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On the Table: Thanksgiving Dinner

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PHOTO BY CLAUDIO SCHWARTZ

By Bella Butler EBS STAFF

I grew up with the daily unspoken expectation that my family would gather around a table every night for dinner. As my brother and I got older, the expectation faded to a luxury, a privilege, as busy schedules and eventually different home bases edged out our nightly tradition.

Thanksgiving, though, is an opportunity for our families and friends to set aside the distractions, the excuses that usually keep us apart, to share a table, a meal and an evening.

This special opportunity can sometimes put extra pressure on the centerpiece of the gathering: the dinner.

The star of the show—the turkey—is a beast in its own right. Does anyone ever stop to truly think about the magnitude of the task of cooking an entire 20-pound bird … on top of a dozen sides and desserts?

Don’t beat yourself up about dinner this holiday and take comfort in these tips and tricks from a few seasoned local chefs.

Thanksgiving outside the box

Christine Lugo-Yergensen, trained pastry chef and owner of Big Sky’s Sweet Buns Catering, brings her own flair to a less-traditional Thanksgiving and offers some advice on how to work outside the box. Her best tip: “Have fun with it.”

Born to a Panamanian-Dominican family, Lugo-Yergensen says her Thanksgiving table is loaded with things like rice and beans, roasted chicken and ham, along with other less traditional plates, and among her dessert spread is a Jamaican rum cake, an homage to her family’s extended time living in New York City.

Not unlike the messaging that New York Times best-selling cookbook writer Samin Nosrat preaches, Lugo Yergensen believes “most people can cook.” Part of that journey, she says, is figuring out what you like. Try new recipes, bust tradition and have fun doing it.

Another key part of tackling a big meal like Thanksgiving, Lugo Yergensen says, is splitting up the work. Divide and conquer side dishes, assign someone to dessert. Another resounding theme in Nosrat’s work, bringing people into the mix can create a whole new eating experience as well. There’s a special glow that illuminates the table as everyone digs into a spread they put a piece of themselves into.

Bootstrap cooking and the art of cooking a turkey

When I think about experts on Thanksgiving dinner, I can’t help but think of my mom, Nancy Radick Butler, owner of the Gourmet Gals. Each year, she and her crew cook Thanksgiving dinner for a large portion of Big Sky. Since last week, she’s had countless voluptuous birds thawing in her West Fork kitchen.

What I admire most about her cooking, and what I think makes her especially successful at what she does, is the way she embraces what I’ve come to call “The Bootstrap Kitchen.” The way she was taught to cook (and eventually, the way she taught me) is about taking what you have and turning it into something magical. So much of this is about relinquishing the fear that grips so many of us in the kitchen, pulling yourself up by the bootstraps and getting to work. No ingredient is too small, too plain, to create something beautiful. In chaos, in broke times, in trepidation, this attitude is a cook’s best ally.

Here are a few tips on cooking a turkey from my favorite bootstrap chef. 

  1. Find workarounds when cooking on a budget. Butler suggests opting for day-old bread from the bakery for stuffing or maybe a Cornish game hen instead of a turkey.  
  • Focus on the basics when cooking a turkey. Brine it, baste it and don’t overcook it. The easy rule of thumb, Butler says, for avoiding the cardinal Thanksgiving sin of a dry turkey is timing it according to the weight. The general rule of thumb is 15 minutes per pound.
  • If you do overcook it, dress it properly. Refer to the aforementioned statement about the challenge of cooking an entire bird in your little domestic oven. We can’t always get it right. Butler says when you do overcook it, especially the breasts, which tend to cook faster, avoid cutting in thin slices and carve out each entire breast. Cut the meat into larger pieces to avoid “turkey jerky,” she says, and dress with gravy or broth as you serve it.
  • Read the crowd. Portioning your turkey may depend on who’s sitting at your table. If you have a group full of white-meat lovers, one turkey might not satisfy everyone. Don’t be afraid to ask your guests what they prefer and plan accordingly.

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