Monday, November 27, 2006

no longer a turkey virgin

Everyone told me not to worry when I announced that I was apprehensive about preparing my first Thanksgiving dinner for my extended family and my in-laws. "The turkey's easy," they reassured me. "It won't be a big deal. Just throw it in the oven and don't let it dry out." Well, they were half right. Roasting the turkey isn't a big deal. But menu planning for the big day, coordinating the sides and desserts which needed to be cooked in the same oven as the turkey, discovering on Wednesday that the turkey is too small for ten people but it's too late to buy and thaw a new one, dealing with gross stuff inside the turkey, setting the table, and thoroughly cleaning the house, all when I've been visiting Grandma out of state--well, that's the big deal.

I do like the way the table turned out, with our wedding china and Nana's silver and a big bowl of oranges and cranberries. Each place setting had its own individual bouquet of sage leaves from our vegetable garden! (And you can't tell from this photo that the tablecloth was too short once we put all the table leaves in.)

The turkey saga: After consulting with my mother and mother-in-law, I bought a boneless turkey breast and roasted it the day before to make sure that we had enough meat. That wasn't difficult. Choosing a recipe to use for the big bird, though, was more challenging. I immediately eliminated anything involving brining, grilling, deep frying, or bags--I wanted a turkey like the ones my mom makes. Simple. Crispy skin. Moist white meat. After narrowing it down to three recipes, I opted for parts of each: Lis' recommended turkey with herbs, jettisoning its shiitake mushroom gravy in favor of a giblet-stock gravy from the Gourmet cookbook, then jettisoning the moderately fussy roasting directions in favor of those accompanying this ridiculously easy recipe. So basically, I took a little turkey, rubbed it with oil and fresh herbs from the garden, then placed more herbs, leeks from the garden, an orange, and a lemon in the cavity, and roasted it at 450 for a couple of hours. The house filled with smoke, but the meat was moist and everything smelled good! Then my cousin Julie's husband Jerimy (Mr. Tart's friend from high school who served as his best man) helped me make the gravy:

The gravy saga: So the day before Thanksgiving I decided to prepare the stock for the gravy. This is a step my mother never takes, but it sounded like a good idea. I wasn't looking forward to fondling the giblets, but I knew enough to expect to find them. (Others have told me stories about pulling little baggies of innards out of their turkeys at the table, surprised.) What I wasn't prepared for was the neck. The turkey neck. I reached into the cavity to pull out the bag of giblets but instead found this long, fleshy, pallid, phallic thing that stretched the entire length of the bird. I pulled and pulled, and it kept coming and coming. Nowhere on the package does it say "One frozen turkey, giblets and repulsive neck included." Nope, the neck is never mentioned anywhere, just the giblets. But I tell you what: once I added that grossest part of the turkey anatomy to the hot oil, it started to smell like Thanksgiving.

The next step was to add the giblets. Following Gourmet's recipe carefully, I read that I shouldn't include the liver because it will make the gravy bitter. Fair enough--but the little baggie of innards isn't labeled! Nowhere on the turkey package or in the cookbook is a diagram explaining which organ is which! I thought about Googling "turkey liver" to find some pictures, but decided to wing it. "Hmmm. These two identically-shaped organs connected by a little tendon have to be the kidneys, because there's two of them, and this small triangular one must be the heart." So far so good--but that left two large amorphous organs that, frankly, frightened me. One liver, one gizzard--and I didn't even know what a gizzard was. So I chucked the darkest one and continued on. (Julie, a nurse, later told me that I did end up throwing out the liver after all!) Giblets went into the hot oil along with veggies and herbs, and a couple of hours later I had a rich stock--so much nicer than anything I've ever poured out of a can.

The rest of the meal came together pretty smoothly, despite the smoke in the house from the high-heat roasting and the fact that with 60-degree weather here in Colorado, mulled wine and mulled cider didn't feel right. (We served sparkling cider and Cranberry Mimosas instead. For the latter, take a big glass, pour in 1/3 cup cranberry juice, 1/3 cup orange juice, 1/2 cup champagne, and garnish with cranberries and an orange slice.) I think the only reason I survived prepping this meal, though, was that all our guests brought sides to share.

What I found really neat about the sharing was seeing what each side of the family wanted to have at Thanksgiving dinner--what overlapped, what stood out, what was new. We started with purposefully light appetizers at noon: crudites, clementines, and popcorn (you know, because it was served at the first Thanksgiving!). This was new: I put them out because I was skeptical that the turkey would actually be ready when it was supposed to be, and because sometimes I think that appetizers are my favorite meal. Julie brought green bean casserole, which she and I both grew up with, while my sister-in-law Elizabeth contributed peas with chives and pine nuts, also a new recipe. I modified my mom's cranberry sauce to make it chunkier. My mother-in-law brought her famous yeast rolls, which my husband and brother-in-law drool over, while Jerimy brought his mother's cardamom braided bread. We didn't really need mashed potatoes, because we already had two breads, two stuffings, and sweet potatoes, but you know, it just doesn't seem Thanksgiving without mashed potatoes and gravy. I gave in to Mr. Tart's request not to include celery in the stuffing--though that still seems heretical--and at the last minute divided the stuffing into two baking dishes, so that I could add toasted pecans and dried fruit (cherries, cranberries, apples) to one of them, paying tribute to the fact that I grew up in the south (so in fact, we should really call that one "dressing," the southern term, instead of "stuffing"). Speaking of the sweet potatoes, aren't they gorgeous? My mother-in-law mixed them with eggs and pineapple and spooned them into hollowed-out oranges--another new dish.

Our most atypical dish, though, was the elk loin that Julie's son Luke, 16, recently hunted. She grew up in Wisconsin eating game that her father brought home, so her family fits right in to Wyoming. Jerimy also grew up hunting, so the elk combined traditions from their two families. Here's Luke grilling it on our deck (no more room in the oven!):

Dessert was another recommendation from Lis, Chocolate Cranberry Tart, which I added to my repetoire last year, and Nana's cranberry pudding, a light cake with cranberries with a warm silky sauce made from butter, cream, and sugar, yet another part of our extended family's holiday traditions. (Julie's mom and my mom were sisters; Nana was their mother. And as long as I'm reminiscing, I remember the summer thirteen years ago when Julie told Nana that she was going to be a great-grandmother again; Julie was pregnant with her daughter Kelley. That was the last time I saw Nana--but I can't help but think of her often, as my husband proposed to me with her engagement ring, which I still wear today.)

Notice too the wine; we brought it back to Colorado from our trip to California for Tara's wedding. It's a white cabernet that we tasted at one of the vineyards (Filsinger) and really fell for. We'd been saving it for a special occasion--and our first time hosting Thanksgiving for our families certainly was.

Oh, and the other new thing that we had at Thanksgiving? That would be our nephew Carl. We've got lots to be thankful for. (He's in the half-hidden high chair at the right.)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have yet to brave the turkey, it seems much too daunting. Besides, that's what I visit my parents for!
Everything sounds and looks great, and I love your dining chairs, too!

8:47 AM  
Blogger lis said...

sounds like a good meal, sarah. and a very lovely table.

11:40 AM  
Blogger Sarah said...

Thank you both!

2:58 PM  
Blogger tara said...

Congratulations! You tackled scary turkey innards and emerged with a beautiful meal. :)

12:04 PM  

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