pm: Crescent rolls & dressing out, carve turkey
2:40pm: Sit down to dinner

I bet that right now, some of you who are reading this are nodding and thinking about your own similar schedules. And I bet that others of you are thinking, “I need to do this!” But I bet that the majority of you are laughing at how crazy I am. And that’s okay. I embrace my crazy; it gets dinner to the table on time.

But if you REALLY want to see crazy, you should check out the way I organize my serving dishes and utensils…

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