I threw a holiday feast because I knew I was going to be in absentia on The Big Day and I couldn't stand to miss out on my favorite foods. I had three hours to do all the shopping and cooking.
I called eight people at the last minute who showed up. They were so complimentary, I blushed like Charlie Brown.
"How do you pull a stunning holiday feast out of your ass at the last minute?"
"Really? Do you want me to blog how I did it?"
Writing this post has taken me longer than making my feast; that's instructive. Writing is harder than roasting meat and vegetables.
I realized a couple things:
For those of you who are old hands at this sort of thing, the big revelation is the stovetop turkey, so just skip ahead.
Aside from a couple recipe tricks and the usual Betty-Crocker-shopper-shortcuts, most of my time-saving wizardry and cooking grace is because of tools I use— and the visuals of how I put it on the table.
Kitchen tools make the time fly by. They are the same things I use every day whether I'm scrambling eggs or making a grilled cheese sandwich. Sharp knives and cast iron cookware... nothing like it.
The serving paraphernalia is what makes holiday meals appear as if Grandma slaved for hours on your behalf. The character of old linens, china, and silver are often right out of your family's legacy— or your local thrift shop's legacy.
It's Never Too Late for Dinner For 8
I learned how to cook from scratch as an adult— with my friends and lovers, or reading out of books— not from my family. Many of you know these skillz by heart— and I've feasted at your table in inspiration!
For those of you who cringe in fear or exhaustion at the thought of major dinner parties, here's my condensed wisdom--- it's better than Campbell's.
Cooking Tools to Live and Feast By
8-10" very sharp Butcher Knife (everything)
Long Wooden Spoon (everything)
Whisk with a long handle (gravy, roux)
Big 15" Iron Skillet (for the gravy, and browning the turkey parts, and sauteing veggies)
Round Dutch Oven for anything you're baking or stove-topping
Oval Dutch Oven for the Turkey -- any shape will do, actually, just like this one
Baking Dish, for the yams or the stuffing
Giant Glass Gravy Boat, so everyone can stare at it like gravy porn
Wood Carving Board for the bird
2 1/2 Quart Serving Dish, ovenproof, a couple of those
Real salt and pepper shakers
Butter dish on the table
A pitcher of ice water
Wine bottles on the table
Tablecloth That Fits Your Table
Lay a plastic tarp or cloth under a cloth one, so it doesn't matter what gets spilled.
My favorite part.
Candles. Tea lights in a muffin pan are fine! Or one lone taper candle like a solitary signal.
Lay out something pretty along the middle of the table from the outside: pinecones, low-cut flowers, branches, seashells, feathers, driftwood, fall leaves.
Or, go urban. Marbles, nails, bottles. Unexpected momentos.
Fork on the left, napkin underneath. Knife and spoon on the right.
Wine glass and water glass above the knife and spoon.
You can have mismatched plastic cafeteria dishes, but if you set "a proper table," it always looks inviting.
Yes, you can. Once you try it, you will never use the oven again. Who the hell has a giant oven or two ovens? That's what takes all the time and stress!
The Times story presents the general concept, but they're still overthinking it. Here's my easy version:
Buy turkey PIECES. Brown them in a skillet, then put in a Dutch oven with a bunch of roasting veggies and herbs. Splash in some white wine, put the lid on, and cook for an hour.
About Browning the Turkey Parts:
Brown the pieces in the big fry skillet; you can do them one or two at a time. Then put them in one of your Dutch oven with the veggies and herbs. You're going to use the drippings in the fry pan to make your gravy.
Forget the Thermometer!
This is not divinity. You do NOT need a thermometer. It will be perfectly obvious after an hour that the bird is done, and you can just let it settle awhile.
Get the Turkey Parts from Your Friendly Butcher
DO NOT cut up the turkey yourself; are you kidding? You're trying to save time. For eight famished people I bought a full breast, a leg, and a thigh-- and there were leftovers.
You don't need giblets-- See gravy recipe below. Great, eh?
Carving Anxiety Is Irrelevant
Don't worry about carving. It's going to be so tender you can carve it with a spoon, but the visual trick is to put the pieces on a wooden carving board-- it always looks like the big feast everyone expects.
Use any knife to cut away pieces. No matter how raggedy you saw, on a wood cutting board it looks like a king's feast.
Bittman's sneaky gravy. Gravy is so good on a daily basis. Make some each time you fry bacon!
You'll add more drippings when you take the turkey out of the Dutch oven, at the very end. Once the turkey parts go on the carving board, you scrape all the grease and bits from the Dutch oven into your skillet with the "made-ahead" gravy. Stir it up over low heat with your big wooden spoon.
Boxes of chicken stock work just fine; it doesn't have to be turkey stock.
Use whole milk, don't use thin milk for gravy.
The longer you cook the onion and your roux, the browner it gets. That's where the color comes from.
The butter won't burn because the drippings are your extra oil to prevent that.
Your gravy boat should be big and see-thru, glass. A Pyrex measuring cup is fine!
Stuffing with Pecans, Raisins, Celery and Onions-- & Biscuits on Top
Refrigerator Buttermilk Biscuits
You could do this all home-made. But if you're looking for compliments and saving time, this will garner just as much breathless appreciation. They are the easiest cheat of the meal.
Pre-seasoned stuffing mixes are a lifesaver. Yes, use the seasoned kind, they've figured it out and you won't cry because you overdid the sage.
You don't need fancy extras to make it special: the best nuts are pecans. The best dried fruit is plain ole' raisins.
You can buy chopped up celery and onion anywhere (mirepoix) saving you all that trouble and tears... just saute the diced alium in butter or lard 'til they're barely transclucent, and add to the breadcrumbs.
Don't skip the sauteed onions and celery, no matter what your opinion about them on their own— they are what makes stuffing taste like stuffing.
One bag of bread crumbs goes so much further than you think.
The biscuits will send your guests over the edge. After you pile the stuffing into the baking pan, ready for the oven, lay a roll of those refrigerator biscuits on top, just like the photo. Bake 'tll brown.
Serve it in the baking dish you made it in.
Last Thing You Do: Mashed Potatoes
Potatos are last because they grow COLD the fastest.
The last half hour of your preparations, boil and mash them with lots of butter (one stick, for sure) and milk/cream/sour cream, plus plenty of salt and pepper. Put on a lid and keep them in low-heat oven until it's time to serve.
Mashed potatoes look extra cozy in a round serving dish.
Pies From the Local Bakery
Pies are labor intensive, as you know. They take a kind of attention to detail and skill that the rest of this meal does not. So go to that fancy bakery at dawn and get one of theirs.
The Unusual Homemade Dessert That Satisfies Like Pie
Indian Pudding and Ice Cream is easy-peasy and blows everyone away
Pick an Indian Pudding Recipe that doesn't involve a double boiler. Since you're not roasting a turkey in the oven, you have plenty of room and time to bake sweets.
Creamy Yams w Sour Cream and Maple Syrup
I didn't have chipotle, so I just put in a tablespoon of tomatillo sauce. Jalapeno would have been fine too. Just a tablespoon of any salsa verde.
The other favorite alternative is mashed buttery brown sugar yams with miniature marshmalllows melted on top. That is what love tastes like.
Beaucoup de Beaujolais
Jared Rutter schooled me on this, but you can see that even "Field and Stream" agrees with him.
Cranberry Sauce with Cointreau
Open can of cranberry sauce. Put in glass bowl, so people can see the whole thing. Slosh on a little bit of Cointreau onto the sauce and stir together. Sprinkle a couple pecans on top or grate a little orange rind off a fruit.
Put on table with a big spoon.
Hold hands around the table, tell everybody you love them, and dig in!