Food & Drink

Let's talk turkey: Tips for a stress-free Down Home Thanksgiving

It’s time to begin your Thanksgiving dinner planning.

Every family has their own Thanksgiving traditions and favorite dishes that they prepare to celebrate the holiday. My rule of thumb is to keep the menu simple and familiar. Each year we have the same set of choices — turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, gravy, sunshine salad, vegetable side dishes, rolls, pumpkin pie and pecan pie bars. I may get a little creative and throw in one or two new menu items but, I save the majority of new or experimental recipes for another time. The most important thing is to relax and enjoy your Thanksgiving dinner with the company of those around you.

I start my planning process with how to cook the turkey and how many people to serve. There are many methods besides oven roasting. These include grilling (how about a beer-can turkey?), deep-frying (Cajun style is tasty), or smoking (if you have time and patience). Keep in mind that if you decide on one of these cooking choices, you will not be able to stuff your bird.

I think roasting is the easiest method for inexperienced cooks or anxious hosts because it’s less work. The oven remains a constant temperature and it’s easy to baste the turkey and keep check on the internal temperature for doneness. However, for adventurous cooks, grilling, deep-frying or smoking provides a different experience and frees up your oven for other dishes. At one point or another, I have tried all of these cooking methods, but always go back to basic oven-roasting. I love the turkey aroma that permeates the house.

What size bird

Need help figuring out how big a turkey to get? As a general guide, you should have 1 to 1-1/2 pounds of turkey per person, which equates to a 12 to 15 pound turkey for 10 to 12 people, 15 to 18 pound turkey for 14 to 16 people and 18 to 22 pound turkey for 20 to 22 people. Also for any turkey questions, Butterball has a “talk turkey” hotline available through December (1-800-Butterball).

Fresh or frozen, which do you select? A fresh bird is more expensive, but it will save you time and precious refrigerator space. Purchase the bird a day or two before you plan to cook it. If you decide to buy a frozen turkey, you will need an advance plan. A frozen turkey has to be defrosted and the preferred method is in the refrigerator (yes, the one filled with the rest of the holiday fare). Allow one day per 5 pounds, which means a 15-pound turkey will require three days to defrost thoroughly. An alternate method to defrost the bird is in a cold-water bath. Allow 30 minutes per pound, which for example, a 15-pound turkey will require 71/2 hours to defrost.

Don’t forget the giblets

When preparing the turkey for cooking, first remove the giblets. I know this sounds simple, but many beginner cooks do not look inside the bird or know to remove them. I also rinse my turkey inside and out then pat it dry with paper towels. If you stuff your bird, stuff it loosely because the mixture needs room to expand as it cooks. I usually allow about one-half to three-fourths cup of stuffing per pound of turkey. Traditionally, I do not stuff mine. Instead, I place a combination of onions, celery, carrots and parsley inside the cavity. I like to brush the skin with melted butter or oil and tuck the drumsticks together under the little skin flap on the tail or tie them together with string.

Lastly, I place the turkey on a rack in a roasting pan, insert a meat thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh (the thermometer points toward the body without touching the bone) and pop it into at 350-degree oven. When the skin turns a light golden color, I cover it loosely with a foil tent, then remove it about the last 45 minutes of cooking. I baste the turkey often with the cooking juices in the pan, which helps promote even browning. The turkey is done when the thigh meat reaches an internal temperature of 165 degrees. If you stuffed your turkey, the temperature of the stuffing mixture should be 165 degrees as well. Remove the turkey from the oven and allow it to stand for about 20 minutes. This allows the juices to redistribute back into the meat.

Leftover ideas

The following are some of our family favorites for leftovers:

Turkey with yellow rice — Sauté onion, green pepper, and garlic in olive oil add the yellow rice mix, chunks of turkey, use turkey broth as the liquid. When the rice is done, top it with chopped fresh tomatoes and green peas.

Turkey with fluffy dumplings — Sauté chopped celery and onions in vegetable oil. Add turkey broth (thicken slightly with a slurry of broth and flour), turkey pieces, one can of drained sliced carrots, chopped fresh parsley, salt and pepper to taste. Drop fluffy dumplings on top, cover and cook about fifteen minutes or until done.

Turkey quesadillas, fajitas or enchiladas — wrap a flour tortilla around taco-seasoned turkey, beans, veggies and cheese. Top with salsa and your favorite garnishes.

Turkey Divan — Broccoli, chopped turkey mixed with a white sauce (use turkey broth as the liquid) then topped with Parmesan cheese.

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