It happens every Thanksgiving; someone in your family murders an already lifeless turkey. The tragedy gets blamed on poor clock management, a finicky oven, or maybe an untested technique from Rachael Ray that sounded (and, apparently, was) too good to be true. The excuses start to sound like a Browns post-game media session with Brandon Weedon as the metaphorical turkey. How did it all go so wrong? The devil was in the details.
I have a confession to make: I hate turkey. For this glutton, the bird is far and away the worst part of the holiday meal. Be it brined, stuffed, roasted, deep-fried or smoked — I haven’t had a satisfying bite of a Butterball in the 20-plus Thanksgivings I have under my ever-loosening belt. It's no mystery why. Once a year home cooks decide to take on a cumbersome, challenging task that even seasoned chefs often struggle with. Throw in the added stress of holiday entertaining and you are only setting yourself up for failure, which in this case is dry, bland fowl.
Fortunately, there are the side dishes. While merely the supporting cast for the entire production, good sides can steal the show and while improving the taste of that desiccated bird.
Let’s start with the two best friends a humdrum turkey could ask for — his wing men, if you will: mashed potatoes and gravy. Wonderful mashed potatoes start with Yukon Golds not Russets. When cooked properly, Yukons provide a rich, buttery flavor and creamy texture. Make sure to use plenty of heavy cream (leave the diet food for the rest of the year) and unsalted butter (we prefer to do the seasoning) in your preparation. The addition of chopped fresh herbs like parsley or chives — maybe some roasted garlic or prepared horseradish — will elevate the mashers to even greater heights.
Gravy is another one of those crucial elements that can go horribly wrong, yet is surprisingly easy to perfect. Start with turkey stock made from the bits and pieces that come with the bird if possible, but if that's not an option, then a low-sodium chicken stock will do just fine. Your basic flavorful, smooth gravy starts with a roux (equal parts flour and butter cooked together), which is whisked into the warm stock until the lumps are dissolved and the sauce glistens and thickens. Season the gravy with salt and fresh-ground pepper, add some fresh herbs like rosemary, thyme or sage. Easy as pumpkin pie.
And, as Jerry Seinfeld might say, what's the deal with canned cranberry sauce? No wonder everybody passes on the stuff until it melts into a sad pile of magenta, and even then only gets poked at with a tentative spoon. Allow me to introduce you to cranberry chutney, a chunky sauce with deep flavor that can stand on its own or save even the most arid of birds. The preparation is foolproof — basically throw all the ingredients into a pot and cook them down — and the resulting sauce is a game-changer.
Brussels sprouts are a love-it or hate-it vegetable — that we know. But make it right and you'll definitely move some guests from one camp to the other. They're practically built to pair with pork — be it bacon or pancetta — and they're actually in season, so you can find them locally. Start by blanching the sprouts in boiling, salted water until just barely tender. Shock them in an ice bath, then dry and quarter them. Render some bacon or pancetta in a large sauté pan and toss in the sprouts. Caramelize over medium-high heat, being careful not to burn them, and season with salt and fresh-ground pepper. This dish is sure to convert non-sprout eaters into believers and leave them fighting over the last green bits.
This year, resolve to try something new in the kitchen — just don’t take any uncalculated risks with the bird, it's sacred. Have fun shopping for local, seasonal ingredients and then find recipes built around them. Root vegetables are in season and never go out of style. Maybe give real (not canned, or candied) sweet potatoes at try.
Most of all, relax in the kitchen, keep it simple and enjoy the time with your family and friends. If all else fails, keep plenty of Christmas Ale on hand.