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Thanksgiving dinner: Elevating the classics

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By Carie Birkmeier EBS STAFF

Is there anything more indulgent than Thanksgiving dinner? The familiar aromas of sage, roasting turkey and butter wafting through the house are enough to make my mouth water just thinking of them.

Many may argue that classic Thanksgiving dishes aren’t meant to be messed with—they’re rooted in tradition and are often made from recipes that have been passed down for generations. However, I challenge you to make these very simple changes when preparing your holiday meal this year. A small step can go a long way in elevating the flavor of a classic recipe, without stepping too far outside the box.

Before you roast your bird, there are two things I’d recommend skipping. The first is the little plastic temperature indicator that comes with the bird, and the other is a turkey baster. The temperature indicators can be inaccurate, so your best bet is to purchase a good meat thermometer. Test the bird in the thickest part of the thigh. When it reaches 165 degrees Fahrenheit it is finished. This takes about 13 minutes per pound at 350 degrees.

Basting a turkey is counterproductive in my opinion. The skin creates a barrier between the basted drippings and the meat, so by basting you may be flavoring the skin, but you are also lowering the temperature of the oven by 50 degrees each time you open it to baste. This lengthens the time the bird needs to stay in the oven, and increases the risk of it drying out. To ensure juicy, well-seasoned meat, brine your turkey instead. For crisp skin, heat your oven to 450 degrees, and then lower the temperature to 350 degrees as you place the bird in the oven.

Dressing, not stuffing
For your safety and that of your guests, please don’t stuff your turkey. Stuffing is incredibly porous and will absorb all of the juices from the bird, including those that may contain harmful bacteria. In order to safely eat traditional stuffing, it needs to be cooked to 165 degrees. By the time the turkey’s center reaches this temperature, the rest of the bird will be dreadfully overcooked. Instead, place quartered onions, carrots, herbs or whatever suits your fancy in the cavity of the bird and remove prior to serving.

Swap the classic white bread for something with more flavor and body—a rustic Italian loaf with firm crust, sourdough, or even something more flavorful like cornbread. Drying bread is a crucial step to avoid a soggy end product, and toasting or even grilling it can expedite the drying process while also adding another component of flavor.

Mashed potatoes
Besides the obvious addition of copious amounts of butter and cream, enhance your mashed or whipped potatoes by using celery root as well. This root vegetable is related to celery and offers a similar flavor but has a starchy, potato-like texture. Instead of boiling and mashing solely potatoes, add some celery root to the pot. Its addition will offer another layer of complexity and make this oftentimes predictable dish the talk of the table.

Gravy is arguably the most important dish on the Thanksgiving table. To take this staple to the next level, I cook a finely chopped mirepoix of onion, celery, carrots and herbs with the turkey’s pan drippings until soft and caramelized. Next, make the gravy as usual, stirring in flour to make a roux and whisking in stock. You’ll need to strain the mixture to remove the chunks of vegetable. These extra steps are worth it, adding a depth of flavor that will take grandma’s gravy to the next level.

Cranberries are tart by nature, and require quite a bit of sugar to make them palatable. I just follow the recipe on the back of the bag of fresh cranberries, but instead of only using granulated sugar to sweeten the berries, I substitute orange juice for water. You’ll still need to add in sugar to the mixture but you can cut the amount in half. In addition to the juice, grate the zest of this citrus into the mix.

Compound butter
Butter makes everything better, and having a flavored version for dinner rolls is a simple way to turn this basic ingredient into a special addition to your table. I like having two varieties of compound butter on the table—one sweet and one savory—to suit guests’ preferences. Using a hand or stand mixer, whip butter until it is fluffy, and mix in savory ingredients like herbs and garlic, or sweeter ones like maple syrup and cinnamon. Always add some salt to balance and bring out the other flavors.

At the end of the day, Thanksgiving is about being around friends and family and not just slaving away in the kitchen. These small steps will improve the spread on your Thanksgiving table without overcomplicating what can already be a laborious endeavor.

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