The Carter Family Thanksgiving

November 26, 2008

I am hosting Thanksgiving this year, for the very first time. Usually we load up the car and make the trek to either Mississippi or Pennsylvania to visit our respective families. But with our recent family addition, it just seemed like too much. So we invited my family to come to us; my Mom and sister Amy will be arriving in Athens tomorrow evening.

When thinking about this post, the thought came to me, “why should I presume that people want to hear about our Thanksgiving menu?” and then I remembered that this entire website is based on the presumption that someone, somewhere, wants to hear me drone on about food at anytime; why not a major holiday?

But before you begin to conjure up images of monogram-clad children (not that there’s anything wrong with that) sitting well-behaved around a Martha Stewart-esque (ok, I’ll admit to arranging a centerpiece of fresh cranberries and tangerines) table around which are gathered immaculately-groomed, smiling adults, let me paint a more accurate picture: I will be thrilled, and consider the day a success, if we are eating by 2pm, I am out of my pajamas, and I’m not simultaneously eating turkey and nursing a baby.

All that to say, I really did try to keep it simple this year. I am almost always in charge of turkey, when we go to Mississippi, since no one else in my family has ever roasted one. But this is the first year I’m in charge of pretty much everything. I planned the whole menu, and admittedly enjoyed the somewhat dictator-like control it gave me (before I make myself sound worse that I actually am — ahem — I did ask everyone if they had specific requests. And granted them, with the exception of Tim’s request for gruyere-spinach casserole, which he asked for yesterday after hearing about it from his boss, and I told him if he wanted it he was welcome to make it).

There is almost always too much food at any given family’s Thanksgiving dinner. There will be 6 of us eating the dinner (my highly-allergic toddler and the baby won’t partake, and we’re hoping our friend Matt will join us since he’s alone studying for comps all weekend), and I’m hoping to fill our bellies and have some leftovers, but not so much food that it goes bad in the fridge. I’ve ordered a small, all-natural fresh turkey from Earth Fare, which I plan to brine and air-dry (see below) before roasting Thursday morning. Thanksgiving dinner, to me, isn’t complete without the addition of dressing, gravy, and cranberry sauce. Then, you really just need a starch and a green vegetable. We’ll be doing garlic mashed potatoes and sautéed green beans with herbs. I decided against a casserole, specifically sweet potato casserole; I’ve made one that’s heavenly in years past, but it is labor intensive and too much for our small group. For dessert, we’ll have pumpkin bread (the only family tradition from my side of the marital Mason-Dixon) and pumpkin pie (my favorite).

My sources are varied, but I’m getting a lot from cooksillustrated.com. I’ve made Kimball’s slow-roasted turkey before, with great success. This year I’m trying a new recipe, and while researching online, I was sucked in to their homepage links to side dishes. Here’s the lineup:

  • Turkey
    Herbed Roast Turkey, from cooksillustrated.com
    This recipe caught my attention because it is brined and air-dried. You soak the bird in salted water for several hours, then let it sit in the refrigerator uncovered for up to 24 hours. This produces juicy, tender meat, and the drying promotes a crispy skin. The herbs are mixed in soft butter and rubbed under and over the skin. I roasted chicken legs last week, using a similar method, and it was the best roasted chicken I’ve ever made.
  • Gravy
    Various sources
    I make a quick stock from the neck and giblets, while the turkey roasts. Then add some pan juices, and thicken with cornstarch. Quick, easy, yummy gravy.
  • Dressing
    My sister is making the dressing, as she does every year. It’s a classic Southern recipe, from one of those old-fashioned Junior League cookbooks. Cornbread, breadcrumbs, celery, onion, etc., baked with chicken broth and an egg or two.
  • Cranberry Sauce
    The recipe is on the bag of cranberries.
    This is as easy as it gets. Simmer cranberries and sugar in water, and voila, you have delicious cranberry sauce that doesn’t look like a can.
  • Garlic Mashed Potatoes
    Same-titled recipe from cooksillustrated.com
    It calls for over 20 cloves of garlic. I think I’ll use less.
  • Green Beans
    Sautéed Green Beans with Garlic and Herbs from cooksillustrated.com
    This is a pretty straight-forward recipe, and should be a cleaner, quicker option than a green bean casserole.
  • Parker House Rolls
    You can find recipes for these buttery dinner rolls in most major cookbooks; I’ll be using one from The Bread Bible, making the starter a day ahead to save time.
  • Pumpkin Bread
    The best pumpkin bread I’ve ever had, and you can get the recipe here.
  • Pumpkin Pie
    A classic pumpkin pie. The recipe comes from a friend, and someday I’ll post it.

And there you have it.

I’m curious: what’s your must-have Turkey Day menu item? Care to share?

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