Food for Thought Rewind: Turkey Time

As many of you know, I don’t celebrate Thanksgiving the way most Americans do. Images of smiling Pilgrims and Native Americans breaking bread around long tables in Massachusetts don’t do much for me; I am all too aware of what happened once the feasting ended.

But I am all for taking a day to share football games, the Macy’s parade (yea, Santa!), and loads of good home-cooked food with my favorite people. Often, I share the day with my mother and my brother’s family or entertain friends, but this year will be a quite supper with Spousal Unit and his teen doppelganger. We’ll have fun —  sharing good times and cooking together, and we’ll give thanks for our blessings, say prayers for a hopeful and more prosperous  future, and — of course — prepare for the diet-and-exercise regimens we will begin once the holiday season ends.

As far as I am concerned, admonitions against gluttony do not apply on Thanksgiving. Days in advance, preparation begins as I plan out a menu of side dishes. And while I can’t pass up someone else’s traditional green-bean-and-onion casserole or the cylindrically molded cranberry sauce, my creative side insists that the only can I open for T-Day cooking is a can of imagination. There are many different ways to approach using basic Thanksgiving staples like sweet potatoes and cranberries, and we’ll talk about that shortly. But first, we must shine a light on the star of the show and the source of many Thanksgiving Day cooks’ worries: the turkey.

Mmmm, turkey.Sorry, PETA supporters, y’know I love you, but Thanksgiving dinner is about the bird. Even some vegetarians can’t resist its allure — why else would so much effort be spent on making tofu’s appearance and flavor resemble that of the noble fowl so revered by Benjamin Franklin? (No offense intended; tofurkey is quite tasty, but I respect the un-turkey more.)

Fear not, my poultry-eschewing pals, there will be something for you in the recipe section below. Right now, however, the focus is on the real deal.

I can anticipate a question from the skeptical:

If you don’t care about Pilgrims and all, why go along with the tradition of eating turkey for Thanksgiving?

Good question; thanks for asking. Quite simply, I like turkey. Big time. And who knows — the Plymouth diners may have feasted on turkey, but we don’t know if that news is fact or fiction.


Foods That May Have Been on the Menu

Seafood: Cod, Eel, Clams, Lobster
Wild Fowl: Wild Turkey, Goose, Duck, Crane, Swan, Partridge, Eagles
Meat: Venison, Seal
Grain: Wheat Flour, Indian Corn
Vegetables: Pumpkin, Peas, Beans, Onions, Lettuce, Radishes, Carrots
Fruit: Plums, Grapes
Nuts: Walnuts, Chestnuts, Acorns
Herbs and Seasonings: Olive Oil, Liverwort, Leeks, Dried Currants, Parsnips

What Was Not on the Menu

Surprisingly, the following foods, all considered staples of the modern Thanksgiving meal, didn’t appear on the pilgrims’s first feast table:

Ham: There is no evidence that the colonists had butchered a pig by this time, though they had brought pigs with them from England.
Sweet Potatoes/Potatoes: These were not common.
Corn on the Cob: Corn was kept dried out at this time of year.
Cranberry Sauce: The colonists had cranberries but no sugar at this time.
Pumpkin Pie: It’s not a recipe that exists at this point, though the pilgrims had recipes for stewed pumpkin.
Chicken/Eggs: We know that the colonists brought hens with them from England, but it’s unknown how many they had left at this point or whether the hens were still laying.
Milk: No cows had been aboard the Mayflower, though it’s possible that the colonists used goat milk to make cheese.

Source: Kathleen Curtin, Food Historian at Plimoth Plantation.

In short, why avoid the bird because the Pilgirms turned out to be bad, genocidal neighbors? Turkey is healthful, lean, a good source of protein, and quite tasty. And it is neither seal nor crane. 

If turkey has a downside, it’s that most people prepare it only once or twice a year, on a red-letter day. Consequently, the pressure is on the cook to prepare a perfect bird or else — quelle dommage! — be responsible for wrecking an entire holiday. If you are new to cooking for Thanksgiving or inexperienced in preparing turkey, first, take a deep breath. However the bird turns out, you still will be loved and the holiday will be great. Besides, dealing with turkey is not as difficult as you might think.

Lots of resources are available to lend a helping hand to new cooks and even to those just looking to brush up on their turkey technique. A favorite of mine is the always trustworthy Food Network’s Top 10 Turkey Tips.

1. Thawing a frozen turkey requires patience. The safest method is to thaw turkey in the refrigerator. Be sure to plan ahead — it takes approximately 3 days for a 20 pound turkey to fully defrost. [Given that T-Day is tomorrow: If you have a frozen turkey, and it hasn’t started thawing, hie thee to the grocery pronto and get a fresh bird. If they’re sold out, take the opportunity to try a vegetarian equivalent, which is nutritious, yummy, and beats the heck out of swan or partridge. Get Tofurkey tips at What’s Cooking America — personally, I like an un-turkey with vegan gravy along with cornbread stuffing made with vegetarian sausage and served with lots of yummy root vegetables and freshly steamed green beans with onions.]

2. For crisper skin, unwrap the turkey the day before roasting and leave it uncovered in the refrigerator overnight.

3. Cooking times will differ depending on whether your bird was purchased fresh or frozen. Plan on 20 minutes per pound in a 350 degree F oven for a defrosted turkey and 10 to 15 minutes per pound for fresh.

4. A turkey will cook more evenly if it is not densely stuffed. Consider adding flavor by loosely filling the cavity with aromatic vegetables — carrots, celery, onion or garlic work nicely — or by carefully tucking fresh herbs underneath the breast skin. For the stuffing lovers, cook the dressing in a casserole dish on the side.

5. For even roasting, truss your turkey.

6. Before roasting, coat the outside of the turkey with vegetable or olive oil, season with salt and pepper and tightly cover the breast with aluminum foil to prevent over-browning (it will be removed in step 7).

7. Don’t be a peeping tom (no pun intended)! Once you get the turkey in the oven, resist the temptation to open the oven door and admire your handiwork. When the oven temperature fluctuates, you’re only increasing the likelihood of a dry bird. About 45 minutes before you think the turkey is done, remove the foil from the breast to allow it to brown.

8. Remove the turkey from the oven when the deepest spot between the leg and the breast reads 180 degrees F on an instant-read thermometer. Check the internal temperature of the stuffing as well; it should be at least 165 degrees.

9. Tent the bird with foil and let rest for about 15 minutes before carving. If you need more time to make gravy, heat up side dishes, etc., you can let the turkey set for up to an hour without losing too much heat.

10. Remember to carve your turkey with a very sharp or electic knife.

Still need assistance? No worries: Butterball is knowledgeable about preparing turkeys — naturally — and offers a tip line at 1-800-BUTTERBALL plus a Web chat with cooking counselors.

Now that we have the turkey or vegetarian equivalent covered, let’s move on to those promised recipes.

The bird may be the star attraction of the Thanksgiving meal, but the side dishes play a very important supporting role. The sides provide splashes of color to dazzle the eyes, the bulk of the nutrition to nourish the body, and varying flavors and aromas to engage the senses. For that reason, as anyone who has dined at my table will attest, I like to provide a wide array of dishes. Most involve seasonal root vegetables that may have been enjoyed in colonial times, but every now and then, it’s fun to add something surprising to the mix. Keeps everyone guessing.

Because I create a large number of dishes, it is important that they be relatively uncomplicated. For this FFT recipe section, here are two offerings from my kitchen that everyone — even vegetarians — can enjoy. And each takes only minutes to prepare. Enjoy!

Cranberry Medley

I love this one — not only is this a tasty, surprising salad that brings a nice bit of sweet and tangy coolness to a typically hot and heavy dinner, but in a large bowl, it can do double-duty as a colorful, eclectic centerpiece for your dinner table.


2 orange, peeled and segmented
2 tsp. orange zest, minced
2 tart apples, peeled, cored, and cubed
2 cups cranberries, chopped coarsely
1/2 lb. seedless grapes, halved
1 pineapple, peeled and cut into chunks
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup lemon juice


Simply prep all of the fruit as instructed in the ingredient list. The most difficult to wrestle may be the pineapple: First, use a sharp, long knife to remove the crown and base of the fruit. Place the base side down and slice off the skin; use the knife’s tip to cut out any leftover eyes. Once peeled, cut the pineapple into chunks. (If you don’t feel confident enough to tackle this, feel free to substitute a large can of unsweetened pineapple chunks.)

When you have all of the fruit prepped, combine it along with the sugar in a large bowl. Add the lemon juice and toss gently. Cover the bowl and chill in the refrigerator until serving time. Makes eight servings.


Steamed Sweet Potatoes with Thyme

This quick and easy dish is meant to replace the traditional candied sweet potatoes. It’s fresh, light and healthy; includes no added sweetener (in fact, it has a nice peppery kick); and has absolutely no marshmallows.


8 large sweet potatoes, peeled
2 tsp. fresh thyme, chopped
1/2 tsp. freshly ground pepper


Cut the potatoes into 1/2-inch slices. Place the slices on the rack of a steamer. Top the potatoes with half of the thyme and half of the pepper. Steam for 25 minutes or until fork-tender. Transfer the cooked potatoes to a serving platter and sprinkle them with the leftover thyme and pepper. Makes eight servings.

However you celebrate Thanksgiving, have a happy, peaceful day.

originally published in Nov. 2005


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