The meal, dissected

As I sit down to make notes after my first Thanksgiving dinner as family head chef, one question runs through my mind: How the hell did Julie Powell make complete and entertaining stories out of cooking meals—for a year? I can barely remember two hours ago when we ate the meal, much less when I started working on it. But giving it the old college try:

First, the menu changed a bit from its original incarnation. I looked at the timing and considered the overall weight of the dishes in the main course, and decided that rather than a risotto we needed something lighter in the first course. Something like Faith Willinger’s Yellow Pepper Soup (as made in the fabulous Florentine restaurant Cibreo). That substitution made, yesterday afternoon I eagerly boiled my brine (as per Alton’s Romancing the Bird special, I used a gallon of vegetable broth, a cup of kosher salt, half cup light brown sugar, a half tablespoon candied ginger, and—my only substitution, on account of running out of black peppercorns and having no allspice berries—a tablespoon and a half of juniper berries) and set it on the porch to cool, then made the soup. The yellow pepper soup is remarkably easy and satisfying: brown chopped onion, carrot, celery, and garlic in olive oil; add peeled potato and seeded yellow bell peppers in chunks together with chicken broth and hot red pepper and cook until the vegetables are soft; blend; and in my case refrigerate for the next day. (An approximation of the recipe is here; the real thing is in here.) That done, I figured, all I had to do was get the turkey into the brine before I went to bed.

Hah. First problem: at 8:30, four hours after cooking the brine, it was still hot—too hot to put a turkey into without inviting salmonella. OK. I sealed two freez-its in Ziploc freezer bags and dropped them into the brine to cool it down. An hour later, the brine was acceptably tepid and I mixed it with a gallon of heavily iced water. And here my troubles began: in the process of getting the ice, I somehow zinged my old back injury. I managed to lever the turkey out of the fridge into the sink; remove the wrappings; lift it into the clean five-gallon Home Depot bucket that had previously received the icy brine; drop the aforementioned freez-its in; and haul the bucket back out to the porch, where I figured it would find an acceptably chilly temperature. How was I to know that this was going to be one of the warmest Thanksgivings on record? (Yes, OK, I could have read the paper.)

Anyway, we started the next morning in the hole, as making the apple pie (Lisa’s suggested dessert, for which I happily scrapped the other offerings) took a lot longer than expected. I took a few minutes while the pie came together (happily without me) to pull the recipes together and plan my order of operations. The chief difficulties were:

  1. I couldn’t start the turkey until the pie was done.
  2. I couldn’t start the stuffing and the brussels sprouts until the turkey was done.
  3. I couldn’t really make the Swiss chard or the green beans—or the gravy—until the turkey was done, either.

So basically that left: get the turkey in the oven; make the stuffing; do a ton of prep work; wait; then dash like crazy at the end. And that’s about how it went. Thankfully Lisa’s mom was an able sous chef beside me every step of the way. I had the Brussels sprouts in their roasting pan, tossed with garlic, par-cooked pancetta, and olive oil, about two hours before the turkey was ready to go. Lisa’s mom had the green beans trimmed and sitting in the steamer, ready to go. But the stuffing was the long pole in the tent. It took forever to get the bread cubed and toasted, and thankfully Lisa’s mom took that and diced onion and celery while I browned sausage, diced and cooked apples, and chopped herbs. Mixed everything together in a great big bowl, splashed in about three cups of chicken broth that I had made last week, and topped it with a generous glug of Calvados. And set it aside. We had time to wash all the prep dishes and eat the soup before the turkey finally came out.

Finally, showtime. Turkey on a cutting board with a groove to rest. Sprouts and stuffing in the oven. Steamer with green beans on the back burner. Sudden panic as I realize I haven’t chopped the onions and sage for the gravy. Manage not to break any skin as I do so and drop it into a pan together with all the rest of the butter on the dish. Pour the pan juices through a sieve into a quart measuring cup. Put the disposable roasting pan over two burners, turn them on, and pour twelve ounces hard cider in to deglaze. Realize that the disposable pan lacks some desirable characteristics for reducing sauce, such as not smoking; turn off the heat, strain the deglazing juices into the quart cup, then throw away the pan. Strained pan juices and cider into the onion, sage and butter, then thicken with flour (and a little arrowroot—my fave for lighter sauces). Voila: gravy.

While this was going on, the green beans steamed and I somehow got the Swiss chard tossed in the garlic and anchovy oil (I cheated and used anchovy paste, which we had, rather than buying whole anchovies). Then we got everything onto the table.

And damned if it didn’t come together. The hot sausage in the stuffing counterpointed the apple in the gravy, the vegetables were excellent—the chard was a surprise hit—and even without much in the way of carbohydrates we were all put into comas after the meal.


Today I’m thankful for a whole bunch of things, including:

  • My wonderful wife
  • My family, including my amazing mother, who’s on a pilgrimage to Guatemala this week—this being the first time she’s been out of the country in 30 years
  • My in-laws who are with us enjoying the day
  • Our dogs, who have I think finally given up on getting at the turkey now that it’s been put away
  • Our house, even though it’s too damn warm in here after baking a pie, roasting a turkey, and doing countless other stovetop and oven dishes
  • About a bajillion bloggers
  • You, my readers
  • This blog, which makes me keep my brain exercised and keeps me honest