Congratulations to those who’re planning to cook Thanksgiving dinner. You are brave to tackle this particular feast, as it’s a tough one. It’s not enough to produce a golden-brown bird worthy of a Norman Rockwell painting; now you need at least a half-dozen “sides.” Meanwhile, today’s modern cooks consider it a sin to open a can. They speak of “native-sourced,” a term that has nothing to do with cans.
As someone who’s cooked holiday dinners for decades (and opened many cans), I have some lifesaving tips. Consider it my gift to you.
The secret of a successful holiday feast lies in doing everything in advance. For instance, I boil and mash the potatoes three days before the holiday. The day before that I make a fluorescent-pink fruit mold and later, the old standby, pigs-in-blankets. The following day I stuff the cornmeal stuffing into my fridge. Ditto the peas. As for the gravy, the pièce de résistance, it is made the year before. Yes, you read that right. The tall plastic container sitting in my freezer is labeled Turkey Gravy 2020.
As someone with ADD—attention deficit disorder—I’ve learned the hard way. For years I was up to my elbows in turkey necks and giblets, struggling to make gravy on Thanksgiving Day. If it’s done right, it’s not easy. For one thing, you can’t begin until the turkey is cooked. Then you locate the designated turkey-mover to transfer the big bird from the oven to a platter.
In my house, this person always ruins the holiday potholders while gripping the dripping bird. The turkey held high, he crosses the kitchen to the platter sitting next to the sink. Why he doesn’t simply move the platter to the stove is an issue that’s loudly debated every year.
Following that, I wipe up the trail of grease before the dog gets it and then drain off the fat. The pan’s remaining crusty brown bits are what gives gravy its flavor. If you don’t care about that, open a can and be done with it. But for those traditionalists, stir in a little flour to create what’s called a roux. Not that anyone asks. Or cares.
Next, pour in the turkey stock, made days before using the neck and assorted organs found in that frozen bag inside the bird. Whisk (if you can find one in that cluttered drawer) until the mixture thickens. Remember, you’re doing this in a big roasting pan on top of the stove. It will be messy, but that’s the least of your problems. It’s usually at this crucial point, stirring the gravy to thicken, that a late guest will arrive, full of cheer. This is not a good scenario for those with ADD as they’re already nearing the meltdown stage.
Nonetheless, if you find yourself dealing with lumpy gravy, there’s not much you can do outside of chucking your apron and abandoning the kitchen. Making last minute gravy is a test of anyone’s sanity. Before I wised up and embraced the year-old frozen-gravy method, I dealt with that nightmare: lumps that won’t go away. In the midst of it all, hungry guests appeared in the kitchen, asking, “Anything I can do?” Real meaning: “God’s sake, when’re we gonna eat?”
One Thanksgiving I was desperately squeezing lumpy gravy through a strainer. The end result was a thick, grayish-brown sludge, albeit with smaller lumps.
Basically, gravy at Thanksgiving is like cake at a wedding; people expect it. You might say gravy is the reason for the season and unless you have a kitchen staff like TV chef Rachel Ray, it’s impossible to produce good gravy in “real” time. It certainly was for me until I discovered the joy of making gravy after everyone has gone.
There you are, the sink full of dishes, the dog eating leftovers, the house blessedly quiet. There’s no rush—you’ve got all night to make that gravy. When you’re through, put it away for a year and forget about it.
I say amen.
Sharon Cook of Beverly Farms is VP of Friends of Beverly Animals and the author of the Granite Cove Mysteries: (Come for the chowder, stay for the murder). For contact: email@example.com