Field Notes from An Early Thanksgiving

We didn't make the turkey ourselves -- got it prepared from a turkey farm -- and our cousin Joe, an expert carver, did the honors.

We didn’t make the turkey ourselves — got it prepared from a turkey farm — and our cousin Joe, an expert carver, did the honors.

For the past three years we’ve celebrated Thanksgiving on a Saturday in early to mid-November, not on the last Thursday. So today, while the rest of you are perusing recipes for stuffing and pecan pie or figuring the best place to procure a turkey for the big day, we are getting ready to inter the remains of last Saturday’s feast in the freezer. This will be our last day of shredding turkey into chef’s salads, making shepherd’s pie with stuffing and mashed potatoes, and smearing cranberry orange relish onto sandwiches.

Why the out-of-sync Thanksgiving? For one, it’s easier for our guests to get here before the holiday rush. Bob’s parents can get discounted fares from the west coast; my mom and sister, Bob’s cousins and my cousins don’t need to drive on the busiest driving day of the year. His brother Rich from Houston was able to join us this year; brother Tom from Switzerland was here two years ago. And since we are a blended family, an early Thanksgiving eliminates the need for our adult children to endure two belly-busting meals in one day or choose between parents. We can heartily recommend it for anyone who has similar family demographics.

Another great reason for an early feast is that while I love to cook, I am miserable at roasting turkeys…and our local turkey farm, Out Post Farm in Holliston, Massachusetts, will gladly roast a turkey for you on any day except for Thanksgiving. At noon on Saturday we picked up a steaming, aromatic box with a piping hot, stuffed turkey and a quart of gravy. The price is easily three or four times the price of doing it yourself but worth every penny. It saves many hours brining, massaging, pampering and wrestling with a 22-pound fowl, not to mention the blow to the cook’s ego when it inevitably dries out despite these spa treatments. Farming out the turkey to someone whom you can trust removes some of the performance pressure for Thanksgiving, but not all of it.

No doubt some of you who are hosting Thanksgiving on the real day are feeling a little bit of that pressure right now. Thanksgiving to the home cook is what the Nutcracker is to a ballet troupe: a mythic production with high expectations for everything to be perfectly choreographed, gorgeous to look at, lavish in scale, universal in its appeal and seemingly effortless in the execution.

With the memories of the ramp-up to our early Thanksgiving fresh in my mind, here is some advice:

Do as much as you can in advance – Last Thursday was for shopping at our local Wegman’s, which included several bags of pre-trimmed and pre-washed thin green beans. Friday was for making the extra tray of stuffing, cranberry-orange

Our family crowded around three conjoined tables in our dining room.

Our family crowded around three conjoined tables in our dining room.

relish and a make-ahead mashed potato recipe (thanks to my mom and mother-in-law for all that peeling); and for blanching the green beans. The prepared potatoes went into the crockpot on the day of our feast; everything else was put into pans for re-heating in the double oven while the guys went to the turkey farm.

Get help. One friend, a wonderful cook, prepares Thanksgiving for 35 relatives every year, and does everything herself. One year she decided to ask a few guests to bring desserts, and was dismayed that some of them went to a bakery instead of making it themselves. Now she’s back to doing everything. I’ve learned to ask for help — even if it’s asking a non-cook to bring some beer or chips — and when somebody asks if they can bring something, my response is “hell, yes!” This year our party included a store-bought birthday cake in honor of Bob’s brother Rich, a silken homemade chocolate and tofu pie from daughter Rachel and an astoundingly good apple pie that our cousin Judy bought from Costco. My sister Julie brought her famous squash casserole; cousin John brought homemade wine. All were delicious, and my vastly reduced stress level made me realize that giving up a little control is not a bad thing.

Dessert need not be a homemade apple pie, especially if a birthday is involved.  We marked brother-in-law Richard's birthday with  an apple-themed cake instead.

Dessert need not be a homemade apple pie. We marked brother-in-law Richard’s birthday with an Apple-themed cake instead.

Think seriously about disposable dishes and pans. When your feet and legs feel as sodden as gravy-logged stuffing you will be thankful that you don’t need to do dishes.

Expect last-minute kitchen messes. In our case, we discovered that just one quart of gravy wasn’t going to cut it. Our cousin Bhavani, a topnotch personal chef, insisted we make more. That meant dragging out the cast iron skillet, butter, flour, chicken broth and spices to combine with the drippings from our turkey. This upset my well-staged attempts to avoid a mess in the kitchen that day, but Bhavani was so cheerful and enthusiastic as she stirred the roux that I couldn’t help but get caught up in it. Making the gravy was glorious, creative and messy but well worth it. We needed nearly every drop.

Take a walk between dinner and dessert. If the weather permits, it’s a great way to clear your stomach and your head and to enjoy some great conversation undistracted by a plate groaning with food. About a dozen of us took a wonderful three-mile walk at twilight. By our last steps we had created just enough room for a heaping plate of desserts!

Relax and remember it’s not all about you. Sure I felt lots of performance anxiety about hosting Thanksgiving for 20, and I had a few grumpy and harried moments. But sweating out the details a few days ahead, preparing stuff in advance, and farming out some of the work did make a difference, and in the long run people really don’t care if every detail is perfect. Last Saturday, sitting in mismatched chairs around three conjoined tables in our dining room, I could relax enough to truly savor our families and our many blessings. And that is what it’s all about.

So on Thanksgiving, I will raise a glass of wine and a spoonful of matzoh ball soup to home cooks everywhere and their families!

Between dinner and dessert on Thanksgiving is the best time for a long walk!

Between dinner and dessert on Thanksgiving is the best time for a long walk!

Can We Please Have a Breather Before Christmas?

While many nearby homes are already fully in the holiday spirit, we’re neither here nor there.

Our first snowfall was yesterday. I brought our dog Gus outside for some fresh air and marveled as he saw snow for the first time. He held out his tongue to catch the flakes and drank lustily from the pools of melting snow below our downspouts. Only about two inches fell, but it clung prettily to the branches, shrubs and mailboxes.

The snow was beautiful but it was another unwelcome reminder that fall is over and I’d better get my ass in gear soon for Christmas. Around our town a few organized souls have already done so. As soon as the Thanksgiving leftovers were cleared away, electric candles miraculously appeared in each window, garland sprouted around the garage and tasteful white lights on every tree and shrub. On Thanksgiving day we saw at least three cars topped with trussed dead firs driving by. I am still upset that millions of people cut Thanksgiving short to wait in line to buy holiday junk at Walmart.

At our house, two large pumpkins, beginning to soften with age, still sit on our doorstep. Yesterday’s snowfall has given them fluffy white hats. We’ve been too lazy busy for our annual late November tradition of smashing them in the woods, at the same place where countless pumpkins have been slain in years past. While I’ve added a wreath to the front door – only because I had ordered them from our local Boy Scout, who delivered them before Thanksgiving — the pumpkins are still there, as out of place as uninvited Christmas party guests.

We need a breather — a few days or even a week of stillness — between the fall holidays and the winter ones. Just a few days to decompress from the Halloween candy and the tryptophan coma, to pull out the dead chrysanthemums and smash the rotting pumpkins, to sweep away the last of the leaves, to appreciate the barren beauty of the unincorporated territory between holidays. A few days to rest the brain, wallet and soul before December’s shopping, glitz and revelry. Who’s with me?

Confessions of a turkey underachiever

Why does this ideal elude me?

Next Thursday, four of us will enjoy Thanksgiving dinner at a local country inn. I can’t tell you how relieved I am.

Despite a general confidence in the kitchen, roasted turkey has been my stumbling block, year after overcooked year. I’ve tried everything: buying $70 organic turkeys, pickling it beforehand in brine, slathering it in butter and cheesecloth, draping it in tinfoil, cooking it at high temperatures a la Alton Brown, cooking it low and slow, cooking it upside down, cooking it sideways, asphyxiating it in a plastic bag, praying over it.

The result is the same: dry breast meat and rubbery, red-tinged thigh meat.

Is it my oven? Is it the fact that I only roast a turkey once a year and never get the chance to really hone my skills – like some people have to re-learn to ski every year because they go only once? Or is it because deep down inside I can take or leave turkey and have no desire to become accomplished at cooking it?

I’ve stopped torturing myself and just faced the truth: I’m bad at turkeys. And it’s very freeing to punt when called upon to produce one.

As I did a few weeks ago, when we had a wonderful, traditional Thanksgiving dinner for Bob’s folks, our kids and their guests, Bob’s brother Tom, cousin Joe and nephew Harper. It was a great family feast, complete with stuffing, mashed potatoes, roasted squash, two cranberry dishes, green beans amandine, sautéed greens, fresh apple crisp…and a juicy turkey that somebody else made.

About 10 minutes from our house, in Holliston, Mass., is a wonderful turkey farm called Out Post. For a very handsome fee they’ll slaughter one of their turkeys and stuff and roast it for you just in time for your event. Bob, Joe and I picked up the bird, still steaming hot, beautifully golden and fully stuffed, about 45 minutes before dinner. Best money we ever spent. Unfortunately the only day they won’t cook your turkey is Thanksgiving. So in the days beforehand people wait in line at Out Post, freezing their butts off as they wait to pick up their pre-ordered fresh turkeys to cook at home.

The Boston Globe did a great story last year in which they asked local chefs – who cook for the restaurant crowds on Thanksgiving – for their secrets of getting a moist, flavorful bird. Their answer was pretty grisly. Forget that Norman Rockwell ideal of a big honkin’ whole turkey in the middle of a table full of beaming relatives. Instead, hack up the turkey’s torso and limbs, sauté in a huge pan, then put them in the roasting pan with some wine and aromatics and cook gently til fork tender. Keep some broth handy to pour over the slices if they dry out.

Does anybody else have a hard time with this? Don’t we need that iconic whole turkey as the centerpiece of our Thanksgiving table? This seems almost sacrilegious, almost as bad as not having stuffing.

I asked my mom, who is visiting us, about whether she’d mind going out instead of doing the traditional thing. She was thrilled…and she confessed that she might order fish or prime rib instead of the turkey.